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How Should I Start My Business Wardrobe?
So, you’re starting a new job and don’t want to go to work naked. This discussion will be aimed at getting you into something professional, attractive and appropriate. This is not a piece on how to be “the best dressed guy in the office.” Rather, this will help you “look nice” for work every day, whatever that means in the context of your office environment. Look around you and see if coworkers wear it without eliciting disapproval.
|Business Casual||The Suit||Dress Shirts||Ties||Footwear|
There are basically two kinds of professional dress codes. Either your work environment dictates, or at least allows, you to wear a suit and tie some of the time, or it doesn’t. I’ll use “business casual” to describe all of the environments in this latter category, which range from jeans to polos and khakis to blazers and button-downs.
This encompasses a wide range of modes of dress. As the decline of the suit (relative to 50 years ago) is the main source of male confusion over what to wear, it would be impossible to clarify everything in a single post. But if you find yourself lost, look around you for direction. Notice what your coworkers wear for a couple of weeks before buying a whole new wardrobe.
The two best ways to look nicer without looking too “dressed up” are to have clothes that fit you well, and to upgrade your footwear. A common mistake is to buy clothes that are too big. The shoulder seam of your shirts – be they polos or dress shirts, should approximately line up with your own shoulders. Your pants should have little to no “break” around the ankles, and should sit above your hips, within an inch or two of your belly button. Pant length is easily altered, but you may have to try a couple of different makers before finding a trouser that fits you correctly in the seat and thighs.
In an office of polos, you can wear a well-fitting oxford cloth button down and look better without being overdressed. With the advent of online tailors, getting dress shirts that fit is cheaper than ever before, although it may take a couple of iterations with your tailor before the fit is just right. Starting at less than $100, you can have shirts made for you so that they won’t be billowy around the arms and midsection. MyTailor and ModernTailor (check out their official SF thread through the link) are places to start with good reputations. If you do buy ready-made shirts, any tailor can take in the shirt and put darts in for around $15-20.
For some reason quality of footwear is virtually uncorrelated with formality of clothing in modern male dress. Walking around the streets of today’s cities, you’ll see men in suits wearing rubber-soled slip-ons, as well as men in jeans wearing nicely polished leather-soled oxford dress shoes. As a result, you can wear nice shoes with almost any outfit and not be overdressed. Wearing quality, well-cared-for shoes with your business casual outfit will significantly improve your appearance without seeming pretentious or out of place. As an added bonus, women notice shoes.
About the only shoe that might look “too dressy” is the black oxford cap-toe, although even this can still be worn with business casual. Since you’ll need this kind of shoe for more formal occasions like weddings, funerals, and job interviews anyway, it’s a good one to have. Just don’t wear it with your more casual clothes. After that, you can add some wingtips, brogues, and/or loafers.
For more information about what shoes to get and how to care for them, see the “footwear” discussion in the next section.
Further Reading: Business Casual
Suit and Tie
If you’re wearing a business suit and tie to work every day, then you have a more closely proscribed form of dress. Let’s start off with:
Hopefully you’ve got one or two navy and/or charcoal suits from your interviewing process. If you’ve only got one, first thing to do is buy another. You don’t want to be wearing the same suit every day. Suits benefit from a day of rest after wear, and you may have to send one to the cleaners at some point. Although while we’re on that subject, unless you spill something, you shouldn’t need to dry clean suits often at all. Once a season (every few months) is plenty.
Eventually you’ll want to get to at least 5 suits if you’re wearing one every day of the work week. Once you have 3 or 4 solid suits, maybe a medium gray, a navy, and a charcoal, you can branch out into a pinstripe or a subtle glen plaid for a slightly more casual look.
The reasons to start off with solids are that they go with every shirt and tie you have, so you don’t have to be limited to one particular suit once you get to laundry day, and they are less memorable to the people you see every day. If you have a pinstripe suit and a windowpane suit people will realize pretty quickly that you own exactly two suits. You could own two solid navy suits and no one will ever think twice about it. In fact, some of the best dressed men in history have worn nothing but navy suits.
Finally, although they are common in American businesswear, the consensus on SF, and indeed among most menswear writers and stylish gentlemen throughout history, is to avoid black suits except for funerals. Black in the daylight flatters very few complexions. Instead it should be left to evening wear.
Much of what you’ll need to look for in your suit purchase can be found in the answer to “What kind of suit should I buy and how should it fit?” but I’ll add here some styling pitfalls to avoid for a business suit. You don’t want anything that looks flashy or too distinctive. Practice moderation in the width of the lapels, which should approximately half-way to your shoulder. Leave the “shrunken”, too-tight look to the runways of fashion shows. Stick to notch lapels until you are more confident in your understanding of professional standards. Check out this thread with pages of examples of Conservative Business Dress with commentary from SF deity, Manton.
A solid beginning for a suit wardrobe.
Further External Reading: Suit and Tie General
Start off by finding yourself a shirtmaker. These days, you can get a custom-made dress shirt for less than $100, which will fit you better and therefore look better than most of the $300 dress shirts you could find at your local upscale department store. Read the discussion of dress shirts in the “Business Casual” section for more information.
