Reader Question Part II: Specifics of Business Casual Wardrobe

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This post follows directly from the last in which we discussed how one could be classically dressed while being comfortable and unstuffy in a workplace with a casual dress code. Our reader is a recent graduate so cost is a factor. The wardrobe also needed to accommodate a large variety of social and work based scenarios.

In this part I will outline a core wardrobe of clothes that should achieve all of the above. It’s also important to bear in mind those general principles outlined last week: don’t get hung up on one mode of ‘classic’ dressing; the three F’s (Fit, Fit and Fit); don’t be too proud and the devil is in the detail.

Core Wardrobe Theory

If you’re on a budget then this is something you must practice. Abide by its general principles and you’ll have only those clothes you absolutely need, thereby getting the most out of your money.

At its most rudimentary the core wardrobe concept is about ensuring that all of the clothes in your wardrobe go with one another. It means that no one item stands out but together they form a harmonious aesthetic. The acid test is if you can get dressed in the dark and no matter what you put on it looks good.

To achieve this feat the items you choose must be classics which last season after season and above all fit perfectly. You also need to keep your colour pallet simple.  Simple clothes and colours always look more sophisticated even if the clothes you’re wearing aren’t in themselves terribly sophisticated. Simplicity imparts an air of quiet ease. To steal the Balliol college motto, ‘the conscious tranquillity of effortless superiority’ is our aim.

So here would be my core wardrobe, based on our reader’s criteria. Bear in mind I’m 35 years old and not a recent graduate, so this is a guide based on my tastes with general notions that should work.

1x Navy Suit

1x Brown Suede shoes

1x indigo jeans

1x Ecru Chino

5x Button down collar shirts assorted colours (2x white, 1x blue, 1x blue Bengal stripe, 1x pink)

1 x navy silk knit tie

Navy Suit

This probably seems an odd choice but think about it logically. The chances are you’ll need a suit on at least one occasion, whether that’s for a wedding, funeral, job interview or important business occasion. So it’s always useful to have one in the wardrobe. Beyond that, in terms of marginal cost, a suit is little more expensive than a navy blazer -that being the most versatile of jackets. However, if you split the component parts of the suit up you can wear the jacket with jeans or chinos and the trousers separately with one of your button down shirts. The one item effectively gives you a number of alternative looks and combinations suitable for a relaxed workplace environment. Provided you follow the rule about having your kit altered to fit, you’ll achieve a look which is sharp, classic, relaxed but smart. Navy will go with just about any colour of shirt, and if you change the navy buttons for brown, as a blazer a navy suit jacket works all the better.  Combined with the other items mentioned you’ll be covered for weddings, job interviews, semi-formal  evening occasions, business lunches, garden parties, meetings at the office with senior managers and those days when you just want to be a cut above and ditch the jeans in favour of trousers.

However, if you decide to go down this road you don’t need to spend a fortune. Consider opting for either a vintage or second hand suit; alternatively try one of the high street labels in your locality. You don’t need to spend a fortune just make it look like you did, so take your time and try all the retailers in your price range and pick the suit that fits best. Then take it to an alterations tailor to make it perfect. Finally, avoid shiny fabrics or overtly fashionable cuts and styles. A simple single breasted jacket with notch lapels should do. For those living in warmer climates –like our reader- I’d recommend cotton suit if you can source one.

Source: An Affordable Wardrobe.

So, a navy suit is not quite as odd a recommendation as it might at first appear, provided you also follow my next recommendation, brown shoes.

Brown Suede Shoes

If your colleagues are wearing trainers and deck shoes, as I suspect they will be, then you should wear shoes, and that being the case they should be brown.

In my view shoes set the tone for any ensemble. Your footwear choice will be critical for balancing that casual yet sophisticated look. Brown shoes are intrinsically more casual than black, and brown suede even more so. My own preference would be for dark brown tassel loafers. Loafers have a rakish, relaxed air whilst retaining enough formality that you can wear them for formal occasions. In this way they lower the formality of a suit and make a simple pairing of jeans and a shirt more formal.  On hot summer days you can even go sockless.

