Previously: Part I, Part II. This is the third installment for my fellow white collar ballers.
If you’ve spent any time learning about men’s clothing (be it from family, friends, or the internet) you’ve probably heard a disproportional amount of talk about shoes. Shoes are a huge part of what dressing well is about (both in cost and importance), even though they take up a fairly small amount of space on your body. It can’t be stressed enough; shoes are often what separate the men from the boys, and business casual workplaces are notorious for bad shoe choices. A little bit of knowledge here will go a long way. Shoes are also the foundation of your outfit in stylistic and structural terms; if you buy well and take care of your purchases they will in turn keep you comfortable and stylish for decades.
1. Save up some money.
This one has the potential to get expensive. Accept the fact that high-quality shoes will be expensive if bought new, and can even be pricey when bought secondhand. Thrifting can be a good option here as well.
2. Learn the differences between “real shoes” and bad shoes.
High-quality shoes are expensive for many reasons, but the biggest two are material quality and construction. These qualities are much more important with shoes than they are in a shirt or pair of pants because shoes need to stand up to a tremendous amount of wear. Read Kiyoshi’s post and Put This On’s article to get a sense for what I’m talking about. If you buy a high-quality welted shoe that fits well and is well taken care of it will last for decades. Trust me.
Need some help finding out which brands can be trusted for high quality shoes and which can’t? I’ve included a short list at the bottom of this post, but my rule of thumb (toe?) is this: don’t buy shoes from any manufacturer that can’t tell you what last their shoes are made on. Any respectable shoe maker will have products on a range of last choices and will be able to tell you about them.
3. Understand the different styles and their applications.
Ready for some shoe terminology? This should be enough to get you started.
After some positive feedback from my first business casual post (I see you, Reddit) I’ve decided to continue the series for my fellow white collar ballers (being a baller is not actually required). Again, this may be old hat to some, but for those that are interested – read on.
1. Please stop buying black dress pants.
Just stop it. Right now. Unless you’re a classical musician or a waiter there’s really no need to go there.
2. Assess your needs.
First, learn how people in your office dress and what the official stance on business attire is (if there is one). Some easy questions to ask yourself: does everyone have their pants creased or are they unpressed? Do you see wool slacks or cotton chinos or denim? If your office is anything like mine then all of these are perfectly acceptable, leaving the decisions to you. In my mind, business casual pants fall into three broad categories:
“Trousers.” This is a bit of a catch-all term, but in my mind it signifies pants made from a dressy fabric (usually some weave of wool, but any fiber will do) and with creases running up the legs. They will also have more formal details like slanted pockets, buttoned back pockets and hidden seams. These would be the equivalent of the bottom half of your suit, but without a matching jacket (you have a suit, right?).
Chinos. Named after the twill fabric that they are usually manufactured from, these bad boys are casual in nature but have become perfectly acceptable in most offices. These feature external stiching, rugged fabric, and a lack of creasing (or any pressing).
Denim. Now before you get too excited, this isn’t a free pass for jeans in the office. I’m talking about dark, unadorned, slim/straight denim with no rips and holes. When done right this can work well with casual fabrics like oxford cloth and tweed.
Once you figure out what your office’s feel is and where your personal tastes lie you can start looking to purchase. Try to keep things consistent with the rest of your outfit; if you wear spread collars, ties and blazers you’re going to need trousers for just about every day. If you wear button down oxford shirts, sweaters, and loafers then you can roll with just chinos and denim.
3. Figure out how these things should fit.
Now, this will depend on several things, namely your body shape, the pant style and your personal preferences. Much like shirts, the general concept is to find something that flatters your shape without pulling or looking constrictive. However, I believe that the fit should vary between the type of pants.
Trousers: due to their formal nature, I tend to lean towards classic proportions here. The nicer fabric will allow them to drape in an attractive manner and this is lost when they become overly snug. I don’t wear trousers tapered past 8” and I look for a rise that will allow them to sit above my hips.
As the intermediate choice, chinos can land anywhere on the spectrum. I prefer to keep mine on the slim side but make sure that my legs aren’t tapered past 7.5-8” (and I’m a lanky guy).
Denim can be worn slimmer than the other two styles, but within reason. I keep my denim snug in the thigh and waist as it tends to stretch with wear. I usually have a taper of about 7.5”.
Learning what pant fit suits you best will take some time and experimentation, but at the very least be conscious of the choices you make in this area so you can adjust in the future if need be. More information on fit can be found here and here.
4. Gray, gray, gray, and then something close to gray (but still not black).
Gray is a great (gray-t?) color for trousers because it provides a solid foundation for the rest of your outfit without detracting from it. It’s hard to think of a traditional shirt or blazer color that won’t look good with gray pants (with the exception of gray, of course). Embrace the color and make it the cornerstone of your collection; your brown, tan and navy blazers will thank you. Add variety by using different shades and fabrics. Of course, denim is best in navy and chinos are classic in khaki, but stick with gray trousers until you’re well on your way to a full wardrobe.
5. Experiment with materials and texture rather than colors.
Wild colors can be fun but I find that diversifying with different fabrics is a more versatile way to expand your daily choices. Worsted wool is a standby for trousers, but consider flannel, tweed, moleskin, linen, tropical wool or cotton canvas depending on your climate.
