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Basic wardrobe for Foreign Service

post #1 of 27
Thread Starter 

After several years of ski bumming and assorted expeditions, I have recently landed a dream job with the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service.  The next orientation in DC will probably begin in about 4 months.  After 6 weeks, I'm off to wherever they sent us.

 

This role requires professional business attire.  Today, my IT job requires no more than the casual end of business casual.  As a younger man, I worked as a paralegal in a conservative old Boston firm, but all that remains of that wardrobe is a serviceable Gianfranco Ruffini and a somewhat dowdy but well-constructed Oscar de la Renta.  (I hope I have not just made the equivalent faux pas of mentioning Bose on an audiophile forum, Gerber on a knife forum, or XD on a serious gun forum.  I beg your forgiveness if I have.)

 

As a forum veteran and somewhat of a SME in other subject areas, I am reluctant to ask the classic newbie question here (and I have read this), but here goes:

 

What/where should I read or look if I want to construct a conservative, classic man's business attire wardrobe without spending a fortune?  

 

Parameters:

  • I am a young 38 years old.  I'm cool, but State generally, and FS in particular, features a very conservative look.
  • I am 5'9", 160lbs, 30" waist, ~40" jacket, slim athletic build.
  • I will spend at least the next 4 years in "hardship posts", which could be anywhere from Siberia to the tropics.  I need to acquire all or most of this wardrobe before I will know exactly where.  
  • I will mostly be working indoors.
  • No, I will not be carrying in this role.

 

Based on my work at the law firm (7 days/week), I predict that I may be able to get by with 4-5 suits to start.  Also, I imagine that I'd like to have about 10 shirts, about a 2-work-week supply, in the event that laundry services or my time to access them are limited.  

 

(Various new-hire reading that State has provided mentions black-tie and white-tie in a protocol context, but I'm going to hold off on a tux for now.)

 

Where should I look?  Online?  Local department stores?  Menswear big box stores?  TJ Max?  Like every noob in every hobby, I want to identify items with a lot of bang-for-the-buck, but would prefer to spend a maximum of $1500-$1700 or so (4-5 suits and ~10 shirts only; ties, shoes, belts, socks, and watch I can figure out).  

 

What styles should I look for for the conservative State setting, without looking too stodgy?  Any brands that offer conspicuously good value in my price range?  By way of analogy to wristwatches, I'm looking for the menswear equivalent of Orient or Seiko.  

 

To be clear, I'm not the new ambassador to anywhere.  This is a junior position, so I'm not expected to show up in a world-class suit and a $400 shirt.  On the other hand, I'm representing the US so I'd like to present a professional image, while avoiding the "cheap suit" look glaringly evident even to those of us who are not versed in style.

 

Sorry for the long post, but I am excited about this lifestyle change and the advice I could get here.  Thanks!


Edited by JWalters - 9/29/12 at 3:30pm
post #2 of 27
Conservative suits will be fine, this is going to be at the embassy, so its an office overseas really. If you really want bang for your buck, thrift or ebay can work really well, but you have to know the products and brands really well. You can check out the thrift bragging tread or B&S here for brands that are generally high quality. Where are you currently located?

Good luck and stay safe.
post #3 of 27
I work with state department people all the time. if you are looking for something that will be good for you proffetionally, by that I mean you aren't really that interested in have a great suit, you want to look good for your work, then:


get yourself 4-5 brooks brothers (or jos. bank) suits - single breasted, 10-12 ounce, 3 button. I'd say, solid navy, solid gray, striped navy, striped gray, prince of wales.

10 brooks brothers (or lands end) button down shirts. in a mix of light blue, white, blue striped, maybe a maroon or a gray striped.

5-10 ties - honestly, if you really want to fit in, I'd get bb stripes, but I find it hard to recomend those, so I'd try for some pin dots and some solids, also dark blue, maybe maroon, maybe yellow

light colored trench coat - sierra tradding has a good sale on ralf lauren trench coat right now.

2 pairs black shoes, maybe aldens, maybe something a little down the food chain (sorry I am not that familiar with american shoe manufacturers) cap toe and wing tip.

