Mod Note (Andy) - We're reposting the top discussions from 2015, this one ranks #14 and was originally posted 6/14/2015.
I spend a bit of time in this part of the forum and consistently and constantly find repeated questions from individuals coming out of college and starting their career regarding suits, shirts, ties, shoes, etc. My goal is to attempt to address every aspect and component you need to know about beginner formal fashion so that you can walk in your first day and be confident about the way you look, something that I feel a lot of people aren't. I'm also going to include resources to solid "beginner" brands that won't demolish the bank but still compete on quality.
Part 1 will be about the suit, dress shirt and shoes while Part 2 will cover accessories including ties, socks, belts and more.
The integral part of your overall image. Your suit determines just about everything in my opinion. You can be wearing a gorgeous watch or incredible shoes, if your suit looks like garbage it won't matter. The operative word in my previous statement is "looks". The suit marketplace is a competitive one and prices are all over the place. Now, we aren't focusing on prices alone but the price to quality ratio if you will. You can go get a viscose blend suit from Men's Wearhouse for $125 if I'm not mistaken or you can spend $300 for a 100% wool suit from Jos. A. Bank. $175 in exchange for a real material rather than synthetic, non breathable junk. The reality is that today you can get a full wool suit that will get you a guaranteed 300+ wears in the $300-600 arena, and the options are truly unlimited.
So you're a college student and you're about to start a SA role or maybe you graduated and are about to begin FT. You're going to need 3 suits to start with, and two pairs of pants per suit (pants take an incredible beating, especially for us people who are sitting down most of the day). What colors or patterns though? For starters, no patterns are necessary. These are your essentials, they need to be straightforward.
The picks: 1x Charcoal, 1x Navy, 1x Dark Blue Sharkskin OR 1x Dark Gray Sharkskin. But what about black? No, no black, ever. Black suits are for waiters or when you go to a funeral. Everyone should own a black suit, but not until the essentials are accounted for. What about customizations or details? Once again, these are your essentials, nothing should stick out. Notch lapel, two rear vents, two buttons, standard pocket flaps. Things like functional sleeve buttonholes, pick stitching, etc. should not be on your first suits. Pleats or cuffs on the pants? Personal preference, if you don't know, then no. I personally never do pleats or cuffs as I find neither to look modern.
I find it kind of incredible that something as simple as suit can be worn "wrong" but the fact is, it's all over the place. Continuing off our scenario above. You're going to wear your brand new charcoal suit today, wait: 1) clip threads holding vents shut in the rear and (optional) clip thread holding front pocket sealed 2) only button the top button, the second button is NEVER buttoned. If you sit down, unbutton the top button and re-button when you stand back up. Now the most important aspect: FIT. I have seen people wearing awful looking Armani suits just like I've seen a SA wearing a well-tailored Jos. A. Bank suit that looks made to measure. Beyond exclusively sticking with wool, linen, and cashmere fabrics, it's all about fit. The reality is that an off-the-rack suit most probably won't look perfect. At the very minimum, the pants will need to be hemmed. The common areas that will need work are as follows (note these and check them):
-Jacket sleeve length (you should see 1/4 inch of dress shirt BUT make sure this is a properly fitting dress shirt or you'll end up tailoring your suit wrong)
-Jacket bagginess around upper and lower chest (when buttoned, should be touching your mid torso all around while still enabling you to make gestures with your arms freely)
-Jacket length (better short than long, should have easy access to pants pockets without shuffling jacket)
pants length (break: the amount of rolls in your pants as they hit your shoe. Aim for 1 for classic - hem to the heel, or none for a more modern look - hem to the top of the laces)
-Pants bagginess around thigh and shins (thighs should feel like a slim pair of jeans while shins get a bit more breathing room, standard pants tend to be uniform all the way down, that's not meant to stay that way)
The perfect fit should be comfortable (after all, you're the one wearing it all day) which means you don't want to go so tight that you look like those guys at clubs in throwaway Forever21 suits so tight they can't breath but you also don't want to look like a clown with your jacket drooping over everything and enormously wide pants that your legs are trying not to drown in.
