It took almost one year, hundreds of gallons in gas and several mall madness Saturdays, but I finally got it. "It" wasn't just another low-cut shirt with a ring of elastic around the bust line. And it surely wasn't another pair of too-tight jeans that required an inhale-exhale exercise to wiggle into. It was a combination of items that equated to a form-fitting, age-appropriate, well-made sense of style.
It took a while to learn to dress like a grown-up. It meant figuring out a style that lets me fit in with cubicle nation, but also reflects my own flair. Thanks to a steady paycheck and a few wake-up calls from my own mirror, I finally have a closet that makes me look and feel good.
But those dark days when I was a walking fashion faux pas aren't that far behind. Take a tanking economy, a newly earned bachelor's degree, add an entry-level paycheck, and you've got a poorly dressed 20-something. I used to take my precious, limited funds to stores like Forever 21 and H&M in search of work-friendly attire. Light gray slacks that flared at the bottom? That worked. A pink-and-white striped, short-sleeve shirt made out of sparkling fabric? That one made it on the receipt, too. Not exactly ready for the corner office, but better than two favorites: boot-leg cut, midnight blue jeans and a faded Vanilla Coke T-shirt.
Back when I was in college, I shopped leisurely, bonding with my girlfriends during hours and hours of treasure hunting at the mall. We fawned over flat, sequined shoes and neon-colored earrings. We combed through the racks of Nordstrom's BP. section, then headed to the lower level, where we'd hit up Forever 21, Guess and LVLX. Back up the escalator upstairs, we'd check out shoes at Aldo and Steve Madden. Finally, we'd hit up the juniors section of Macy's, or swing through Old Navy for yet another pair of flip-flops. If it didn't meet the three Cs (cheap, cool and comfortable), it stayed on the rack.
Soon after graduating from college, I entered the working world where the three Cs no longer cut it. I realized that cheap items often reflected the price in the craftsmanship and material of the products. Cool items often walked the line of looking childish. And comfort was an added benefit that I could only hope for after shoe shopping for heels—even ones that lingered on the shorter side of the spectrum.
One episode from this awkward era will be forever immortalized on Facebook in one of my friend's photo albums. I'm smiling from ear to ear with my eyes closed and my left arm raised above my head. My right arm is bent at my side, and I'm in the middle of bouncing to the music at club MCCXXIII's Wednesday happy hour. I look happy and free-spirited, but moments earlier, I felt like I stood out like a sore thumb. Right after work, I'd dashed up Connecticut Avenue to join my friends at the club in time for the free admission and open bar. I got past the tight-lipped bouncer and looked at a sea of stylish, straight-off-the-runway outfits. Meanwhile, my puffy, black parka made me feel as if I were wearing a trash bag. The black wool sweater that exceeded the length of my coat felt like a thick muu-muu that swallowed my petite frame. My short-sleeved, turtleneck shirt was alright, but it was buried underneath the too-long sweater and the too-bulky coat.
A few drinks and the comfort of familiar faces made me forget about my ensemble—temporarily. Now, when I look back at the picture, I often wonder what took so long for me to wake up. Now, I know that on those occasions, a business coat makes me look stylish, yet professional.
The happy-hour fiasco showed how much I'd been neglecting my non-work wardrobe. I had fallen behind on the latest styles—wearing the same few pieces over and over again to clubs, bars and parties. The same light blue jeans with a rip on the left thigh and folded at the cuffs. The same Rampage black flats with pointed toes and pink inner soles. Several ill-fitting pants of varying shades of gray replaced my stock of jeans. Solid, dark colored tops won over bright pink, spaghetti strap tunics. My sense of style was depleting, and my closet was becoming a mess.
Since then, I've learned to split my time between building both work and non-work wardrobes, to maintain my closet's delicate equilibrium. I learned a few tricks along the way to make work clothes (which didn't have to be terribly current) last longer. Dry cleaning works wonders for preserving delicate fabrics. It may cost a little, but I saved a lot by not having to replace sweaters overcome with fuzzy, cotton balls after numerous washes. And pants aren't as important as shoes or shirts. One pair of black slacks can match a number of green, blue, off-white, teal or purple tops. The most important lesson learned thus far is that I'm no longer in junior high. People just don't care as much about what you wear to work as long as it's clean and appropriate. You're not winning extra points in a popularity contest for having the latest DKNY suit.
It all finally clicked after just under two years of post-college life. It took some re-adjusting and re-arranging to give my closet the old switcheroo, but looking in the mirror makes me smile at what's staring back at me.
Delece Smith-Barrow is the lifestyles producer at Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive.