So you’ve woken up, opened your wardrobe, and decided it’s not where you want it to be. This guide is designed to help you through the murky and quite daunting task of a wardrobe overhaul.
It’s important to understand that this guide is evolutionary, not revolutionary – there are basic principles to follow that will hold fast even as styles change. This is also not a shopping list, as listing items you must buy defeats the purpose of this exercise of reworking your wardrobe – you should look to find your own personal interests in style, and build upon them. You will never feel comfortable wearing clothes that don’t appeal to you. Thus, this guide is aimed at taking you through the basic principles, giving you some recommendations on what to look at (and what not to look at), and some potential ideas for you to consider. This will lean towards the casual side of things, but I have included a short business section where you will find some hints regarding proms or interviews.
Before you think about purchasing anything, there are a few concepts that you have to first understand.
The number one most important thing is how the clothes fit on you. Ill-fitting items will always look bad, regardless of how interesting or good-looking the garment is. Take your time to understand good fit, and you’re half way there. There are a number of principles you can follow – simple things like having the shoulder seam of clothing hitting the end of your shoulder, and having items that follow the form of your body, rather than be too restrictive or baggy.
There is a sweet spot you will find. Finding an item you really like the fit of and taking its measurements will certainly be a useful tool. I urge you to take a look at an up-to-date fit guide for a deeper look into this.
Of course, there are many situations where clothing with a slouchy fit works. But here you are learning to walk before you run, so it is important to really nail good fit before bending the rules to suit your personal style – something you should build and experiment with once you have the basics down.
Something beginners struggle with relates to over-complicating what they are wearing. By this, I mean matching patterns and colours incorrectly, which can make any outfit jarring regardless of the fit, or buying busy items that are difficult to work with. Often, the simplest items combine together to make the best outfits.
When starting out, you want to play on the idea of subtlety. Think of a slightly subdued colour palette, as these colours lend themselves towards versatility. You can pair navy, earthy greens and solid tans much more easily than you can stark reds and bright blues and yellows. That’s not to say bright colours can’t work, but again, it is worth really understanding colour-matching before utilising statement pieces. Similarly, using dark colours in a range of colour tones – black-grey-white being a classic example – are also easy to pull together into an outfit, whilst maintaining this idea of contrast that you want to create.
As a general rule of thumb for beginners, it is useful to create a nice contrast between top and bottom. Darker trousers with a lighter shirt allows for a simple contrast that works well. This is a principle you can also look to for layering – slightly different tones of colour for tee and jacket make for a nice combination. Similar contrasts can be created with different textures as well – smooth cotton denim with a wool jacket, for example, is a classic way of creating a subtle contrast even if the colours aren’t very different.
Once understood, you can look into other colour palettes – greyscale monochrome looks are quite popular without being overly taxing to create. Beyond this, you can begin to mix in patterns, textures and starker colour contrasts (or no colour contrast at all) as you begin to understand how to pair such things. Then you can move on to developing your own personal style. /u/HugAndWug has created a useful write-up on the topic.
Building A Wardrobe
As stated, this isn’t a shopping list but rather a way to give you some ideas on what to look for when building a basic yet versatile wardrobe. One thing I urge you to do before plunging into this is to take your time – mull over items, think how they will work with your other items, and when you’re convinced of their versatility in a number of different outfits, make the purchase. This cautious approach will save you a lot of money and frustration.
Let’s break the wardrobe down a little for ease of consumption. I’m assuming you live somewhere with seasons – if not, adapt where necessary.
When the sun is out, you want a good selection of light options. Get some solid plain crewneck tees in white, grey and natural colours, as they are a staple for layering and general wear. If you can find some with slight texture or visual interest, that’s also a bonus, but notice that it is still a simple item. Same for polo shirts – simple, well-fitting polos can work very well under a light jacket, and with a range of bottoms.
For shirts, you can’t go wrong with some casual oxford cloth button down shirts (OCBDs). Neutral colours are perfect for pairing with anything from jeans to shorts. However, it’s worth looking at other options as well. Linen shirts offer a bit more visual interest, and are particularly good in high temperatures. They give a more relaxed and casual feel. Another good option is chambray.
If you want to move away from solid colour items and have a bit more fun in the summer months, I suggest subtly patterned shirts such as a darker floral, polka-dots, or thinly striped/seersucker styles. These patterned items also work well as short sleeved shirts (though be aware that the fit of short-sleeve shirts needs to be spot on for it to work well). Notice that the patterns recommended are still subtle, and thus offer good versatility.
As it gets colder, it is easier to experiment with different textures. For shirts, try out flannels – soft and warm, these are inherently casual. They do come in solid colours, though are mostly seen in plaid patterns. See what you like – they work well in almost all casual contexts.
If you want something a little warmer, look for an overshirt. These tend to be thicker and made of heavy flannel or wool. Whilst not a necessity, it offers an alternative to a thick sweatshirt or jacket.
For an extra layer, you simply can’t go wrong with a heather grey sweatshirt or zip-up hoody. Simple but extremely versatile, and will go with practically anything for when it’s blustery or a bit cooler in the evening. With sweatshirts, you can go with any colour you see fit really, as they are a simple, throw-it-on-and-go sort of item. Just keep in mind the principles of contrast when starting out.
