9 Ways to Make Your Low-Cost Work Wardrobe Look Expensive

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Founder of Plus Size Fashion Blog SarahJaneReign
June 20, 2024 at 5:12AM UTC
When I landed my first “real world” job in NYC, I had lofty, The Devil Wears Prada-inspired dreams that my wardrobe would magically change into a glamorous fashion haven. Quickly, this small-town girl realized that she was going to have to make luxe looks out of a limited budget. Especially because my new gig was at a boutique advertising agency that specialized in... you guessed it: fashion.
I had no disposable income for clothes. So, there I was, starting a high-fashion position that required me to interact with fashion clients, casting agencies, the occasional celebrity and the fashionistas of New York – all of whom seemed to look effortlessly stunning, 24/7. Then there was me: wearing nothing over $20 and trying to fit in.

It was my most challenging fashion era yet, but along the way, I picked up invaluable tips and tricks to make my low-cost work wardrobe look more expensive and fashionable for any situation. If you’re looking to upgrade your closet without spending a fortune, I’ve got you!

1. Do a makeup audit and see if you want to make changes.

A few months in, I taught myself to become really skilled at doing my makeup. At first, I had been wearing the same style I wore in college: shiny lip gloss, caked-on foundation and all. It never occurred to me to shift my routine! The undergrad-style makeup drew attention to my fast fashion-based wardrobe, making it painfully obvious that I was a fresh-out-of-school newbie. Not exactly what I was going for.
I began scouring the internet for luxury makeup drugstore dupes until I perfected my everyday look. Eventually, I also added in a perfectly-applied pout, always in a neutral nude or timeless red. By putting my best face forward, I boosted my confidence and the way I presented myself at work and beyond.

2. Say goodbye to wrinkles.

Even the most luxury item can look rundown if it’s wrinkled and creased. Investing in a steamer is a great way to instantly enhance your wardrobe. It’s way less of a pain than breaking out an iron and ironing board, and you can get a perfectly good steamer for less than $15. If your outfits always look freshly styled, they will also look more expensive.

3. Stay in the neutral zone.

You see it every spring/summer and fall/winter. Fashion houses release trending colors, and retailers quickly produce items in those colors. But you know what never goes out of style? Neutrals. Black, nude, gray, cream and navy are classics, season after season. By building most of your wardrobe in these colors, you can guarantee that you’ll get plenty of mileage.
Photo by Shelby Cohron Photography
Photo by Shelby Cohron Photography

4. And if you’re going to splurge, focus on these three things.

I recommend that every fashionista invest in three key areas: a really nice handbag, accessories and footwear. For a handbag, think a go-to silhouette like a structured satchel as opposed to something trendy like a bucket bag. Diversify your accessories with a beautiful dress scarf, a statement necklace, an understated necklace, and an elegant pair of earrings. Shoes are one of the first items a person notices, so take extra care to keep them scuff-free. Pairing your low budget wardrobe with higher-quality accents in great condition will easily enhance your overall look.

5. Slip a slip beneath your ensemble.

Just like wrinkles, visible panty lines or bra outlines are quick ways to make any outfit – no matter the cost – look disheveled. Even worse, inexpensive clothes typically aren’t lined, which means the risk of visible undergarments is high. Try a slip to smooth things over and act as a lining (shapewear can also work for this purpose). Make sure you’re wearing the right size intimates and clothing. True to their name, foundational garments really set the stage for your outfit, so give them some extra thought!

6. Do a little bit of creative engineering.

Two upgrades that make a major difference are the two Bs: buttons and belts. At your preferred craft store, you can find endless options of buttons in every style, finish and size imaginable. Know what that means? You can next-level your blazers, coats, shirts and more for only a few dollars. That’s a more recent wardrobe hack I’ve learned, but it’s such a good one.
My other tip: if you purchase an inexpensive dress, don’t wear the belt it comes with. There’s a good chance that you already own an option that will be much better suited. The fixtures on low-budget clothing can be glaring cost indicators, so swapping them out for nicer alternatives is a great style hack.

7. Give care to your hair.

Of course, hygiene goes a long way in helping you look more put together. I learned to give myself shiny, smooth blowouts that I would either wear down or in a sleek ponytail. Also, I use dry shampoo on non-wash days to maintain freshness, especially because I have naturally oily hair. That said, hair comes in so many different forms. Play around with styles and products until you find what works best for you!

8. You’re never fully dressed without a manicure.

The overall takeaway here is that maintaining a high-end appearance is about so much more than the label or price tag on your clothing. Fine details can make or break any outfit. That’s why you should always double check that your fingernails are trimmed, shaped and clean (polish is optional). Overgrown, chipped or otherwise unkempt nails are a sure-fire way to attract attention you don’t want.

9. Above all, keep it simple.

Fight the urge to over-accessorize. Our natural instinct is to overcompensate for a low-cost wardrobe by layering on all the accessories – almost as if to hide the clothing itself. That said, an imbalanced outfit is never a good look. It’s perfectly okay to take a minimalist approach. In fact, it often ends up looking very chic! Not sure if you’ve gone overboard? Follow the tried-and-true adage: when in doubt, remove one accessory.
Whether you want to portray a more expensive wardrobe for work, social situations or just because, my tips are sure to enhance the overall feel of your closet by cleverly disguising bargain price tags with elegant finishing touches. As someone who spent many years faking a high-end wardrobe, I hope that this article helps you elevate your existing outfits and discover your most confident fashion self. Above all, wear your invisible crown and rock your outfit fearlessly. You’ve got this!

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Sarah-Jane Morales is a plus size fashion and lifestyle blogger based in Houston, who has been featured on Buzzfeed and Bustle. Join 60,000+ others who look to her weekly style, career and real life tips via her website, SarahJaneReign.

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