Friday, September 7, 2018

One Step Forward, One Step Back for Entry-Level Workwear

At this point, three years into my private sector-leaning legal career, I've largely grown out of the "graduate student and new graduate" price point for workwear. I still wear mostly items I bought at that price point, including those old Loft dresses I purchased as a summer associate, even though their silhouettes aren't what I would pick out now if I were in the market (they read a little dated, I think, and maybe a little too youthful if one is hyper-picky, which I sometimes am), I'd prefer more fitted sheath dresses instead. I'm also still in those wool-blend suits from J.Crew Factory, which is pretty much as "new graduate" as women's suiting gets, particularly if you insist on a wool blend (which I now do). Any future suit acquisitions will likely involve jumping up to at least the Talbots, but more likely the Brooks Brothers price point. (I do hope I can put it off as long as humanly possibly though, because dang, wool suiting can get real pricey, as it should.)

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Nonetheless, though its not fully compatible with my larger goal of more ethical, conscious, and minimalist shopping, I don't know if I'll ever completely stop being inclined to thinking about those mid-range mall brands that are suitable for students and new graduates just starting out and building their work wardrobes for more formal white-collar workplaces. Those brands were such an important part of my getting started with my career that I'll always appreciate their ability to fit that role in a relatively affordable way, and quickly and easily. Accordingly, I still feel some distress when they change directions or re-brand, which could leave other young women now situated where I was a few years ago without easy places to find what they need, and without the same range of affordable-ish options I had when I desperately needed to build a full-size work wardrobe quickly, and on a budget. So I still browse J.Crew Factory, Ann Taylor, Loft, and the like, and take note of whether their offerings for that particular market seem to have improved or deteriorated from season to season, year to year. Currently, things seem to have taken one step forward, one step back.

Before jumping in to the substance of this post, a few additional points about other ways to build a starter work wardrobe that are arguably "better", from both a frugality and ethical shopping standpoint, than shopping new from J.Crew Factory (where prices before things hit clearance stay about the same no matter what promotion they're running, give or take ~$5/item) or Loft and Ann Taylor (where 40% off regular price and additional 40% off sale discounts are both frequent), but that take more time or effort, and a bit of luck: The right thrift or consignment store can be an excellent place to buy workwear, I used to find many suitable pieces at Buffalo Exchange. There are also many online secondhand options, such as ThredUp (generally well-stocked with J.Crew and Ann Taylor in a wide range of styles and sizes), Poshmark, eBay, and if you wanted to get more adventurous, TheRealReal for things like, say, Tory Burch at Ann Taylor-ish prices (there's a bit of "buyer beware" at work there, however, it's only good for trying out items one is quite sure of, as they have expensive shipping and also charge for return shipping, people sometimes report quality control issues, and their product measurements are not reliable). If frugality is the primary concern, one can also find some good items at Uniqlo (i.e. ponte dresses, though a similar one last year didn't fit me) or Old Navy (simple ponte dresses may be the most likely choices). 

For the step forward, Ann Taylor and Loft may be going back to their "roots" by offering a wider range of more structured work-appropriate dresses of the kind I rely on. I'd previously noted that, for most of 2017 and maybe starting a bit earlier than that, both brands were doing trendier collections with less of what I'd consider work-appropriate for myself. This was particularly noticeable at Loft, which had taken a much more casual turn, offering many overly stretchy, thin jersey dresses or unstructured, flowy polyester or rayon dresses, many with smocked or stretchy waists, neither category of which I generally like (they rarely fit me right), much less for work. Most dresses of either type, even if they're covered up enough and in staid enough colors or prints for the office, read just slightly too casual for business casual law firms in NYC to me, I'd feel too much like a paralegal freshly out of undergrad! Ann Taylor was a bit better, and generally still had at least one or two of those more structured sheath or shift dresses I like, but nowhere near as many as before. 

This category of dresses is a genre that, honestly, I find pretty boring. I probably wouldn't dress like this for anything except a workplace that demanded it, I'd prefer to dress in more casual and comfortable stuff if I had complete freedom. (East coast business casual law firms: We get to push the envelope a bit in terms of trendier takes on workwear, but the foundations of what works best day-to-day don't change much!) It's sometimes hard to figure out, until I have worn a dress for a while, why I gravitate to some in my closet over others. Fit is key, of course (Ann Taylor and Loft have always fit me best off the rack of any brands I've tried). Being machine-washable is also helpful to keeping something in frequent rotation. Outside of that, though, some of my favorites have little in common. My current favorites are that Ann Taylor boatneck sheath from last year and an older J.Crew shift dress I bought used, two dramatically different silhouettes with arguably different levels of relative formality or "classic"-ness. 

The dresses currently at Ann Taylor that I think look best are this ruched sheath dress in navy, this black square-neck sheath (I like a good square-neck and find it flattering on me!), and this bright orange split-neck sheath dress. Loft's current selection is a bit smaller, but I like this wrap skirt dress in black or pale gray-blue and this checked jacquard dress. I also put the ones I mentioned, as well as some additional choices from the two stores, into the widget below.

Please follow the link below for the discussion of the "step backward", a change to J.Crew Factory's line of women's suiting.

For the step backward, J.Crew Factory appears to have discontinued their women's wool-blend suiting in favor of all-synthetic blend suiting (blazer here and skirt here). The J.Crew Factory suit was my first wool-blend suit (worn here). My previous suits were all-synthetic blends (mostly from The Limited, RIP as I'm skeptical their revived line is the same, and Ann Taylor), and I thought that, even though the J.Crew Factory wool blend was not that nice (there's a little irregularity in the weave of the gray fabric if you examine it closely, and the navy and black fabric just don't look as nice as, say, that of K's nice Brooks Brothers wool suit), there was still a vast performance improvement over my previous all-synthetic suits. 

The wool blend, even with an all-synthetic lining, breaths better and generally feels more comfortable, I'm less likely to get overheated (which I hate), and I can wear it for much longer between dry-cleaning sessions. (I get, er, unusually sweaty armpits when I "suit up", in part because of a natural tendency to feel stressed out just because it's a job interview or a court day, even if it's going really well, and those all-synthetic suits get smelly real fast, sometimes less than two or three wears in. Plus, they attract mysterious splotches in a way I haven't seen with the wool blend.) I don't think people who suit up only rarely in business formal for the occasional interview or formal meeting would notice these performance issues, but for an attorney who could be heading out semi-frequently for longer court days or client meetings, the wool blend makes a huge difference. The only downside I can think of is that wool blend suits appear more wrinkle-prone. I've never found my all-synthetic suits to wrinkle at all. They can be packed carelessly in a suitcase and stored in there for a long time (I usually roll mine up when packing), and shaken out and hung up again with no ill effect, while the same treatment would likely cause some wrinkling with my wool blend suits. I'm really quite sad about J.Crew Factory's product line change! 

Of course, with suits, fit is always the most important detail. J.Crew Factory sizing, it must be noted, is not for everyone. In my experience with their suits and other fitted workwear pieces, those items tend to be unfavorable to curves, particularly hips. I think the only more mid-range mall brands that still regularly and reliably do a full range of wool or wool-blend suiting for women are Banana Republic (which I tried once in college, only to find their blazers fit me badly in the bust and shoulders, so I've never been back) and maybe Talbots, which I've never personally shopped from. J.Crew's offerings in that area have gotten rather bizarre and informal in the past few years. On the rare occasions I've tried to shop for suits there, they've never had women's suiting as conservative as I wanted in a full enough size range to accommodate me right away without at least one piece being backordered. 

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