How Do We Afford to Dress for the Jobs We Want?

I know I’ve told this story more than once, but in my first office job out of college (the temp job I picked up after my stint as a telemarketer) my boss gave me a sweater.

It was a coral pink and it had crossed cables knit into it and my boss claimed that she bought it and it didn’t fit her, or a friend gave it to her and it didn’t fit, or something like that.

I was too embarrassed to ever wear the sweater to the office, so I continued wearing my five work-appropriate tops with my two work-appropriate pairs of pants. Every week.

Which means that I found much to empathize with in this Racked essay about work, clothing, and social class:

I didn’t get the job. Maybe a more qualified applicant got it. Maybe it was a recent graduate from one of the big city schools, Columbia or NYU. Maybe it went to a person who wasn’t wearing a skirt they borrowed from a girlfriend, a blouse with a small tear in the corner by the wrist. The editor who interviewed me shook my hand and I focused on doing the right things: Firm grip, steady eye contact, engaged smile. But I couldn’t shake the thought: “Did he notice the tear? That my purse didn’t have a designer label?” I’d walked for nearly an hour to get there so that I didn’t have to pay for the subway. “Was I sweating? Could he tell?”

That was the year I only rode the bus during off-peak hours so I could save quarters. It was also when I got into the habit of changing into my pajamas as soon as work was over so my clothes would last longer (a habit I have maintained to this day).

Unlike the author, I didn’t grow up in a low-income family — but I did grow up in a rural area where people filled in the space between their nicer outfits with Walmart T-shirts and jeans. I remember going to the big city and not understanding why everyone looked so much more put-together than I did, and I remember trying to make work outfits work by combining thrift-store button-downs and hand-hemmed trousers.

How did you figure out how to dress for your early-career jobs — and how did you afford to pay for it?

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.