20 pair boxers, 20 pair socks (10 blue, 10 gray)

3 pair lands end chinos, 5 polo shirts, 3 sweaters.

the above will get you through 90% of potential first postings.

in many of your potential first postings, you will encounter tailors, shirtmakers and shoemakers who can make you better stuff at reasonable prices, over time you might replace, if you feel so inclined.

oh, and a reasonable timex watch.

good luck
post #4 of 27
I am ex-Foreign Service. Are you an FSO?
Or are you Foreign Service Staff? I ask this question
because in my day- decades ago, there was a sartorial
distinction between these two groups. For FSOs dress was
quite conservative- but then those who were recruited already
dressed conservatively. Within this category style ranged from
bland/boring to elegant. Stay away from TJ Maxx and Big Box stores.
Same goes for Joseph A Bank, etc. Their clothing looks cheap and
is more suited to a car rental agency employee ( Sorry Alamo) than
the Dept of State. I would stick with Brooks Brothers or its equivalent.
I have no idea about Ruffini or de la renta. Unless things have changed
drastically, the State Dept- Foreign service, looks like they shop at
Paul Stuart or similar stores- trad-derived but contemporary. A note
of caution. Don't buy too much until you get your assignment. My first
post was "hardship" and I wore a suit every day (never a blazer)
The local government officials with whom I dealt dressed in a very
conservative formal style even though the country was predominantly
illiterate at the time. Also, where you are posted, may offer excellent
opportunities to acquire very decent bespoke at Marshall's prices. Feel free to PM
me if you wish.

I just read Globetrotter's comments. They are essentially correct. However,
I disagree about Joseph A Bank.
post #5 of 27

While I don't necessarily disagree with the above posters about what to buy, I do wonder if it is practical to purchase a large amount of new formal clothing when you are used to casual attire.

 

For your build (40 chest, 30 waist), I can't imagine getting a good fit cheaply, so I would think you would purchase your suits/shirts slowly so you know how you would like your jackets, shirts, and pants to fit before you rush to buy a lot of potentially ill-fitting clothing. This would seem especially true if you do not wear formal clothing now.

post #6 of 27
Quote:
(I hope I have not just made the equivalent faux pas of mentioning Bose on an audiophile forum, Gerber on a knife forum, or XD on a serious gun forum.  I beg your forgiveness if I have.)

 

LOL, especially at the Bose reference.

 

Although largely accurate, I'd add a couple of caveats to what's been stated above. First, most junior DOS employees dress very conservatively, and stick to the most basic colors and patterns. I was surprised by the PoW suggestion, for example - I've certainly seen patterns other than pinstripes on Ambassadors, and Dep Assistant Secretaries up through Under Secretaries, but rarely if ever on more junior folks. And even then, sartorial flair (with varying degrees of success) tends to be primarily found among Ambassadors.

 

I'm also a little surprised at the suggestion of Brooks Brothers given that you seem to be looking to spend a total of $1500-$1700 for all 5 suits + 10 shirts. Not sure what you could find at a BB sale, but a quick look on their website suggests $500/suit as a minimum (and that's only for the 'Essential Suits' line).

 

I'm not endorsing JAB for quality, but other than eBay it may be the only way to get the number of suits you want at that budget. And in reality, JAB is ubiquitous throughout DOS.

 

To avoid JAB, you may want to spend some time wandering around Georgetown trying stuff on to nail down brands/models/sizes and then go hunting on eBay. It's also probably worth your time to go speak with the guys at William A. Fox at 15th and G, whose client base includes plenty of DOS.

 

Last thought - don't get too hung up on the 'hardship' label of a posting. DOS seems to categorize almost anything that isn't a Western European country as hardship of some sort. 

post #7 of 27
Quote:
Originally Posted by comrade View Post

I just read Globetrotter's comments. They are essentially correct. However,
I disagree about Joseph A Bank.

sorry, I don't stand by that comment - I don't buy either brand myself, I am just thinking of the labels that I see people wearning, so you surely know better than I do.


OP - there are BB outlets, and they do have sales. if you have 4 months, aim at doing your shopping on Black friday at an outlet
post #8 of 27
One suggestion for making your budget stretch: start with 2 suits, not 4-5, and then acquire 2 more later. You'll have the advantage of having a better idea of what you want and what is standard in your work environment, and depending on where you are posted you may learn from your local counterparts where to get decent quality stuff made for relatively cheap (as suggested by comrade). Or you can wait until you are stateside again with a little more cash in your pocket. Either way, a junior employee in a conservative office can get away with alternating 2 suits for quite a long time. Better that you have 2 decent suits than 5 crappy ones. Get one in solid navy and one in medium-to-charcoal gray with some kind of modest pattern or texture (herringbone is a good, conservative choice).

