How To Build A Men’s Wardrobe: A Full Guide To Functionality, Versatility, & Style

How To Build A Men’s Wardrobe: A Full Guide To Functionality, Versatility, & Style2018-05-23T19:19:14+00:00

As men, we are constantly told that our image is important and that first impressions are immediate and irrevocable.

It’s hugely important that we stock our wardrobes with clothing that fits us well, both literally and metaphorically.

We covered the suits every man needs in our capsule wardrobe article, but there’s more to life than just suits. How are you supposed to handle sweaters, hats, or jeans?

With this in mind, we created this guide to help you determine which types of garments you should invest in, and in what quantities.

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This guide is organized into three main sections, and you can click any of the following links to jump straight to them:

We’ve listed and described the main components of the typical wardrobe so you have a baseline of decent knowledge from which to shop.

This information is further organized according to the five personae that we have identified that most men fall into. Bear in mind that most men fall into more than one category based on work versus non-work scenarios.

Click any of the following links to jump straight to the section of this page where that persona is addressed.

  • Classic: Modern guy who wants to fit in. You have attention to detail and would rather be seen in well-tailored clothes than in anything else.
  • Athletic: You have an overall casual vibe and probably lead an active lifestyle. Golf, hiking, basketball, or any other physical endeavor tends to appeal to you. You’re a casual dresser generally, but that doesn’t mean you don’t like to look good.
  • Rugged: You’re a guy who’s into workwear and all the related accoutrements thereof: beards, flannel, that sort of thing. Your wardrobe is probably going to be based around denim, work boots, and buffalo plaid shirts.
  • Vintage: You have an affinity for anything from a bygone era. Your wardrobe will be chock full of decades-old classics, and likely some no-longer sold types of items such as plus-fours.
  • Eccentric: Eccentric men love to rock the boat. Bold colors, unorthodox styles, and attention-getting looks are your thing.
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The 10 Essential Components Of A Man’s Wardrobe

No matter what your persona is, there are certain “must-haves” in every man should have in his closet. The key is to select the right colors and cuts for your coloring and body type.

A well-stocked wardrobe should be comprised of the following:

  1. Suits
  2. Sports Coats & Outerwear
  3. Shirts
  4. Sweaters
  5. Vests/Waistcoats
  6. Jeans
  7. Casual Trousers/Chinos
  8. Shorts
  9. Shoes
  10. Accessories & Underwear

Simply scroll down to read them all or click on the links above to jump to the one you want to discover.

1. Suits

How-To-Build-A-Wardrobe-Suits

Suits are so crucial to a man’s wardrobe that we gave them their own page: the capsule wardrobe. If you need more information on that, click the preceding link.

2. Sport Coats & Outerwear

How-To-Build-A-Wardrobe-Sport-Coats

We consider a sport coat to be any “odd” jacket; that is, any suit-style jacket that does not have a perfectly matched pair of trousers. The sport coat is a lynch pin of a casual wardrobe. Even men who dress down often will instantly have their presentation elevated with the addition of a well-tailored sport coat.

We are indeed including the navy blazer in the sport coat category. Though sport coats and blazers are technically different, they are similar enough to be categorized together.

3. Shirts

How-To-Build-A-Wardrobe-Shirts

Shirts are obviously important to a man’s wardrobe, and they can be sub-categorized as follows:

  • Dress Shirts: Basic white and blue are covered by the capsule wardrobe, but there’s a whole world of color and pattern to be explored for men with less staid sartorial needs.
  • Casual Shirts: We don’t use the term “button-down” here because that refers to a type of collar, not a type of shirt. For our purposes, a casual shirt buttons similarly to and has a collar like a dress shirt, but it’s less structured and meant to be worn without a tie. This may also refer to pullover styles that don’t have a full row of front buttons, Western shirts, and the like.
  • Polo/Golf Shirts: Soft, pullover cotton shirts with unstructured collars in short or long sleeve versions. The term “golf shirt” is sometimes used to describe these. It’s not uncommon for some polo shirts to feature fashion or designer logos on the chest.
  • T-Shirts: Short- or long-sleeve cotton shirts that serve as layering pieces or à-la-carte tops in warm weather. We treat undershirts as underwear.