The reasons for recommending suede are two fold. Firstly, suede is less formal than leather but adds contrast and luxuriance. This works wonders for dressing up the most casual and simple of outfits while dressing down more formal attire. It will enable you to pitch your look more closely to that of your work colleagues while still looking a cut above. Secondly, suede ages more rapidly than leather. Some people get a bit prissy about this, but personally the more beaten up my suede loafers get the more I love them and the more useful they become with regards altering the pitch of an ensemble.

You may decide that brown suede loafers aren’t for you. That’s fine. Go with whatever best suits your own personal style. As long as they’re brown suede the above advice holds true.

Source:
Herring Shoes (Classic, Graduate and Sale ranges)

When shopping on a budget the shoes should be the most expensive items in your wardrobe. As a rule the more you spend on shoes the better the value for money. Cheap shoes will always look cheap and they’ll cheapen your look. Well made quality footwear has the opposite effect even in relation to our next items.

Indigo Jeans and Ecru Chinos

This really is first principles stuff. I can think of few items of clothing more relaxed and yet more classic than jeans and chinos. Provided they are well tailored, clean and in good nic you can look both smart and casual. For example, jeans combined with a crisp white shirt, nicely tailored jacket and suede tassel loafers is a look which is both relaxed and done right looks smarter than most men manage even in a suit.

Ecru or off white chinos come right out of the Steve McQueen playbook. One of his favourite and most effective tricks was to wear tops which were darker than his trousers and then combine those with dark brown suede footwear (playboy chukka boots mostly).

Now, the reader that posed the question lives in a sunny environment year round, hence I went for Ecru chinos. However, for those of us who have both a summer and proper winter I’d simply use ecru for summer and switch to Tan chinos in winter.  But in either case the suit jacket, the shirts and the brown loafers will go with our chinos. Just be sure to avoid extreme fashion cuts.

Sources: Gap (slimfit), Levis

Five Button Down Shirts (2x white, 1x blue, 1x blue Bengal stripe, 1x pink)

I don’t think I need to say too much here. I’ve discussed shirt colours in a previous article. The reason for choosing button down shirts over a regular collar is simply that they’re less formal. If you stick to the colours suggested then each will go with all the other items so far covered. In my view few looks are quite so simple or quite so effective as blue jeans and a white button down shirt. The loafers (worn with or without socks) will add the finishing touch.  In fact even the white shirt and ecru chinos works for the hottest days of high summer -add in the dark brown shoes and we have yet another classic McQueenism.

Sources:
This is tricky because I don’t know what’s available to our questioner out there in Silicon Valley. But as I said in part one, take the time to find a source that provides what you need, to an acceptable standard and at the price you can afford –don’t be too proud.

Navy Knit Tie

Accessories are where you really make a look, particularly when the core items in your wardrobe are pretty simple. I’ve chosen a silk knit tie because that suits my own personal style and fits with the other items in our core wardrobe. Ties are in vogue at the moment and a silk knit tie worn with navy jeans a button down shirt won’t look the least bit out of place. To make the look more relaxed simply loosen the tie, unbutton the top button of the shirt and role the sleeve cuffs up two turns.

Now, this is just one option, and going back to our first rule in part one, the accessories you choose must reflect your own style influences. You could, for example, decide that your style cue is patterned and brightly coloured socks, or braces with your chinos, wrist bands, scarves or even a waistcoat. The options are nearly limitless.

Conclusion

While views may differ on the kit chosen the basic principles and pairings behind them are sound. They are there to be applied in a way that suits your own style and tastes. The aim was not to provide the definitive list or clothes. The casual work environment is a tricky one to master but over the course of these two posts I hope I’ve shown it’s not impossible to look sharp whilst remaining comfortable and casual.

Photos: Obsessed with Tweed, Getty Images, The Sartorialist, Preppystyle, Randomitus, How to Talk To Girls At Parties.

Reader Question: Classic Style at the Workplace with Business Casual Dress Code

I am graduating college in 6 months, have had a few unpaid internships, and all of a sudden find myself with the chance at an incredible job.  I have read a few of your articles on suits on a budget, I especially liked the one on maximum shirt and tie combo (http://www.mensflair.com/style-advice/five-shirts-three-ties.php), but I had a couple of questions.

