The Working Man: A Basic Business Wardrobe

by Rachel Yeomans | June 22nd, 2011   

By Alan Neff

There’s a lot of black and gray in the Basic Business Wardrobe set out below.  That shouldn’t surprise you.  Men’s dress-clothes for entry-level positions ought to support first impressions and continuing perceptions of your modesty, reliability, and productivity.  Those are highly-valued traits in most workplaces.  And, black goes with nearly everything and makes you look slimmer.

(1) Three two-piece 100%-wool suits (two-buttoned, soft-shouldered): (a) at least one charcoal gray; and (b) with these options for the other two – (i) navy-blue with/without a nearly imperceptible white pin-strip (approximately one inch between the stripes); and (ii) “glen plaid,”(shown below) preferably with a red sub-text or none at all.

Picture 8 The Working Man: A Basic Business Wardrobe

Expect to have them altered where you purchase them, and expect to pay for alterations.  If you can get two pairs of pants with each suit, do it.  Pay the price.  Pants take the brunt of your wear.  They get shiny at the knees and in the seat.  They suffer spills and stains more frequently than jackets.  (Think about it: how often do you wear your jacket when you’re eating at work?  Not always, but you always wear your pants, unless you work in a really interesting office.)

Picture 111 The Working Man: A Basic Business Wardrobe

Pants must be cuffed.  Cuffs serve no purpose, except to catch crumbs and spare change, but that’s the classic look, in every period but the late 1960s and 1970s. Pleated or flat-front is your choice, but the more traditional look is flat-front.  Pleated’s a bit more comfortable.

With alterations, expect to pay around $400 per suit, plus a bit for tailoring and taxes.  You can pay somewhat less or way more, but that’s where you’re likely to get a decent entry-level suit.

(2) One sport coat, also 100%-wool (two-buttoned, soft-shouldered): either (a) black, with bone or plastic black buttons (not faux gold or silver); or (b) black and white “herringbone,” which looks like this [insert pattern].  For a change of pace, or on business-casual days, you can wear your sport coat with the charcoal-gray suit pants.

(3) One knee-length-or-longer overcoat: either (a) dark wool (black, black-and-white herringbone, or navy); or (b) cotton-waterproof with a zip-in lining for extra warmth (black, navy, or tan).  For the coats, forgo cuff-buckles, belts, and epaulets- you can lose them, and they get caught on things and rip associated parts of the coat.

Picture 9 The Working Man: A Basic Business Wardrobe

(4) Seven 100%-cotton Oxford dress-shirts, with button-down collars.  At least four of these should be white.  Three may be plaid or pin-striped, but the plaids or stripes should be subtle rather than loud.

You’ll need seven shirts to get through a week while two or more are at the cleaners, unless you’re planning to wash and press your shirts yourself, a practice I do not recommend.  Leave cleaning and pressing your business clothing to the professionals.  If they ruin or lose your clothes, cleaners will generally replace them at their cost, unless they want to lose your business and suffer a lashing on the internet.

As to these shirts – you may elect button cuffs or “french cuffs” – the kind that require cufflinks.  If you go with the latter, you have to be able to afford tasteful unobtrusive cufflinks, you have to learn how to choose them, and you have to learn how to not lose them.  At this starter level, I recommend against cufflinks, because they’re one less expense and time-and-life-management challenge.

Picture 101 The Working Man: A Basic Business Wardrobe

(5) Five silk ties in darker primary colors, including one in solid red, one in solid navy-blue, and one in solid black. Patterns are acceptable, but they should be very quiet.  Generally, you will want to wear the patterned ties only with a charcoal or solid-navy suit and the all-white shirts, so you project that you know (a) how to dress and (b) what effect your clothing is having on people who look at you.  Generally, wear patterned ties with solid-color shirts, and solid-color ties with patterned shirts.  Keep in mind that colors of ties and shirts should be complementary, per the color wheel.

(6) Five pairs of mid-calf black blended dress socks – the kind that don’t fall down around your ankles.

(7) Two pairs of lace-up black dress shoes – not patent leather, not loafers, and not low boots.  One pair may be wing-tips.