4. Sweaters

How-To-Build-A-Wardrobe-Plain-Sweaters

Sweaters (or “jumpers” for our British readers) are incredibly versatile for any man in nearly any temperature. The two most common materials are:

  • Wool: Lambswool is thick and casual, merino and cashmere are thinner, have a more lustrous hand, and are dressier than lambswool. Wool of any kind is also naturally water resistant, so you don’t have to worry too much if you get caught in the rain.
  • Cotton: Cotton sweaters are great for transitional seasons: spring and autumn. They offer just enough warmth to keep you comfortable during these times. Unlike wool, cotton is not at all water resistant and will soak through if you let it happen.

Sweaters are also available in a wide array of styles, some neckline-driven, some not:

  • V-neck: V-neck sweaters form a “V” below a man’s neck. This has the effect of making you look more muscular and sharper. If you’re dressing up instead of down especially, v-necks are a great option. The V-shape is particularly accommodating of a tie if you plan to wear one.
  • Crew neck: Crew necks have a circular neckline. They have a softer presentation than a v-neck and a more casual feel.
  • Turtleneck: Essentially a sweater with a built-in scarf, turtlenecks have an extended collar that folds over itself and covers the wearer’s neck. “Mock turtlenecks” are similar, except the collar isn’t long enough to fold and it simply stands up straight when worn.

The turtleneck sweater goes in and out of fashion and is, as of this writing, getting zero love unless you’re Sterling Archer. Steve Jobs didn’t do the turtleneck any favors when he paired it with dad jeans and athletic sneakers, but they can still look quite natty when paired with a sport coat and smart trousers.

  • Cardigan: Cardigan sweaters have a button or zip front and are incredibly versatile. In casual lambswool or cotton they’re great with denim, and in merino or cashmere they’re perfect for a business casual office.

Worn by your grandfather and largely ignored by your dad, the cardigan is a classic piece that’s been enjoying a resurgence for about 15 years. It doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

  • Polo: Polo sweaters are simply long sleeve polo shirts that are made from some kind of wool. Not often seen, they’re quite smart and a good solution for cold days in a casual office.
  • Cable Knit: Cable knit sweaters make us think of ski lodges and fireplaces. The term “cable knit” refers to a style of knitting in which textures of crossing layers are achieved by permuting stitches. Aran sweaters (also known as fisherman’s sweaters) are a textbook example of this knit.
  • Fair Isle: Fair Isle refers to a traditional knitting technique born on Fair Isle, a small island in the north of Scotland that makes up part of the Shetland Islands. In a nutshell, the technique creates ornate, multi-colored patterns.

How-To-Build-A-Wardrobe-Fancy-Sweaters

Fair Isle sweaters have a holiday vibe and were much maligned for years until they made a comeback in the early 2010’s. More on the casual side of things than anything else, these sweaters pair well with denim and casual trousers, but not so much slacks.

  • Ugly Holiday: If you’re having any fun in life, you’ve likely been invited to an ugly holiday sweater party. We’re not saying spend a ton of money on a hideous green and red sweater with light-up reindeer, but you should own something similar to that for emergencies.
  • Sweater Vest: A sleeveless sweater. May or may not have a cardigan front and is almost always a v-neck when it doesn’t take buttons. These have a bit of a schoolboy vibe but can be quite comfortable under a sport coat.

5. Vests / Waistcoats

Vests outside of the suit paradigm aren’t easy to pull off. They don’t tend to enjoy widespread popularity, but they can add a sense of smartness to an ensemble that’s otherwise not notable.

How-To-Build-A-Wardrobe-Vests

Wearing a waistcoat with trousers and a coat that match is quite dressy; a way to bring the formality down a notch is to wear one as an “odd” waistcoat. This means that it coordinates with but doesn’t match the trousers and / or the coat.

We divide waistcoats into two sub-categories:

  • Dress: A dress vest is any vest that belongs to a suit, typically made from worsted wool. Can be turned into an odd vest when paired strategically with trousers or a coat.
  • Casual: Casual vests are generally sold à la carte without any matching garments. These tend to pair quite well with denim or chinos.

6. Jeans

How-To-Build-A-Wardrobe-Jeans

Every casual wardrobe needs at least a pair or two of denim. While there’s much to talk about with regard to denim fits and styles, for our purposes we can break denim into two sub-categories: light and dark.

Light denim is great for weekend wear or if you work in a very casual office. It’s unfussy and very casual.

Dark denim, when free of holes and whiskering, is sometimes referred to as “dress” denim. While the merit of that term is debatable, the fact remains that this type of denim pairs as well with casual sport coats and button-up shirts as it does sneakers and a t-shirt.

7. Casual Trousers/Chinos

How-To-Build-A-Wardrobe-Trousers

Not all pants are jeans or suit trousers. The well-stocked man’s wardrobe will have a few pairs of these two trouser sub-categories:

  • Casual trousers (chinos): These are basic cotton pants that are casual but not as dressed-down as jeans. They’re available in a huge array of colors every season from countless retailers in a wide range of price points.
  • Slacks: These are typically lightweight wool trousers that are not meant to have a matching jacket. Typical of the business casual dress code, slacks are meant to be worn with dress shirts and dress shoes.

8. Shorts

How-To-Build-A-Wardrobe-Shorts

If you live in a place where it ever gets warm, you’ll want some shorts. They key to successfully wearing shorts is to make sure they end above your knee. Shorter men should wear shorter shorts and taller men longer ones, but the rule still applies. Some common styles are:

  • Khaki: These are your everyday, throw-them-on-and-walk-out-the-door shorts. They can be solid or have critters on them, but they dress up or down just as easily as chinos do.
  • Bermuda: Bermuda shorts still hit above the knee but tend to have a bit of a dressier look to them. Cuffed or uncuffed, the name comes from their popularity in Bermuda, a British territory not terribly far from North Carolina. On the island, they’re considered appropriate business attire when made of worsted wool and paired with a blazer, shirt, tie, and knee-length socks.
  • Cargo: Cargo shorts have cargo pockets on each leg. Recently, there’s been much hulabaloo regarding whether or not adult men should even wear these shorts. We agree with this advice for everyday wear, but if you’re out hiking or something of that nature, they can be useful.
  • Athletic: Mesh shorts for working out or sleeping. These are to be worn at the gym and / or to bed. Or when you’re sick. Just not out and about.

9. Shoes

How-To-Build-A-Wardrobe-Shoes

We have an entire guide to shoe styles for you to peruse if you need some baseline information on various shoe styles. For wardrobe building, the best styles for men are:

10. Accessories & Underwear

How-To-Build-A-Wardrobe-Accessories

No matter what your personal style is, you’re going to need accessories and personal items. A well-stocked wardrobe will have:

  • Belts & Braces: Your trousers need to be held up somehow. At a minimum, every man needs one black belt and one brown belt, both in leather. After that, you can just have fun. Read our guide to belts to learn more.
  • Ties: Basic ties are covered in the capsule wardrobe, but you can branch out much further depending on how often you like/need to wear them.
  • Handkerchiefs: White hankies are the perfect starting point. When expanding, select ones that coordinate well with your ties. Learn more about pocket square and handkerchiefs with our detailed guide!
  • Socks: Basic socks that match grey or navy trousers are covered in the capsule wardrobe linked above. Socks are one place where you can show a lot of personality, especially if you wear a lot of denim or otherwise casual garb. They’re also relatively inexpensive, so use socks to add color and pattern when you can.
  • Underwear: We don’t care if you’re a boxers guy, a briefs guy, or a boxer-briefs guy. We’re unconcerned with whether or not you prefer crew neck undershirts or v-neck ones. What we are concerned with is the rate with which you replace and rotate these items. Given that they should be worn only once and then washed, lifespans on underwear are much shorter than we’d like to admit.

Pit stains on the t-shirts? Throw them out. Holes in your underwear? Come on, man! Lose ’em.

