How to Build an Interchangeable Wardrobe

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For the man with an unlimited budget, style is easy. The rest of us have to work a little harder to look good with the cash we have.

A key wardrobe concept for any man is interchangeability.

It sounds complicated and tedious, but it’s a very simple idea.

An interchangeable wardrobe is one with fewer specific pieces, but many possible clothing combinations.

That is to say, each piece you purchase works with the maximum number of other pieces, allowing you to mix and match in a variety of ways.

Building an interchangeable wardrobe isn’t a one-time project. You don’t just go out and buy one at the store. So treat this as a long-term goal, and in fact almost a mindset, rather than a quick fix for your look!

Work With What You Have – Check Your Current Closet

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Take an honest inventory of your existing style.

Look through your drawers and your closet and see what you have to work with, including the old pieces that you haven’t worn in a while. Some of those might be surprisingly easy to repurpose while others are destined for the thrift store or the trash heap.

Do a realistic assessment and adjust your existing wardrobe as needed:

  • Throw out the obvious losers. Anything that doesn’t fit (and can’t be adjusted to fit) needs to go, not just to the back of the closet but to the trash or a thrift store, so that you won’t be tempted to try to include it in an outfit someday. “What was I thinking?” pieces that you can’t bring yourself to wear with anything else in your wardrobe can probably also go — don’t fall for a “sunken costs” fallacy by wearing a bad style just because you bought it and it’s still in useable shape.
  • Pull anything that needs repairs or adjustments while you’re looking through your options. Make a pile and get it seen to — that way you take care of all of the “I should have someone fix that some day” tailoring jobs in one go. To be interchangeable, clothes have to be in decent repair. A frayed hem doesn’t go with anything!
  • Think about repurposed styles. Maybe you don’t wear an old suit anymore because the pants don’t fit — but if the jacket still fits, see if you can dress it down with jeans for an urban-casual look. A lot of pieces can have a second life as a funky accent once they’ve served their time as a wardrobe staple.

Be thinking about the common themes that tie your wardrobe together as you do this. Are there a lot of work clothes? Business dress items? Sports jackets?

The items and styles that you have a lot of will determine, to some extent, what you should be shopping for in the future. If the only shirts you own are T-shirts and flannel work shirts, for example, there’s no sense in running out and buying sharkskin wool slacks — they don’t go with any of your shirts.

In a case like that, a man would need to buy shirts to bridge the gap between his current wardrobe and his desired wardobe. Someone who’s starting with nothing but jeans and T-shirts, for example, can branch out into casual dress shirts that go with jeans — but that will also look fine with nicer trousers, should he choose to add them at some point.

Pick Your “Core” Items

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An interchangeable wardrobe is a lot easier to build when you’ve got a half-dozen to a dozen basic staple pieces that go with everything.

These aren’t necessarily exciting on their own, but they make you look good, and they serve as a neutral framework for more unique accent pieces.

Everyone’s core items are going to be a little different. That’ll be a part of defining your own personal style. But here are a few can’t-go-wrong staples that just about every man should consider owning for purposes of interchangeability:

  • A dark suit, navy or charcoal. I can’t think of a reason why any successful man shouldn’t own at least one well-fitted, timelessly classic suit.
  • A really solid pair of jeans. Sturdy, simple, and dark, with a nice close (but not tapered) fit.
  • A sport jacket made from a fabric that does not look like it comes from a suit. Brown, blue, olive, tan — in muted patterns are all options. Practice wearing it – you’ll learn to love what it does for your confidence and how it affects the attitude of others.
  • Five solid or small-patterned light-colored dress shirts (white and light blues). You could wear it with a suit for the most formal business setting imaginable, or you could wear it with jeans on a cattle ranch. It’ll work for pretty much everything in between, too. Now that’s versatility.
  • A lightweight, conservative (grey, navy, olive), solid-colored sweater. The quintessential layering item. Goes with everything. See what we mean about sweaters here.
  • At least two pairs of dress pants. Grey flannel, tan, medium-grey worsted wool, or khaki. A pair of well-fitted chinos or cords is a third option – but these are more casual, so make sure they suit your needs.
  • Two pairs of casual shoes. Pick your style (brogues, work shoes, dress boots, loafers, saddle shoes, etc.), but have ‘em. This is how you dress up jeans, or dress down nicer outfits. Click here for a refresher on footwear.

Are you getting the idea of interchangeability? Simple, sturdy, and functional are your key words here — styles and qualities that’ll last you for years.

Not everything has to be as plain as Amish country, mind you, even in the core wardrobe. Your “plain white dress shirt” can realistically be something with a light stripe or check pattern instead, if you prefer. It won’t serve for ultra-formal business dress, but it’ll do for everything else, and look a little more interesting in casual outfits.

Price can also be kept under control by thrifting or asking family for gifts/gently used items. I know men who have assembled all the above for less than $100. Read more about how to build a wardrobe inexpensively.

The goal is to build your core around things that will play nice with others, not to eliminate all uniqueness from your wardrobe staples.

The end result?

  • 2 pairs of shoes
  • 3 trousers
  • 5 shirts
  • 2 jackets (we’ll double that navy suit as a blazer)

2 X 3 X 5 X 2 = 60 unique outfits from a simple wardrobe. 

Add in neckties, pocket squares, the suit, and sweater…we could turn this into 300+ outfits.

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