I have been building my wardrobe for about 15 years.
For 10 of those 15 years, I lived on adjunct and graduate student wages.
To complicate matters, I have expensive tastes.
I owe my style to Charleston, South Carolina, which is where I grew up: Anglo-American, perhaps a bit Italian; traditional, but given to flights of whimsy; unafraid of bow-ties and seersucker; socks optional.
Much as I’d like to dress like a Ben Silver model, most menswear lines aren’t intended for scholars living at or near the poverty line.
For those of us who are inspired by traditional menswear, yet still need to pay student loans, I have developed two strategies: thrift or splurge.
Traditional menswear hasn’t substantially changed in over a century.
We might point out the minutiae of collar styles, lapel widths, and silhouettes, but ultimately the formula remains the same: a suit consisting of a jacket and trousers; a shirt and tie; shoes and (sometimes) socks; and all the fine accessories like pocket squares, tie pins, braces, hats, and so on.
Thus, you can build a wardrobe out of vintage pieces without the risk of looking dated.
If you live in an area with good consignment shops or thrift stores, you are fortunate indeed.
If like me, you live in an area that isn’t so gifted, eBay can supply your needs.
These guidelines can apply to both modes of thrifting.
#1 Know your measurements
There are plenty of videos online explaining how to measure yourself.
However, those of you in the sciences know the cost of an erroneous measurement.
Rely on a professional.
You will need to know your shirt and collar size, your waist and inseam, your jacket size, and your shoe size.
Write down your measurements and carry them with you.
#2 If it doesn’t fit, it isn’t worth it
No matter how cheap, it’s better to save your money for something closer to your size.
#3 Sometimes it’s at the thrift store for a reason
Missing buttons can be easily replaced. However, stains, holes, and rips are much more difficult.
If it’s a suit jacket, turn it inside out and take a close look at the pockets, lining, lapels, and stitching.
If it’s a pair of shoes, look carefully at the edges and soles.
For eBay shoppers, don’t be shy about asking questions. If you’re going to commit to buying an item, make sure it’s worth your money and your time.
#4 Your tailor is your friend
Oscar Wilde supposedly said that a man’s first duty is to his tailor.
Find a tailor or a dry cleaner who can do alterations.
For trousers that are an inch or two off, waists and inseams can be adjusted.
Suit jackets can be taken in, their sleeves shortened, or their shoulders altered.
Visit a shoe repair place if you can.
A tailor or a cobbler can give a thrifted garment a second life, at a fraction of the cost of a new garment.
#5 Avoid the sin of polyester
Not all thrifted items are created equal.
Scrutinize the fabric label.
If you’re in a hot, humid climate, avoid artificial fabrics.
Most of them don’t breathe well.
Look for cotton, wool, silk, or other natural fibers, or natural-synthetic blends.
Taking the Plunge: Buying New
Thrifting can save money, but it can only go so far.
New scholars entering the job market don’t want to interview in a moth-eaten suit.
With these concerns in mind, here are some tips on how to splurge—sensibly—on new garments.
#1 Start a wardrobe fund
Call it a testament to my clothing obsession.
I have a separate savings account designated for wardrobe purchases.
I put a little in each month, and sit, like Patience on a monument, smiling at clearance sales.
With student loans and other expenses, we have enough debt in our lives.
#2 Keep a wish list
Since menswear is formulaic, it’s possible to build a wardrobe with a small number of pieces.
Articles of Style published a list of 12 essential men’s suits for building a wardrobe.
I’m hardly a quarter of the way through that list, but it’s a good starting point, and it lets me prioritize.
Are you in the job market looking for something to wear to an interview?
Or are you trying to expand your day-to-day working wardrobe? Adjust accordingly.
#3 Build basics first, then work outward to your statement pieces
You will be tempted by beautiful, flamboyant items that can only be paired with one or two pieces in your wardrobe.
Buy the “boring” pieces first, then add the flamboyant pieces later.
A solid navy blazer is the most versatile garment in a menswear-inspired wardrobe: it dresses up, down, sideways; it pairs with patterns and solids; it complements gray, white, and black; it tempers vibrant colors.
Similar principles apply to khakis, white shirts, or lace-up oxford shoes.
Salt enhances all the other flavors in a dish; plain, classic items will let your statement pieces shine.
Think of versatility first: each versatile item in your wardrobe can mix or match with the rest, creating that many more outfits.
Versatility allows you to create the illusion of variety.
#4 Outlet stores, sales, and clearance racks are all your friends
Pretend that no other stores exist except outlets.
Pretend that these outlets are only open when there is a sale.
Pretend that only one part of the outlet store is open today, and that is the clearance rack in the back corner.
All other parts of the store are a figment of your imagination.
#5 Save to splurge
“But wait—haven’t you been telling us all along to be thrifty?”
Yes, I have.
But paying extra up front for a brand new, custom-made suit saves you money in the long run.
Let me explain.
I’ve been able to build 90% of my wardrobe through thrift or clearance purchases.
However, in my former life as an administrative assistant, I splurged on a set of custom suits from a lovely little clothier in downtown Charleston.
I’ve been wearing them for over a decade, and they still fit me like a glove.
They have outlasted newer and cheaper garments and even the weight fluctuations of graduate school.
They were an investment that has paid off.
Save to splurge.
If you are fortunate enough to find a men’s store where you can order a custom suit, then save your pennies and do so.
If you’re brave enough to try an online tailoring outlet, iTailor, SuitSupply, and Spier and Mackay are all excellent choices.
Perhaps it’s your gift to yourself for defending your dissertation or getting tenure, or simply going back to school.
Regardless of how you acquire it, a well-made, well-loved garment will pay itself back.
I am writing from my own perspective as a cis white gay man. However, by “those of us inspired by traditional menswear,” I mean anybody who adopts this aesthetic, not just the “trad” cis white guys who all too often claim this aesthetic as their own. Butch, femme, dandy, dyke—many members of the StylishAcademic community love to queer up this mode of dress, and I’m all for it. Fortunately, some menstores, such as my much-loved Thomas Wages in Atlanta, will gladly cater to folks in the LGBTQ+ community.
Dr Thomas Bullington is a Visiting Lecturer of liberal arts at Mercer University, Georgia, United States. He completed his doctorate in literature at the University of Mississippi in 2016, and focuses his research on the imagery of plants and gardens in 18th-century British literature. He lives with his partner Jeff, and is still convinced that velvet slippers are a perfectly practical investment.