Building An MBA Wardrobe – Women’s Edition

Sure, business school is still six months away, but it’s never too early to start shopping. Out with the t-shirts and in with the blazers! I’m ready for a new, more professional (looking) me.

I turned to our good friend Google for ideas, but unfortunately there are not many resources for ladies looking to update their business wardrobe (or create one from nothing). Male students are having very lively debates over navy versus charcoal suits, the proper height of dress socks, and acceptable shades of blue for button-down shirts (French blue is out, light blue is in). There are a few articles written by women, but they are noticeably lacking in specificity. Telling you to go buy “a knee-length dress” or “dressy boots” is like Napoleon telling his army to march on “that one European city.” Come on, ladies, let’s get the conversation started!

I’ve got it particularly bad because not only do I live on the laid-back West Coast, but I work in an industry where hoodies and sneakers are acceptable office attire. So I studied women on the street for fashion ideas, but gave up after counting more pairs of UGGs than should be legal. Then I started trolling department stores for ideas and came away even more confused. Turns out there’s casual, dressy casual, smart casual, business casual, business formal, and super rockstar business formal. I may have invented that last one. In any case, I decided to start with the suit. Can’t go wrong there, right? Dark suit, white button-down, black heels – done.

Well, I marched myself into Nordstrom and placed myself in the capable hands of a very exuberant saleswoman. “Get me a suit and a white button-down!” I declared.

The woman gave me a knowing smile and waved her hand over a rack. It was then that I noticed a significant lack of button-down shirts in general. “You know, this would be really flattering with a navy suit,” she said, holding up a sleeveless fuchsia leopard-print blouse. Oh dear.

Turns out that it’s impossible to tell women what to buy because fashions change so quickly. To achieve business casual, all a man has to do is remove his suit jacket. Women have to ask themselves all sorts of ethereal questions like, skirt or pants? Sweater or blazer? Flats or heels? These, folks, are the questions that keep me up at night.

After some consideration I decided to say hell to the fashion industry and create my own wardrobe wish list with this mantra in mind: conservative, versatile, and flattering. I don’t have $5,000 to spend on a new wardrobe so this will require some stalking of sales and prowling of discount outlets, but I am nothing if not a determined shopper! The plan is to be able to mix and match for networking events, interviews, presentations, and going out for drinks after class. Let me know what you think.

  • 4 pairs of dark wash jeans – A few boot cut, a few skinny leg. I can dress them up with heels and a blazer or down with flats and a sweater.
  • 2 dark-colored suits (jackets and pants can be worn separately)
  • 1 black pencil skirt
  • 4 dressier tops (to be worn with jeans or skirt)
  • 4 professional tops (to be worn with suit)
  • 3 camisoles
  • 2 neutral-colored cardigans
  • Medium-height black heels
  • Ankle boots
  • Comfortable flats (Yes, I just used my own cliche. Roll with it.)
  • Waist-length black pea coat
  • Professional bag that will hold laptop, books, and papers for class
  • Undergarments (I’ll leave these to your imagination)

I’m not saying I have to go out and buy all of these things at once. In fact, I will probably freak out at the expense and decide that some of the items already in my closet will do just fine. But it sure is fun to reinvent yourself now and then.

What would be in your business school wardrobe?

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11 thoughts on “Building An MBA Wardrobe – Women’s Edition

  1. BigHeadKid says:

    If you keep this blog throughout your time at business school, it’ll be interesting to see how your classmates handle the wardrobe situation to just business school. In Philip Delves Broughton’s “Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School,” I think he says some people just wore sweats to class. I’ll have to look it up and quote the passage…

    • bschoolgirl says:

      It’s funny, I was just asking someone this very question: “What exactly do people wear to class?” I guess most of the time it’s pretty casual, but any day that someone has an interview or networking event they will be dressed up. Also it is generally more formal on the East Coast than on the West Coast. So my wardrobe search is only part necessity – the other part of me just wants to start fresh. Kind of silly…but the clothes make the woman, right?

  2. LazyGirl says:

    I imagine it’s different, but I went to grad school in a humanities program where everyone just wore to class what they wore as undergrads (jeans with an occasional sighting of yoga pants) except if they had work or a presentation or something.

    That said, I think your list looks good and would be a solid start to a professional wardrobe that you could wear after business school. I would add on: comfortable black pumps with middle height heels (think 2-3 inches), tall boots suitable for wearing with a skirt or under pants, a versatile LBD that could be worn on its own or under a blazer, some “classic” accessories like a nice (maybe pearl) necklace, versatile scarf, quality watch, etc. They wouldn’t have to be expensive, just things that don’t look cheap. 🙂

  3. lorddouchebaag says:

    Coincidentally, I was making a very similar list today. According to Google, all the items in my list were going to cost me $2,500! And I am a guy! Maybe I shall have to downgrade those suits from Nordstrom to Macy’s!

    • bschoolgirl says:

      Holy cow!!! Yeah, after I bought my first Nordstrom suit I immediately decided that a few of my old outfits would do just fine…lol. After all the dough we’ve dropped on applications, flying to interviews and putting down deposits, you’d think it would get easier, wouldn’t you?

      • lorddouchebaag says:

        Harder part is definitely after you get in. From securing financing to figuring out clothes, post MBA careers etc. etc. And, like me, if you have to relocate to another country, then there is the whole process of figuring out visas and stuff.

  4. cavegirlmba says:

    From my experience, people come to class in very casual clothing. Most likely you will hardly recognize your classmates once the job interview period starts and the black suits are brought back from the depths of the closet.
    Looking at my wardrobe, I find that dresses are fabulous – one key piece plus a few accessories, and you are all set. In the decade since my MBA I have made a big switch from suits to dresses. Maybe I got tired of dressing like a man, but largely it was practical reasons. (If you fear dresses are too feminine and undermine your professional aura of power, competence, and knowledge, have a look at Anna Wintour. She works the most feminine dresses, and there is no doubt whatsoever that she is the one who calls the shots).

    And please do yourself a biiiiiig favor and add bikinis to your professional wardrobe (see http://cavegirlmba.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/bikini-vs-suit/).
    Once you land a nice job, you will spend a lot of time at your desk, in meetings, and at airports. Work and travel will make it hard to keep up any kind of physical exercise – thank god most good business hotels have a pool, and swimming is an excellent and easy way to keep moving. Plus bikinis need minimal packing space, travel well, require zero ironing, and make you feel happy with fun designs and upbeat colors.

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