Other thoughts:
  • Normally I would suggest Allen Edmonds shoes to someone just getting started with a wardrobe, but with your budget I recommend Johnston and Murphy. They'll look just as good as AE to 99.9% of people, will shine up just as well, and at this point you are more concerned with stretching your $$$ than getting something that will last for years and years.
  • Go cheap on belts - $20 department store dress belts will look just as good as more expensive ones, and again you should be more concerned with stretching $$$ than getting lasting quality.
  • Along with fewer suits, get fewer shirts and ties too. 6 shirts should be more than enough to get you from laundry day to laundry day. 3-4 ties should be plenty as well for someone just starting out. Make sure each works with both your gray and navy suit - wardrobe flexibility should be your goal, not maximum wardrobe size. You will almost certainly be able to get more of these things locally if you need to, at least in any country where the political elite wear Western-style dress (which these days is just about everywhere).
  • Whatever you do, don't get exactly 5 shirts and 5 ties and wear them in a precise rotation - you don't want to have a Wednesday outfit, a Thursday outfit, etc.
  • All in all, skimp everywhere else you can and allocate as much of your budget as possible to a small number of suits. Nothing will make you look worse than a cheap suit, and having more cheap suits in rotation won't make them look any less cheap.

Good luck!
post #9 of 27

^ Good advice here on reducing your target number of suits. Not sure about getting by on 2, but even cut down to 3 will give you lots more flexibility.

 

Another thing to consider is what you need these suits to do for you. If most of the time you simply need to look like you belong/simply not stick out, then cheaper suits are not only fine, they're the standard. If, on the other hand, there are time when you need/want to stick out - say, when you're briefing or you're the most senior U.S.G. rep at a meeting - then it's worth investing in at least one higher quality suit in navy or charcoal. 

 

 

 

Quote:
You will almost certainly be able to get more of these things locally if you need to, at least in any country where the political elite wear Western-style dress (which these days is just about everywhere).

Not necessarily - there are plenty of capitals where the elites all decamp to Paris, London, Milan or NYC on a regular basis to have their suits and shirts made. The benefits of kleptocracy and all that. In those cases, the locally available tailoring might not suit the OP's purpose (here I'm thinking of Kin, Brazzaville, Tashkent, Almaty, etc.)

post #10 of 27
Quote:
Originally Posted by Longmorn View Post

Not necessarily - there are plenty of capitals where the elites all decamp to Paris, London, Milan or NYC on a regular basis to have their suits and shirts made. The benefits of kleptocracy and all that. In those cases, the locally available tailoring might not suit the OP's purpose (here I'm thinking of Kin, Brazzaville, Tashkent, Almaty, etc.)

This is an excellent point that I hadn't considered.
post #11 of 27
Quote:
Originally Posted by Longmorn View Post

^


Not necessarily - there are plenty of capitals where the elites all decamp to Paris, London, Milan or NYC on a regular basis to have their suits and shirts made. The benefits of kleptocracy and all that. In those cases, the locally available tailoring might not suit the OP's purpose (here I'm thinking of Kin, Brazzaville, Tashkent, Almaty, etc.)

you can get a suit as good as a BB suit in any of those cities. the OP isn't an "elite" of a kleptocracy, he is a government clerk.
post #12 of 27
Quote:
Originally Posted by globetrotter View Post


you can get a suit as good as a BB suit in any of those cities. the OP isn't an "elite" of a kleptocracy, he is a government clerk.

 

You must have misread my post. I wasn't suggesting the OP was part of that elite. Only that the elite to which Mcbrown referred often don't shop locally.

 

And if you think you can find a suit in Kinshasa that is neither too flashy on the one hand, or evidently poor quality on the other, more power to you. Maybe things have changed since the last time was there.

 

Looking forward to the pics you'll post of your sapeur-approved outfits.

post #13 of 27
Quote:
Originally Posted by Longmorn View Post

You must have misread my post. I wasn't suggesting the OP was part of that elite. Only that the elite to which Mcbrown referred often don't shop locally.

And if you think you can find a suit in Kinshasa that is neither too flashy on the one hand, or evidently poor quality on the other, more power to you. Maybe things have changed since the last time was there.

Looking forward to the pics you'll post of your sapeur-approved outfits.

Most people don't dress like sapeurs in DRC, with his small budget he can probably get something passable there.

