Building a Versatile Shirt Wardrobe

Filling your closet with the essentials of a versatile shirt wardrobe can be a frustrating exercise in multitasking, and it can take years. Having a list of what you want for each category is critical so that when deals come up, you can stay focused on what you “need” instead of just jumping on every deal. Items that can be used in tons of different outfits make the return on investment higher, making the opportunity cost of buying it lower (see this post for more about how opportunity cost impacts my decision making in menswear).

However, going for maximum versatility can be boring. After all, while we all admire the starched-white-shirt-in-the-desk-drawer-of-Don-Draper lifestyle, that would be super boring. Pattern, texture, collar shape and seasonality are the four main areas where you can start to mix it up.

Solids and Patterns

Solid shirts are the most versatile shirts you can own. In the realm of classic menswear, where you want to be able to go with or without tie, there are only two colors: white and blue.

White is more formal, blue less so. Depending on what kind of work environment or lifestyle you lead will determine how many solid blue or solid white shirts you will need. For instance, I only have two white dress shirts – one with double cuffs, and one with barrel cuffs – because I wear them so infrequently. For most people, light blue is the king of versatility because you will almost never look wrong with a light blue shirt on, even with a dark suit and dark tie.

Next in versatility are vertical stripes. Small repeating patterns such as pencil stripes, university stripes, and Bengal stripes are the most versatile. Shirts that have a white ground with blue stripes are the best place to start (and are the easiest to find).


Some textures fit better in a more formal context than others. A good rule of thumb is that a smaller, denser weave is more formal than a looser, larger or coarser weave. For instance, a poplin or end-on-end will look better with a refined suit-and-tie look than will an Oxford cloth. As Derek of “Dieworkwear” says, poplins are boring. You sacrifice zero versatility but gain some measure of visual interest by going with something like an end-on-end for business shirts instead of poplin. Coarser weaves like Oxford and royal Oxford are more at home with odd jackets, and particularly so when you break out the tweeds. Which brings me to:


One of my joys is having distinct cold-weather and warm-weather clothing. I’m currently planning a trip to Scotland, and can’t wait to pull out my Donegal tweed jackets and flannel trousers to take on the trip. In shirting, so, too, can you diversify your wardrobe with seasonality. That said, when we’re talking about having a jacket on most of the time, the concept of a linen or linen-blend shirt making much of a difference in the summer heat is a bit of a stretch. I wear linen-cotton blends all year-round, as layering can warm them up in the winter (though I do not wear my heavier Oxford cloths in the summer). So when talking seasonally appropriate shirt fabrics, everything except those cloths at the fringes (pure linens or, say, peached cotton flannel) can be pretty much worn year-round, depending on how warm or cool you tend to naturally feel. 

Collar shape

If you want the most versatile collar shape, period, then just get all medium-spread collars and be done with it. They look great with a tie and without. Cutaways, button-downs, and point collars, however, is how you add back in variety. Generally, don’t go too extreme (such as huge 1970s point collars, David Beckham-esque cutaways or tiny, anemic button-downs), and you’re safe.

Button-downs are right at home with Oxford cloth (the ubiquitous, stylish and unequaled OCBD) and with a generous roll, give an insouciant feel that have enormous charm. Cutaways give a rakish vibe that generally look best on guys with a sharp jaw and slim figure (though, when worn open-collar, look great on almost anybody, in my opinion). And point collars (such as this beauty from Drake’s), are an overlooked-of-late collar style that give off a lived-in, almost working-class charm that works quite well when done right.

As you amass enough shirts to wear day-in and day-out, you can start to branch out to other interesting areas: denims and chambrays, awning stripes, linens and flannels, and of course, colors other than white and navy. But that’s a post for another time.


The Charcoal Suit is Still a Wardrobe Essential

“The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit”, released in 1956, follows the life of veteran Tom Rath (Gregory Peck) in post war America as he attempts to make it in the corporate world while dealing with a variety of personal issues.  It touches, as most great films do, on many themes – among them PTSD and the conflict between family and corporate life.  In the movie, the ubiquitous grey flannel suit of the post WWII workplace serves as a symbol of the demands of the corporate workplace.  A man becomes subsumed by his corporate role when he puts on his corporate suit.  The movie, like the book it was based on (published just a year earlier), was hailed by an audience standing on the precipice between postwar America and Rock and Roll.  Sixty years hence, while the word “suit” still carries with it many negative connotations associated with corporate drudgery, most workplaces no longer demand a suit for every day wear, and a suit has become for many a special event item.  A suit is, for many, a contemporary form of regalia.  A man who puts on a gray suit is more likely to stand out than to recede into the background – the suit says “This guy is about to do something special”.

charcoal suit styleforum wardrobe essential

Styleforum member “Pingson” does the dark grey suit justice.

A few years ago, a Styleforum member named “@Manton,” started a thread called “If you don’t own the following items, you are not well dressed”.  It’s a good list, if any one is building a classic business wardrobe.  We saw arguments about what belonged and did not belong in the list.  The dark grey (or charcoal) suit was, and is, one of the very few items that remains inarguably necessary in a man’s wardrobe.  If your job is one of the rare ones that requires that you put on a suit and tie every day, charcoal suits are a staple.  It says that you are a sober man, a serious man, which is usually the effect you want to affect in those rare professions where suits are still the norm.  If you are not a habitual suit wearing man, if you only need a suit once every so often, the dark grey suit in classic proportions is the suit you need if you are a guest at a wedding, a mourner at a funeral, or a victim at a job interview.

This is not a tutorial on what to look for in a suit, nor an infographic on how to wear one, but here are a few points to start you off:

  • The suit should “cut” your body into approximately two equal parts. The jacket should cover your bottom, but not go much below that.
  • Always make sure that the suit fits across the shoulders. Most other things can be adjusted.  This is a hard facet to alter.
  • In the same vein, make sure that the angle of the arm matches that of your “natural” stance.

And more about styling your suit:

  • A “normal” lapel width is less likely to date your look than a very narrow or very wide lapel. A “normal” lapel width ranges between 3” and 3.5” at the widest point, with the exact width depending on the style as well as the size of the suit.
  • There are three common button configurations for suit jackets: a two button jacket, a three button jacket, and a “two-roll-three” jacket – a three button jacket that is designed so that the top button is on the roll of the lapel, and not to be used for any reason.
  • If you are at a loss on what to wear with a charcoal suit, go with a plain white shirt with a semi-spread collar, a burgundy or navy grenadine tie (or a knit tie for more casual occasions, or a wool tie for winter), and a plain white pocket square.

I’d argue that a white oxford cloth shirt and a few solid or small pattern ties are other “should have” basics, and we’ll discuss those in the future. For now, if you’re starting out on a business-appropriate sartorial journey, or looking to pare down your wardrobe, keep in mind that a dark grey suit is an eternally appropriate choice in clothing. It’s worth having one in your closet, and making sure that it fits you properly – you’ll certainly find continued use for it.