How to look nice on the cheap (Breaking into Men’s Fashion)

There are times when I’m in my favorite pair of Levi’s and a nerdy / geeky themed t-shirt (right now is one of those times), but other times I feel the situation requires a bit of effort.  Then it’s time to don a suit or spend a few minutes looking at sport coats and trousers.  One of the biggest arguments I get from most men is that they don’t have the money to spend on “nice” clothes.  Poppycock!  Right now I am wearing a pair of Levi’s I purchased new retail with an official Blizzard Hearthstone T-shirt and a pair of New Balance suede walking/jogging shoes.  This outfit cost me about $140.  I can go to my closet right now and put on a pair of slacks, sport coat, tie, tailored shirt, and loafers or oxford shoes that cost me the same or less.  A lot of men loose their mental footing when such a comparison is laid before them.  It’s not impossible or very hard, unless you are a larger sized man.  But I am a larger sized man (48L – 50L coat) and I can assure anybody out there that it is not impossible.  Yes, it can be a little more hard work and if you wait until you have to have a sport coat, you will be forced to pay more, but I’ll come to that in greater detail later.

Getting Started

So, you’re just getting started… Forget everything that your girlfriend has ever pointed out to you at the mall, forget everything every men’s fashion magazine has told you, and forget about price tags.  Ok, your mind is clear now right?  Great.  If you are really interested in saving the most money, also forget about having a complete dapper outfit for under $150 all at once.  It could happen, but you would be lucky.  It’s worth noting right now, that I will not include the price of socks in the budget wardrobe here.  I’m not buying second hand socks and most retail socks at good discount online with shipping are going to be about normal price anyways.  Here’s a very big tip: Do your research.  Research good brands.  No, not current popular brands.  Research older vintage brands.  This is essential when hitting the second hand stores, or estate sales.  Also, research your area for good tailors and cobblers (shoe makers/repairers).  You may find a tailor that’s really good at hemming pants at $5 a pair, but rubbish at anything else.  Take them your pants!  You may find a really good tailor that can slim down a sport coat to a more modern fit for you.  I’ve heard these can be easily found in military towns.  Look far and wide for a good cobbler.  Nice vintage shoes in poor repair could turn into your finest pair of shoes for $10.  You never know.

Second Hand Stores

Goodwill, Salvation Army, and other local sources can be HUGE treasure hunts.  For example, I pulled a $1,200 sport coat made in England for a friend, $5.00.  For myself I picked up a $250 shirt for $4.00.  Individual results may vary.  There are many sites and videos that can teach you how to tell a quality jacket from garbage.  I’m not going into that here.  Just understand that these things are layers all sandwiched together and the more layers or quality of these layers, the better the garment.  Just because the label says Made in USA, doesn’t mean it’s high quality either.  In my town, in my experience, what I’ve seen the most of are size 36R to 44L and everything in between for sport coats.  Suits are a little trickier to get at the chain stores like Goodwill.  This is because the trousers and jackets get separated when they are taken in and may not be displayed together.  Which means that one of them may be purchased separately.  It’s unfortunate.  So, you can sometimes see me reuniting these pieces, even if they aren’t remotely my size.  I just hope that the next guy appreciates it.  Ties are a definite hunt in the second hand stores, as most are polyester.  Don’t even think about picking them up… unless you’re 10 years old.  Later on I’ll have suggestions for getting a great tie.  Pants, trousers, slacks, whatever you call them, second hand stores are my go-to for them.  The most complimented pair of gray slacks I own came from Goodwill and cost me a whopping $7 because I didn’t wait for that particular sale day.  They didn’t even have to be hemmed!  Keep your eyes open and go with a spending limit.  Also, have a second hand buddy in another town.  Have each other’s measurements and what you’re looking for and be a good friend and pick something up for them if you happen across it.  This can definitely expedite the process as now you’re searching through two town or city’s shops.  Be on the lookout for quality shirts, and also see if you have a local tailor that can tailor a shirt to you.  If the shirt is just a little loose, this can be a relatively easy fix.  I mention it because I have seen so many great shirts second hand in great condition.  I’ve even picked up one or two.  Shoes can be tricky.  People must do research on shoes before donating them.  I’ve never personally seen shoes worth $1.00 second hand.  I do wear a larger shoe (12 – 13), but I always look at the general selection.  I’ve heard rumors of great shoe finds though, so it’s always a consideration.  I almost forgot to add belts!  Belts can be a great find here.  They’re usually pretty cheap, but you have to look for that diamond in the rough.  Do some forum searches on how to spot a quality leather belt.  The advantage in store over eBay here is that you can try the belt on.  Most eBay sellers have NO IDEA how to properly measure a belt.  Speaking of eBay…