If I was the OP I would not purchase much before knowing the climate I will have to face, some countries are really fucking hot and humid and I only wear really light shirts and pants there along with some laceup boots (sometimes the roads are muddy) and some sort of light military or safari jacket.

Now if you know where you will be just go to Uniqlo (BB fits like a tent if you are slim and is too $$$ for your budget).

You can buy say 10 light poplin shirts (2 white button-down, 2 white reg collar, 3 blue bd, 3 stripped bd): $30X10= $300
2 navy suit+2 grey suit (one with some pattern): say $250X4=$1000
1 black belt: $25
then buy two black captoes at allen edmonds (check ebay or wherever wise forumnites buy those): $200X2= $400
get like 5-10 ties at Brook brothers
post #14 of 27

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Fuuma View Post


Most people don't dress like sapeurs in DRC...

Obviously the sardonic tone of that reference didn't come through.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Fuuma View Post


...with his small budget he can probably get something passable there.
 

 

Interesting to hear that tailoring has improved in the last few years. Where in Kin do you recommend? (or is it Goma or Bukavu?) I'd be fascinated stop in on my next trip.

post #15 of 27
Thread Starter 

Thank you all for the discussion and advice.  I deeply appreciate it.

Quote:
Originally Posted by eightfoldpath View Post

Where are you currently located?
Good luck and stay safe.

Central Oregon, and thank you.  Before I'm off to training in DC (and beyond) in early 2013, I will probably spend several weeks visiting family in the San Francisco and New York areas.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by globetrotter View Post

I work with state department people all the time. if you are looking for something that will be good for you proffetionally, by that I mean you aren't really that interested in have a great suit, you want to look good for your work, then:
get yourself 4-5 brooks brothers (or jos. bank) suits - single breasted, 10-12 ounce, 3 button. I'd say, solid navy, solid gray, striped navy, striped gray, prince of wales.
10 brooks brothers (or lands end) button down shirts. in a mix of light blue, white, blue striped, maybe a maroon or a gray striped.
5-10 ties - honestly, if you really want to fit in, I'd get bb stripes, but I find it hard to recomend those, so I'd try for some pin dots and some solids, also dark blue, maybe maroon, maybe yellow
light colored trench coat - sierra tradding has a good sale on ralf lauren trench coat right now.
2 pairs black shoes, maybe aldens, maybe something a little down the food chain (sorry I am not that familiar with american shoe manufacturers) cap toe and wing tip.
20 pair boxers, 20 pair socks (10 blue, 10 gray)
3 pair lands end chinos, 5 polo shirts, 3 sweaters.
the above will get you through 90% of potential first postings.
in many of your potential first postings, you will encounter tailors, shirtmakers and shoemakers who can make you better stuff at reasonable prices, over time you might replace, if you feel so inclined.
oh, and a reasonable timex watch.
good luck

Thank you.  I appreciate the specifics, and your thoughtful "off duty" list as well.  I just won a pair of BR flat front chinos on eBay for $10 shipped.  

As to the timepiece, I've dabbled in the "guy gadget" hobbies long enough to have an Orient Mako, a surprisingly nice Momentum quartz, and my grandfather's old Bulova.  

 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by comrade View Post

I am ex-Foreign Service. Are you an FSO?
Or are you Foreign Service Staff? I ask this question
because in my day- decades ago, there was a sartorial
distinction between these two groups. For FSOs dress was
quite conservative- but then those who were recruited already
dressed conservatively. Within this category style ranged from
bland/boring to elegant. Stay away from TJ Maxx and Big Box stores.
Same goes for Joseph A Bank, etc. Their clothing looks cheap and
is more suited to a car rental agency employee ( Sorry Alamo) than
the Dept of State. I would stick with Brooks Brothers or its equivalent.
I have no idea about Ruffini or de la renta. Unless things have changed
drastically, the State Dept- Foreign service, looks like they shop at
Paul Stuart or similar stores- trad-derived but contemporary. A note
of caution. Don't buy too much until you get your assignment. My first
post was "hardship" and I wore a suit every day (never a blazer)
The local government officials with whom I dealt dressed in a very
conservative formal style even though the country was predominantly
illiterate at the time. Also, where you are posted, may offer excellent
opportunities to acquire very decent bespoke at Marshall's prices. Feel free to PM
me if you wish.
I just read Globetrotter's comments. They are essentially correct. However,
I disagree about Joseph A Bank.

