Though styles shift now and then as the times change, the characteristics of a well-dressed man generally remain classic. Of course, not every man has the essential pieces in his closet.
From a well-cut suit to the perfect polo, your wardrobe might be in dire need of a few pieces that can make it truly timeless. By investing in those essential items, you can ensure that you’re well-dressed and outfitted for just about any occasion.
Not sure where to start? Even if you’re not big on shopping, these 10 pieces represent the perfect building blocks for a polished, masculine wardrobe. Invest in well-made starter items and you can easily add new colors, patterns, and styles into the mix as trends and seasons dictate.
Classic Articles of Clothing for All Men
1. Tailored Suit in Black or Gray
All guys need at least one suit that is perfectly tailored to their bodies. Modern suits are slimmer cuts than those that were popular in the ’80s or ’90s, so a sloppy suit could imply that you’re woefully behind the times.
Why stick with black and gray? They’re the two best colors to get the most mileage out of your suit. From work to weddings, and from funerals to a formal date, a classic, tailored black or gray suit can be worn in a number of ways. You can also get more mileage by breaking out the suit components and wearing them separately, like the pants with a colored button-up for business casual.
What to Spend
Suits can be expensive, but you can grab a well-made one for $200 to $300 from a store like Men’s Wearhouse, plus an added fee for tailoring (usually about $50 per suit). If that’s still a little steep for you, check department stores during sales: Macy’s often has name-brand suits by Kenneth Cole and Calvin Klein for less than $200 on sale, while stores like Burlington Coat Factory offer suits in the $100 to $150 range.
2. White Button-Down Shirt
Sometimes called an oxford, sometimes called a button-up (the term button-down is reserved for when buttons fasten down the collar). Whatever you call it, you should have one in white for everything from professional wear to church. Look for a crisp, blue-toned white shirt (not yellow-toned) for the most mileage, since it can work with almost all other colors, including gray and navy.
A white button-up should be tailored as well, otherwise it could look unkempt and over-sized. Look for one that fits snugly at the neck, but not tightly, and allows you to move your arms, shoulders, and elbows without restriction. Once you’ve nailed the white button-down, you can start gathering some in other colors, like blue.
What to Spend
Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $100 on a good-quality dress shirt. If you have the shirt tailored, you should budget another $25 for the service. Colored shirts that only last a season or two might be cheaper.
If you’re not sure if you’re going to wear a colored version very often, buy one on the cheap. Department stores like JCPenney are your best bet.
3. Dark Denim Jeans
While skinny jeans might be trendy right now, you can look stylish through the years to come in a pair of straight-cut, dark denim. Dress them up with a sports coat, or wear them on a Saturday with a polo or your favorite graphic tee. If you’re timid about clothing, they’re the ultimate no-brainer.
What to Spend
What you spend on denim depends heavily on where you purchase it. Lower-cost jeans can be found in stores like American Eagle for about $30 to $50, but watch out for jeans that have heavy whiskering (faded crease lines often on the front) and fading.
If you head to a department store like Nordstrom, your price should be closer to $100, depending on the brand. Try an alternative such as The Rack, Marshalls, or Ross for discount prices on high-quality straight cut jeans. Remember, brand is less important than fit and style.
4. Cashmere Sweater
If the idea of cashmere has you thinking about your great-aunt Viola, think again – today’s cashmere is amazingly affordable, accessible, and, yes, even masculine.
Here’s the thing about a cashmere sweater: Not only is it super-soft, classic, and warm for the colder months, it’s the ideal piece, whether headed home for the holidays, meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time, or even for casual Fridays around the office. Something that versatile definitely deserves a spot in your closet. Look for solid, classic colors, such as navy, dark red, cream, black, and brown, and avoid patterns if you want your style to last.
Always check the care instructions for your cashmere sweater before laundering it – depending on the fabric blend, it might be a dry clean-only piece. If you purchase cashmere blended with another fabric, you may be able to launder it as usual and hang it to dry. Whatever you do, though, don’t make the mistake of tossing it in the dryer – otherwise, it might fit your five-year-old nephew a lot better than it fits you.
What to Spend
Sweaters that are 100% cashmere are more expensive and can cost anywhere from $70 to $150 at department and male clothing stores. You can snag cashmere blend sweaters for much cheaper at stores such as JCPenney, L.L. Bean, or Gap – they run anywhere from $30 to $70. Look for huge discounts on cashmere sweaters at an outlet store such as Sierra Trading Post.
5. Blue Blazer
Even if you already own a suit, a blue blazer can further extend your wardrobe, so it’s worth a look. A classic navy blazer can be paired with lighter pants for business casual wear, but can also be tossed over a graphic t-shirt and worn with jeans for a concert date.
Since it’s a jacket, your blazer might need to be tailored to suit your body type correctly, so don’t forget to budget accordingly (around $25 for tailoring). When choosing a jacket, make sure it fits in the arms and shoulders and falls at least to your wrist bone, but no longer than the base of your thumb.
What to Spend
If you purchase your blazer at a trendier store like H&M, you’re likely to pay about $30 to $40. If you’re looking for better quality, try a male-centric store like Jos. A. Bank, which has blazers from $50 to $150, depending on fabric and fit.