(8) One umbrella.

(9) One lint brush, especially if you own a pet or date someone who does.

(10) All-cotton boxer briefs – because wool suits can be a bit rough on the upper thighs.  You can and should have fun with these, but remember others might see them, and they might not share your sense of humor.

(11) Two black leather belts, approximately one inch in width, with an unobtrusive buckle.  If you also want suspenders for occasional alternate use, get black, dark-red, or navy to start.  Don’t use  suspenders to make editorial or humorous statements.  You will doubtless offend or confuse someone.

(12) V-neck or crew-neck all-cotton white tees.  You’ll want tee-shirts under your dress shirts so you don’t stain the shirts with perspiration where you inevitably will perspire.


After taking the time to read through this article and having written for this site before I felt the need to chime in.

It’s great that this article is encouraging young men to dress properly for themselves and their workplace. However, there are several areas I beg to differ with and I believe can be improved upon.

While it’s good advice to go for a gray and navy suit first I wouldn’t recommend glen plaid for beginners. Patterns can be difficult for experts to work with much less a novice. I would recommend a sold gray a solid navy, then a pinstripe as a third option. The first two suits are solid and can be dressed up or down. Pinstripes mean business and should only be worn as such. Plaids and checks should be left for later.

While its correct that pants take the brunt of wear typically only custom suits will come with two pairs of trousers and unless you’re paying top dollar you’ll have still have to ask. Beginners most likely won’t have this option. I suggest proper care and maintenance of the one suit trouser they do have until they can afford a separate pair.

You mention that pants MUST be cuffed and then state that they serve no purpose. This is a bit of an oxymoron. I have to disagree that pants must be cuffed. Pants should be cuffed with pleats and should be uncuffed with a flat front. Only those fashion forward and brave enough are allowed to wear cuffs with flat front trousers. Cuffs serve a purpose indeed. They add weight to the trousers in order to help them drape better over the shoe. Pleated and cuffed trousers NOT plain cuff and flat front trousers are considered traditional.

A black sport coat should never be the first purchase for a beginner. Always go with navy. Navy is more professional, is more transitional, and blends well with most men’s skin tones. I would not recommend a black blazer in the first three purchases. I would also stay away from herringbone and other patterns. The first two or three blazers should be solid in gray, navy and a shade of brown.

I agree with the coat suggestions except for black again. Go with navy, gray and a camel brown to stand out from every other guy wearing black. Yes it is a good idea to stay away from extra trappings on the coat but I’ve never lost something that was attached to my coat and rarely ever ripped something off of it. If this happens they should buy a better quality coat.

I agree with the number of shirts but disagree with all of them being button down collars. Button downs are the dead giveaway sign of the middle manager in America. They are also inherently casual. In most instances a button down collar shirt should not be worn with a suit. They can and should be worn with blazers and sport coats. I recommend only 3 of the 7 shirts be button downs and the rest be some type of point or semi-spread collar. Also, all men should know how to wash and press their own shirts. I’ve never taken my shirts to the cleaner and don’t plan to for some of the same reasons you stated. Your stuff can get lost and you’ll have the hassle of proving your case to the cleaner who may or may not be kind enough to correct the situation. Also, most dry cleaners will destroy the life of your shirt with harsh chemicals and starches. Its best to wash your own shirts, hang dry them, and iron them with light starch. This way your shirt will last much longer, you’ll save money and hassle, and you’ll be domesticated enough to take care of your own wardrobe, which every man should be.

All of your socks should not be black. There should be an equal mix of black, navy, gray and brown to match your trousers.

Yes, at least two pairs of lace up shoes but one should be brown. Man cannot live on black alone. Brown is more forgiving in the summer heat, more approachable, and just plain looks better under most trousers.

Yes, at least to belts, but again one should be brown to match your brown shoes.

T-shirts should all be v-neck. V-necks keep you cooler, make you look taller and thinner, and look cleaner under an open collared shirt.

Thanks for taking the time to write and to review my comments. I hope to read more from you soon.