Where to shop when you’re a hot pro

By Mir
June 1, 2009

(This question may not be what you think it is. Or maybe it is!)

The lovely Gin writes:

I am at an attorney in Northern California. I am constantly on the look out for court and office appropriate attire: suits, professional dresses, separates, etc. But with my trial schedule and my location (wine country which is beautiful and I love it! But woefully deficient in the shopping department!) it’s difficult for me to find the time for an all day excursion to the mall.

Could you please help a girl out and point me in the direction of some websites where I can stock up on professional clothing, at a price that won’t make my husband sigh in resignation thinking that we will have to delay our planned retirement? Further, as summer approaches, do you or your regular readers have suggestions for professional work wear that isn’t going to have me toppling over in court from heat stroke?

First of all, please take a moment to imagine my look of horror at the idea of an all-day excursion to the mall. Okay, thanks. Lord, I never spend all day at a mall. I’m pretty sure that’s either the third or fourth circle of hell. And the good news, Gin, is that you don’t need to! There are plenty of ways to outfit yourself for work so that you’re not 1) overheated, 2) broke, or 3) obligated to hit the mall.

Let’s get to work.

Okay, first things first: As much as I love shopping online, the reality is that it’s very difficult to order clothes without trying them on and get a perfect fit every time. Unless it’s a store/brand that you know tends to fit you, there’s a bit of guesswork involved. And sometimes stuff simply isn’t going to fit. So I, personally, love to order from stores where I can get free shipping and return stuff locally. I’m sure I’ve mentioned more than once that I almost always order several different sizes at once from Kohls, because I can get free shipping and then just return the extras to the store. (I’m still making a trip, but I don’t have to try things on in a cramped dressing room under ugly fluorescent lights.)

Aside from Kohls, other stores with which I employ this strategy, all of which would probably have clothing meeting your needs, Gin, and likely have local brick-and-mortar version, too: Ann Taylor Loft, Macy’s, Dillard’s, Target (yes! Target! They have some really cute stuff), and (occasionally) Coldwater Creek. All of these stores (with the exception of Dillard’s, which often has clearance prices so good I’m willing to pay shipping) have frequent sales and specials and free shipping available, and tend to have local outlets.

To a lesser degree (and their “business” options are fewer), I’ll also look to Eddie Bauer and Lands’ End, though I don’t have local outlets of either of these stores. (Oh, wait. I guess you can return Lands’ End stuff to Sears.)

If I want to go shopping, though, I avoid the mall altogether. I will never stop singing the praises of the ubiquitous cut-price fashion “outlets” like TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Ross, SteinMart, and the like. These are always my favorite places to snap up big bargains on fancy brands.

Hopefully that gives you some ideas about where to shop. As for what to buy when you’re dealing with the heat, well, this is where you can be all about layers, baby. Even an attorney needn’t wear the standard suit all the time. But if you do wear a suit, obviously you can wear a sleeveless shell or other warm-weather-worthy top under your jacket, so that out of the court room you can remove your jacket and cool down a bit.

Knee-length skirts are flattering on just about every body type, and a classic pencil skirt can be business-level dressy in a jiffy with very little help—the right blouse, shoes and accessories will get you about 98% of the way there, and then a tailored cardigan or blazer or even a little swing jacket can do the rest. Those short-sleeved and elbow-length topper jackets are very in right now, and they’ll add polish without being too hot.

Similarly, a sheath dress is easily dressed more business-like or less depending on what you pair it with, and shouldn’t overheat you even in the summer.

Look at it this way: Men (poor men!) pretty much have to wear a suit to be business-dress ready. They have to have a tie, too. That’s hot and constricting and boring. As women, we have a lot more options (thank goodness!), and can stay cool in skirts and dresses and even look perfectly business-like in a nice broad scoopneck top or whatever. (But no cleavage for the court room, please! Also, sandals aren’t ever going to be business appropriate, but a cute slingback or peep-toe with a moderate heel will keep you cool and still keep you looking like a pro.) (And shoes are easy; be sure to order from a free-shipping, free-returns store such as Zappos, Shoebuy.com, Endless, or Shoes.com—then order a couple of sizes and return the ones that don’t fit.)

And my very favorite part of business dress in the hot weather? If you have long hair, wearing it up always seems more formal (as long as you don’t do it with a banana clip or whatever), and also keeps your neck cool. Win-win!

Readers? What am I missing? Help Gin out, because we don’t want her to melt or go bankrupt!


  1. piperlime.com is another shoe store that is free shipping/free return. And it used to be that if you order from them, anything else you buy at the same time from gap, ON, or banana republic also ships free. I think Talbots is another store that has lots of business clothes and you can return in person. And Nordstrom has amazing return policies though rarely cheap. And, there are tons of clothes through amazon though I always find it too overwhelming to sort through.

  2. LLizClaiborne.com has always been my favorite and they have lots of sales! The sizing is always consistent.

  3. New York & Company is another option… they really focus on the wear-to-work market, they ALWAYS have a coupon code, they’ve got tons of mall stores, and their business attire is actually cute. I particularly like their fitted shirts and blouses. I also appreciate that they’ve got a wide range of sizes, so I can find things that actually fit. Some of the other stores you mentioned (Kohls and Coldwater Creek, for example) don’t carry small enough clothes for the pocket-sized professional.

    I like the business attire from The Limited, too, with the caveat that although the price point is a little bit higher than NY&Co, the quality of the finishing on the garments is inconsistent. I’m not sure if I’d want to shop them online, but if you’re going to do a mall crawl, they’re a good store to hit for blouses and suiting pieces. The pieces I’ve bought there are some of my favorite go-to work clothes.

    For another in-person option, H&M has great stuff, like suits in conservative materials with a touch of fashion flair. But what I really love at H&M are their basic layering items like perfect $6 tank tops. When I shop at H&M, I often wind up doing the “one in every color” thing!

  4. A friend of mine had a wonderful experience using a free personal shopper at Macy’s. When she made the appointment she gave her sizes, preferences for style and color, and the occasion she was buying for, and when she got to the store the shopper had two racks of clothes ready for her to try on. To her surprise, they weren’t the expensive lines, either. Two hours of intensive shopping with someone who could give her an opinion, and it was free. Well, not the clothes, but the service.

  5. For suits (I can’t believe that I’m letting the cat out of the bag) —


    Sometimes overstock.com

  6. There’s a great Ann Taylor Loft and a BR outlet in the Napa Outlets and a Cole Haan outlet for Shoes

  7. Talbot’s has been doing some major discounting lately. Also, they have an online outlet. Their clothes are pretty consistently sized, very high quality and last a long time. I work at a bank and have to dress rather conservatively – I really don’t shop anywhere else. Today, talbots.com is offering buy one, get one half price for anything if you buy online.

  8. Am I the only one who thinks “Dress Barn” for a low cost suit? The sales people are always very helpful. I don’t wear them often, but everytime I need one (usually for a funeral), that’s the first place I go. Unfortunately I don’t think they have online ordering. If I want to spend a lot more, I think Talbots.

Bargain Hunt





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