A wild card might be discount stores such as T.J.Maxx or Ross, which purchase out-of-season goods from department stores and sell them at a fraction of the price. You might have to dig for a deal, but you can also snag deep discounts for your trouble.
6. Khakis or Chinos
Every man should have a pair of light-colored pants, which are ideal for more casual affairs. Whether it’s a summer barbecue, a casual outdoor wedding, or a lunch meeting with a few friendly colleagues, khakis allow you to look polished without being as “dressed up” as you might feel in suit paints – but still less casual than a pair of jeans.
Khakis make for a great bridge piece and go with just about anything, but make sure you purchase them without pleats in the front. While pleated pants cycle in and out of style, a flat front pant can serve you much better and keep you looking slim and trim.
What to Spend
A classic pair of Dockers costs about $30 at Macy’s and JCPenney. However, Eddie Bauer and Gap khakis both retail for around $50 and have excellent buyer ratings on their respective websites, so keep that in mind if you’re struggling to find a pair you really love. And, since chinos can be prone to wrinkling, look for a wrinkle-free pair and save yourself the trouble of ironing.
Button-up shirts can be too formal, but your favorite t-shirt might also be way too casual. The solution? Definitely a polo. It’s actually very much a combination of the two styles, and perfect for golfing or for casual events that call for an extra dose of class.
Select polos with subtle patterns to really stretch your wardrobe, since your button-ups are likely solid or striped. A subtle check or bold stripe allows you to show off your personal style without getting too far outside the box.
Polo shirts look great with shorts in the summer, but show equally well with dark jeans and a casual sweater in the winter. Layer them under a long-sleeve casual button-up or a cardigan, or add a cargo jacket for a sporty look. Your polos may prove to be among the more versatile items you own.
What to Spend
My husband wears polo shirts to work everyday at his casual office and has had great success with American Rag and Calvin Klein, both of which sell in the $20 to $40 range. However, he avoids Old Navy polos – while they’re usually lower-cost, their construction doesn’t hold up in the laundry, often resulting in misshapen shirts.
8. Grown-Up Watch
We all loved our calculator watches in the ’80s, but if you’re still rocking a timepiece with a multiplication table, it might be time to upgrade. Regardless of your job, every man should own at least one grown-up watch: One that has a clean face, leather or metal band, and looks great with more formal clothing.
Whether you go for gold, silver, or leather, a well-made watch shows off your personal style, so choose wisely. Of course you can keep your fun plastic watches, but reserve them for casual events and weekends, rather than work.
What to Spend
There’s definitely a huge range when it comes to timepieces, since you could pay $30 at a big box store or $40,000 at a jeweler. Spend what you can afford, remembering that you don’t have to bust your checking account to find a clean and professional-looking watch.
Wishing you could have a high-end watch with a lower budget? Check out eBay or even local classifieds, since you might be able to purchase one secondhand for pennies on the dollar.
9. A Pair of Oxfords
A pair of professional oxfords can never steer you wrong, particularly for formal wear. Choose something in black or brown leather – they can look just as great with suits as they can with khakis and a sport coat.
Loafers are definitely a wise addition to your closet, but they’re also considered less formal than oxfords. If you work in an office with a business professional dress code, it’s best to opt for oxfords. If you have a little more leeway, then polished, neutral loafers are usually fine.
What to Spend
Florsheim is one of the biggest names in men’s shoes, and you can expect to spend $100 to $150 for a pair that looks and fits great. If that’s over your price range, check out shoe stores like DSW or Famous Footwear, which often sell dress shoes in the $50 to $75 range. Remember that leather shoes often need extra care, so you may need to fork over a little additional cash for shoe polish to keep them looking brand new all the time.
10. The Perfect White T-Shirt
A well-made white t-shirt can be a great companion piece for many of your outfits. Wear it with a leather jacket, dark jeans, and boots for a cool moto vibe, or pair it with cargo shorts and boat shoes for a weekend at the lake.
Whether you purchase your white t-shirts in a pack of three or you spend more money for a name brand, remember that they only work when they’re perfectly laundered and stay white. If you tend to be hard on your clothes, you might be better off purchasing a lower-cost package of white t-shirts so you can toss the ones that get stained or yellowed over time. A designer white shirt might offer a better fit, but you’re going to pay a premium for it – and the brand name.
Choose the neckline of the t-shirt based on your face shape. If your face is round and you want to elongate it, a v-neck t-shirt works best. If you have a longer face, feel free to go with a crew neck style.
What to Spend
If you’re buying casual shirts in a package, they’re usually $12 to $20 per pack. You might also be able to find some at trendier stores like H&M.
If you’re willing to pay more for the perfect tee, try a department store that offers a number of designers, styles, and fits, such as Nordstrom or Saks. Of course, you’re also going to pay $50 to $75 for name-brand white t-shirts. Check out discount stores here as well.
While some of the items in your basic wardrobe might cost a pretty penny, they’re good investments for a few different reasons. As well-made basics, they can last you forever. The right pieces also act as building blocks for trendier outfits, so you can purchase cheaper accessories while sticking with your classic garments.
Of course, knowing that you’ve always got the right duds for an event or occasion might be a feeling also worth its weight in wool. By purchasing the right foundation wardrobe, you can always look polished and appropriate, no matter what.
What do you consider to be must-have items of clothing?