  • Cufflinks: If you wear French cuff shirts with any regularity, you’ll want a stable of cufflinks. Precious metals and stainless steel are natural options, but colorful silk knots provide another way to have a bit of fun and further coordinate your wardrobe from a color perspective.
  • Watch: You should own at least one high-quality watch. If you don’t know what that is, we have enough watch content to keep you busy for quite some time!
  • Jewelry: At its most basic, a men’s jewelry collection includes a watch and a wedding band. Signet rings, class rings, and bracelets are all fair game. If you’re into body jewelry, earrings and other piercings, there’s no reason to not keep a solid collection on hand.
  • Eyewear: Every man needs at least one pair of sunglasses to protect his eyes from harmful UV rays, and many of us wear prescription glasses regardless. We have plenty of information in our guide to glasses on how to best select the ones for your face shape, personality, and more.

How To Budget For Your Wardrobe

One issue that many men run into is knowing how a clothing budget fits into your overall budget. Generally, it’s advised that you set aside 5% of your net pay for clothing. If you make $40,000 per year, that’s about $770 per week. After taxes, that’s about $515, meaning that you can set aside approximately $26 each week for clothes.

This number can change based on a myriad of factors, namely the priority you assign to your wardrobe relative to other things in your life. Where you are in your professional or academic career plays a role, and your other expenses – house, car, kid, gadgets – will affect that as well.

As far as the actual garments you should buy, we believe in what we call the High-Low Concept. What does this refer to?

Though you can get inexpensive or expensive versions of either, items such as suits should be a higher quality than, say, t-shirts. Suits are on the high end of the budget, whereas t-shirts are on the low end. With that in mind, you should focus on buying higher quality (generally more expensive) suits and trim your budget around things like t-shirts.

This concept should apply to whatever you wear most frequently. If you’re in jeans five days a week, buy good-quality jeans. If you love button-downs and wear them every day of the week, buy really good ones.

As a rule, always, always, always look for sales, promotions, and discounts. Shopping for second-hand clothes and getting yourself on various retailers’ email lists will best position you to save as much money as you can.

Clothing As An Investment

We’ll be the first to admit that we’ve built some of our wardrobes on impulse buys; no one needs purple suede penny loafers or every color of Stan Smith ever made, but that’s neither here nor there.

It’s wise to consider your wardrobe as an investment in yourself as opposed to a series of random purchases. While the 5% “rule” mentioned above is a great starting point, it’s generally wise to buy the best quality you can afford regardless of the garment.

High-quality clothes last longer, wash better, and feel better than their cheaper counterparts, and you will end up saving money in the long run if you buy with the mantra “quality first.”

Building Your Wardrobe Based On Your Persona

As we mentioned above, not every man will have the same requirements of his wardrobe. We all have different jobs, extra-curricular activities, and personalities that have different sartorial demands.

Below, we outline what we feel would be a well-stocked wardrobe for most men’s personae.

Classic Wardrobe

The Classic guy’s wardrobe has tailored, timeless clothing as its cornerstone.

cordovan wolverine boots with sport coat

  • 7-10 suits: At least four should be dark, the rest can be a mix of medium tones and / or seasonal fabrics
  • 2-3 sport coats, one of which is solid navy
  • 30+ ties: To be clear, we’re talking about neckties. If you’re into bow ties though, by all means keep them in your rotation. For more information on ties, see our neckwear home page.
  • 4 scarves: A black one for black/grey outfits, blue/grey/brown for Earth-toned ones.
  • 15-20 dress shirts: Classic guys wear dress shirts day in day out, so the best way to increase the lifespan of each shirt is to have a lot more than you might think is necessary. You can keep a couple at the office as well in case you’re a messy eater.
  • White and blue are part of your capsule wardrobe, so make sure you have some stripes and checks in there, in addition to a pink shirt or two.
  • 4-5 casual shirts: Even guys who wear suits five days a week have nights and weekends to dress for. Mix casual button-up shirts with polos depending on the temperature.
  • 7-10 sweaters: Merino and cashmere are your best options, and have a couple of cotton ones in there for warmer months. Have your basic colors covered (black, blue, and grey) and select the rest based on your coloring and personal taste.
  • 2 pairs of jeans: One light, one dark.
  • 2 pairs of chinos: One classic khaki color, one navy blue
  • 7-10 pairs of shoes: 5-7 dress shoes, 3-5 casual shoes

Athletic Wardrobe

Athletic gents value comfort just as much as they do looking good. These wardrobes are less focused on tailored items and more focused on casual, easy-to-wear pieces.

  • 2 suits: At least one should be dark.
  • 1 sport coat in navy blue.
  • 10 ties: Solids and classic stripes are all an Athletic guy will need.
  • 1 scarf: A grey scarf will go with anything you need it to.
  • 5-7 dress shirts: Even if you don’t “dress up” often, you’ll still benefit from having a few of these around. Stick to white and blue for maximum versatility.
  • 10-15 casual shirts: Button-ups, polos, and t-shirts are going to be workhorses of your wardrobe. Keep a wide range of colors and patterns that are sympathetic to your coloring and body type.
  • 7-10 sweaters: Stick to chunky knits and lambswool while minimizing the merino and cashmere. The former are more casual and thus more likely to offer you value, whereas the latter are dressier and run the risk of sitting in your closet more than they get worn.
  • 7-10 pairs of jeans: Because we do not advise wearing actual athletic wear while out and about, we think athletic men should stick to jeans for everyday purposes. They don’t necessarily have to be skinny or even slim, but they should be in good repair and fit properly. Make sure you have a range of washes to accommodate the casual tops that will be worn with them.
  • 3 pairs of casual trousers: It never hurts to have a few pairs of khakis laying around for when you want to give your jeans a rest. This is particularly true for those of us who live in warmer climates and want to avoid the thickness of denim day in and day out.
  • 7-10 pairs of shoes: We suggest 3-5 pairs of sporty sneakers, 2 pairs of dress shoes (black and brown), and three pairs or other casual shoes, like boat shoes or driving loafers.

Rugged Wardrobe

Rugged men to to have a casual, workwear-driven vibe about them. Obviously, his wardrobe should reflect this aesthetic.

  • 1 suit: All you need is one well-fitted navy suit for the couple of times a year that you’ll wear one. Buy decent quality and keep your weight under control and you’ll be set for years.
  • 1 sport coat: Keep a dark flannel around, as this will go well with denim (more on that below).
  • 5 ties: You don’t wear ties often, but you should have a couple laying around in case you need one.
  • 3-4 scarves: Keep a couple of different colored scarves on hand for when the chill hits.
  • 3-4 dress shirts: It’s unlikely that a Rugged man will dress up very often, but you want to be prepared for when the need arises. A couple of whites and blues will suffice.
  • 15-20 casual shirts: Think flannels, buffalo plaids, and Western shirts if that’s your thing. These are going to be wardrobe lynch pins, so make sure you get decent quality merchandise.
  • 5-7 sweaters: Most of these should be thick, chunky wool to complement the casual shirts in your wardrobe. Shawl-collar cardigans tend to play nice in a Rugged man’s wardrobe, so we advise starting there.
  • 7-10 pairs of jeans: The ultimate workwear item, the Rugged wardrobe is foundationless without denim. Keep a wide variety of washes on hand, and don’t be afraid to cuff them to show off a bit of selvedge detail. If you’re feeling a vintage vibe, some denim overalls may serve you well.
  • 2 pairs of casual trousers: It never hurts to have a pair or two of khakis for some wardrobe versatility. You gotta wear something to meet the significant other’s parents, right?
  • 10 pairs of shoes: Doc Marten and Wolverine-style boots work very well in the Rugged paradigm. Shoes with chunky lug soles and larger proportions make sense in the Rugged wardrobe. Be sure to keep on pair of dress shoes on hand for those times you need to wear a suit in a pinch.

Vintage Wardrobe

Man In Plus Fours Tweed Suit & Allen Edmonds Strandmok BroguesThe Vintage wardrobe will be stocked with items from decades past. As such, it makes sense that a lot of your shopping will be done at thrift stores, consignment shops, and online venues such as eBay or Etsy.

  • 5-7 suits: Keep a simple navy suit on hand for when you need to dress in a more modern way: job interviews, funerals, etc. The rest can theoretically be any vintage suit that you like, and may vintage pieces’ status as such will go unnoticed by most people.
  • 7-10 sport coats: Vintage wardrobes thrive on sport coats; they’re easier to find in vintage shops than suits are, and they pair very easily with modern trousers.
  • 15-20 dress shirts: Go for old-world-style collars -club, pinned, or tab- for a vintage look. Keep a few modern dress shirts on hand for when you need to dress like it’s the 21st century.
  • 7-10 casual shirts: Vintage shops are filled with casual shirts. If you’re a novelty t-shirt guy, consignment stores are like shooting fish in a barrel.
  • 10-15 sweaters: That’s great that you’re into vintage sweaters. Knitwear tends to have a shorter lifespan than wovens, so look for as much deadstock merchandise as you can for vintage sweater collections. Dead stock simply means “brand new but no longer in production.”
  • 2-3 pairs of jeans: Denim wears well over time, and vintage styles aren’t terribly difficult to come by.
  • 5-7 pairs of casual trousers: In our experience, guys who dress with more of a vintage vibe tend to gravitate away form jeans towards cotton or wool trousers for more casual wear. Get a few pairs in different styles you like, making sure that your basic colors like navy and grey are covered.
  • 7-10 pairs of shoes: You’ll probably run across a few pairs of pre-owned dress shoes while hunting for vintage clothes, so you’ll be set on that front. Our suggestion is to make sure you have a good shoe repair person on speed dial. There’s no better feeling than spending $10 on old shoes, restoring them to near-new status for about $75, and having people think you spent $300 on them.

Eccentric Wardrobe

paul anthony in allen edmonds boots

Eccentric guys will not be bound by most common clothing guidelines. With regard to wardrobe building, this means being extremely creative to let your personality shine through. These men would do well to visit custom clothiers to have clothes made in specialty fabrics and colors.

  • 3-4 suits: Keep a solid navy on hand for when you need to dress like the rest of us, but experiment with less orthodox colors for the rest: bright blue, brown, and others.
  • 7-10 sport coats: Odd jackets will allow more creative license for the Eccentric dresser. Think bold patterns and colors while keeping one or two solid jackets to ground the collection.
  • 30+ ties: Don’t just limit yourself to neckties, either. Neckerchiefs, indoor scarves, and bow ties are all great ideas for the Eccentric man.
  • 15-20 dress shirts: You’ll want a few whites and blues, but don’t omit pinks, yellows, greens, and other off-beat colors. Look for uncommon details in terms of collars and cuffs too.
  • 4-5 casual shirts:
  • 7-10 sweaters: Keep a wide array of necklines and designs to accommodate your mood and whatever image you wish to project.
  • 3-5 pairs of jeans: Even the most eccentric man need some denim in his life. Keep a few pairs around in various washes and designs.
  • 5-7 pairs of casual trousers: There’s nothing that says “eccentric” like odd trousers. We’re using the term “odd” here in the classic menswear sense: bold plaids, stripes, and other such attention-getting patterns and colors.
  • 20+ pairs of shoes: Shoes are not just black and brown lace-ups. Eccentric men can really amp up their eccentricity with strategic, bold shoe selection. Look for non-standard colors and designs: green leathers, side-lace oxfords, and other types of footwear.

Parting Thoughts

Building a fully functional wardrobe is a great exercise. It takes patience, time, and money.

Speaking of money: even if you have plenty of it to spend, it’s not advisable to go filling your wardrobe up all at once, even if you follow our guide to the letter. Why?

You might like the look of something on a hanger, but your perception may change once you put it on. Conversely, you may hate a shirt that was gifted to you at first, but after a few wears it may grow on you and become one of your favorites.

You need to give yourself an opportunity to live in the clothes you buy, and the best way to do that is through slow, careful acquisition. your tastes will inevitably change over time, not to mention fluctuations in weight and size.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. The only way to win is to use your energy strategically.

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