The internet in general and the Gentleman’s Gazette in particular offer plenty information on how to dress, live, and behave like a gentleman. In our guides, we always try to provide lists of quality manufacturers for various price groups but nevertheless these things are sometimes unaffordable, especially if you are still in school, if you are at the beginning of your career or if your job simply doesn’t pay that much. While good quality always has its price, the Gentleman’s Gazette has always tried to cater to the man interested in classic style, no matter the wallet size.
Today, I would like to focus on the gentlemen for whom classic style is out of reach. In my experience, most men fall into one of two groups: people who can’t afford certain things, and people who don’t have access to these things.
You Can’t Afford Nice Things
This kind of man lives in a metropolitan area with plenty of stores to choose from. They read online magazines such as Gentleman’s Gazette, good clothing is familiar, and they know tailors, suit silhouettes, and craftsmen by name. However, this man’s finances don’t stretch to these indulgences.
No Access to Nice Things
These men who live in a rural area or country were classic men’s clothing is hard to come by. You know a few sites were you can buy things online, but shipping costs are high and you have to pay duties on top of that. You could afford to buy stuff, but you would like to try things on first or touch the fabric before you buy because returns can be complicated.
Personally, I started as both, when I grew up in a small town with 3,000 people. At the age of 15, I started to read about classic men’s style. I would meet with people and craftsmen, online and in person, and made sure to visit stores whenever I did have access. I researched my travel routes before so I could meet people along the way. Later on, I moved to Munich and then Hamburg, where I went to law school. All of a sudden, I was in living in cities with tailors, expensive haberdashers and plenty of options to choose from, if it wasn’t for the money. So I began by creating a list of items a complete wardrobe should have and started looking on ebay and most importantly, vintage stores for items to add to my closet. If something didn’t turn out, or if I found a better quality item along the way, I sold the old things and bought new ones. I think my shirt wardrobe was completely revamped twice in this way. So, I know exactly what it is like to have a limited budget or to live in an area without any availability. All of the hints and tips I provide here are based on my personal experience, and they worked very well for me. Furthermore, many of the things I bought years ago on ebay or at a vintage store are still play an active role in my wardrobe.
Tips for Those Who Can’t Afford Quality Items
You are surrounded by all these wonderful goods, but you just can’t afford them – at least new. Be consoled. You still have a big advantage to the ones who can’t buy anything of quality even if they had the ability. Here are a few ideas to help get around
1. Know Your Measurements
You need to know your clothes measurements, plain and simple. Keep a spreadsheet, or better yet, memorize them. You’ll be best served by learning about your body’s quirks and needs, and how clothing needs to adapt. For example, my right shoulder hangs about 1.5″ lower than my left one. This means my armhole has to be cut deeper and I either need a shoulder pad on the right or the cut of the shoulder has to be different. Moreover, the sleeve has to be set in differently. I have a slightly rounded back and one arm is half a centimeter (one fifth of an inch) longer. My right leg is slightly bigger than my left one. Fit is the most important thing when it comes to clothes. Chances are, in the beginning you won’t even notice the asymmetry of your body. On the other hand, it won’t take a trained tailor very long to point them out once he sees you. If you want to figure out what your body’s characteristics are, wear a garment off the rack because it is symmetrical. Then have somebody take pictures 360°. It is very important for you to stand naturally otherwise the result will not help, but hurt you. Once you know your measurements, spotting well fitting (usually vintage or slightly used) clothing online will be much easier.
2. Know Your Surroundings
Know your clothing style and your needs. If you work at a formal office, you need suits. For a student, combinations of jacket and trousers are probably a better investment. A banker and an artist have different needs. One is dressed more traditionally, the other one wants to stand out and can play more with colors, cuts, etc. Take a minute and write down all the places you usually go to and what clothes you should be wearing ideally. Then narrow it down to the pieces that are the most versatile, because these are the ones you will end up wearing the most. If that’s too challenging for you right now, stay tuned for a follow up post about starter wardrobes.