Companies to consider for entry-level suits: Jos. A. Bank (workhorse suits at rock bottom prices, end of story), Suit Supply (great quality, great prices), Indochino (MtoM, excellent previous experiences), Brooks Brothers (pay careful attention for sales), Multiple Brands from Saks Fifth Avenue "Off Fifth". "The GQ Guide to Suits" for inspiration and more basic tips (keep in mind, fashion forward site, don't necessarily implement everything they say).
The dress shirt
Introduction. Behind the suit is the dress shirt but unlike the suit this is where it can get all over the place really quick. Unlike suits, dress shirts come in many different colors and patterns, it almost feels like the sky is in fact not the limit. Once again though, we are beginners trying to build our essentials wardrobe for the start of our career, not look like British lawyers. Much like suits, you will find plenty of dress shirts consisting of a non-breathable synthetic blend like viscose while on the other end you will also find many real fabrics, most notably cotton which we will focus on. I'll cut to the chase and tell you that you're going to spend $60-95 / shirt on your dress shirts (unless you bundle), end of story, no shortcuts. Take good care of them and they will last you an unbelievably long time.
We continue the plan to build an essential wardrobe which means to gather the most function for our money and be well-prepared for the first day and subsequent days, weeks and months. Realistically, you will need 10 dress shirts that you will rotate in and out week in week out (dry cleaning one set while wearing the other). Similar to the suits situation, we're going to stick with traditional and functional colors that we can easily pair with our suits and accessories without having to even think about it. For starters, we need whites and blues, these are crucial, call it 3x of each. Next we can adventure out a bit, 2x Pink (one plain and one with a light microstripe pattern), and 2x blue with very light patterns (microsquare and microstripe). That puts us at 10 and we have the majors covered. You can adventure into other patterns and designs that after your 10. Also note no dark colors in general for two reasons: too fashion forward and difficult to pair with suits/accessories. Also no customizations like a monogram, you're a college graduate (should apply to any age honestly).
I will go ahead and start with fit this time as when it comes to a dress shirt there aren't a million different ways to wear them. With the dress shirt, similar to the jacket component of your suit, the fit should conform to the body. It should NOT, however, look or feel as tight as a v-neck tee or be so baggy that you have a muffin top. Let's address each component:
-Shoulders seam (where sleeve attaches to body), should hit close to top of shoulders NOT sliding down near arm)
-Collar (should be easy to button tie button with room for 2 fingers, more or less should be adjusted)
-Chest (the big idea is here is to be able to make a full range of motions and gestures without the shirt preventing you from doing so, your chest should fill out the shirt, or be snug, but not tight)
-Armhole (probably the most important because it determines how the shirt looks overall, if you have fabric hanging down under the armpit, it's cut too large, the seam should be maybe 2 fingers from armpit if that)
-Waist (easy to tell if it's not right, leave shirt untucked and grab either the left or right seam and pull away from the body, if you have fabric it's too wide and needs to be brought in, will result in a muffin top otherwise)
-Length (like the suit, shorter is better, just for your own comfort alone, I know I hate feeling all that fabric in my pants)
Once again, and similar to the suit, we're aiming for the shirt to conform to the body but fit to the point that you can wave your arms around and move relatively freely. The dress shirt can make or break you in the sense that really baggy dress shirts do in fact look really awkward while a super tight fit keeps you from moving freely and can also cause sweating.
Companies to consider for entry-level dress shirts: CT Shirts (personal favorite), Banana Republic (3 fits to choose from, and then all respective sizes, have found that it's almost a perfect fit), Indochino (once again, MtoM, but once it's right, it's right, also a favorite), Proper Cloth (12 questions, perfect fit, quick turnaround), Nordstrom (many solid brands), Brooks Brothers (once again, check for sales).
The Dress Shoes
Introduction. When it comes to things I use heavily, like my phone for example, I tend to be willing to invest more in order to obtain a better product because I'm willing to exchange money for a better experience with something that has a high utilization rate. Shoes are definitely a part of this category. You may not realize it yet but you'll be wearing these all day long 5x a week minimum and the reality is that the majority of these aren't your boat shoes you've been wearing for 4 years, but they can be close. Continuing our beginner's essentials build out, we need to find some relatively common dress shoes that have the right characteristics for a long life and maximized comfort which isn't necessarily easy when attempting to keep a budget, unlike suits and dress shirts. Like suits and dress shirts however, you will find terrible shoes made from leather look-a-likes and rubber soles and flat out incredible shoes that look like art. A proper shoe is an investment, take care of them and they'll last you 10 years to a lifetime. Ultimately, we are looking to invest around $175-300 per pair.
