MANual of Style

Lesson Four: Shopping From Your Closet by Shreyas
17 December, 2009, 4:26 am
Filed under: Basic Concepts | Tags: , ,

Doing a serious style reboot will involve obtaining some amount of new clothes, but you don’t necessarily have to throw out your entire wardrobe. Everyone has some good items in their closet, and I’m going to show you how to find yours. Don’t worry if you don’t see us talking about your favorite items of clothing: this is only an exercise which allows you to identify what to throw away and what is a basic, timeless, go-to piece. If you don’t own the things we talk about, at some point you’re going to have to buy them; but the first and best way to dress better is to recognize and appreciate what you already have.

First Things First

What you’re looking for first are basics—good, simple items of clothing that you can wear in multiple different ways and situations. That means solid, unadorned things that fit well and are in good repair. So, take your clothes and put them where you can see all of them. We’re going to start looking for buried treasure. We’ll look at your accessories a little later.

Quickly glance over the pile of clothes spread in front of you and see what the dominant colors are. The bulk of your shirts are probably from one color family where you feel the most comfortable—black, grey, etc. Since pants don’t really come in very many colors, the same thing is probably true about your pants. Just take note of that for now. If you have any discolored shirts (really faded formerly-blacks are a big issue), that counts as irreparable damage and/or permanent staining.

First of all, separate items that stink. Wash those and reevaluate. If washing doesn’t take the smell out, scrap them.

Now look at every single item and sort out anything which looks extremely well-worn (in a bad way) with irreparable damage or permanent stains. These will be your “scrub” clothes. Only wear them when nobody will see you, or just get rid of them. Don’t give them to charity or anything like that—you should only donate clothes that are in good condition.

Now start looking for these things:

  • some jeans
  • some slacks
  • some socks
  • plain t-shirts in a couple of colors*
  • one or more white, long-sleeved, collared shirts
  • one or two solid-colored**, collared shirts
  • solid-colored sweater, preferably dark blue or a neutral
  • either a suit jacket that matches your pants or a simple blazer
  • an overcoat

All of them should fit properly. (If you’re not sure what that entails, that’s fine for now. We’ll talk about fitting next week.) If you’re missing anything, start a shopping list. (This is not a “go out and buy right away” list, this is a “when I have the money, I am going to invest in myself” list.) Put the missing items on it, and add one more white collared shirt. You can never have too many white collared shirts.

Once you find these basics, you’ve identified a minimal wardrobe that you can dress up or down, and you should be pretty comfortable in it.

*: This means “a solid color with no graphics or text.” Heather is okay. Ringers and baseball shirts are okay. Tie-dye isn’t.

**: This means “looks close to a solid color from the other side of the room.” Shirting fabric is often subtly textured, striped, or checked; if these patterns or textures are small enough they can act like solids. However, we’re talking about herringbone or pinstripe here, not Hawaiian shirts.

But I Like My Graphic Shirts!

So do I! Graphic shirts are good; they’re just not basics. Graphics and text degrade faster than fabric, so they look new for a shorter time, and trends in graphics move faster than trends in fit and color, so they date themselves more quickly. It’s a good idea to think of graphic shirts as seasonal items, because they’re so transient.

Pick out your three favorite graphical items. We’re going to take a look at them. Do they have anything in common? (Are they all black, for instance, or do they all have sports logos or chemistry jokes?) If so, great. Keep these qualities in mind when you’re purchasing new items. Think about what they say about you—even if you aren’t the kind of person that reads messages into clothing, many people you will encounter in daily life are, and being conscious of this will benefit you in the long run. If the shirts you love aren’t particularly attractive, but you like the message they communicate, then you can always find better-quality items that say the same thing. This isn’t about appearing to be someone you’re not: it’s about finding clothing that expresses who you are in the most attractive way possible.

I really urge you to think hard about what your favorite clothes imply, because that’s where you’re going to find your personal style. Personally, I wear a lot of fishes and birds and flowers on brightly-colored grounds because I find it interesting when those traditionally feminine icons are used in masculine ways, and I look good in strong colors because of my skin tone. (Also I’m a brown guy, and as a result I have pretty strong cultural coding that makes me think “fun clothes = bright clothes.”) Thinking critically about why you gravitate to certain themes and motifs is an excellent exercise; I know that it took me a while to figure out why my closet was full of flowers and fishes, and knowing the reasons I enjoy those things helped me find even more clothing and accessories that I enjoy. Likewise, there are a lot of dudes out there who would not be thrilled to wear feminine icons, and that’s fine. You don’t have to dress like me, and unless you’re a brown guy who enjoys challenging gender stereotypes, chances are good you wouldn’t be comfortable in my clothes anyway.

