The Menswear Mindset: Tips for Building a Basic Wardrobe

One of the most common types of questions that menswear bloggers seem to get is the “I’m new to this” question: “I’m just learning how to dress well and I’d like you opinion on what to buy / if this jacket is a good deal / what color I should be wearing / etc.” These questions are usually difficult to answer well, and often bear the signs of someone heading in the wrong direction. I’m sure that the new year has inspired many guys out there to start putting more effort into their dress, so I put this list together as a guide for them (although I think they’re good reminders for all of us). This isn’t a list of what products to buy or what constitutes an “essential” wardrobe; rather, it’s an article that will hopefully get you in the right mindset for working on upgrading your closet.

Also, please don’t take this as some sort of sermon that I am bestowing on everyone due to my vast #menswear knowledge; every single thing below is something I learned from mistakes I’ve made. If I can help you avoid just one then it’s worth writing about.

1. Start simple.

Men that are just starting out on their sartorial journey are often drawn to items that have no place in their wardrobe. For instance, it’s easy to get infatuated with dress shoes or suits, but if your lifestyle doesn’t require them then it’s probably a foolish purchase. It may sound obvious, but it’s not – don’t buy clothes you don’t need. Buy basic items in simple neutral colors. Buy a navy suit before a glen plaid, a navy repp tie before a six-fold grenadine, and a pair of chukka boots before austerity brogues. It does sound really simple, but it can be hard to stay focused on what you need and ignore everything else.

On the same note….

2. Be careful with “inspiration.”

A quick story: A few years ago while in college and trying to figure out what it meant to dress well, I saw an advertisement that had a photo of a nicely dressed man. I don’t really remember anything about it anymore, but I recall being drawn to the fact that he was wearing a purple sweater. “This guy looks great,” I told myself. “I should get a purple sweater so that I can also look that great.” After a few months of searching I found one on clearance at J. Crew. It only took me a week or two to realize my mistake – I had associated the well-dressed man with a purple sweater, but outside of the photo’s context I had no interest in the item. Moreover, I had purchased something that I had no need for and that didn’t coexist with my other pieces. When you feel inspired to buy an item, try to dig a bit deeper – what exactly is it that you like about it? Likewise, is it something that would make sense for your lifestyle? I was fortunate that my mistake only cost $20; it was worth it to learn the lesson. It is critical to think about your wardrobe as whole, otherwise you just collect a series of items that caught your eye. A holistic wardrobe is carefully planned out to make sure that every item can be used to its full potential, week after week.

Which is why I suggest this…

3. Make a list.

Yes, it’s been said before, but it’s great advice. I started doing this a few years ago (even before it was cool) and it has worked well for me. It keeps me focused on what I need and not what catches my interest. If something is on my list for a long time (6 months, a year, or even more) then I am confident that it is something I really could use and is worth investing in. There’s also great satisfaction in deleting something from the list without buying it, because you realize that the item isn’t really that important.

I also use my list to track my previous purchases, the amount I spent on them, and what their full retail price is. I do this in part to set goals for myself (e.g. stay under 50% of retail prices) and in part to make sure that my spending doesn’t get out of hand. Either way, it’s been helpful, because…

4. Buy better and buy less…eventually.

I agree with the idea that one great item is better than five mediocre items, but when you are just starting to cultivate your personal tastes and interests it can still be detrimental to only invest in expensive pieces. Learn a bit more about yourself and what you really like before investing/splurging on grail items. If you decide that you really want to try tassel loafers, consider a used pair off ebay before getting those $500 Aldens (unless you can get those Aldens ON ebay…).

Also, take the time to find out where quality is important to you and where you can live without it. Are you a heavy sweater? Maybe $200 dress shirts aren’t what you need. Do you work in the construction industry? Perhaps some good boots are worth investing in.

And when I say “investing,” I’m talking about more than just money. At the end of the day, it comes down to this: you can’t get something for nothing, so no matter what you’ll either have to invest time or money to build up a solid wardrobe. If you’re a broke college student with time on your hands, start hitting up thrift stores and learn how to utilize saved ebay searches. If you’re already well into your career and need some new suits for a promotion, do a bit of research to find what works best for you and just go get it.

Now, when you’re out there buying things…

5. Strive for perfection, but be willing to stop short of it.

I’ve become well-known in my circle of friends for doing inane amounts of research before I buy anything. I want to make sure that I’m spending my money on the best product for the right price, and I’m willing to put in the time to get there. Ultimately, it’s this mentality that got me interested in menswear. And as helpful as this drive for the perfect product is, it is important to understand that you will rarely get anything that meets every possible specification. We will all be limited by money, by time, and by our own changing tastes. I discussed this topic in this post of my Personal Style Series. Knowledge is power, but it can also be dangerous; don’t let your understanding of menswear minutiae keep you from enjoying your clothes. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

6. Read everything; trust no one.

Soak up as much knowledge as you can, but remember that only you know what is best for yourself. Try things, learn from them, and evolve. Look to others for advice and inspiration, but take it all with a grain of salt. The road to discovering your own sense of style is a very personal one; ask for help and seek out information, but know that at the end of the day all of these decisions are for you to make.

7. Have fun.

It’s just clothes. Don’t take it all too seriously!