Help me buy a basic business wardrobe.
July 23, 2006 1:00 AM   Subscribe

My role and environment at work has recently changed and I have forgotten how to dress. How can I quickly buy the right wardrobe?

For several years now I have worked for a large company as a manager in a manufacturing plant. As such I have grown used to business casual at the most extreme end of casual. (My controller showed up to work the other day in jeans and a sweatshirt). I am now changing roles into one that will require ~70% travel and will take me out into many other locations in the same company including more "corporate" environs. It could be described as a business unit executive role instead of a location management role.

After my trip last week I realize that I am not comfortable at the level of dress I currently have (bills khakis and eddie bauer oxford type shirts). I need a total wardrobe revamping. My preference would be to go spend a bit of money (<2k) now to get to a baseline and add things as necessary over time. I would prefer to coordinate around around black shoes and belt simply as a matter of compactness and convenience.

Items of note:

The company culture at large seems not to wear suits and ties and doing so might be a little over the top.

I am a large individual 6'4" 260lbs

Simple is better for me, stuff should mix n' match.

So to make my question specific: What items do I need to buy in order to have 2 full weeks of clothing (one to pack and one being cleaned) appropriate to my new role? What kinds/colors of trousers? What kinds/colors of shirts? From where? What kind/color of jackety thing to travel with to smarten up these shirts and pants (though likely still without a tie)? The ideal answer would be one I would print out and take to a specified place and tell them "I need this in my size."
posted by tcskeptic to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Not to be nitpicky, but the first question is if you're male or female!
posted by polexxia at 1:10 AM on July 23, 2006

polexxia - either that is one silly question or you really are the bees knees when it comes to not assuming a gender identity.
posted by FlamingBore at 1:13 AM on July 23, 2006

Yes, I am male.

If what I have asked for is too specific (I find shopping a chore and have appallingly bad taste.) General guidelines would also be helpful.

I kind of wish I could pull of a Steve Jobs style iconic look and have only jeans and black turtlenecks in my closet.
posted by tcskeptic at 2:05 AM on July 23, 2006

My situation doesn't mirror yours but of late I also have found that I need to dress a bit up for various business purposes. My daily work clothes du jour are polo shirts (worn outside), jeans, and Birkenstock sandals. But because I now attend business meetings outside of work I started to dress up.

First step: the basics. Start with your slacks: one pair of black pants and one brown. But really nice material. I found them at Nordstroms on sale (btw, if there is a Nordstroms in your area it's a good place to shop for men. The people working there aim to please. The store is known for its great customer service).

Second step: shirts. There are two basic color groups: warm colors (browns, beiges, reds (not bright but perhaps maroon type colors) and cool colors (blacks, blues, greens, etc.). I've found that the cool colors go best with black pants and the warm with the brown. Although there are always exceptions. But for a basic set of rules that's a good place to start.

Third step: Buy two sportscoats, one for the warm colors and one for the cool. Make sure, as you have suggested that your shirts and sportcoats look good without ties. However, buy a few ties that go with each just in case you need a bit of dressing up on occasion.

Additional steps: One pair of comfortable dress shoes that go with your cool color clothes (black shoes) and one pair of brown shoes. On occasion, when I really find a pair of shoes that look good and are comfortable I buy a pair in black and one in brown. Makes life easier.

I bring my shirts or sportcoats with me when I buy the other. Making sure I can see them together helps. I also bring both sportcoat and shirt to the store when I'm buying a tie.

tcskeptic, just so you know you're not the only one who is clothes-challenged you might get a kick out of something that just happened to me on Friday. I was trying to find "my look." But things went very wrong.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 4:50 AM on July 23, 2006

2 pair charcoal slacks @ $160/2 pr
2 pair navy slacks @ $160/2 pr
2 pair black slacks @ $160/2 pr
[You can add additional trousers in these colors, depending on your willingness to wear trousers more than one day without cleaning. These appear to be "all season" weight, wool/poly blend "survival wear" slacks, meaning that they are going to be inexpensively made, with standard interior trim (waistband, pocketing, interlining) and "all season" wool/poly blend fabric. You'll probably get a season or two of wear out of them, at best. For 2x to 4x times the price, you can get far nicer fabrics, better construction, and trim. Most business travelers will pack 3 pair of slacks for a 5 day trip, perhaps supplemented by a pair of wash pants or jeans to wear in the evening]

10 spread collar dress shirts (white, blue colors) @ $30/ea [Button down collars are not dress shirts. Short sleeves are not dress shirts. All that said, you may want to augment this with additional short sleeve seasonal shirts, considering your longitude, and Texas summers.]

1 navy blazer @ $120 [Note: At this price point, this is "survival wear," and it is going to be a machine made sack coat, with fused interlining construction, and minimal tailoring. It will hang on you like a borrowed schoolboy jersey. For 2x to 4x the price, you can get a much nicer blazer, which will make you look like a man whose mommy didn't dress him in hand me downs.]

2 pair black dress shoes @ $100/ea [Note: Men's Wearhouse isn't the place to shop for shoes. You can do better, if you look around, but you'll spend 2x. Try to find quality footwear from better domestic manufacturers (Florshiem, Johnson & Murphy, etc. Better yet, treat your feet to Allen Edmonds.) Good dress shoes, in good repair, polished, are one thing that still "define" a man's overall level of taste. Don't scrimp. At least one pair lace up oxfords, maybe a pair of dress slip-ons, in classic styles. No boots, no rubber soles.]

10 - 15 pair socks, charcoal or dark blue [Over the calf dress stockings would be preferable, so as to avoid "droopy sock blues." Crew socks do not go well with dress shoes.)


Tie(s) [If you take a blazer or jacket, take a tie. You may be "business casual" in most of your travels, but sooner or later you will go to some function in the evening, where a coat and tie is still expected.]

Underwear, handkerchiefs, and accessories as needed. [Full crew neck tee shirts are recommended for wear with dress shirts. No commando option on the boxers/briefs decision.]
posted by paulsc at 5:36 AM on July 23, 2006 [3 favorites]

Honestly, I had no idea. While the height COULD have indicated male, I have learned never to make assumptions, since one of my best friends is a 6'6" female. LOL
posted by polexxia at 5:48 AM on July 23, 2006

This comment falls under the heading of general advice for the man making a dress transition. In the old days (1950-1970 by my reckoning), when we spoke of "men's tailored clothing" [meaning suits, slacks, top coats, sport coats, dinner jackets, smoking jackets, hunting tweeds, and formal wear], we had in mind constructed clothing made to a good standard of fit [at least the "special order" level of fit in the linked chart]. In those days, it was widely understood that good fit was essential to good appearance, but in these days of oversized jerseys, baggy jeans, and "urban influence," few men have any idea what the word "fit" means. Tailored clothing that doesn't fit hangs poorly on a man's frame, and does nothing to conceal his flaws or emphasize his features. Worse, it gives an impression of sloppiness, that is subtle, yet hard to overcome, since it is constantly reinforced.

On the other hand, clothing that is well made, and properly tailored for fit will wear well, be comfortable, and yet give a subtle but powerful impression of neatness and organization that can be projected no other way. They don't call Savile Row clothing "power suits" for nothing. Ideally, tailoring means taking a man's body measurements, adjusting or creating clothing patterns for his measurements, and cutting and sewing the clothing so that it requires no alteration, being made for his measure.

But most men will not be willing or able to afford this level of personal attention (or the time it takes for fittings), and quite frankly, many men, if not most in this day and age, now think of this level of attention to clothing as effeminate, or fussy. Somehow, wearing poorly fit clothing makes men feel macho, I guess, no matter how scruffy they look. This has led to a relaxation in the merchandising philosophy of major stores, and a reduction in the bare levels of service for off-the-rack alteration services, that is quite evident wherever dressed men gather. The fact is, off-the-rack men's clothing fits much worse than it used to, because it is made in fewer sizes, and it is also much harder to alter, because of changes in manufacturing methods and materials such as the introduction of the engineered, or "sack" coat (so named because it is actually made on the production line "inside out" and then turned through its lining at the end of the process, through an intentional opening in the lining of the sleeve, which is finally closed thereafter).

Today, a man is lucky if he can still buy a pair of off-the-rack slacks, and get them hemmed to length and have the basic waist size adjustment made, through adjusting the seat seam. Getting a coat's sleeve length altered can be an absolute nightmare, that will take 3 weeks, and 2 fittings, and wind up with the sleeve vents butchered, and the cuff buttons out of line.

Nevertheless, a man should still try. It makes a difference in how the world sees you, if your clothes fit. Finding a capable tailor or alterations shop in your area, and making getting proper alterations part of the off-the-rack clothing purchase process, are key tasks in having a business wardrobe that "works" for you. A good tailor can also advise you of things to look for in future clothing purchases, and can recommend fabrics and construction details that will better suit your body type (in pants for example, pleats, double darts, pocket styles, interior trim level, etc.) Good men's shops may still offer alterations and tailoring advice, too, although even this level of formerly expected service is becoming rarer these days. Where ever it makes sense to have your alterations or tailoring done, however, make sure that your measurements are being properly taken, and that the alterations being made are consistent with the garment's overall style and function. If you have special anatomical issues due to your size or body shape, simple alterations like a waist size adjustment by simply letting out or taking in the seat seam in trousers, may not be acceptable. If you have a "lightbulb butt" or large thighs for instance, you may need to have the waistband reset in the back of your pants, after extra material is taken in, in both back pocket darts and the seat seam. The result will be trousers that hang on you straight when standing, but do not bind when you sit. This kind of alteration is obviously much more work, and requires more skill and time, and therefore costs more. But the resulting improvement in fit and function is quite obvious, every minute you wear the pants.

