You’re looking in your closet the day before your big date. You own some old button-down patterned shirts, some polos, an old pair of pleated khakis and about nine t-shirts from concerts you attended in the ’90s. You start to panic. You look at your shoe storage area, which is the space behind the front door, at your Air Jordans and a pair of rain-ruined brown suede sneakers, and you break out in a cold sweat.
Not to fear. There’s still time to pick up a few clothing items that will not only get you through that date, but also have you looking sharp at work, at the sports bar with your buddies, and maybe even at a relative’s wedding. They won’t go out of style next year or even in the foreseeable future. If you stock these in your closet, you’ll be ready for anything but the beach. (Don’t worry, I’ve got swimwear covered too.)
For this list I’m leaving out the two extremes: a suit and jeans. If you don’t have a suit, you’ll eventually need one, but not for the vast majority of your daily life, unless you’re a lawyer or stockbroker. Plus, with the clothes below you can fake your way in some situations. Jeans…well, you probably already own jeans. I’m not including sneakers for the same reason, but a pair of nice white ones can give you a more casual option.
Before you grab that credit card and head out, don’t forget to follow my two cardinal rules of clothes shopping:
- Buy quality. This doesn’t mean you should pay the highest price; it means you should look for items that are well-made. You want your clothes to last.
- If in doubt, get a second opinion. Enlist someone you know who dresses well to help you with color and fit.
I’ve included some Amazon.com links for examples, but if you can shop offline, you’ll get a better idea of what looks good and fits well. Now to the items that will make up the foundation of your new wardrobe.
1. Sport coat.
The sport coat, sports jacket or blazer is incredibly versatile. You can wear it with a fitted, colored t-shirt and jeans for a casual evening out with friends, with a nice sweater and chinos if you’re meeting up with that Match.com date, or even with dress pants and a tie for a job interview. It can go places a suit jacket can’t.
The most appropriate color for your first sport coat is blue. I recommend a dark blue, which can look dressy when paired with a nice pair of pants, or go well with a pair of jeans. If you’re extra adventurous you might look at a casual corduroy sport coat or something with a herringbone pattern, but a deep, solid blue is classic, with a two-button front. Trendy patterns, designs and fabrics like velvet are for advanced users.
2. Dress shoes.
A pair of nice black dress shoes can also match up with a variety of looks, and the most versatile of the dress shoes is the lace-up Oxford. You’ll want to pick up a pair with a regular toe (not square, and not the elongated pointy look that will be out of date in a year or two) and quality construction.
A good pair of shoes can last you several years if you’re not wearing them every day. When you’re ready for more, a pair in brown can look good with jeans, and a pair of boots can accentuate your party look. Grab a pair of good white sneakers or stylish casual shoes like Skechers for urban hiking and you’re ready for anything.
Don’t forget to pick up a black leather belt as well—let’s make that 2a.
3. Casual pants.
This is where you’ll normally get advice to buy a pair of khakis. However, I look in my closet and see about seven pairs of casual pants, not a single one of which is a pair of khakis, and can say you’ll be better off with something different. However, paired with the other clothes on this list, even khakis will look better on you than they do on 90 percent of guys.
Look for cotton casual pants such as chinos, or some casual wool pants. Gray, navy, tan, or black are all good color options—try some on and see which color works best, but you probably won’t go wrong with a charcoal gray wool or cotton pant. Just make sure it’s not too dressy if you’re depending on it as the foundation of your wardrobe.
4. White dress shirt.
This probably sounds like the easiest item to pick up, but there are a surprisingly large number of styles and cuts of the basic white dress shirt out there. However, there’s one secret to looking great in a dress shirt: tailoring.
First, look for a shirt made with Oxford cotton. It’s a cloth with a basket-weave or waffle-like look. You don’t want a button-down collar: usually a “straight” collar, pointy with no tabs or buttons, will work fine. As you expand your shirt collection, consider a “spread” collar for wearing with a tie, and a button-down as a hangin’-with-the-guys option.
Dress shirts are sized according to sleeve length and neck circumference, so make sure you get measured before shopping. When you’ve found your shirt, it’s time to have it tailored to fit you. Most shirt manufacturers make their garments like tents around the middle, and the billowy-fabric look went out with pirate shirts. So take it to a seamstress (many stores offer this option) and have the shirt altered to fit properly.
5. Solid tie.
When you need to go dressier, the tie brings it all together, turning your basic sport coat, shirt and pants a little closer to formal. This is where you can add a splash of color to the basic pieces above. A deep red or a complementary shade of blue are the best options for your first neckwear. From there you can go to a diagonal stripe for a traditional business look.
Listen, you can’t wear a sport coat all the time. And when you do wear it, you want to have more options to go under it than just a white shirt. A good cotton or cashmere v-neck sweater can add interest and color to this wardrobe. Again, find a color that complements your jacket. A deep red or contrasting blue are my choices.
Try on a few different cuts and colors: some people can rock a red sweater that others can’t, and not all v-necks are created equal. You don’t want to walk out of the store unaware of the man-cleavage that plunging neckline will expose. You might even find that a crew-neck is more “you”: so be it.
When all is said and done, you want to feel comfortable in your clothes, so shop carefully. These six pieces can form the foundation of your everyday wardrobe, and the only thing more important than looking good in them is feeling like you look good in them.