When you need an outfit fast

A game plan and a pop of color can help you look put-together, even when time is short.

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Shrug: $24.80

Bag: $6.80

Total: $31.60 (Alex Garcia/Tribune photo / January 21, 2011)

You know the drill.

Scenario I: You get on a plane in your jeans or sweats heading for a business meeting, a job interview, something important.

You arrive fine. But your suitcase with your interview clothes doesn't.

Scenario II: You dressed for a day at your desk or running errands, and suddenly a key meeting is scheduled. You look unprofessional with no time to commute back to your closet to change.

Scenario III: You hate to shop. You have had weeks to put together an outfit for a certain event, but you keep putting it off.

Now what?

Do you show up in your slobwear? Not an option. Instead, you go speed shopping for something presentable to wear later that day.

We all know that panicky shopping leads to paying too much for stuff you don't really like and probably won't wear again. Why does it have to be that way?

Well, it doesn't.

To prove my point, I created a Beat the Clock Shopping Challenge. Could I put together a business-appropriate outfit — top to bottom — in under an hour for less than $100? You know the answer.

It's a resounding yes, and you can do it too, stress-free, by following my guidelines. You just need a game plan. Here goes:

In the interest of speed, efficiency and frugality, I picked Forever 21 as my one-stop deadline destination because it carries everything I would need.

That's the first rule: Limit your options. When possible, shop at just one store where you've had success in the past, or just a few stores that are very close together. This makes the job less overwhelming (and time-consuming).

So, we're off. I spin through the revolving doors, hit the button on my stopwatch and … start shopping.

Work from the feet up. First, get the shoes. Depending on what's available, they'll dictate color choice for the rest of the outfit. Stick to basics. No open toes (not professional). No 5-inch platform stilettos (ditto). I was happy to find some work-worthy kitten heels in can't-go-wrong black.

Time: 4 minutes, 25 seconds

Now pick a basic outfit color — and stick with it. Camel. Navy. Black. Gray. Beige. I settled on black, not just because it would go with the shoes but because a quick look around showed me that the selection of black pieces in the store was huge. Plus, it's slimming. It's forgiving (cheaper fabric and poor construction look better in dark shades). And, you can dress it up or down easily.

Choose a skirt or a dress in that basic shade. Locating trousers that fit — they often are way too long for instant wearability — can take forever. And this is deadline shopping. Forget the pants option.

A simple black dress would have been the perfect fast choice, but I couldn't find one that looked right. They were too revealing. Too short. Too shiny.

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