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How to Build a Wardrobe From Scratch (15 Menswear Essentials)

13 min

If you're trying to build a wardrobe from scratch, you have come to the right place! Dressing well doesn't have to be difficult and shouldn't require spending tons of money. This article covers fifteen menswear essentials that will cover you for virtually any occasion.

How would you build a minimalist wardrobe from scratch?

Before we answer that question, it's essential to specify the kind of wardrobe I'm talking about. As we all develop our style, what we decide to fill our closets with will inevitably vary based on differing tastes.

Regardless of our starting point, I think every man can benefit from beginning with a timeless and classic neutral-colored wardrobe that serves as a solid foundation for adding future garment pieces. In other words, we ought to prioritize the items that will get continual use and won't be in danger of going out of style.

The fashion industry relies on the shifting of trends, but despite that fact, there are some classic pieces that we can take comfort in knowing will stand the test of time and survive the coming and going of those trends.

Following this article, I will include pictures from my style archive showcasing outfit combinations that I assembled consisting only of the items in this list. This is meant to showcase the versatility and interchangeability I will soon describe.

1. WHITE MINIMALIST SNEAKERS

The type of footwear I naturally gravitate towards the most often is a pair of white minimalist sneakers because of their versatility.

If you have a suit that fits you well, accompanied by the build that compliments it, you can get away with a gray or navy suit paired with a clean and elegant pair of leather sneakers. The key is to select a pair devoid of any apparent branding or additional colors that stick out, especially from a distance (with a few exceptions).

What makes this item so excellent is the sheer number of outfit combinations that it allows for. When it comes to white sneakers, there's a pair for everyone. Whether you opt for budget-friendly $100 or premium $450 variants, a pair at almost any price point will work wonders for every man. Just remember to take care of them; they'll certainly care for you.

If you're looking for a pair of white sneakers and not trying to break the bank, check out my top picks for the five best budget white sneakers here.

2. BROWN OXFORD DRESS SHOES

Every man should have a pair of dress shoes to counterbalance the casual nature of the white minimalist sneaker. This is essential because it is the ideal foot decorum for a standard two-piece suit (more on this later).

Throw on a pair of dark wash jeans or some khaki-colored chinos, and you can see the versatility on display here. Owning a pair of these ensures you're covered for some formal occasions, whether an impromptu event or a wedding for your friend. Now, you have a handsome and interchangeable pair of kicks to dress up and down (but don't go too crazy).

3. BROWN LACE-UP BOOTS

Fall is synonymous with boots. The necessity for a stylish and quality pair of boots will largely depend on where you live. If you reside somewhere like Southern California, a solid argument can be made that you don't need a pair of these (functionally speaking).

If you live somewhere like Vermont, where copious amounts of snow are prevalent throughout Winter, owning a quality and even rugged pair of boots often proves essential. I, however, would argue that a pair of brown lace-up boots, regardless of where you reside, are an excellent investment as they enhance your wardrobe in various ways. The primary appeal is the functionality, but a great pair of lace-up boots in tobacco, hickory, or coffee (a.k.a. darker brown colors) will help you stand out during the Fall and Winter seasons by elevating your style.

4. DARK-WASH JEANS

Much like owning a pair of white minimalist sneakers, I firmly believe every man should own a pair of slim-tapered dark-wash jeans. If I need to travel for work or pleasure, I immediately grab these because I can combine them with many other garments.

Why a trim or tapered fit?

Because this is often going to flatter your physique the best. Jeans that are too baggy, especially around the glutes and calves, do nothing to help you look more athletic or taller in the case of shorter men. If you make a point to stay in shape, this is all the more reason to show that physique off by wearing items that complement your body.

If you are on the hefty side, take care not to go too slim with your selection of denim, as this could backfire and make you look silly instead of stylish.

A general rule of thumb for wearing pants is that the heftier you are, the more straight or classic of a cut and fit you want to opt for.

I believe in trying the slimmer fits, but intuition can go a long way here. If it doesn't look right, it most likely isn't—all the more reason to commit to a well-balanced exercise and nutrition routine.

For more information on how to start a fitness and nutrition routine, click here.

5. MEDIUM-WASH JEANS

There isn't much to say about this one. A classic, well-fitting pair of jeans in a medium wash is just something you should have. For many of the same reasons I mentioned for the darker wash denim, I believe this is a quality and relatively inexpensive piece that you can get a lot of mileage out of.

The only area you'll be very limited in is pairing these pants with something like dress shoes. You should only pair oxfords with darker-wash denim because the medium wash comes off as more casual and can look silly if you decide to wear more formal pieces with them, trust me.