Sticking with functionality and versatility we are going to need two pairs of dress shoes. Depending on our suit selection for the day, the shoes worn will be picked accordingly. We are going to keep it very simple here, we need 1x Black Oxfords (laces, versus loafers which don't have laces) and 1x Dark Brown Oxfords. For the first time though, we can be a little bit more creative with the design as many exist and you have a bit more freedom with your shoes versus a suit. Personally, I would go with cap toe (design involving a seam across the lower portion of the shoe) oxfords in black and conservative wing tip (variety of seams or imprints on the leather, can be conservative or aggressive) oxfords in dark brown. This is still quite conservative but will standout a bit more than just a plain pair of oxfords. Note for our first two pairs we aren't hopping into loafers just yet, although this should be your next pair and we also aren't adventuring into lighter shades of brown which can be a bit fashion forward. What about suede? Proceed with caution, I have never seen this in finance personally and I also think it looks awful.
For immediate starters, do NOT buy your shoes online. You MUST see them in person, feel them, try multiple sizes and widths, etc. The only scenario where buying online works is if you have stuck with one brand and your size is standard across their lines OR free shipping & free returns (and even then on this second point, not ideal). Now let's dive into the important details that separate a good shoe from a bad one, and there's quite a bit but we'll still with the fundamental aspects that you can look for in seconds to determine if you're wasting your time or not.
1) The outsole (underside of the shoe, comes in contact with ground) - easily the best place to start to eliminate 75% of what you'll look at in the $175-300 range. It's rather simple, it should be leather, end of story. Most shoes you'll look at will have a molded rubber-type outsole, this is an immediate disqualification for a long term shoe. Be careful because some companies actually attempt to replicate a leather look but it's still in fact that rubber material. The stitching around the outsole will tell you, leather requires it, rubber won't since it's often glued. The heel can be composed of the molded rubber, this is okay.
Generally speaking, if #1 checks out, the following will follow suit but take a look regardless.
2) The lining - leather is a fantastic material because it absorbs like crazy which is why you want to your lining to be entirely made of leather. Ideally you're looking for some kind of calf skin but generic leather will work
3) Upper material - once again, leather. If you have leather lining, at this point it's almost a guarantee that your upper material (or outer) is leather. There are many different kinds of leather used for the outer material but we are sticking with cost effective solutions while maintaining functionality and therefore standard calf skin will do the trick.
The reality is that a great pair of dress shoes can last a minimum of 10 years if you take good care of them and get the sole re-done every 2 or so years. High end dress shoes can last a lifetime. Something to think about is that as a result, it isn't uncommon to try and find very high end used dress shoes that have been taken care of well, there's a market out there just like used watches.
Companies to consider for entry-level dress shoes: Johnston & Murphy (probably the lowest priced shoes that check out on rules listed above), Jack Erwin (recent startup, great reviews, great prices), entry level Allen Edmond (American style fit, wider than European design), Cole Haan (have had a pair for 5 years now, still great).
Pulling It All Together
Let's run a scenario and price it all out to see where it all stands. Note that I am pricing and selecting everything based on the time of this posting, things will change over time.
Jos. A. Bank Buy 1 Get 3 Suits Deal - 1x Navy, 1x Charcoal, 1x Blue Sharkskin, 1x Gray Sharkskin -> $965.00
Indochino - 10x "Essential" Dress Shirts - $79 x 10 -> $790.00
CT Shirts - 10x Multi-Buy - $49.75 x 10 -> $500.00
Jack Erwin - 1x Black Cap Toe Oxfords $195.00 + 1x Brown Wingtip Oxfords $195.00 -> $390.00
Our core wardrobe is now built for a total of $2,145.00 or under 3% of our income for the year based on an 80K comp. Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will cover the accessories you need to add on to this wardrobe in order to be good to go for day one. Finally, I apologize for any mistakes anywhere, let me know if you caught something I missed.