Creating a Business Wardrobe – Styleforum Guide

So, you’re starting a new job and don’t want to go to work naked–or worse yet, dressed unprofessionally. This discussion will be aimed at getting you into something professional, attractive and appropriate: in other words, a complete business wardrobe.

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. If you’re at the very beginning of your journey, you might want to check out our guide to buying your first suit, and the perfect business attire before diving into this guide.

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/most 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. Luxire and Spier & MacKay 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 the 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 nicer 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 most men should have 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, check out Mitch’s article on versatile shoes]

If you’re wearing a business suit and tie to work every day, then you have a more closely prescribed form of dress. Let’s start off with:

The Suit

Hopefully, you’ve got one or two navy and/or charcoal suits from prior to your interview 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 modern 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.

Here are 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.

A solid beginning for a suit wardrobe

A solid beginning for a suit wardrobe

Dress Shirts

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.

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 most occasions, 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, and are the most appropriate for funerals. 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.

white shirt business outfit

A good start.

Ties

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 from day to day to break up the monotony of navy suits and white shirts.

That said, if you’re going for a business look, you still don’t want your tie to be “loud”. No fuchsia, no lime green, no exploding fireworks, nothing bedazzled. For solid colors, texture is key, so grenadine ties or highly textured weaves work well. For some inspiration check out this soporific 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, for instance)
  • Two other solids (perhaps a forest green or a burgundy)
  • 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
A navy grenadine tie by Vanda Fine Clothing

A navy grenadine tie by Vanda Fine Clothing

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, and 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 Vecchio Anseatico, Kent Wang, and Vanda Fine Clothing.

Footwear

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 (again, check eBay or the Buy&Sell forum) the “upper” (the non-sole part of the shoe) should be made of full-grain, not corrected-grain (sanded down and filled in to have a specific texture for the grain), 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 complet, ly 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 see fit. Adding a medallion or other broguing 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

[For further details on conditioning and polishing, see the official shoe care thread]

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. 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.

Check out these popular shoe threads:

The Official Shoe Care Thread

Vintage Shoe Thread

2018 Revival Shoe Challenge

What is the best value shoemaker you know?


This article is an edited version of an article published on Styleforum.net by Shawea.

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7 Comments

  1. Raleigh Johnson

    August 17, 2018

    Styleforum is well suited to address the issue of creating proper dress attire for a new business environment. Much of the information provided by the editors is standard, however, some assertions are open to challenge.
    An alternative to spending an exorbitant amount on one’s first business suit might be suggested for the man with limited means, such as 2nd hand stores or thrift stores. Racks upon racks of men’s name brand suits both new and old are provided for a fraction of the cost of a new suit averaging at $25 to $50.
    Over the years I have purchased well over 200 fashionable men’s slender neckties all from thrift stores for under $5.00 per tie, as well as dress and casual shirts. As I am a slender man, a fat tie would appear on me as a bib to prevent food from soiling my shirt. LOL
    This interjection is just meant as an alternative and not suitable or desirable for every man.
    The models used in the illustrations appear casually dressed and some of the outfits appear to have been slept in overnight. Slacks that were designed to be creased should be creased to achieve the intended and best overall look. The natural waistline used to be the narrowest area above the belly button, however, an increasing number of men have difficulty leaning forward to find it.
    To prevent the accordion affect at the trouser cuff an increase in the bottom width would remedy, while still maintaining a slight break.
    These observations are just my subjective views at best and not a hard and fast rule for the man entering a new business environment. Ultimately, each man must choose what is most comfortable and desirable for himself, even if it goes against the grain of the established order (within reason) LOL .

  2. Raleigh Johnson

    August 17, 2018

    The Styleforum editors provided good advice for a new employee, “notice what your coworkers are wearing”. This appears to be a reasonable alternative, however, if there is great diversity of clothing styles permitted in the work place you might consider what my Pastor would suggest; “If you are challenged to flip a coin, it might be prudent to “dress in the leadership class”. This option works well, unless your bosses dress like “Smurfs”.

  3. Emil Bakeev

    August 19, 2018

    I disagree with many suggestions – it all depends on culture: Russians wear suits most of the time, British and Americans – depending on the company.
    From my experience, buying more than two suits is a waste of money if you don’t care about suits or don’t know how to choose them – your choice is likely to be guided by the price and brand reputation and you may end up buying suits that don’t suit you. If you have so many suits, then probably you will also have many shirts, ties, shoes etc. And such a vast choice will complicate your clothes selection every morning – you will spend a lot of time trying matching your colourful suit with your colourful shirt, colourful tie, colourful pocket square, colourful shoes… And, once you spent so much money, you may later realise that you really like only one suit, one pair of shoes, one shirt, so the rest of you wardrobe is just a balance taking huge space in your already massive wardrobe. Having too many styles equates to lack of style
    Final notes – ties are less prevalent now than 20 years ago. I less and less come across client companies who require wearing suits (none in the last 3 years, to be accurate). You stand out wearing a suit in such organisations, but your suit must really suit you properly or you send a wrong message