eBay

eBay is where I find most shoes and ties.  Unfortunately this drives up their price.  Those eBay sellers attempt to do a little research.  That’s why you shouldn’t be afraid of buying a banged up pair of shoes and have a cobbler repair, refresh, and fumigate them for you.  Good starting brands for shoes are Allen Edmonds, vintage L.L. Bean (for more casual wear), and vintage Johnston & Murphy.  Johnston & Murphy shoes used to be made in one of three countries (America, Italy, and England) and had outstanding quality.  Not so much anymore.  The old styles are so classic.  Don’t be afraid of a vintage J&M shoe.  I’ve got an American Pair that rival my Allen Edmonds.  I also have an Italian made loafer that needed a little love, but wears great.  On to ties.  If you are taller or have a thicker neck, or both, then you should be seeking an extra long tie.  Around 61 to 63 inches long.  One of the most reliable and recognizable brands for longer ties is Brooks Brothers.  There’s no reason you should ever spend more than $20 on a tie.  You can always find Brooks Brothers ties on eBay for under $20, even if you require extra long.  If you’re having trouble finding the right tie, the next section is for you.  Before heading to the specialty stores, I will also admit that I have snagged some pretty great shirts from eBay over the years.  When it comes to eBay hunting for me it’s usually brand hunting Brooks Brothers.  I got a great subtle design that they have currently discontinued.  Be sure the seller has listed the measurements of the garment lying flat so you can do some personal research.

Online Specialty Stores

TheTieBar is a website dedicated to affordable, quality neck-wear.  I can 100% endorse them.  I own more than a half dozen ties from them.  Neckties and bow ties.  Regular length starts at $15 and Extra Long starts at $20, but I haven’t seen a tie on the site more than $30 to date.  They have a very easy to search site where you can narrow things down easily.

ModernTailor is a website offering custom tailor shirts.  New customers can take advantage of a classic blue shirt for $19.95.  $19.95 for a tailored shirt!  Great deal!  You can get a department store “one size fits all” for twice that when it’s on sale.  This one is a no brainer if you’re breaking into dressing better.  I have yet to meet a man that those standard size shirts are made for.  I also endorse these guys, I own a few and they look magnificent!

That’s really all I’ve got for online specialty stores for the guys just getting into all this.  There are more and they offer great prices for some of the highest quality, but it starts getting a little more expensive.  We’re trying to keep things under $150 right now and most of the intermediate items start at that.  Don’t let that be scary though.  We’re talking shirts and pants and suits and sport coats that are crafted from the finest materials by the finest people.  They would go toe to toe with the thousand dollar garments at the department stores and knock them out!

Sales!  Seasonal, Annual, Whatnot!

A lot of the big names in fashion, men’s and women’s, have big sales once or twice a year.  Find out when these are, sign up for their emails, and check them out.  You might find that missing piece your looking for.  Brooks Brothers has a traditional Boxing Day (the 26th of December) sale.  It’s pretty decent.  50% off till January with an extra 15% the first two days.  This year I grabbed a pair of lavender Italian socks, an American made belt, and a madras pocket square.  This also marks my first venture into pocket square territory.  (It’s dangerous territory.  If you can’t wear it with confidence, don’t even try.  Oh, and never perfectly match your pocket square to your tie, unless you’re going to Jr. Prom in a rented Tuxedo.  Just don’t.)  Ralph Lauren is also having a pretty decent after-Christmas sale.  There’s a pair of burgundy socks with an embroidered hound I may be ordering, but for a single pair of socks shipping is going to bring the order to $20.  Still a little steep… but embroidered hounds!  Like I said, sign up for their emails and give them a look.  You never know.

Final Breakdown

Okay, so here’s the final breakdown to put things into actual perspective using the retail price of casual clothes like I’m wearing now versus a very smart outfit I could wear out to any place not requiring a “suit”.  All prices rounded up to the next dollar.  Dress breakdown will include shipping per item since some were picked up second hand.  Dress breakdown will include where the items were sourced.

Casual:

  • New Balance Suede Sneakers: $45
  • Levi’s 505 Rinse: $30
  • Blizzard Hearthstone T-Shirt: $24
  • Shipping Estimate: $30 (assuming I had to get each shipped separately)

Total: $129

Dress:

  • Vintage J&M loafers: $24 eBay
  • Vintage unknown brand gray slacks: $7 Goodwill
  • Ermenegildo Zegna fitted dark salmon shirt: $4 Goodwill
  • Black XL Tie: $26 TheTieBar
  • Vintage Tweed Parkway Sportcoat: $25 eBay

Total: $86

Your argument about dressing nice being expensive is invalid.

 

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