For something more substantial, grab a thicker wool crew neck jumper. Also available in a variety of colours, I’d suggest earthier, natural tones that generally work well in cooler times (think olives, browns, naturals, greys). These offer some interesting visual texture as well as extra warmth but don’t overpower a simple fit.
There are plenty of good warm-weather jacket options. One of the best looks which pop up a lot are bomber jackets. These offer a classic silhouette that can be chucked on top of most things. These look fantastic in black and work very well in monochromatic outfits, but also look good in other colours.
Similarly, a denim jacket is a solid choice. Now as a beginner, it can be easy to get this wrong – when starting out, getting a trucker style jacket that fits well, but is a different tone to your bottom half (contrasting) is a solid choice. It may also help to avoid jeans when wearing one to begin with. This can also look great, but learn the rules before you break them.
You will need a cold-weather jacket. One of the best casual options is a parka, which is a slightly long, hooded rain jacket, often with insulation. It is an inherently casual option that will go with everything. Again, earthy tones are your best choice for versatility. You can also grab thinner ones for the warmer months.
I think another great and versatile option is a dark overcoat, which has the potential to look great. This item works well for a beginner because it can be very easily dressed up and down, offers interesting visual texture, and will introduce you to a slightly different silhouette to which you might not be used to. It’s a chance to open up your horizons a bit.
With the bottom half, there are a few staples that you really do have to have, especially when starting out. First are jeans. You should look for a dark indigo pair with no distressing, as it looks clean. Focus on fit with these – try on a bunch of different pairs until you get one that fits you just right. Your preference for fit is up to you. I have quite skinny calves but am more sizeable up top, so I prefer a slim tapered silhouette. The best thing to do is try a bunch of different Levi’s cuts and find the one you find most flattering.
After solid blue jeans, you might want to look into a black pair. They’ll be virtually just as versatile, and can allow lighter items such as white shoes or shirts an opportunity to contrast.
Chinos – you’ll never go wrong with a couple of pairs of chinos, which are flat-fronted, cotton twill trousers. My recommendation would be a navy and tan pair. These items will always come in handy casually, and are easy to dress up when the time comes.
If you want to look into some more interesting items, lighter, stonewashed jeans can be really useful in providing contrast against a darker top half, and look great in the summer. However, a word of caution – fit and colour of these has to be considered carefully in order to avoid poorly distressed jeans. You want to look for a light pair with fairly uniform distressing all over, in order to avoid something like this.
When the temperature skyrockets, you’ll want some shorts. Buy these like you’d buy your chinos – simple, flat-fronted and versatile colours. Generally, pairs that strike above the knee look far more flattering than those that sit at or below. Look for shorts with a 9” inseam or less, but make sure you try them on! You’ll very much benefit from slim fitting shorts as well, which conform to the shape of your legs without restricting them.
Once you’ve nailed these, you can then start looking into options beyond a basic wardrobe, such as wool trousers or slim-fitting cargo pants. Once you are ready, you’ll understand better what direction you want to go in.
What’s on your feet is a very crucial part of your outfit. Get it wrong and it can really kill your look. It’s important to understand that with shoes, the idea of simplicity is of paramount importance. Overly busy shoes tend to look messy unless you know what you’re doing with them.
Regarding sneakers it is very apparent that a simple, clean white shoe is very easy to work into any outfit – it provides an attractive contrast on the bottom half. Grab some Vans, Converse, PF Flyers, Adidas Stan Smiths, or whatever takes your fancy – they’ll be really useful. Alternatively, another good choice are grey sneakers. Similarly easy to utilise in almost any outfit.
I think one of the best options for anyone to invest in is a good pair of leather boots. Again, to begin with, the simpler the better and easier they are to work with. However, as footwear is very subjective, I really urge you to read this beginner’s boot buying guide. It has practically every high-quality option at different price points. If these are all above your budget (which would be understandable), take the looks from them that you do like, and seek out fast fashion options that will suit.
Regarding leather shoes, again, it is very subjective. However, you can’t go wrong with a simple brown leather/suede derby. These literally go with anything, including shorts. You can find decent cheaper options from J. Crew and Bass, as well as many other fashion retailers.
Often, beginners come looking for advice on suiting for interviews etc. Suiting is a different and very complex world that requires a lot of knowledge to get very right.
The main principle you should understand when grabbing your first suit and wanting to look good is (as always) simplicity. The fit is imperative, and far more important than the quality of the patterns you utilise.
If you are looking to make a great impression, grab a dark navy or dark grey/charcoal suit. Wear a solid white or light blue dress shirt. Pair it with a simple patterned tie in a dark colour, like a navy or forest green. Wear some simple black or dark brown cap toe oxfords. Job done. That is as basic as it gets, but it should get you started.
So, where should I buy these things?
Almost all fashion retailers sell the basics. You just need to find which fit you best. Here’s a run down of some places to look at. Again, not exhaustive, and if you have others to add, please leave them below!
Target (specifically Merona stuff)
Next (more UK-based)
HE by Mango (UK)
Levi’s (if in the US/Canada)
LL Bean (good for winter)
(you get the idea…)
A little more
And for when you start getting more interested in what you buy and what you like, you can ogle the options at
The Bureau Belfast
Many many other high-end retailers.
Still need inspiration?
So there you are, a basic wardrobe in a nutshell.