Buying new clothing for your civilian life is a sometimes overlooked cost – but it’s necessary. Don’t be the veteran who wears a piece of your dress uniform to an interview. With a little planning and comparison shopping, you can ditch your decades-old clothing without paying more than you should.
The first step is determining what kind of clothing will be needed for the job. Since each industry may have its own standards, there is no “one-size-fits all” approach when it comes to buying civilian clothes. While many companies suggest employees wear “business casual” clothing, the definition of what is considered “business casual” can vary in interpretation between organizations. The best way to determine what is expected by a particular organization is to tour the company prior to starting employment, or visit the company website to see how employees are presented.
Take advantage of the transition classes offered by most military posts. Many will offer specific courses on “dressing for success” and some may bring in wardrobe experts to discuss civilian fashion. Most courses will also provide a list of fashion “dos and don’ts” for both men and women, and may offer brief one-on-one sessions. In some courses, transitioning military members are encouraged to attend the sessions wearing their interview clothes so that they can be reviewed and altered if necessary.
Transitioning service members should generally apply the same standards to civilian business wear that they would to attending an informal military function where civilian clothes are accepted. Torn and dirty clothing, as well as t-shirts with inappropriate messages or designs are never acceptable in the workplace. Likewise, clothing that is particularly tight or revealing is not appropriate. When in doubt, it’s safe to err on the side of caution and wear “conservative” clothing.
Once you know what type of clothing is appropriate for the new job, you should consider what to purchase, as well as where. Generally, you should always have enough clothing to get through six days of work. This allows you to have enough clothing for the entire week, as well as an extra day in case you need to do laundry or travel.
For men in an office environment, at least two suits, one black and one blue, as well as several collared shirts and a pair of khakis are needed. Women have more flexibility, but should still have at least two suits and several pairs of solid pants, jackets and collared shirts, which they can use to mix and match outfits. Accessories, such as scarves or ties, can also be used to add variety to a wardrobe.
It’s not necessary to spend a lot of money on a new wardrobe, but you should not settle for cheap, poorly-made garments. Some items, such as suits, are worth spending a little bit more money on. Many department stores will have suits that are discounted. Watch for sales, and be prepared to comparison shop.
Online shopping may work if you are easy to fit, or are open to having your suits tailored. (Comparison shop for tailoring – some off-post cleaners provide alteration services at a reduced cost). Having clothing altered to a custom fit may be more expensive initially, but if the sizes found in a store don’t fit right, the cost of alterations are a small price to pay for clothing that fits well and looks nice.
There are some alternatives to high-end department stores. Consider looking in thrift stores for gently-used clothing – including high-end suits. Apending an hour in a thrift store may result in savings of hundreds of dollars on clothing.
Look for clothing that is easy to maintain. Purchasing clothes that require special care, such as dry-cleaning or constant ironing can result in extra costs in both money and time. Ideally, most clothes should be wash and wear, and wrinkle-free. Accessories such as ties or scarves may need special care, but they also may not require cleaning as frequently.
When it comes to shoes, don’t wear your dress uniform shoes. Your local PX most likely will have great prices for shoes. Avoid making a fashion statement with shoes, such as cowboy boots for men or extremely high-heels for women, until you are certain that such clothing is acceptable in your new organization. Again, if in doubt, err on the side of conservative styles.
Pam A. Boyle served in the Army for 24 years as an enlisted member and officer, most recently with the Army Cyber Command at Fort Belvoir, VA. She recently transitioned to the private sector. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism, master’s degrees in journalism, cyber security and information assurance, and is currently working on her doctorate in management from the University of Maryland University College.