Dressing for work used to be simple. Men typically donned a full suit and there were rules to dressing that were passed on from father to son. These dressing guidelines were reinforced by society and informative publications that educated men on dressing well.
Then things began to change – hats disappeared, jackets were left at home, and men’s magazines started focusing on fleeting fashion and designer clothing. Casual Fridays turned into casual weeks and somewhere along the way men forgot how to dress properly.
Let me be clear: You do not have to wear a three-piece suit to look great and conduct business; in fact, if you worked at a company like Patagonia or Google, this type of clothing could work against you. And really no particular set of clothing does justice to what it truly means to dress sharp. Dressing sharp goes beyond any article of clothing. Dressing sharp is about taking pride in what you wear and controlling what your image says to those with whom you’ve never spoken.
Light, pleated khakis a size too big paired with a baggy dress or polo shirt…walk into any office today and you’ll see men dressed in this new uniform of business casual. But what you wear to the office doesn’t have to be boring, frumpy, and Dilbert-esque.
This article outlines five guidelines that can take your business casual look from bland and unimaginative corporate-drone to smart and sharp go-getter. Whether you are managing a diner or selling commercial space in a retail center – you want others to view you as competent and trustworthy. And although the right clothing doesn’t guarantee you or your potential clients anything – it does set a good tone that you can build off of.
Step 1: Get the Right Fit
Many outfits that do not look “sharp” are actually fine in terms of color and style. The problem is often fit. It’s the most overlooked way to improve a man’s wardrobe – and often the cheapest.
The point to understand about proper clothing fit is that your clothing should have a defined shape as it drapes over your body. Even if you’re a bigger guy, you want clothes that don’t billow and sag. It is a common misconception that loose clothing makes a large man look better or provides a higher degree of comfort. In fact, the opposite is true. Clothing that is too loose is made to fit a different body type and will restrict movement.
Proper clothing length is the starting point of a good fit. Trousers should fall just far enough to “break” on your shoes: the cuff should rest slightly on the top of the shoe but not bundle up with excess cloth there. Jeans can be worn slightly longer as the bunching on a narrower cut spreads out better over the leg – but don’t be afraid to have them shortened and ask before purchasing if this is a service the store provides for free.
The waistband should rest comfortably right above your hips, around the natural waist (the narrowest point on your torso, usually). Jeans will fit lower at the trouser waist, as will many modern cut chinos and dress slacks. The lower cut is easy to pull off when your waist is smaller than your chest – once the reverse is true you need to seriously consider moving away from low-cut trousers as they will never stay up properly. Start thinking suspenders – they are a lot more practical and stylish than pulling up your pants every few minutes.
Shirt sleeves should extend far enough to cover your wrist bone when standing with your arms hanging down. Take a look at where the sleeve joins the shoulder too – that seam should fall neatly on the end of your body’s shoulder, not hanging down on your bicep. Jacket sleeves, if you wear one, should start in the same place and be just a touch shorter, so that a half-inch or so of shirt sleeve is visible beyond the cuff. Shirt length should be enough that you can tuck at least 2 inches in all around – less than that and your shirt will come un-tucked every time you stretch to grab something.
If the length of your clothing is sufficient, the next step is to ensure the clothing fits well circumference-wise or at least close enough so that a tailor can adjust it. A man’s clothing should fit close to the body with just enough slack to let you move comfortably.
Understand that the vast majority of men in the United States are accustomed to wearing their clothing too large, so when they wear clothing that actually fits, it may initially feel restrictive. Proceed towards closer fitting clothing with caution and ask a trusted friend to give you straight advice and feedback. You’ll find that you can adjust to the new fit and improved appearance quickly.
Pay special attention to the “rise” in the trousers – the distance between the waistband and the crotch seam. If the seam that joins the legs is hanging a few inches below your actual crotch, you’re going to get a saggy look that translates straight to your thighs and your bottom.
When buying a shirt, make sure it fits you in the shoulders – this isn’t something you want to adjust, as the needed tailoring will often cost more than the shirt itself. Next look at the fabric in the torso – most of us will find that if the neck and sleeve length are right, the torso looks like a balloon. The easiest way to avoid swimming in fabric is to buy either a slim cut dress shirt or go custom. Another option, if the problem isn’t too bad (3 inches or less) is to have a seamstress dart the dress shirt – basically tucking in the fabric semi-permanently with stitching.
Adjusting Your Clothing
It’s nearly impossible to find off-the-rack menswear that fits perfectly. Take the time to find a tailor that you like and get to know him or her. Small adjustments to clothing (shortening sleeves, taking the waist of a shirt in some, etc.) are fairly inexpensive and will make all the difference in how you look. Getting rid of eye-grabbing extra fabric and saggy clothing is absolutely the best way a man can update his business casual style.
Step 2: Improve Your Color Scheme
The “corporate drone” look is easy to spot: khaki trousers and a white or blue dress shirt. This combination is safe because it’s so common. However if you’re reading this, you’re likely not interested in looking like everyone else. So let’s discuss how small changes in color and pattern can separate you from the “Dilberts” at your office.
Start with the dress shirts. White and various shades of blue are the safe standbys we see 95% of men wear. Instead of these, try pastel colors in lavender, yellow, ecru, tan, or pink. These light canvases are easy to match with a wide variety of trousers, ties, and jackets and instantly set you apart in a crowd. But why stop there? Change the solid single-color look for a patterned shirt – stripes are fine for any business casual environment and checks are acceptable in many situations outside of conservative corporations, finance, and the legal profession.
Only light khakis in your wardrobe? Try a deeper brown, olive, or even summer white cotton. Or switch it up with a charcoal gray wool for a dressier look – lightweight wool for the warmer months and flannel in the fall and winter. For the more adventurous man, patterned trousers in a check or small pattern will add a punch of interest to a solid white or blue shirt.
Dark jeans – in a deep, un-faded indigo – may be acceptable in some workplaces, and if they are, they’re a great addition to your wardrobe as they match almost anything. Keep your denim dark, free of distress, and well-fitted.
Your day-to-day office wear shouldn’t be restricted to plain black dress shoes and a black belt. Consider a light, buttery brown pair of slip-ons to wear with lighter trousers, and reddish oxblood leather bluchers to wear with your charcoal grey flannel trousers.
Step 3: Avoid Cheap Looking Clothing
Notice I’m not saying to avoid inexpensive clothing – there are many bargains to be had out there. But you want to avoid cheap clothing – clothing that contains poor quality fabrics that are uncomfortable, function badly, and make you look like a time traveler from 1973.
Fabric and Texture
A glance at the composition of the clothing is a good starting point. Anything that has a substantial amount of artificial fibers like polyester or rayon – more than 15% or so – is going to develop a slick, plastic-looking sheen over time. It’s also a good sign that the manufacturer was cutting corners. A bit of man-made fiber in the blend, done properly, can strengthen a garment and help with wrinkle and stain-resistance. Large percentages – over 40% – point toward cost-saving measures.