How to Buy a Suit for Work

I’m always on the lookout for the perfect suit.  At my job, the dress code requires that I wear a suit to work at least a couple of days each week, so I have acquired several suits over the years.  My goal is to make sure that I feel confident and look powerful. When I bought my first suit, I found the entire experience a little overwhelming.  I went to several stores and tried on a range of styles before I found the right one. What color suit should I buy? What style suit should I wear? What type of fabric? Pantsuit or skirt suit? I now have a plan in place that allows my shopping experience to go pretty smoothly.  Today, I wanted to share some of my tips that could help you find your perfect work suit. 

I. Know your Budget:  One of the first things to do is figure out how much money you want to spend.  Unfortunately, most suits can be pretty expensive.  The average woman is likely to spend about $250 to $300 on a suit at some point in her life. Remember that your suit should be the best quality that you can afford on your budget.  Luckily, these days you can find suits at all price points.

II. Where to Buy: Once you know how much you want to spend, then you can decide where you want to shop. Here’s a little guide on where to find a great suit at some of my favorite stores.

  • $50 to $200 Budget: Shopping at discount stores like Marshalls, Ross, TJ Maxx and Filene’s Basement, you can find a number of quality, name-brand styles for extremely low prices.  I’ve found several designer suits and I’ve spent anywhere from $40 to $80each.  Also check out department stores like JC Penney, Kohl’s, and Macy’s.  These stores have a nice variety of suiting separates at amazing savings. And don’t forget to check out your local thrift stores or consignment stores for a fabulous suit.  If you have some extra time to look for a suit and to do some tailoring, this option could be right for you. 

  • $200 to $600 Budget: Some of my favorite stores like J. Crew, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, and Ann Taylor offer a great range of suits for mid-level prices.  I bet that the average working woman has at least one suit from one of these stores.  You can always find something on sale: It might not be the perfect basic color or style you need, but it's a great way to build up your collection.  You can also find some great deals by shopping at higher-end department stores like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor.
  • $600 to $1,000 (+) Budget: If you have a little extra money to spend, then checking out stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Bergdorf Goodman will be right up your alley.  Buying brands like Chanel, Hugo Boss, and Dolce & Gabbana will cost you anywhere between $2,000and $5,000.

III. Colors and Patterns: There are give essential suits you consider buying over time.  Whether you are building up your wardrobe or buying your first suit, stick with neutral colors; if you're interviewing for a job, stay away from bright colors like red, pink, royal blue, and orange, as well as busy patterns.  (However, if you are interviewing for a creative or artsy-type job and you're sure colorful suits are expected, then by all means wear your colors.)

  • Black Suit: In my opinion, a black suit should be first on your list.  It's a timeless classic that allows you to have a ton of styling options.  Depending on the time of year or an event like a wedding, a black suit might not be the best option.  Some people also believe that a black suit might look a little too harsh on women with fair complexions, so be sure to wear some color underneath to add a little lightness to the look.

  • Navy Suit: The next color you should consider owning is navy.  It’s a staple color in most men and women’s wardrobes.  It’s a great alternative to the black suit, especially at a wedding.

  • Gray Suit: Buy either light gray or charcoal gray -- either would be an instant hit.

  • Pinstripe Suit:  Ease your way into patterns with a pinstripe. The stripes should be very thin and subtle to keep the look very sophisticated.  Another bonus with the pinstripe suit is that the stripes can make you look taller and a little slimmer. 

  • Glen Plaid or Herringbone Suit:  Wearing a classic pattern, like a glen plaid or herringbone, allows you to show some personality.  Try to find a pattern that is subtle and isn’t distracting. A glen plaid is usually defined by a woven twill design of small and large checks.  The herringbone pattern is a small arrow-shaped pattern most often found in heavy woven fabrics like tweed.

IV. Pants vs. Skirts: There is still some debate on whether a skirt suit is more appropriate to wear to an interview than a pantsuit.  In some conservative professions, like law and finance, some people believe that the best suit option for women is still a skirt suit.  I think it's a personal choice these days:  Gone are the days that require women to wear only skirt suits to interviews or jobs. You have to find a style that works best for you and that you feel most comfortable wearing. 

  • Pants: Look for a pair of pants with a flat front.  The flat-front pant leg adds a slimming effect and looks a little more tailored.  Make sure that the pant is long enough to cover a majority of your heel, but still allows you to have a subtle break at the top of the foot.  The ultimate goal is to find a classic trouser style that works best for your body type. 

  • Skirts: Find a skirt with a classic cut, like a pencil or an A-line.  Whatever cut you buy, the skirt length should be no more than one inch above the knee. The skirt should drape over the body and it should not be form fitting. Be sure to keep the length of the skirt conservative enough that the skirt still hits your knees once you sit down.  If you experience difficulty sitting or walking while wearing the skirt, then it probably doesn’t fit. Don’t forget to wear sheer pantyhose with your skirt, especially on an interview. 

V. Fabrics:  The fabric is very important to consider when you’re looking for your perfect suit.  To make sure that your suit is going to remain polished and wrinkle-free, you’ll have to test it out.  Take the fabric in your hands and squeeze it. If it's creased after your test, you may want to find another fabric.  A wool or wool-blend suit is usually best, because the fabric is a little heavier and difficult to wrinkle.  Of course, if you live in a warm-weather state like I do, then you can’t wear wool all year long.  Look for some lighter wool alternatives like cotton, linen, and seersucker; however, these suits may not be appropriate for an interview because they are a little too casual.

VI. Style:  According to the Wall Street Journal, the look of the power suit is over.  The article also states that “the style, fueled by variety and feminine tailoring—peplums, pleats, darts, draping and shawl collars— makes room for soft colors, busy prints and details like embroidery and beading that were once deemed inappropriate for the office.”  There are so many suit cuts and styles that can appeal to all body types.  Be sure to find a suit that works best for your body type.

If you're shopping for your first suit, find a classic, conservative style first and branch out to trendier styles later. I personally tend to stick with a traditional suit and try to add a little flair with my shirts and my accessories.  Here are a couple of things to consider when deciding on the style of the suit:
  • Buttons:  You need to consider the number of buttons on the suit. This will help you determine the type of cut and fit you should buy. You may choose a single-breasted blazer with one, two, or three buttons.  Or you may love the look of a double-breasted blazer with four or six buttons down the middle. The buttons should never pull or tug against the body.  Since you will need to button up your jacket at some point, be sure that the lapels, buttons, and vents look smooth.

  • Lapels: The traditional lapels for a classic suit are notched or peaked.   This style will look best with a crisp button-down shirt.  Other styles, like shawl or oversized lapels, are very feminine and charming, but I would hold off on this style for your first suit or during an interview.

VII: Tailoring:  So, you’ve found the perfect suit, right? Buying a suit off the rack can have its ups and downs.  One downside is that one suit size doesn’t really fit all.  Depending on the fit and how much you’ve already spent, it’s possibly worth the additional investment to get alternations done to maintain a polished look.  A tailor will make sure that you have the right jacket length, the right fit through the waist or bust, that your collar lays flat, and that the sleeve is long enough to touch your wrist bone.

Follow my tips and you’ll be a pro in no time!


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