1. How much does classic style differ from region to region?  I’m hoping to work in Silicon Valley and from my experience, the atmosphere is much more relaxed.  Ties are uncommon, jeans with a buttondown shirt is very common.  Keeping in mind a recent graduate’s budget, how can I straddle the line and look laid back but not sloppy, and not overdressed/classic?

2. Operating in this internship and the interview process, I have found myself in a variety of situations.  I have been invited to dinner, afternoon family tea, breakfast/lunch, as well as a semi-touristic visit to the city.  I always visit the site to understand what is best to wear, but how do I make the transition from a sloppy, sports memorabilia-wearing college student, to a Silicon Valley professional on a budget?

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Dear Graduate,

First let me thank you for your e-mail and congratulate you on your exciting new position. I thought I’d answer this question in two parts. Part 1 will cover a few general principles which should help you. In the second part we will cover the ‘core wardrobe’ concept and I’ll list those key items I’d buy if I were in your position.

1. Find a look that works for you, and if you can a role model or two

The essence of your question, as I see it, is how can I dress well when the environment I work in has a relaxed view of business dress? This is a problem that many men face, particularly if they work in the creative industries, though not an insurmountable one. Sadly, from what I observe on the Tube each day most men make a complete hash of it. They don’t look well dressed and casual, merely scruffy.

I’ve always defined classics as items of clothing and looks that flatter the wearer and all those who subsequently adopt them. This is why they stand the test of time and translate the world over. While regional variation is a factor, it’s not so big a factor as you might think. While an English suit is different from an Italian suit they are still fundamentally the same thing. The devil lies in the detail of construction and silhouette.

I guess my first bit of advice is don’t get hung up on any one idea of classic dressing. If I asked you to list some classic dressers I’d bet that it would be dominated by men whose principle mode of dress is formal, suited and booted. But in my view Steve McQueen is one of the great all time classic casual dressers, managing to look good, comfortable and at ease all at once. Except in a few film roles, like the iconic Thomas Crown Affair, the man almost never wore a suit. His ubiquitous Baracuta G9 ( Harrington jacket) is in some circles, including my own, considered a classic. But there is nothing formal or flash about a Harrington. The same can be said of button down shirts, chinos and even jeans; but they are classics and can be made to work to wonders. This brings me neatly to my next point.

2. Remember the three F’s: Fit, Fit and Fit

What really sets apart one man from another in terms of dress is the fit of the clothes he wears. If your clothes fit properly they will flatter you and you will always look smarter that the man who ignores this; that applies whether you’re in the same type of clothing as the man next to you or you’re in jeans and a shirt and he’s in a suit. Poorly fitting clothes no matter their cost or type never look good. This lesson is true whether you’re skin and bone or a hefty unit. An example of this in my case is jeans. I freely admit I buy Gap jeans. I’ve tried designer label pairs but they are usually too short in the drop and too tight around the seat and crotch. That’s not to say Gap’s are always perfect in every other regard. But I can get that fixed and do so. I’ll have them shortened and hemmed and will even get the legs tailored either from the knee down or mid thigh depending on how sharp I want them to look. Whatever you buy take the time and make the effort to get it altered by a good alterations tailor. In my case this always pays a dividend over and above anything I might achieve by spending more money on the jeans in the first place. As it happens the cost including alterations works out cheaper.

The only exception to this rule is when it comes to jacket shoulders. Few things look as cheap as an overly large jacket shoulder. They are a nightmare to fix so you’d be better advised to simply return the garment to the rack. If necessary find a different label to buy your jackets from.

3. Don’t be too proud

Money is no bar to dressing well. Indeed, as the point above also highlights, it can sometimes be a hindrance if it inclines you to believe that simply by spending money on clothes the job is done.

Find clothes that fit and require the minimum of corrective surgery no matter what the retailer. There is a lot of snobbery concerning clothing and it’s easy to get caught up in it. Find retailers that work for you and stick to them regardless of the conventional wisdom. And that can include vintage and second hand outlets. It doesn’t matter how you acquire what you need to acquire, only that you acquire it. While these days I have my suits, jackets, and trousers made for me that wasn’t always the case. But even when I was a low paid Researcher I still had a lovely wardrobe of bespoke suits because I cheated. Mine were vintage suits, some from Savile Row, but they fitted far better than any off the peg suit I could afford. Of course your wardrobe requirements are unlikely to extend to Savile Row suits but you get the point.