Now would be a good time to start a style journal. Get a small notebook that you enjoy the look of; I’m going to ask you to make notes in it from time to time, and it’d be great if you also felt like sharing your thoughts in the comments. Having a set of notes which speaks critically to why you like the clothing you have will help you identify purchasing and wearability patterns, and give you a profile of what you look best in and what you feel the most comfortable in. Start with the good qualities of your three favorite items of clothing— things you would save from a burning building, or feel really good in.

If your shirt says/implies/depicts something you wouldn’t be comfortable walking up to a stranger and reciting, you probably shouldn’t wear it. If you are comfortable saying things like this to strangers, well, this isn’t charm school, but I can assure you that said strangers aren’t comfortable hearing it.

Accessories In Your Closet

For accessories, your basics are:

  • a brown or black leather belt
  • a watch with metal or leather band (doesn’t have to be the same leather as your belt)
  • shoes the same color as your belt (they don’t have to match perfectly or be the same texture)
  • good, clean sneakers (they don’t have to be new, just well taken care of)
  • a tie that you really love

Once you have that stuff, you’re set. You can just grab a random assortment of basics and have an okay, if unremarkable, outfit.


10 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Great post! I love that you’re giving me actionable advice. I’m already seeing stuff in my closet that I didn’t see before. I’m packing for vacation tonight, so I’l go through your checklist and see if I can come up with some meaningful notes.

Comment by tony dowler

Two of my three favourite items are ties.
I rarely wear ties.

I think that’s because I work in a very informal environment, and don’t have a lot of casual shirts that could be matched with ties without seeming (a) too formal, or (b) mismatched.


Comment by buriedwithoutceremony

I usually wear a military-style mesh belt (sort of like this) because I don’t buy leather. What do you consider to be the best substitute for a leather belt for vegetarians/vegans who don’t use leather?

Comment by Lukas

My initial reaction is to ask you, is there a way for you to wear leather and feel that you’re doing an ethically acceptable thing? Because if so, that’s what you should do. However, the only reason I specify leather for these items is because in certain formal situations, leather accessories are the accepted default. But it’s much less important to follow my suggestions than it is to be happy with what you’re wearing.

So, if you don’t wear leather under any circumstances, then I think it’s perfectly cool to wear the military-style belt as long as your shoes go with it in some way. I’m guessing that black, in both cases, would be the safest way to go, but you could have one patterned item and one item in a color from the pattern, in a less formal environment.

Comment by shreyas

Lukas! There are all sorts of vegan leather clothes stores out there that you can order from. Also you can find cheap, faux-leather belts in all kinds of regular department stores. Look for tags that say “man-made materials.”

Comment by Bret

This is good stuff. Thanks. It’s actually the first post that’s directly useful to me.

How exactly does a suit jacket need to match trousers?


Comment by Graham

If you’ve got a suit jacket, I presume you have the pants that go with it.

Comment by shreyas

I don’t! The trousers wore out. It’s a nice jacket, so I’m wondering whether I can wear it with other things.

It’s black, with a black pinstripe, and it’s a bit shiny. It doesn’t match stuff, but it’s distinctive.


Comment by Graham

I see! I misunderstood you earlier.

To put it briefly, you can treat it like a blazer. Modern jackets aren’t as sharply differentiated as they were in the past. Personally I tend to dress down odd jackets with jeans, because I find it disconcerting to wear two different formal fabrics at once, but that’s a matter of personal taste. I’ll probably get into using suits as separates a couple of weeks down the line.

Comment by shreyas

If they aren’t tailored to match, they don’t. That doesn’t mean the jacket should be tossed though, what it does mean is that you need to mentally shift it from the “suit jacket” catagory to the “sport coat/semi-casual” catagory. Not all suit jackets can make that transition; they’re too formal looking, but most can.


Comment by James Brown (Blankshield)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: