I can’t believe, after all this time on Iron & Tweed, I haven’t talked directly about something I think is the basis of great style.
I’ve written guides and reviews and provided examples of all kinds of ways to wear different pieces.
I’ve talked about what happens when you reinvent your style.
And yet I’ve never really detailed one of my core style philosophies.
Real style relies on the principle of “wardrobe building” and works in opposition to mindless consumerism.
Rather than filling an expendable wardrobe with disjointed, specialized, stand alone items, I want to encourage men to acquire pieces that build upon each other.
I want to advocate for a versatile wardrobe.
A versatile wardrobe is one that’s minimal, universally appropriate, cost effective, and exquisitely curated.
Each piece in your versatile wardrobe will ideally work with nearly every other item.
Did I mention it’ll make you feel like a million bucks on a daily basis?
What can you do with a versatile wardrobe?
A versatile wardrobe is a lot like a well organized toolbox.
With it, you’ll be able to quickly and effectively collect and present the best possible version of yourself.
A versatile wardrobe takes a lot of the guesswork out of getting dressed in the morning, regardless of what lies ahead.
Always be appropriately dressed
With the typical everyman’s wardrobe, he often finds himself either severely over or woefully under dressed and rarely in that “just right” zone.
But when you have a versatile wardrobe, dress codes become less black and white.
Your casual clothes will be easily dressed up and your dress clothes will easily pair with less formal items.
You don’t have to decide between your one-and-only wedding/interview outfit or jeans and a t-shirt because you’ll be comfortable dressing in-between.
Having clothes that exist only at either extreme is usually associated with discomfort and unfamiliarity.
For example, if you only wear a tie to special events, chances are you’ll be tugging at your collar like a stifled teenager.
But when you have a versatile wardrobe, you’ll be accustomed to dressing in a smart, casual nature and won’t have to get as “dressed up” to make yourself presentable.
With your versatile wardrobe, you’ll be able to wear dark jeans and a sport coat to the office by day, then ditch the jacket and tie to seamlessly transition to after hours activities.
Take advantage of cost per wear
A pair of patent leather shoes is undeniably the most appropriate shoe for black tie events.
But are they versatile if you wear them once per year?
Let’s say you drop $300 on this pair of shoes and wear them once. That comes to $300 per wear.
That’s just bad economics in my book.
It makes a lot more sense to buy a versatile pair of black shoes that, with a quick polish, can support a black tie ensemble, but can also be worn for any business occasion or as a component of a smart, casual look.
Wearing these shoes even once per week brings the cost per wear down from $300 to about $5 in the first year alone.
And considering a pair of shoes of this caliber can easily last 5-10 years if cared for properly, the cost per wear becomes almost nonexistent.
This clothing-based “economies of scale” can apply equally to most pieces in your wardrobe.
Jeans, boots, leather jackets, and accessories all get “cheaper” the more you wear them.
So it’s important to focus on acquiring versatile pieces.
If you load up on trendy items on a whim, they sit in the back of your closet and haunt you like bad investments.
I used to actually get a sick feeling in my stomach every time I would catch sight of a shirt or pair of sneakers I’d purchased but didn’t wear because they weren’t “me”.
I felt trapped by my possessions, but I couldn’t get rid of them – they were expensive, after all.
Avoid this situation by building the foundation of your wardrobe with highly wearable, down-the-middle pieces.
Enjoy your favorite pieces
If properly chosen, the same pair of shoes can be worn with jeans as well as with a suit.
This versatility gives you the opportunity to develop a relationship with your favorite items.
Some will call that consumerism at its worst, but I call it an appreciation for expert craftsmanship and the ability to enjoy the finer things in life.
Buy higher quality goods and consume less.
When you consistently wear your favorite pieces, they get better and better.
Leather accumulates scuffs and develops creases, denim fades, collars fray, and everything gets more comfortable.
If my house were on fire, I definitely wouldn’t bother trying to save any of my new clothing items.
Those can be easily replaced with insurance money.
But what about my perfectly broken-in Red Wing 877’s?
I made sacrifices breaking those in. They’re unique. I have memories with them. They’re irreplaceable. They’re mine.
I’d be sad to see them go.
When your wardrobe is composed of pieces you can actually wear day-to-day, nothing ever gets pushed to the back of the closet.
You’ll find that you need much less when your acquisitions are versatile.
You’ll no longer need a collection of shirts for going out, another rotation for the office, several for casual wear, and a few more for special events.
Just 5-10 button front shirts should be all that the majority of us will ever need.
I like to think of my closet as a display case, rather than an expansive storage bin.
Ideally, you’d be able to open your closet door and see every article of clothing at the same time.
Your hangers should have room to slide back and forth and shelves shouldn’t ever be stuffed.
Develop a sense of pride in your creation
My perfect shoe rotation, lovingly polished.
When you build a versatile wardrobe, you’ll stop thinking in terms of individual pieces and come to see it as a whole, a singular project.
Your wardrobe will be a stable and reliable, but ever-evolving creation.
One of my favorite aspects of traveling is being able to pack very little clothing while still having the necessities to dress appropriately for every occasion.
I plan for everything from hiking trails, going to the beach, drinking at dive bars, and dining at upscale sushi restaurants.
I constantly pat myself on the back for seeking out and procuring pieces so versatile that I can carry only a loosely packed duffle bag for week-long excursions.
It isn’t bragging, but rather the satisfaction of a job well done.
When you start to take pride in your creation, you’ll even start to view little things like shoe storage as being more about displaying your collection than simple organization.
Make you more discerning
Once you have the foundation of your versatile wardrobe in place and the accompanied sense of pride, new items will have a tough time earning their place amongst your elite wardrobe ranks.
When thinking about new pieces, they’ll have to be just as good, if not better than the items you currently have.
If you already have a pair of white sneakers and enjoy wearing them every chance you get, another pair must be good enough to replace your current pair or be significantly different before the purchase can be made.
You won’t allow any undeserving item to take away the opportunity to wear your favorite pieces.
If you want to take a strict minimalist approach, set the rule that you can’t purchase a similar item unless you’re willing to part with another.
In that same vein, if an item no longer serves its intended purpose or becomes too specific in function, you’ll be better prepared to cull the herd.
Versatility allows you to free up the closet (and mental) space by selling or donating infrequently worn items.
6 Pillars of a versatile wardrobe
Once you realize everything there is to be gained from building a versatile wardrobe, you’re left with the obvious question:
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when shopping for new pieces.
Lean toward classic design
When I’m watching a movie set in London during the Industrial Revolution and I catch a glimpse of a gentleman wearing a pair of boots that could be an exact copy of my Allen Edmonds Daltons, I can’t help but smile.
Because I’ve chosen a style of boot that looked good 140 years ago, looks great now, and will hold its status as the years go on.
Men have it fairly easy, after all. Menswear hasn’t changed drastically in the last two hundred years or so.
Sure, some proportions shrink and others swell, color palettes change a little from one decade to the next, but the basics remain fairly constant.
If properly chosen and cared for, a suit can be worn for decades, and shoes a lifetime.
This, of course, applies only if you avoid overly trendy designs for the foundation of your wardrobe.
The wide lapel, baby blue polyester suits from the 1970’s looked awesome in the moment, but didn’t age very well.
That’s just what happens when you attempt to stay up to the minute.
It’s perfectly fine, essential really, to experiment and have fun with trendy items.
But reserve the experimentation for inexpensive purchases.
Keep color palettes simple and elegant
There isn’t anything boring about white, gray, and navy, as long as everything else is spot on.
Men tend to look best dressed primarily in neutrals, with limited pops of color.
That’s why business suits are dark, shirts are white, and the tie adds a little personality.
Something that always sticks with me is how friends used to describe men’s style icon, Cary Grant.
“One was left with the impression that he was impeccably dressed, but couldn’t recall exactly what he was wearing.”
This is how people should remember you – as the well dressed man.
Not as that guy in the orange sweater.
As far as versatility is concerned, keeping color selections limited helps your pieces work with the rest of your wardrobe.
A stop sign red sweater isn’t going to be nearly as versatile as a gray v-neck.
Aim to buy quality
Like me, these shoes were made in the 80’s. A testament to the durability of shell cordovan.
The only way to build a truly versatile wardrobe is to have it evolve organically.
And that means some pieces are going to have to stick around long enough to be the upperclassmen of your wardrobe.
When shopping for new items, you need that base of tried and true pieces to give you stability and direction.
Quality doesn’t have to mean outrageously expensive, but you’ll have to look around to find that middle ground.
I have a pair of jeans that I wore about 4 days per week for over 3 years, and only when my thigh expanded significantly from squatting did they start to give out at the crotch.
I bought them from H&M for only $20!
But you won’t always be able to find the perfect items for next to nothing unless you’re willing to hit the resale shops and gamble with online auctions.
But taking the above mentioned cost per wear factor into account, these are still a better deal than having a constant influx of fast fashion pieces.
Get to know your tailor
I hear it from skinny, muscular, and fat guys alike. “Nothing fits!”
I’ve yet to meet someone who could just walk up to a clothing rack and pick up perfect fitting items on a consistent basis.
Since this is the case for nearly everyone, it’s a good idea to have your clothing items tailored.
But if you’re buying new clothes every week and donating them at the end of the season, it hardly makes financial sense.
With the idea of buying better, and not simply more, clothing that will stand the test of time in regard to both durability and style, you’re able to make the investment necessary to ensure the items fit perfectly.
You have the security of knowing that it’ll be with you for the long haul.
Do your homework
This is easy for me to say because I get an inordinate amount of pleasure researching different styles, designs, and brands of clothing.
Have I ever mentioned that I love my job?
But even if you don’t lie awake at night contemplating the perfect suit wardrobe, research is still an essential part of finding out what pieces are the most versatile, and avoiding buyer’s remorse.
I can’t tell you how many articles and forum posts I read to make my first major dress shoe purchase.
One of the easiest ways to figure out exactly what you like is to mimic photos of men already successfully pulling off the look you aspire to.
If you don’t already, I suggest you open a Pinterest account and peruse my inspiration boards to get an idea of just how useful a collection of photos can be.
That’s exactly how I get a lot of my ideas.
Build your wardrobe with YOUR life in mind
I feel like I harp on this a little too much, but it’s really important.
When I was in high school (in a working class town that turned sour when the jobs dwindled), I would spend hours scanning the Ralph Lauren website dreaming of a kick ass wardrobe.
But the looks I admired, even though they were great, didn’t fit with my age or location.
If you live in a rural area, brown leather shoes and accessories will likely work better than black. The opposite is true for the metropolitan.
In the rural environment, a pair of cleanly designed work boots will carry you from the outdoors to the nicest restaurant in town, while a pair of monk straps will fill that void for a young guy in New York.
If you’re an accomplished businessman living in a high rise, silk/cashmere sweaters in dark colors will be more appropriate than chunky wool in earth tones. Save that look for the rugged gentleman.
For the beginner, I think it’s important to experiment with some more affordable items to nail down your personal style.
You’ll learn what you like, what you don’t like, and what you like but doesn’t fit with your lifestyle.
Once you get this diagnostic process out of the way, you can tackle the end goal of building a rotation of pieces that you love to wear.
And once you’ve established your versatile wardrobe, you’ll have the pleasure of enjoying it day after day for years to come.
You may even come to view your wardrobe like an old friend who helps you to be the best version of yourself.
All the best,