4. The Devil is in the detail

The reason for picking some of the pictures above was to illustrate this very point. You can still dress casually and look laidback and comfortable without being sloppy, and it’s the details that make a difference. If we look at Steve McQueen it’s the sunglasses and Tartan lining of his G9 which raises the game. On the chap in the middle photo it’s the belt which ties the look together whilst adding a touch of personality and interest. In the far right hand picture the use of suede and the coloured socks add luxuriance and interest to a pair of ordinary ecru jeans and in the bottom left hand picture it’s not the yellow mac that makes the look but the tie which at once raises the game. In each case a subtle detail uses contrast to make a statement and develop the look beyond the humdrum constituent parts.

These rules apply no matter the type of clothing or the size and shape of the body in them. In the next post I’ll provide a few specific examples of what would work as a core wardrobe for someone on a low budget and working in a casual dress environment.

Looking Ahead

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As strange as it may seem this time of year the big labels and retailers preview their spring and summer collections.

As a blogger with a reasonably sized audience I get plenty of invites. For the most part I turn them down, BespokeMe isn’t really about labels. However, I do love my clothes and while the whims and fancies of fashion are hardly my concern, nevertheless, I can’t afford to buy all my clothes bespoke. I am dependent on the high street to an extent.

So there are one or two previews I like to go to. Of course you don’t need to be a blogger with invites to preview shows to get an idea of what is likely to come up in future seasons.

For many years now I’ve paid particular attention to those blogs that make a point of covering the twice yearly Pitti Uomo menswear trade show in Milan. Now, it’s not the clothes on the catwalk that are important. Being a trade show what you see on the street style blogs are some of the clothing world’s most influential people: buyers, designers, manufacturers and specialist retailers. Inevitably their personal style becomes the trends which in subsequent years the stores adopt. Follow them closely and you’ll get at least an 18 month heads up not just a season one.

There were two trends that came to the fore in the Pitti blogs of the last few seasons. One is the use of bold primary colours in the form of statement clothing and the second is the use of bold checks into linen suits. And this season, I’m pleased to say, these two trends will become high street staples.

For what it’s worth I reckon Gieves & Hawkes were head and shoulders above any other collection I saw for the coming seasons, and from where I got these pictures.

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A rain Mac is a classic item and if your summers are like ours in England then it’s best to be prepared for rain. These bright colours add a summer twist to a wardrobe classic. A real statement piece, I’ve seen a few labels produce similar Macs for next season. Cobolt blue seems quite popular but I just loved these yellow and red versions from Gieves & Hawkes. I tend towards the double breasted yellow one at present.
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In recent years retailers have got their act together and made an effort to add cotton and linen suits to their summer collections. However, any variation on navy or beige and you’re out of luck. Recent previews show retailers have gotten a little bolder and finally decided to experiment a little. As I mentioned in an article a while ago on The Weekend Suit (http://www.mensflair.com/style-advice/a-new-suit-the-weekend-suit.php ), checks make for a perfect casual suit providing the elegance of uniformity while at the same time appearing less ridged.

In the midst of winter it never hurts to have an eye for the brighter days ahead.

Cream and Beige Tweed for City Gents

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A few weeks ago I commissioned another piece of tailored clothing. I opted for a double breasted mallard green Harris Tweed jacket. The cloth has a herringbone weave with classic small flecks of colour running through the weave.

Typically, when one thinks about tweed cloth one thinks in terms of brown, green and fawn grounds, regardless of any overlaying checks.

After all, those colours reflect the origins and heritage of the cloth not to mention the rural nature of the clothes it was used to fashion. Curiously enough the term tweed comes from a London cloth merchant misreading the word tweel, the Scottish word for twill.