3. Avoid Bespoke Garments in the Beginning
The first tip I can offer you: avoid bespoke suits unless you find a really inexpensive tailor. When I say bespoke, I mean true bespoke with fittings and a fair amount of handwork and canvas interlining. No matter where you make it in the world, you will hardly ever get a product for under $1,000 that is of the best quality (including cloth) and when you start and need an entire wardrobe, you will likely not be able to afford it. If your posture or measurements don’t allow for ready-made products, go with made-to-measure instead and have it tweaked until it fits reasonable well. The difference between bespoke and made-to-measure is easily explained. Bespoke suits are, “bespoken” in every detail, and a new pattern is made from scratch for you without any limitations. Unfortunately, this term is not protected and many companies used that word even though it’s not what they offer. On the other hand, made-to-measure (MTM) suits are modifications of an existing patterns or a combination of components from a wide range of sizes. Fit is important and in our developing series of Made-to-Measure and bespoke suits you will learn what company we recommend for a specific budget. That being said, if you buy from craftsmen, you usually pay for the product and NOT for marketing. During my research trips as a student, I once visited Warsaw where they had great bespoke shoe makers. Even though I could not afford a pair of shoes, one of the shoemakers told me about a bespoke belt maker and so I got a bespoke belt at a very low price. I still have the item today because it was so well made. In these countries craftsmen are usually better than any branded luxury brand and they provide better value. Buying bespoke early on, while appealing, will be a drain on your resources that could be spread over more items on your list.
4. Know Your Alterations Tailor
Regardless of your body type, start looking for a skilled alterations tailor and learn what elements can and cannot be tailored successfully. Take a look at the work they offer and how they accomodate individual requests for difficult tasks, such as shortening a sleeve from the sleevehead. If they can do that properly, so the sleeves hang nicely without bumps on the sleevehead or wrinkles in the sleeves, chances are they can do everything else you need them to do. However, even if you find the best alterations tailor bear in mind they are not magicians. As such, you cannot buy jackets that are too long or too short because even though there might be some fabric reserve, the buttonholes and the position of the pockets can’t be changed. Also, if the shoulders don’t fit, it is going to be difficult to fix it, just like the front-back balance.
As a rule of thumb, do not buy anything that is more than one size to small or too large because alterations will be costly and the result is often not ideal. Also, when in doubt, buy something that is slightly too big rather than too tight, because removing fabric is easy but if there is not enough cloth reserve in the garment, you can’t wear the garment.
5. Go Vintage
Vintage stores or flea markets in larger cities like London or Naples often provide quality clothing at a fraction of the retail price. Of course, it usually takes a bit of time to find something good, but if you do and the fit is ok, your alterations tailor can do the rest. Vintage shopping requires patience and practice. Look up brands, fabrics, and countries of origin as you go to build an understanding of what’s out there – the more you know, the easier it will be to spot a quality product.
When you are at a store looking for jackets, suits or overcoats, I suggest walking through the aisles looking just at the cuff buttons and buttonholes. With a bit of practice, you can identify a handmade buttonhole. If you find one, chances are 99% you have a quality garment. In the beginning, it may be easier for you to identify a handmade buttonhole from the backside, because it will look irregular whereas a machine-made buttonhole is consistent. Ten years ago, it would have been enough to test if the jacket had working buttonholes, but today even a blazer from H&M for $50 has that feature, so it is not a quality hallmark anymore. That being said, there are also good garments with machine/made buttonholes. As a rule of thumb, if the hole is cut first, then neatly sewn, chances are it is a higher quality garment than if the stitch density is low and you can see some fraying. Once you identify a buttonhole, you can quickly double check if the sleeve lining is sewn in by hand. If that’s the case you likely have a quality garment and if you want to be really sure, flap up the collar and look if it was attached with hand stitching. You can do all of this without having to take a jacket off the hanger. This allows you to quickly analyze an entire store for good garments.
6. Invest in flexible, wardrobe extending pieces such as odd vests
Contrasting vests are less expensive than a jacket or a suit and they really help you to create many new outfits with your existing wardrobe. Take a look at our odd vest guide for more details.
7. Take care of your wardrobe
Care properly for the items you already own, because you will get a lot more wear out of them, and it will be less expensive in the long run. For suits, jackets, trousers, and overcoats that means you should brush them regularly with a clothes brush. If your garment is wrinkled, steam them either in a bathroom or better with a steamer. Hang your overcoats and jackets on wide hangers and if you can’t afford Butler Luxury quality, go with plastic suit hangers. Shops often give them away for free.
8. People Who Buy Cheap Buy Twice
Don’t let a great deal turn you into a sucker. Even a piece that is marked down by 90% may be a total waste of money, if it is not what you need in your wardrobe. Yes, it is nice to score a deal, but instead think about the cost per wear you will get out of the garment. And the $50 seersucker jacket can turn out to be more expensive than the $400 blazer in the long run. This also applies to cheap finds that need a lot of work – dry cleaning and extensive tailoring can easily multiply the real cost of ownership quickly.
9. Don’t be tempted by deals and super savings
If a deal is too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. There is probably a reason why nobody has bought an item before you at a retail store if it is marked down heavily – it may be a second, there could be a loose threads, tears or stains. Only take items you know you can repair with certainty – buttons are easy to sew back on, but a stain is not worth the risk. Of course, deals come along, and the more you know, the more likely you will be to spot it. For example, I spotted my Goyard suit cases and a friend once bought a bespoke jacket advertised as cashmere for 300 €; it was actually Vicuna, which he then sold for 3000 €. However, these deals are very rare. Instead, start simple and based on your environment, professions and needs. Since there are so many areas, I could write more than one follow-up article about a professional wardrobe.
