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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
What is the best value shoemaker you know?
This article is an edited version of an article published on Styleforum.net by Shawea.