In my last post, I talked about developing a capsule wardrobe. The concept behind a capsule wardrobe is that you have a small collection of stylish basics that all — or mostly all — work together. However, some of us aren’t driven by a need for simplicity. We don’t really need or want to wear a uniform, nor do we need the comfort that comes knowing that any combination of what’s in our closet will look good. Some of us just like clothes and want to look cool when we are seen by other people. This week, I’ll discuss building a versatile wardrobe by making smart menswear purchases – and more specifically, how to know whether to make those purchases.
Popping tags is fun, and of course the fashion industry grinds on, which makes us want something a little fresh and new every once in a while. Usually, there’s a catch: most of us don’t understand the intricacies of clothing’s historical context, nor do we have the time to read it all for ourselves — nor do we have, most of us, the closet space to house all the things we would buy if time and money were no object.
And so we make purchases based on what we like – often either what’s new or what’s on sale. “Ooh, an extra 40% off those sweet Wallace & Barnes selvedge chinos!” UPS delivers them a few days later, and you find that they don’t quite look as good with your only pair of nice shoes – museum calf double monk straps – as you thought they would.
The best way to avoid this is to use a framework for your decision-making, one that will ideally keep you from buying garments you don’t need or won’t wear. I’m going to use the metaphor of a picture frame to describe how I make these decisions: there are four sides to a frame, and each side represents a question you can ask yourself as you look through the frame at the item you’re sweating over with credit card in hand.
Question 1: how does the garment fit, formality-wise, within the context of what I wear?
I love me some military field jackets, but generally speaking, my favorite clothing is tailored. Those two don’t fit together very well, except under specific circumstances (i.e. your tailoring is very casual, or your M65 is more of a refined homage to the field jacket instead of a literal reproduction garment). Nine times out of 10, when I go to get dressed on an evening out, I’m reaching for tailoring, not “workwear” or “streetwear.” That’s okay. Other guys rock the M65 all the time, and I admire their style – but that’s just not me.
Similarly, if you only wear tees and broken-in selvedge denim, the midnight navy shawl lapel tuxedo jacket you have your eye on probably isn’t going to give you a lot of use.
For help in understanding how to answer this question from the perspective of someone who regularly wears a jacket and tie, browse the Internet archive version of Vox’s Coherent Combinations for Beginners thread. It was eye opening for me, and it may be for you too. It can help you place your different garments where they belong contextually.
Question 2: is my wardrobe seasonally balanced?
In building my wardrobe, I have tried to make sure I have good clothes to wear when it’s warm or when it’s cold. It’s hard to keep parity between the seasons because, in the world of tailoring, cold weather gear is immensely more interesting (tweeds, flannel, ancient madder, suede – you know the drill) than summer clothing. I’ve had to consciously ask myself whether what I’m looking to buy fills a more immediate need in one season or the other. You don’t want to be stylish only half the year, even if there’s never been a better deal on a cashmere crewneck than during a summer sale. Try your best to build a complete wardrobe, not one that’s full of nothing but beautiful winter coats.
Question 3: if I buy this now, will I regret it if something else on my wish list is available in a month and I can’t afford it because of this purchase?
One of the major driving forces of my life is opportunity cost. I’ve found time and again that when I get emotionally invested and buy something that isn’t a “need” so much as it is a “want,” shortly thereafter I regret the purchase because something I really do need comes available.
Take stock of the holes in your wardrobe, and know what you need. That way, when something that makes your heart beat fast comes along, you’ll be able to honestly assess whether it’s something you need and would actually get wear out of, or if it’s just the thrill of popping tags you’re after.
Question 4: Do I already own a similar garment?
This is the one side of the frame that stands out from the rest, because it’s how you help yourself break out of your rut: how many navy polos do you have? Do you really need another one? If you got this one, would you really wear it? On the flip side, would you neglect another perfectly good navy polo that you already own?
Now, some people wear a white shirt to work every day and need multiples of things like that (and please, for all our sakes, I hope you have multiple pairs of socks and underwear). That said, when we’re talking clothes we like and are buying for pleasure, it’s important to make sure you aren’t stuck in your ways. It’s fun to grow. Our tastes and preferences in menswear, like everything else in this life, need growth to sustain our interest. Staying rooted in your style preferences doesn’t mean wearing only the basics day in and day out. Try out those combinations you see the cool blogger-types share. Sometimes you’ll look ridiculous and other times you won’t – you have to try to know for sure.
Use this frame of decision making to help you assess your purchases. If you’re anything like me, it won’t ensure you hit home runs on every purchase, but if you can keep your wits about you in the rush of sale season, you’ll be happier – and generally better dressed – in the long run.