Finally, if you wear well fitting clothing over time, you become more aware of fit issues, and less tolerant of poor fit. Clothes that fit well, and are properly tailored, are not restrictive, and enhance our appearance. They "feel good" and they look good, and we look better in them.
posted by paulsc at 6:45 AM on July 23, 2006 [12 favorites]

Holy cow, paulsc. That was incredible.

However, to tcskeptic, I'd advise this: get thee a personal shopper for a week. They're not that exorbitantly expensive, and since you find shopping to be a chore, it takes that stress away from you.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:09 AM on July 23, 2006

Oh, and never, ever buy pleated-front pants. They look good on no man. Flat-front only. Always.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:10 AM on July 23, 2006

paulsc is right on about the difficulty of fit and the difference in perception that it makes when people look at you. One thing that he didn't mention is fabric choices; you want to make sure that you choose high-quality linen shirts (stay away from the shiny / fad crap when you're building a basic wardrobe), silk ties, and "Super 100's" wool slacks. Higher quality fabrics resist wrinkling and travel MUCH better than what you're used to; I can usually steam my slacks in the bathroom when I arrive at a destination and they're fine to wear without needing to be ironed or pressed.

If I were you, the first thing I'd do is take a trip down 35 to the outlet mall that's just north of San Antonio sometime in the next few weekends. Stay away from Men's Warehouse, seriously. If you have to patronize a local store, go to a small place that's owned by an old man who's been in the business for 300 years. There's one here in College Station, may or may not be one by you.

I would also coordinate around brown or cordovan leather as opposed to black; black tends to be hard to match with other blacks and is impossible to wear with blues, whereas brown or cordovan can be worn with anything at all, including other shades of brown. If you've ever seen someone in a rental tuxedo where the jacket doesn't match the pants, you know what I mean.

As for items -- I'd start out with three pairs of very good dress trousers. You're looking for the Super 100's Wool. Expect them to run you a fairly decent price. My choices would be charcoal, tan/khaki, and an olive green. They should not be finished already; as in, they shouldn't have cuffs on the bottom. Check to make sure the pockets and fly *have* been fully finished.

Brooks Brothers is my favorite place for off-the-shelf shirts, but to fit your frame -- well, buy a week's worth of dress shirts for now from Brooks Brothers -- two white, one dark blue, one light blue, one an interesting stripe or funky color of your choice. And then find a hong kong or korean tailor that can make shirts to your measurements and photographs and order a bunch.

As for ties -- I personally am a huge fan of Hermes ties, but I'm exceptionally skinny and the different proportions of their ties match my frame exactly. You should have a much easier time. Ties should have one color that matches the shirt or slacks very closely. (i.e. don't wear a red & blue tie with a cream shirt and olive green pants -- you'll look like a polish flag.) The ideal is to have your tie match both your pants and your shirt.

Make sure you match colors under natural light as well as the flourescent in the store.

If you're getting into sport coats, my dad and I both prefer sport coats with multiple colors in them -- think tweeds. They're easy to find at most outlet stores, because most people can't figure out how to wear them. The secret is the tie; if the tie matches two of the colors in the sports coat, and your shirt, you're golden. The super duper advantage to this is that you can bring one sportcoat, three shirts, three ties, and one or two pairs of pants on a business trip and be good for five days (as long as you avail yourself of hotel dry cleaning) because you can mix and match and create different 'perceptions' of your outfits.
posted by SpecialK at 7:30 AM on July 23, 2006

Bah, I *like* pleated pants. But I'm exceptionally traditional in my style of dress.
posted by SpecialK at 7:31 AM on July 23, 2006

Pleats look bad in 99% of American trousers, because they are made the wrong way. Traditionally made pleats "face in," meaning that the pleat is tucked from the outside of the waist towards the fly, and that if there are double pleats, the outside pleat will be the "deeper" (meaning that it will have more material taken in bite). The result of this should be a pleat that tends to follow the body and leg contour when it "breaks" or opens, and which naturally falls closed under the weight of the leg fabric when standing.