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Proper tweed, anything over 18oz, is so tightly woven that it’s water resistant. As such the clothes fashioned from this hard wearing cloth were very much working items. The colourways of classic tweed were ideally suited to withstanding the rigors of a well lived life in the country: hunting, riding, stalking, shooting and fishing. And while the tweed clothes themselves varied in quality of manufacture so practical to the task was the cloth that it was enjoyed by both the country gent, gamekeeper and estate worker alike.

Of course since migrating to the town the practical necessity for tweed to be in earthy grounds no longer applies, and this is the interesting direction a friend of mine recently took. Much like the jackets pictured, he opted for a cream and very light beige ground overlaid with a pale blue window pain check.

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I wouldn’t risk such a colour scheme in the country but in town it really works. Not only is the cream a natural fit with denim, but the contrast of black asphalt and the concrete grey of the metropolis makes for a powerful contrast between the jacket and it’s urban background. Certainly a less conventional choice but ideally suited to the City.

Something to consider next time around I think.

“Combo” images credit: www.unabashedlyprep.com

The Little Things in Life

As I mentioned in my last post, when I travel I invariably have a list of items to purchase from said destination.  And so here were the things which I brought back to dear old Blighty and considered innately Italian.

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Something I picked up on during my visit to Rome last January was the fact that Italians are just as aware of the short comings of classic Blake stitched shoes during winter as Englishmen. To compensate they’ve developed elegant footwear hardened for winter use. While the English do Dainite soled shoes they can be a bit bulky. So my trip seemed an ideal time to pick up some elegant Italian winter footwear. These long wing oxfords have double thickness leather soles with rubber overlay, which still makes them less bulky than Goodyear Welted shoes. In my experience the English will frequently forgo practicality in favour of tradition and the maintenance of basic good form. The Italians, however, suffer no such hang-ups, often combining the classically inspired with modern practicality to great effect.

Italian footwear tends to come up on the smallish side. While the last is long and a little narrower than I’m used to they are nevertheless comfortable, supple and better suited to withstanding wet winter pavements than my English leather soled footwear.  These were from inexpensive family firm Otisopse, based in Florence. I don’t know enough about Italian shoe brands to risk spending too much. But, I figured at €90 they were comparable to entry level Loakes – which are perfectly good shoes. The English don’t really do brown shoes with navy suits, although we’re getting better. So here was an inexpensive opportunity to add some winter-proofed Italian styling cues to my very English wardrobe.

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If you go to Florence then as far as purchases go gloves are a must. The most famous, amongst the many local retailers, is Martelli. This family firm actually make their own gloves (handmade) in their own workshop in the area itself. The prices are noticeably cheaper for a markedly superior product than one would find even in the UK.  These particular gloves are Navy leather with a soft cashmere lining and cost me just 39 Euros (about £35). The shop assistants fit the gloves on you and the range of colours and leathers available is bewildering.

As a rule a man can do little wrong if he matches his gloves to his shoes: brown with brown, black with black and deerskin with chestnut. As your confidence with colour matching grows you can consider branching out. As it happens I have a pair of navy tassel loafers so these will fit nicely. But I’m considering buying a fawn Covert Coat this season which will invariably be paired with navy suits and navy scarf. So while navy is an unusual choice I’m hoping it will work rather well with other items in my wardrobe.

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A country famed for its ties, they were the first thing on my list when I’d decided upon Italy for a winter getaway. In particular wool and cashmere ties were the goal. The must have accessories for this year’s autumn and winter, I figured I’d get both at a cheaper price and in greater variety thanks to the country’s preponderance of cashmere and wool manufacturers.

Although there was a wonderful array of cashmere ties available at an average of €120 they were still a bit beyond what I consider reasonable for a tie. Wool ties were plentiful and at a more reasonable €50-€80 a pop. The quality was better than those I’d found in London as was the price. These two I bought from Boggi and a little independent store called Derby.

Wool and cashmere ties add texture to worsted suits which combined with the natural matt finish provides sombre solidity ideal for winter months. The solidity and sense of richness that comes from wool and cashmere also adds luxuriousness, although that comes out best when the tie is mottled or woven with a pattern, as above. I’m hoping the brown one will better enable me to integrate those brown shoes into my wardrobe. So far it has.