10. Fit is more important than anything else in your wardrobe – don’t compromise here.
Fit is a huge area and most people today don’t know what a good fit means. Obviously, it also depends on your standards. Personally, I have never seen anything off the rack that fit perfectly, yet I have met many people who claim they have. It is all in the eye of the beholder.
Generally, wrinkles in a suit when you stand are a sign of bad fit. Vertical creases or wrinkles indicate that the garment is too wide in certain parts. Horizontal of X-folds indicate that something is too tight. When in doubt, get something slightly larger than something that is too tight because most commercially produced garments do not have much of a cloth reserve built in, while handmade garments usually have more.
11. Don’t Trust a Salesperson or a Seller
I am sure you already know that, but I can’t say it often enough – don’t trust a salesperson. Instead bring along a friend or mentor who’s style you admire. If you don’t have anyone, read our articles here and learn what you have to pay attention to. Also, take a look at the mirror and be honest to yourself. If you aren’t convinced right away, it’s probably better to leave it behind.
When buying online, such as on ebay, again don’t trust the seller. When in doubt, ask for more pictures of the labels, item details, any flaws, and of the sizing – a quick double check of the sizing often results in different measurements.
12. Do your research before you go out and buy
Make a list of what you want and more importantly, what you need need. We will share a post on minimum wardrobes in the future.
13. Avoid outlets
Within the last 10 years, outlets seem to have become more popular and retailers understand that people like discounts. As such, many brands play along and produce new items just for outlets, at lower quality with higher price tags so they can lure customers into a sale with 70% off signs. If you find something that is exactly what you want, fine. Otherwise, stay away. In my experience discounts in regular stores at the end of a season are better than retail outlets.
14. Stay in Touch
Once you have found a store with good quality merchandise, ensure that you are added to their customer database and sign up for their newsletter so you stay in the loop.
15. Stick to Your Budget
Create a clothing budget by saving a set amount every month. Even if it is just $20 a month, that might easily result in a new tie or jacket from a vintage store. Save up and then buy a quality item when you can afford it. Also, if you sell something your budget increases. I always used this in and out mentality because clothes I don’t wear are tying up money in my closet. So, it is best to start with the things you have and don’t wear. Either sell it on ebay or at a local vintage store (stores are usually easier). Personally, I always went vintage with my clothes and then bought exactly the accessories I wanted to complete my look, because I could afford a pair of nice socks for $30 or a pocket square and tie for the full price, whereas a new garment would have been way too expensive. Also, used shoes are not for everyone – so just know your limitations and work around them with your budget.
Tips for the One’s Who Don’t Have Access to Fine Clothes
If you live in a sartorial desert, you are not lost. Just like the above scenario, you have to know your measurements, know what your needs are, etc.
Use the Internet
Since you can’t just easily go to shops, utilize the internet heavily. Today, not only can you learn a lot online but there are so many online shops and even we now offer fine men’s accessories with worldwide free shipping with $250 or more.
Look For Local Craftsmen
Since you have the funds, I suggest you start to look for skilled craftsmen locally. Chances are there is somebody that can help you with your wardrobe. Their style may be awkward and so you have to guide the craftsman by showing him pictures. Some are very open to try new things, others are not. Pick and choose what works best for you. Sometimes, it is good to just let them do their thing, because otherwise the result won’t be satisfactory. In my experience, you’ll find out pretty quickly what your craftsman is willing to do.
Travel to Sartorial Destinations
Wherever you travel, make sure to research stores and craftsmen before. Make appointments to maximize your time and try to figure out what the selection is beforehand, so you don’t waste any effort while you are in town. Some even go on bespoke vacations and if you discuss things with a tailor, they can get a suit done in 2 weeks or at least you get enough fittings in so they can ship the final product to you. Also, if you have enough friends who would want to buy suits or shirts, you may be able in talk the tailor to coming to your location. Of course this requires much more work and enough business for the craftsman to make it worth his while but it can be a great option.
Have Friends Bring You Things
Lastly, if you can’t travel yourself or if shops only ship domestically, maybe you have a friend in that country or you know somebody who can bring you something. Personally, I’d advice you to use friend only very sparingly to bring you things because then they are happy to help.
Even, if can’t afford things you’d love to own at the moment or if you just don’t have access to nice clothes very easily, there is always a way to dress stylishly on a budget. I think the tips I provided here should provide you with all the fundamentals you need so you can build your very own wardrobe on a budget.