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?


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