In contrast, a lot of wash pants, chinos and casual slacks sold in this country have popularized the style of pleat that faces away from the fly. Such pleats do look bad, and should be restricted to the casual shorts and cotton pants where they were first commonly used, where the unattractive bunching and tenting of fabric they produce will be the least of the wearer's problems.
posted by paulsc at 7:51 AM on July 23, 2006

"...How can I quickly buy the right wardrobe...?" [emphasis added]

"...I find shopping a chore and have appallingly bad taste. ..."

I wanted to pop back in, and respond to these aspects of tcskeptic's posts separately, because they deserve consideration on their own.

Look, I get where you're coming from, and you're coming from the vast majority of American men's experience. Shopping for men's clothes in this country is not fun; in fact, most of the time, it's almost excruciating.

Too often, we go to stores that are poorly merchandised, where we find worse and worse selections of make, fabric, style and size, and in many of these establishments, we're "served" by people that know absolutely nothing about clothing, or style. There is nobody to ask, nobody's opinion we trust, and so we grab something that might be what we remember our size might have been a couple years ago when we were in here last, and head for the "dressing room." We try it on, it doesn't exactly fit, but it's close, or we go back out and get another size that is closer yet, and eventually, we make our way to the cash register and plunk down money, and head for our cars, unsure if what we bought will be acceptable when we actually wear it, but glad to be out of there.

Not fun. Not something to which a sane guy can look forward as a regular seasonal experience. And worst of all, not a method likely to result in a good look.

We'd all like to find a store where "everybody knows our name." Even better, we'd like that store to be filled with tasteful, well made merchandise, in sizes that would fit us, and be staffed by knowledgeable people we could come to trust, who could take care of any special issues we have without problem, and who could advise us about new fabrics, styles and features, without talking down to us.

Such places do exist, but frankly, they're far more viable as businesses in larger cities. You have to actively seek them out, and you have to be sure that the clientele they serve includes people that you feel look like you'd like to look. No point in shopping in a good store where the clientele is 70% college guys, if you're a middle aged executive. In other words, to stay well dressed, you have to shop for men's shops, as your first task. Once you find a few good ones, keep going there, at least 4 or 5 times a year, even if you don't need clothes that day. Popping in every couple of months will keep you "in mind," and you will be seeing a greater range of merchandise moving through, which will help you develop taste, and consider alternatives. You'll also get a sense of what the promotional calendar is, and how to shop their sales; your clothing budget will go 2 to 3 times as far if your learn to shop seasonal sales appropriately, and you'll get chances to buy $1200 suits, for $400, that you'll be glad to have and to wear, even if you can't, now, imagine yourself ever wanting such a thing.

You might also want to cultivate any friend you have, who seems to be consistently well dressed. Ask his advice; maybe see if he'll come along with you on a major purchase such as a suit or jacket. I've taken other guys clothes shopping a time or two, taken them through a jacket fitting, showed them a few things about make, and in the mirror, how an alteration should be done to solve some anatomical problem they have, and the look of palpable relief on their faces has been worth the time I've taken. Even if your friend isn't particularly knowledgeable as to clothing manufacture, he can still give you some valuable feedback regarding appearance, and might well appreciate having you return the favor. Thinking about what looks good for someone else, is another great way of developing your own taste, and learning to trust your ability to make good clothing decisions. Regular guys have been doing this together for millenia; if you haven't, give it a try.

If your life is now changing to accommodate more business travel, you may also have better opportunities to shop for clothing. In a lot of cities, you can easily work in a walk through a department store as part of your evening routine, and it may even be more pleasant than spending yet another evening watching TV in the hotel room. Take such opportunities, and don't be afraid to buy things on the road, particularly if you are coming back there in the near future, if you do decide to return or exchange.

Shopping for clothes may never be your idea of how best to spend a Saturday afternoon, and you may never see it as rewarding. But it is a task you have to do, and one that will probably consume 5 to 15% of your disposable income. So it's a skill worth cultivating, and an attitude worth changing.
posted by paulsc at 8:55 AM on July 23, 2006

Like most threads on men's clothing, this one contains a lot of accurate advice that will be useful to the OP at some future date when he has a lot more time and money. This guy has nothing, he's in a non-tie culture, and he needs basics that are easy to mix and match, to wit:

brown shoes, brown belt
black shoes, black belt (sounds like you already have this)
shirts (cotton): white (x2), blue (x2), white with blue pinstripe (narrow stripe) (x2), white with blue chalkstripe (wide stripe), white with some other color pinstripe (if you don't have brown hair and brown eyes, then bonus for one that matches your hair and/or eyes). Button-down collars (because you won't be wearing a tie, so you won't be buttoning the top button, so the collar needs help standing up to look good). Get one white shirt with a regular dress-shirt collar to wear with ties.
trousers: charcoal (x2), brown, khaki (x2)
socks: charcoal, olive brown, khaki
jacket: navy blazer
polo shirts: white, navy