6. Pleats: the ultimate divider
Pleats got a bad reputation when they became the go-to for guys giving PowerPoint presentations. I grew up in a world of relaxed fit triple-pleat Dockers and it was not pretty. However, there is a time and place for pleats. When worn correctly (up on your hips and not pulled open) they can help create a smoother appearance of the lines in your pants, especially for men with larger seats and thighs. However, if you don’t know much about how pleats operate I would suggest avoiding them until you know if they’ll be beneficial to you. More information can be found here.
7. Break it up.
The break of a pant leg is a crucial but often ignored aspect of fit. The term “break” refers to how far the pants extend down your leg before ending. A “full break” will involve the pant leg folding upon itself several times over the shoe, whereas no break implies that the pants end before even touching your feet. A medium break is an easy choice, but current trends favor slight/no break (as do I). Narrower pant legs will look best a bit shorter, and vice versa. More information here and here.
8. Care for your clothes.
Take care of your clothes. Trousers should be hung and aired out before thrown in a closet. Dry clean only and do it as little as necessary. Chinos can usually be washed in a machine, and I prefer to hang dry mine. Iron if needed. Denim should stay out of the dryer and washed infrequently; the specifics beyond that vary depending on who you ask.
9. Make a list and stock up.
Pants for work can be found almost anywhere, but here is a short list (not complete by any means) that may help narrow your search.
Like many Americans, I work in a ‘business casual’ setting. This vague definition means different things to different people and companies, but you can be sure of one thing: you will be wearing a shirt, and that shirt will (hopefully) have buttons up the front. Since so many men eschew ties and blazers nowadays, the shirt often attracts a disproportional amount of attention in the business casual setting. Moreover, the shirt is generally not something that can be slowly accumulated over time, like blazers and shoes; when you get your first job, you’ll need a wardrobe full of them, and fast. For these reasons it seems that the dress shirt is a point of stress for many young professionals. I’ve put together a primer which will hopefully help some young men out; this may be old news to many, but it is a topic I am often asked about by friends and coworkers, and this seems like a good place for it.
1. Fit is Paramount.
I won’t go in to too much detail here since this is coveredextensivelyelsewhere. Just make sure your collar is snug, your unbuttoned sleeves reach your first thumb joint, the yoke sits on your shoulders, and the overall silhouette follows your own without pulling during movement or sitting. Know your measurements. Take some time to find a maker that fits your body. Unlike shoes and blazers, high quality construction and materials are not as imperative; find a good fit, stay away from synthetics and factor in the cost of alterations if need be. Brooks Brothers shirts are a classic and often on sale. Many seem to have good luck with Charles Tyrwhitt, Land’s End, and TM Lewin, although I personally do not have experience with these makers. Consider going the made-to-measure route if you have a hard-to-fit body type or are obsessive about details; I highly recommend both Ratio and Proper Cloth (refer to my previous posts for more information).
2. Know your collar styles, and ignore most of them.
Most men don’t think about collar styles when dressing or shopping, but they play a large role in the presentation of your face (which is hopefully what people are focusing on). There are lots of styles out there, but you only really need to know two: the button down point collar and the spread (or semi-spread). They both have their place in the American coporate setting; the button-down works beautifully with more casual fabrics and the spread is a great backdrop for ties and jackets. Avoid shirts with the following collar terms: club, point (non-button down), cutaway, wing, and anything with the word “mini.” These collars are not bad, per se, but they will not lend themselves to building an accessible and versatile introductory wardrobe. Shoot for 2.75-3.5” point lengths, with 4-5.5” spread for the spread collars and around 3” for the button downs (these number may not always be available but they provide a good point of reference). Find what flatters you the most and stick with it. Make sure that the spread collar is wide enough and spread-y enough to tuck neatly under your jacket (in other words, avoid this).
3a. Follow the one-color rule.
Getting crazy with colors can be cool, but is by no means a necessity for dressing well. I personally follow the one-color rule: all my dress shirts are either comprised of one solid color or a pattern with one color (besides white). I’m always amazed at how many men wear shirts with furious, colorful checks and stripes to the office. Tone it down. Following this rule is not limiting; beyond solids there are various stripes, graph checks and ginghams, to name just a few.
3b. Avoid dark and oversaturated colors.
Nothing says “I got all my shirts at Express” like wearing cyan, tangerine, emerald or heliotrope (look it up) shirts. Avoid black shirts unless you’re Johnny Cash.
4. Hide your underwear.
Undershirts are a personal choice, but just remember that showing them is only a few steps above showing your briefs. If you have always worn one (like many in my generation), try going without. You may find that it really wasn’t doing anything for you in the first place. If you do want to wear one, spring for a V-neck if you want to go tie-less and consider gray instead of white to avoid them showing through.
5. Make a list and stock up.
There will be many variants in what your shirt wardrobe could entail because ‘business casual’ is such a vague term. Some may focus more on rugged fabrics and button-down collars, while other will spring for spread collars and ties. Assess your own needs and go from there. Here’s a list of what I see as my ideal shirt wardrobe:
Broadcloth, twill or pinpoint with spread or semi-spread collar
2x white (one barrel cuff, one french cuff)
2x pale/light blue (two different shades)
1x pale pink
1x blue/white candy stripe
1x graph check
2x blue/white gingham (different shades and check sizes)
Oxford cloth, button-down collar
1x blue/white stripe
TOTAL: 15 shirts. 3 week’s worth. Endless combinations and hardly boring or repetitive. Once the basics are covered, feel free to start experimenting with more fabrics, patterns, and collar styles. As long as you have a core of well-fitting, versatile shirts, you’ll never be stumped when getting dressed in the morning.
There rest of the Business Casual Basics series can be found here.