We are already taking certain liberties by pairing dress shoes with denim jeans, and a darker look for the trousers can help maintain that clean and "well-put-together" appearance far better than the classic blue of the medium wash denim.

Pair these with a sweater, a polo, or an oxford cotton button-down (OCBD), along with those versatile white sneakers I mentioned before.

6. KHAKI CHINOS

A solid chino is about as versatile as it gets for pants. Dress them up or down; you will quickly find that a solid pair of chinos is a timeless and reliable staple for any man's wardrobe. Ensure that you understand that "chinos" are the pants style and that "khaki" is the color.

When people use the term "khakis" to describe chinos, they aren't necessarily wrong, as they are often used interchangeably. Your first pair of chinos should be khaki because you'll find that these more easily slide between different outfits and will stand the test of time. Throw on a blazer or tuck in a dress shirt with an unbuttoned collar, and you're ready for the office or your high-school reunion.

On the flip side, ditch the formal shirts or outerwear and throw on a plain white crewneck t-shirt or a casual polo, and you're ready for a night out with friends or a casual date with that special lady. Remember, we want options in our closets and not just outfits.

7. WHITE & BLACK CREWNECK T-SHIRTS

It's relatively easy to purchase both of these in combined packaging; however, you can get away with a lot just by owning one (but if you own both, then you're really in business).

I still meet a lot of men who deny the power in the simplicity of the "plain white tee," but I am here to tell you that when your clothes fit you well and your shirt is complemented by a great pair of pants that flatter your physique, then it doesn't matter how simply you are dressing. So long as it is appropriate for the setting, you can get much out of very little. Remember that a simple look like this can be made or broken by the footwear you decide to throw on, so make a wise choice for your shoes!

8. BLACK OR NAVY POLO

Go with black or go with navy; it doesn't matter. A polo shirt is a classic piece that looks awesome with a nice pair of khakis or jeans. Tuck it in and throw on a belt, or let it hang out for an even more casual look, whichever suits your style (but, more importantly, the occasion). Great for dates, church, family dinners (depending on your family), or a pleasant stroll through your local park.

9. WHITE OXFORD CLOTH BUTTON-DOWN (OCBD) SHIRT

Words matter here. When I say a button-up shirt, I refer to any shirt that buttons up the front. When I say button-down shirt, I refer to any buttoned shirt with a collar that can also be buttoned down. Men should have at least one oxford cloth button-down (OCBD) shirt, preferably white. Whether you wear it with jeans, chinos, under a blazer, or even as an overshirt surrounding your crewneck t-shirt, the OCBD is as versatile as it is classic.

Why should we be able to button down the collar?

Because when we put the next item on our list over it, the collar remains intact.

10. GRAY CREW NECK SWEATER

Sticking with neutral colors, a gray sweater is another must-have, preferably of the crewneck variety. If a v-neck is more your speed, then, by all means, go for it, but for layering purposes, I find that you can generally get more mileage out of a crewneck when you throw any variety of outerwear on top. If you want a more astute appearance, take that OCBD and wear the sweater over it.

Paired with some handsome eyeglasses, and voila! You look like you could be the most intelligent guy in the room (even if you're not). Functionally speaking, a sweater affords you some much-needed warmth if you are somewhere that demands the extra layers, and on its own, it serves as a clean and sleek piece.

Get yourself a solid gray or light charcoal-colored sweater if you don't have one already.

11. A WELL-TAILORED SUIT

Remember, the fit is critical here. I am one of many traditionalists who will be among the first to tell you that a perfectly tailored suit is the most handsome thing a man can wear, full stop. Feel free to disagree, but most people will undoubtedly take notice and admire you when you are at an event where a suit is appropriate and it fits you perfectly.

If your boss is worth their salt, they will also notice. As for the color of the suit, black is painfully generic. Navy suits are far more versatile because they work well with brown and black dress shoes. Just remember that generally speaking, the darker the shade, the more formal the suit.

If that's not a color you're comfortable with, then gray or charcoal will do just fine. Again, these colors work well with those darker brown dress shoes we discussed earlier. If you like suits and want to build a collection over time, you can stick with the same brown oxfords to wear with dark navy, classic navy, charcoal, and gray suits (so long as you pick the right shade of brown for your dress shoes).

The point is to ensure you invest in a quality suit that fits you well. You'll be surprised how often you must wear it as an adult.

If you're unsure how a suit should adequately fit you, read my comprehensive guide here.

12. SOME FORM OF OUTERWEAR

Much like a pair of boots, your selection of outerwear will largely depend on where you live (geographically) and how well it pairs with the rest of your wardrobe.

I recommend a good old denim trucker jacket in a stone or darker wash. It's a classic look, quite comfortable, and very affordable. However, if you live somewhere that requires layers for warmth, either pile on more underneath or get something thicker and warmer to go over your primary outfits. Just don't freeze!

I attended college in the mountainous region of Vermont and remember how unforgiving the cold weather could be. So do what you need to to keep warm and comfortable.

13. A VERSATILE TIMEPIECE

The Timex Weekender is stylish, classic, and easily affordable.

I get it; not everyone wears a watch, which is always apparent when people ask others "what the time is." But possessing a versatile timepiece isn't just crucial for knowing the time of day; it also completes your outfit.

Believe it or not, some accessories can afford you that extra flair to augment your outfit further. Just like how you choose to dress, possessing a timepiece generally says something about you, i.e., a man who values time and keeps it in mind, etc.

The watch doesn't need to be expensive; however, it must be well made to last and remain interchangeable.

14. STYLISH SUNGLASSES

Like a watch, sunglasses are quintessential for elevating any man's style. Look at photos of men who wear a pair of shades when traveling. Need I say more?

When selecting a pair, the key is to opt for something that can work with virtually any outfit you have. Go with black or silver, and you're all set. Again, much like the timepiece, a pair of stylish sunglasses doesn't need to be expensive and have that high-end label slapped on the side.

If they look good on you, then they are good.

15. A BROWN LEATHER BELT

When selecting a belt, ensure that the color matches your dress shoes (those leather oxfords we included earlier in the list).

This isn't necessarily because your belt and shoes must always match, despite that rather "old-school" rule that has lived as the letter of the law for men's fashion for decades ("match your leathers").

When starting your wardrobe, you should cover the basics first and then work to identify your personal style later. Matching your leathers is a great way to create a lot of consistency in your outfits, so get a brown belt that matches your leather dress shoes and maintain it as a staple in your wardrobe when starting.

BUILD OPTIONS, NOT JUST OUTFITS

If you stick with these items, you can more than get by with virtually any event in your life. However, this is simply a start, and depending on where you are in life and where you may soon end up, you might need to consciously invest in more clothing articles (in fact, I recommend it).

But these fifteen items afford you numerous options in addition to outfits.

VARIOUS OUTFIT COMBINATIONS FROM THIS ARTICLE

Shades, White T-Shirt, Dark Jeans, White Sneakers
Shades, Black T-Shirt, Khaki Chinos, White Sneakers
Shades, Black T-Shirt, Dark Jeans, White Sneakers
Shades, Black T-Shirt, Dark Jeans, Lace-Up Boots
Shades, Gray Sweater, Dark Jeans, Lace-Up Boots
Shades, Gray Sweater, Dark Jeans, White Sneakers
Shades, White OCBD, Dark Jeans, Brown Oxford Dress-Shoes
Shades, White OCBD, Khaki Chinos, White Sneakers
Shades, Black Polo, Dark Jeans, White Sneakers
Shades, Black Polo, Khaki Chinos, White Sneakers
Denim Jacket, White OCBD, Dark Jeans, Lace-Up Boots
Denim Jacket, White OCBD, Gray Sweater, Khaki Chinos, White Sneakers
Shades, Denim Jacket, Gray Sweater, Khaki Chinos, White Sneakers
Shades, Denim Jacket, White OCBD, Khaki Chinos, Brown Lace-Up Boots 
Shades, Black T-Shirt, Denim Jacket, Dark Jeans, White Sneakers
White OCBD, Medium Wash Blue Jeans, White Sneakers
Shades, White OCBD, Dark Jeans, Brown Lace-Ups Boots
White OCBD, Gray Sweater, Dark Jeans, Brown Lace-Up Boots
Shades, White OCBD, Gray Sweater, Medium Wash Blue Jeans, White Sneakers
White OCBD, Gray Sweater, Dark Jeans, White Sneakers
White OCBD, Gray Sweater, Khaki Chinos, Brown Oxford Dress Shoes
White OCBD, Gray Sweater, Dark Jeans, Brown Oxford Dress Shoes
White T-Shirt, Gray Sweater, Khaki Chinos, Brown Lace-Up Boots
Shades, White OCBD, Gray Sweater, Khaki Chinos, White Sneakers
White T-Shirt, Gray Sweater, Khaki Chinos, White Sneakers
Navy Suit & Tie, Brown Oxford Dress Shoes

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