Dear Lifehacker, I’m starting at a new job soon, and I want to upgrade my wardrobe so it’s more work-appropriate. I’m on a budget for building my wardrobe from scratch though. How many suits and other pieces of clothing should I own for both casual Fridays and regular work days? Signed, Clueless About Clothes
Congratulations! The good news is it’s really easy to create a basic wardrobe with just a few key pieces. You can mix and match those essentials in a variety of combinations, so you don’t have to feel like you’re always wearing the same thing and will have outfits suitable for various occasions. Let’s get you started.
For Both Men and Women
Whether you’re a guy or a gal, you can stretch your wardrobe with a few frugal tips.
Use neutral colours as your base (black, grey, navy or tans). This will not only ensure all your clothes will go together, it also can be a huge time saver (President Obama only wears grey or navy suits, eliminating that small decision he’d have to make every morning).
Invest in quality pieces that you’re going to wear or use regularly -- especially shoes and bags. StyleDiary founder Patricia Handschiegel told us:
“You can only really tell cheap with shoes and bags.” A pair of Italian leather shoes with handling smudges from being on display can be fixed with shoe polish and last for years. A pair of knockoffs from Nine West might disintegrate in the next storm. “Either go low or high end, because the middle is a wasteland,” Handschiegel warns. So drop the big change on footwear and oft-worn outerwear, with cheap basics, trendy items in light fabric and unique accessories filling in between.
Use accessories to switch up your look. Once you’ve got the basics (see below for suggestions), accessories like ties for men or jewellery for women can add more colour and variety to your wardrobe.
When you find a piece you love that fits you well, buy multiple versions of it in different colours.
With those guidelines in mind, here are more specific suggestions for what to buy.
A Starter Wardrobe for Men
A professional wardrobe for men is pretty easy to build up. With just a couple of suits, shirts, and ties, you can make a ton of combinations. Think about it: 2 suits, 3 shirts, and 3 ties means 2 x 3 x 3 = 18 different combinations.
If you have more room for things like sweaters and blazers, the image above from Style Girlfriend showcases something similar for you. With just 9 items (including shoes), you have an entire week’s worth of outfits. Created as an example for a business trip, these are good basics (three dress shirts, a blazer, v-neck sweater, loafers, two trousers and a pair of cuff links).
The PS blog has a comprehensive infographic/checklist of classic clothes that make up a simple wardrobe. This includes:
- 2 formal suits
- 1 classic tuxedo
- 3 go-to blazers
- 4 dress shirts
- 2 slim dark jeans
- 2 slim neutral chinos
- 2 belts
- 1 watch
- 1 pair of sunglasses
- 1 turtleneck sweater
- 1 neutral cardigan
- 2 dress shoes (black and brown)
- 1 pair each of loafers and sneakers
- 1 neutral scarf
- 3 ties
- 4 pocket squares
- 3 checked shirts
- 2 bowties
- 6 basic T-shirts
- 3 polo shirts
- 1 pair of flip flops
Obviously, you don't need to go out and buy everything on this list. Tweak for your specific needs and work dress code, and buy the important stuff first (a tuxedo, for example, probably isn’t for you if you’re not going to wear it at least three times in the next few years, and we wouldn't exactly call pocket squares or bow ties "essentials" you need right off the bat). You can check out the list in infographic form here.
A Starter Wardrobe for Women
Women’s wardrobes are trickier, because work clothes aren't as simple as suit-shirt-tie every day. Plus, if you listen to the fashion magazines, apparently you need a new “essential” wardrobe every single season. Real Simple, however, has some good advice for creating a well-balanced wardrobe:
Load up on basics, go easy on the patterns, and indulge in one showstopper for special occasions.
For basics, they recommend:
- A black tank
- 2 short-sleeve T-Shirts (white and black)
- 2 long-sleeve T-shirts (white and black)
- White button-down
- Black turtleneck
- Crewneck sweater (thin so it can be layered easily)
- Pair of jeans
- Black pants
- Denim jacket
Work staples include:
- Wool skirt
- Black suit
- Pinstriped oxford shirt
- Black dress
- Silk blouse
- Gray trousers
- Fitted jacket
I also think you can't go wrong adding the classic trenchcoat.
Wardrobe Oxygen has a number of other clothing suggestions for “capsule wardrobes” (small, quality wardrobes that can be mixed for a variety of situations). The site has suggestions for a casual workplace, creative professionals, neutral-based wardrobe and more, along with outfit recommendations and where to buy the pieces. Here's an example capsule:
Personalise Your Look
Obviously, these are all just suggestions and the specific pieces you choose would depend on your work environment, lifestyle, budget and tastes. Still, they’re good guidelines for starting out.
Also, remember that it could take anywhere between a day and two years to build a new wardrobe, so don’t feel like you have to rush out and buy it all at once. Again, invest in quality, classic pieces that will last longer, while picking up more inexpensive style pieces (trendier items) as you go along.
Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact form.