Start off with three white shirts, three light blue shirts, in varying weaves if you like, then a couple more in a conservative pattern, perhaps a stripe and a microcheck. This will give you enough shirts that you can make it through the week before needing to get any shirts laundered. If you decide you like light blue shirts more than white, get only one or two white shirts. A light blue shirt will be formal enough for virtually any occasion, so you needn’t worrying about being underdressed in such a shirt. Most people do, however, suggest that white shirts are particularly attractive in the evening. Check out some quality shirts here for inspiration.
As you’ll be wearing these shirts with a tie, the shape and dimensions of the collar are especially important. Although you’ll see many men walking around with “point collar” dress shirts where the points finish before the jacket lapel begins, this is frowned upon by most stylish suit-and-tie wearers. Instead the points of the shirt collar should reach under and be hidden by the jacket lapels. If you’re American, you can wear button-down collar shirts (whose points will not be hidden underneath the jacket) with your suits. In other parts of the world button-down collars are considered too sporty to be worn with suits.
A good start.
Further External Reading: Dress Shirts
Here is the most extravagant element of the suit and tie outfit. While the suit and shirt are sober wool and cotton there to cover your body, the tie is a nicely colored piece of luxurious silk that is purely decorative. The virtue of these boring suits and shirts is that they will look attractive with any tie that is attractive on its own. As such, the tie is the main thing you change day to day to break up the monotony of navy suits and white shirts.
That said, you still don’t want your tie to be “loud”. No fuchsia, no lime green, no exploding fireworks, nothing bedazzled. Navy is the most common color for ties. For some inspiration check out this conservative tie collection. Most tie-wearing men will have at least one or two ties with navy as their basic color. A starting wardrobe of 12 ties might contain:
- Two navy solids (a grenadine and a repp, for instance)
- Two other solids (perhaps a forest green grenadine, a chocolate brown repp)
- One glen plaid or shepherd’s check in black and white or navy and white
- One houndstooth
- Two pindot ties
- Two “neats” – small, evenly spaced designs
- Two repp stripe
Some formal ties. L to R: Navy with silver plaid, Macclesfield, shepherd's check, another shepherd's check, small houndstooth
This is just a suggestion. Buy ties you like. All ties should be between 2.75” and 3.75” in width. Which side of this spectrum you tend towards should depend on your own width. Choosing colors that reflect the colors of your eyes and hair is likely to be beneficial. Lighter color ties (pale yellows for instance) are more difficult to wear effectively.
If you want to fill your tie wardrobe quickly and cheaply, TheTieBar.com has decent quality for very low prices, usually around $15. Be careful though, there are quite a few ugly ties there. If you have the patience to go through the “Buying & Selling” section of SF, you’ll frequently find good ties in the $50 range. Once you get to the $75-100 range you can look into places like SF affiliates Sam Hober, Kent Wang, and Howard Yount.
Further Reading: Ties
Without question this is the most neglected area of the typical American man’s wardrobe. And without quality footwear, an otherwise impeccable suit and tie combination immediately looks slovenly. A proper dress shoe has a leather sole, and is classically shaped so that it is neither square-toed nor extremely pointy-toed. If you have the money for it, the “upper” (the non-sole part of the shoe) should be made of full-grain, not corrected-grain (sanded down and filled in to be smooth), leather. New full-grain looks better than new corrected-grain, but more importantly, over time properly maintained full-grain will develop a patina and look better and better, while corrected-grain will look worse and worse.
Outside of Britain, brown shoes are fully appropriate for business-suit-and-tie, although within Britain only black is completely correct. Black is also completely correct everywhere else.
A good place to start is with one black and one brown pair. If you only needed shoes for work, two brown pairs would be fine, but having at least one pair of black shoes means you are prepared for more formal situations such as job interviews, weddings, and funerals. This black shoe should probably be an oxford cap-toe. For the other, you could get wingtips, derbys, longwings, as you please. Adding a medallion on the toe increases the dandification and decreases the formality of the shoe, and therefore probably shouldn’t be one of your only two business shoes.
There’s a reason you should start with two pairs. Dress shoes need to rest in between wearings in order to have a long, happy, life. Proper care for dress shoes entails:
- 24 hours rest between taking off and putting back on
- Use of shoe trees when not being worn (especially for the first 24 hours after wearing, as the shoes dry out)
- Periodic conditioning and polishing
The entry level shoe brand to what most SF members would consider a real quality dress shoe would be Allen Edmonds. You can find AE “seconds” (shoes with very slight defects) for as little as $200. “Firsts” go for around $300. Below AE would be brands like Johnson and Murphy, Cole Haan, and Florsheim. Most of these shoes will have corrected-grain leather, and will not be Goodyear-welted (see “shoes explained”). However there are at least some models that are classically styled. Kenneth Cole and Aldo are among the most abhorred brands on SF, as their construction is shoddy and their styling hideous.
Further Reading: Footwear
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