Maggie O'Brien didn't have to think much about what she wore to her first job out of college. She just threw on a flight suit before heading underground to a nuclear missile control capsule.
However, when the former Air Force missile officer moved from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., and took a job at Accenture, she had to expand her wardrobe beyond an olive green one-piece. That took a lot more thought: What basics do I need? How many suits should I buy? How will I afford this? And what exactly is suitable for a casual Friday?
O'Brien's plight will be familiar to anyone who has left the military to take a job in the civilian workforce. Without the directive of a uniform of the day, what is suitable to wear to work?
Two fashion experts are here to help. Holly Thomas is a Washington Post fashion writer and co-founder of Butler + Claypool, a D.C. design and retail collective. Michelle Thomas, a former Post fashion reporter, now writes for several fashion websites in Los Angeles.
Both had tips for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are about to retire the camouflage.
Basics to build from
Building a wardrobe is about investing in the right basics, Michelle and Holly said.
For men, that means starting with a dark and a light suit. You'll need a dark suit — think black or navy — for interviews and more formal events.
A lighter suit, such as a light gray, is good for meetings, especially in the spring and summer.
Men also need a few basic sport jackets — which can dress up a tie and sweater in the winter or pair with jeans on a casual Friday — and a stockpile of dress shirts. Start with solid colors such as light blue and white, but don't be afraid to add patterns. Stick mostly to narrow stripes as wider stripes tend not to match with ties, Michelle said.
Depending on the office dress code, you will also need dress shirts that can stand on their own, she said. More and more workplaces allow men to wear open collars.
For Fridays and more casual work-related activities, a "nice, modern pair of dark jeans" that are not too baggy will also get plenty of use. Make sure your office allows employees to wear jeans, though.
Women should start with black pants and a white button-down blouse, Holly said. You can dress up and down with accessories and other wardrobe pieces such as a colored scarf.
Michelle also recommended investing in a pencil skirt you love and a versatile jacket — not a suit blazer but a more feminine cut.
"You can easily pair the jacket with skirts and dresses. It goes a long way," she said.
O'Brien started her wardrobe with a handful of suits from J. Crew and Banana Republic.
"They can be dressed up or down easily," she said.
Focus on fabric rather than the label, Michelle recommended. Try to invest in wardrobe foundation pieces with the best fabric you can afford. You'll get the best mileage from the pieces you wear most if they're made from high-quality wool, cotton, silk or linen.
Clothes that fit
It sounds almost too simple, but the two fashion experts started with the same piece of wardrobe advice: Buy clothes that fit.
Too often, men and women don't pay enough attention to fit — men especially, Holly said. "Men, in general, buy clothes that are too big," she said. "I think men are really afraid of things looking too tight and so they often go in the opposite extreme."
Finding a tailor you trust is key. Holly compared not getting clothes properly fitted to buying a car without taking it for a test drive.
"Don't ever just buy something off the rack and wear it," she said.
New to a city and don't know where to start searching for a tailor? Holly and Michelle suggest asking a higher-end retailer such as Saks Fifth Avenue or Brooks Brothers for recommendations.
You can also just stop someone wearing a sharp suit on the street and ask where he or she got it tailored. You would be surprised how "eager people are to talk about their style," she said.
Where to shop
Different retailers cater to different tastes and body sizes, Michelle and Holly said, but some of their favorite national brands include Banana Republic, H&M, Club Monaco and Zara. Holly particularly recommends H&M's dress shirts, which should fit any budget.
For men's suits, Holly suggests tall, slim troops shop at Zara. Those with a larger waistline should make their way to Brooks Brothers and Jos. A. Bank. Brooks Brothers is especially popular for men looking for a traditional suit, she said.
And don't confine yourself to the racks at retail outlets: Custom-made clothes might seem outside your budget, but they don't have to be.
Many online boutiques specialize in custom-made suits at reasonable prices, Holly said. Indochino.com is one of her favorites. Create an account, input your exact measurements — they tell you exactly what and how to measure — and tailors in Shanghai will build the suit.
Don't have a tape measure handy? Indochino will send you one for free. Four to six weeks after you order, the suit is on your doorstep. Prices range from $299 to $499, depending on the cut and fabric you pick, and the fit is guaranteed.
Online shoppers can order custom-made shirts on such sites as Hugh & Crye for $85 in a variety of styles. The Washington, D.C.-based company goes beyond the traditional small, medium and large sizes and addresses different body types. Men can order shirts taking into account weight, neck, sleeve, torso and height.
Those on a tight budget would be wise to go online and look for deals, Michelle said. Don't be afraid of buying clothes on eBay. If you like a specific item you try on, go online and compare prices.
Know the size and style number and make the different retailers compete for your business, Michelle said. Use online aggregators such as shopstyle.com to quickly compare prices.
O'Brien bought a lot of her civilian work clothes online out of necessity. Her last duty station, Minot Air Force Base in rural North Dakota, didn't offer many shopping options.
"There wasn't a viable clothing store to procure work attire, so I purchased many clothes online," she said. "To be smart, I purchase many of my clothes at outlets or wait for sales online."
Adjust as necessary
Acceptable work wear will vary by company and industry, of course.
Before you invest a lot of time and money in a wardrobe, make sure you consult your company's dress code and observe your new colleagues closely.
Geography makes a difference, too.
In Washington, a conservative navy suit seemed like the daily uniform, Michelle said. In California, she'd stand out if she showed up in one — and not in a good way.
To learn what was appropriate, O'Brien read military transition books and talked to military recruiters who "provided a lot of insight into what to wear for interviews."
She often takes cues from her clients on whether or not to wear a suit a particular day.
"My current client wears a suit every day, so I dress to mimic that. My previous client dressed more casually, so wearing a suit would be inappropriate and possibly make the client uncomfortable," she said.
No matter where you are, it's about building a wardrobe you'll be comfortable with and confident wearing, Holly and Michelle said. No matter how good it looks, it's not worth it if it makes you feel miserable all day.