  4. Glenn

    August 19, 2018

    The best way to get a high quality suit that fits correctly for those with limited knowledge and budget is to seek out the best men’s speciality store in your area and go when they have final markdowns. Here you will get a high quality fabric, high quality fit and sewing, and a consultant with a lot of fit and product knowledge, plus a skilled tailor. Thrift and off price stores, while fine for those who have the knowledge to spot all these elements, are not for those just getting started. A knowledgeable seller in a speciality store will generally be eager to make sure you get the best result for your money in hopes that you will become a repeat customer. Sellers in good speciality stores have far more knowledge, in most cases, that sellers in department, off price stores, or internet stores. This article also implies that you can buy a better fitting shirt for $100 or less on line than you can for $300 in a store. Simply not true. You can get a serviceable shirt for a lesser price from an online maker, not necessarily better fitting one. For less that $200 dollars you can get a full made-to-measure shirt with all the details included, such as collar height, front and back, point length, amout of spread and amount of tie space. You also get someone that knows how to take the necessary measurements. Neck, yoke, chest, waist, sleeve length(left and right) cuff barrel(left and right) and length of shirt tail. No way this can be done correctly on line. Most good speciality offer some promotional pricing on MTM shirts during there sale months. These stores are also a good sources for great neckwear at sale time. Better silk qualities and handmade as opposed to manufactured. Better quality speciality stores, on sale, are always the best places to shop on a budget, plus you can have a learning experience that will make you a better value shopper in the future.

  5. Cherokeepilot

    August 19, 2018

    Nicely done article on the virtues of dressing properly for work. Wearing a suit and tie is mandatory for certain professions. The article did make a major point that proper shoes are needed for business wear. I would like to make a point for further guidelines of shoes that will go along with suits colors and patterns. If you are wearing a dark blue, navy, dark to medium gray suit, please wear black dress shoes. Nothing jars the overall image of a dark blue or gray suit as to top it off with light tan or light brown shoes. I realize that in some quarters tan or brown shoes with a dressy navy suit is considered fashionable. Some of the very dark oxblood and dark burgundy colored shoes can blend in the image of a dark suit outfit.

    Now I realize that a lot of other folks are thinking that I am being judgmental……and you are absolutely right. In my business, I have to make judgments about the credibility of people who are “selling” their advice, expertise and leadership abilities. Wearing a suit and tie is almost a civilian uniform. Wearing a proper pair of business shoes completes the image that the person is trying to project.

    The remarks given above are mine made on a lifetime of observing how men’s fashions have an effect on business, finance, legal and social relationships. And no, I didn’t forget the ladies fashions in business, my remarks were meant to be limited to gentlemen’s dressing.

    And, thanks to the form for this bit of group therapy.
    73s

  6. Raleigh Johnson

    August 19, 2018

    Great advice Glenn. Specialty stores generally offer the most competitive prices and is a safer bet for getting an accurate fit than on-line purchases. However, if you are a crusty old man like me, who is blessed to possess tailoring skills and who vowed never to buy any new men’s clothing at retail prices, thrift stores was and is my saving grace. Obviously, I am on the sunset end of the working world, but have always held this conviction, even in my 20’s.
    The average young working man today has no clue about most of the measuring points that you mentioned, although, it would be prudent if they did, as it would enable them to be better qualified in making informed choices about the fit of their clothing.
    Some men just seek the approval of their peers, wife or girl friend in wearing what ever the clothing industry and it’s “new world designers” create. Actually, it’s really no different than when I was young, just more prolific, as styles have changed but the industry control still dominates.
    Young buyers would be floored if they realized the extreme mark-up on most retail attire and even when offered at a 50-70% sales reduction the manufacturers and sellers rarely walk away broke. It would be eye opening for the youth to visit a clothing sweat shop and view the piece-work process and the wages paid for assembling garments, then see the final mark-up cost. There is an old saying in the industry: “Whatever The Market Will Bear”.
    As our youth internalize the reality of the free market system they will either hop on the capitalist band wagon or play the socialist anthem. I think it will probably be the former.

    What does all this have to do with the intended subject? Not a lot, but it’s better than watching boring TV programs while waiting for Turner Classic Movie Chanel to air one of it’s classics movies from the 1940’s. LOL

  7. Raleigh Johnson

    August 19, 2018

    Cherokeepilot, from my prospective you are absolutely “right on” (old school 70’s term) in your critique of wearing tan or brown shoes with a navy blue suit. In my day that was unthinkable and bordered on “Fashion Heresy”, subject to excommunication from the GQ Fashion Society. Only a country bumpkin would do such a thing.
    What I believe has happened is the fashion industry, with the use of runway models, has paraded that fashion faux pas with a vengeance, until out of (importunity) it is now widely accepted by the general public.
    Unfortunately, I must admit that I have fallen from grace and accessorized my Dress Blue Denim Slacks with a pair of Tan Ankle Boots and a Tan Alligator Belt, only once. SHAME ON ME, I REPENT!

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