This is an excellent perspective, thanks!  I did not make the cut for FSO but I am delighted they picked me up as an Office Management Specialist (OMS).  At work, I tend to excel so I'm sure opportunities will arise with time.  Given the focus of much of my federal job search, I am hoping for an OMS posting in a Diplomatic Security section.   I appreciate your invitation and will PM you before too long, once I get a little more reading done.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by ballmouse View Post

While I don't necessarily disagree with the above posters about what to buy, I do wonder if it is practical to purchase a large amount of new formal clothing when you are used to casual attire.

 

For your build (40 chest, 30 waist), I can't imagine getting a good fit cheaply, so I would think you would purchase your suits/shirts slowly so you know how you would like your jackets, shirts, and pants to fit before you rush to buy a lot of potentially ill-fitting clothing. This would seem especially true if you do not wear formal clothing now.

Several posters have echoed this advice, and I understand.  However, I am anxious about graduating training and being shipped off to Harare, Dushanbe, or Vientiane without enough work clothing.  I am fascinated by this discussion of local shopping but in my travels, have not seen many shopping opportunities for fine menswear in many such locales.  Notable exceptions such as Bangkok abound, but my hesitation remains.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Longmorn View Post

 

LOL, especially at the Bose reference.

 

Although largely accurate, I'd add a couple of caveats to what's been stated above. First, most junior DOS employees dress very conservatively, and stick to the most basic colors and patterns. I was surprised by the PoW suggestion, for example - I've certainly seen patterns other than pinstripes on Ambassadors, and Dep Assistant Secretaries up through Under Secretaries, but rarely if ever on more junior folks. And even then, sartorial flair (with varying degrees of success) tends to be primarily found among Ambassadors.

 

I'm also a little surprised at the suggestion of Brooks Brothers given that you seem to be looking to spend a total of $1500-$1700 for all 5 suits + 10 shirts. Not sure what you could find at a BB sale, but a quick look on their website suggests $500/suit as a minimum (and that's only for the 'Essential Suits' line).

 

I'm not endorsing JAB for quality, but other than eBay it may be the only way to get the number of suits you want at that budget. And in reality, JAB is ubiquitous throughout DOS.

 

To avoid JAB, you may want to spend some time wandering around Georgetown trying stuff on to nail down brands/models/sizes and then go hunting on eBay. It's also probably worth your time to go speak with the guys at William A. Fox at 15th and G, whose client base includes plenty of DOS.

 

Last thought - don't get too hung up on the 'hardship' label of a posting. DOS seems to categorize almost anything that isn't a Western European country as hardship of some sort. 

Thanks for the DOS-specific observations - I have had limited contact with State compared to other agencies so this is very valuable.

 

Oh, I didn't mean to sound skittish about "hardship" posts.  At considerable professional opportunity cost, I have taken the time to travel extensively in such places backpacker style, "middle class" style, and via long bike tours.  Aside from serving my country, working and living in "hardship" locations is the main appeal of this gig.  Indeed, I was disappointed to learn that Baghdad, Islamabad, and Kabul are not available as first postings.

 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Longmorn View Post

^ Good advice here on reducing your target number of suits. Not sure about getting by on 2, but even cut down to 3 will give you lots more flexibility.

 

Another thing to consider is what you need these suits to do for you. If most of the time you simply need to look like you belong/simply not stick out, then cheaper suits are not only fine, they're the standard. If, on the other hand, there are time when you need/want to stick out - say, when you're briefing or you're the most senior U.S.G. rep at a meeting - then it's worth investing in at least one higher quality suit in navy or charcoal. 

 

 

 

Not necessarily - there are plenty of capitals where the elites all decamp to Paris, London, Milan or NYC on a regular basis to have their suits and shirts made. The benefits of kleptocracy and all that. In those cases, the locally available tailoring might not suit the OP's purpose (here I'm thinking of Kin, Brazzaville, Tashkent, Almaty, etc.)

We recently attended a 2-day intensive escape-and-evasion class.  The instructor really emphasized your same point - he called it "baselining".  At the end of the field exercise day, I was able to evade a "hunter" at arm's length by improvising an outfit that made me look like landscaping staff, instead of the clothing the hunter last observed me wearing.

 

At class, we have an opportunity to rank the destinations list that they give us, and your list is strongly representative of my top picks.  Thus, I do want to show up there with enough specialized work clothing.

 

 

Again, thanks very much for the advice and specifics. Keep 'em coming!

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