With the above ingredients, you can mix and match fairly safely. Just keep the same color belt and shoes together, and wear socks that match the trousers. If you have money to spare, put it into more expensive brown shoes or a nicer blue blazer, or buy more shirts. Don't wear the brown shoes with the charcoal pants, or the black shoes with the brown or khaki pants. For simplicity, don't wear the blazer with the brown pants. Once you're in the groove, pick up a blazer with some brown in it that you feel you can wear often, and then you can wear that with your brown pants and khakis. If you get pleats, get your pants cuffed. If you don't get pleats, don't get your pants cuffed. Since you are 6'4 and have a large frame, in my opinion you should get the pleats and the cuffs, but as you can see, there is a lot of controversy around pleats.

When you get duplicates, get something a little different, e.g. make the second pair of charcoal pants a little lighter or darker than the first pair, and get white shirts that are from different stores, or a slightly different shade of white. Also, for the non-polo shirts, get shirts that are sized by collar and sleeve if possible.
posted by bingo at 9:04 AM on July 23, 2006

I'd consider buying one good suit, actually (in navy). You don't have to wear the 2 pieces together, and you never know when you'll need one. Also, make sure that the jacket length is appropriate for your frame (without knowing your exact build, it's hard to advise.)
posted by snickerdoodle at 9:05 AM on July 23, 2006

I hate to deviate, but were I you, I would avoid Men's Wearhouse like the plague; paulsc rightly calls their clothing "survival wear." Their clothes are cheap, and after a few washings, it shows.

Shirts: You're buying 10 of them, and they are the most important part of your wardrobe. See if a local tailor does made-to-measure. If not, get to your nearest Brooks Brothers (call first) and see what 10 made-to-measure shirts will cost you. My guess is $500-$750. Choose white and blue, and make sure the color of the collar matches that of the shirt.

Pants: If you can handle being boring, you should go with navy, mostly. The stuff about pleats upthread is nonsense. It is true that right now, flat fronts are in style. However, if you walk into Barney's or Louis Boston, you'll find that the vast majority of their new suits have pleated pants. Even the Brionis. Just as Nordstrom is the ideal place for the tall man to buy slacks, Nordstrom Rack is the ideal place for the tall man to buy slacks on a budget; there are two in the DFW area.

Blazer: I'd suggest or You won't be buying the most fashionable item, but chances are good that you can find something well-made in your size.
posted by Kwantsar at 9:31 AM on July 23, 2006

I second the advice on looking around and deciding who you want to dress like and asking them where they shop. When I have done this the people are helpful and they like the exchange very much.
posted by bukvich at 9:34 AM on July 23, 2006

And, from a more 30,000ft level, if you're not an anti-ESR guy, you might look up his "Prince from another country" theory of dressing up/down.
posted by baylink at 10:07 AM on July 23, 2006

Nordstrom may not seem cheap, but they do alterations FREE. And frankly it sounds like your measurements might not be an off-the-rack kind of fit.

And if you do the outlet mall thing 1) know what things cost retail before you go, as "outlet" does not always mean "cheap" 2) there used to be one in Hillsboro, which is only what, a half hour up the road? (and if they don't have what you want you are that much closer to Hulen Mall in Fort Worth?)
posted by ilsa at 10:59 AM on July 23, 2006

If you stick with gray and navy for travel, you won't need brown shoes and belt. Socks should match the trousers.

* Do professionally dressed men wear black pants?
* Khakis - black or brown belt & shoes?
posted by theora55 at 12:18 PM on July 23, 2006

If you go to Nordstrom's, in addition to their usual (on commission) service, they usually have a separate in-store personal shoper service. You sit in a room and they bring you coffee and cookies, the personal shopper buzzes around the store picking items s/he thinks will suit your needs and brings them back for you to try on. They help you decide what fits well, they help you work with their tailors, etc. Their stuff is more expensive but generally good. I believe there is a fee for the personal shopper, but it's not large. If you can afford it, Nordstrom's personal shopper is the way to go if you want (a) to make just one trip, (b) to have advice as you're trying things on, and (c) not to have to run around the whole store.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:01 PM on July 23, 2006 is great business-casual stuff for bigger guys. And when you visit a product page, they show you matching items to complete an outfit. Picking stuff out is pretty bullet-proof.
posted by frogan at 8:49 PM on July 23, 2006

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