11 Not-so-obvious Men’s Style Essentials

11 Not-so-obvious Men’s Style Essentials
Blue shirt? Check. Dark denim? Check. Smart shoes? Check. But where do you go after the basics?
Cladwell This post was made possible by Cladwell. If you need help creating your wardrobe essentials, go to Cladwell.com. Take a quick survey and receive a custom wardrobe that will serve as your personal roadmap to dress better. Totally free.

What is this?

For a lot of guys trying to dress well can be downright frustrating. Trying to figure out what is in style, where to buy it, how to match it with other items, make sense of what to wear in a situation – it is no surprise that it can be intimidating and stressful.

For this reason, budget-conscious menswear advocates including Primer often talk about certain essentials that act as a foundation for an up-and-coming wardrobe. Things like the oxford shirt, non-square toe dress shoes, and dark straight or slim denim all form a solid base to then build upon.

But what happens once you already have a solid base? Where do you go from there? There are a number of super-versatile items that can open up a slew of options, perfect for a modern man’s life. Here, we explore 11 of them.

Chambray Shirt

To the uninitiated, it may look like a denim shirt. But chambray isn’t denim (it isn’t a twill fabric like denim, and has a 1×1 weft/warp structure known as the chambray structure) and it has a long, and storied history. Brought back to popularity by the likes of J.Crew and other rugged staple retailers a few years ago, chambray was first invented in Cambrai, France in the late 1500’s. The chambray shirt as we know it is more than 120 years old, and is the original working shirt. In fact, the concept of “blue-collar” originated because workers were wearing blue chambray shirts. It was also a part of the standard Navy uniform from 1901 to World War II, and was made iconic in the 50’s and 60’s by Hollywood leading men like Brando, Dean and McQueen.

But enough history: The chambray shirt is an essential because it is multi-purpose and masculine. You’ll be perfectly dressed whether trying to look sharp on a date, or just schlepping it to the bar to watch the game with your buds.

It’s almost neutral on the “dressiness” scale: It’s the perfect layering item because it enhances whatever you pair it with. Combine it with a sweater for a sharp, casual look, wear it plain with jeans or chinos, or even wear it casually with a suit.

The original features two buttoned chest pockets, though variations are common, and is available in other colors like gray and red.

How to Wear It:

  1. The Getup: Autumn Street Festival
  2. The Getup: 21st Century Off-site Employee
  3. The Getup: Chilly & Casual
  4. The Getup: Summer Casual
  5. The Getup: Summer Art Festival Date
  6. The Getup: First BBQ
  7. The Getup: Summer Date

Urban Sneakers

Figuring out what to wear when you’re “going out” can be one of the hardest and most common style scenarios to decipher. You don’t want to be too dressed up because you’ll be out of place, hot, or square. You don’t want to be too casual because you’ll look plain, lazy and unrefined. The secret is playing with the details. A well put-together look will leave drastically different impressions with one simple change of footwear between boots like Red Wings or dress shoes like wingtips. One is rakish and outdoorsy, the other, refined and gentlemanly. All coming down to one single detail – not which pants, shirt, or sweater to wear – the thing that can most define your outfit is your choice in footwear.

Because of this, more design-forward sneakers like these black leather Converse Jack Purcell’s become a man’s wardrobe staple. Take the exact same outfit described above, and now instead of Red Wings or wingtips, we opt for black leather sneakers. What happens to the outfit? It ‘casualizes’ it but maintains its evening appropriateness in a way more standard sneakers can’t. Pair them with slim dark denim or even chinos or wool trousers to add edge while taking out the stuffiness.

What you’re looking for is a more refined sneaker; something beyond your typical canvas go-to’s and less athletic or brand-forward than the Nike Air Max or New Balances.

How to Wear It:

  1. The Getup: Casual Night With Friends

Non-blue Jeans / Casual Pants That Aren’t Jeans or Chinos

The normal trajectory for men buying pants is: Jeans, dress pants for work, and then chinos for a little style. Maybe he gets a little crazy and buys chinos that aren’t khaki. But there are other options, and they can open up a huge box of fresh options the other 3 staples can’t provide. Case-in-point: Jeans that aren’t blue or casual pants that aren’t jeans like corduroy.

We frequently enlist dark denim as a way of looking stylish but remaining casual. Combinations can include more dressy sweaters, sportcoats, and even ties. The mixture of dress and casual can create a very sharp look when done correctly. But sometimes, blue denim is just too standard-issue or casual.

Take for instance, this combo featuring red micro-wale corduroy, a wool sportcoat, and a tie. With blue jeans the outfit would be rugged à la J.Crew, but it loses its appropriateness for more professional situations. Paired with chinos, you’ll have a great looking ensemble but it’ll be straight on business casual, which may be too dressy or out of place for your destination.

The solution is a pair of red denim / corduroy like these from Gap. It maintains our level of casualness without having to dive as casual as regular jeans, and gives us a put-together look without having to dress up to chinos or wool pants.  The same goes for corduroy. A pair of standard-wale brown corduroy pants would look amazing in this setup, without dressing it up, or dressing it down.

Does the idea of red pants scare you? It doesn’t have to: By incorporating very conservative options in the rest of the outfit, the red doesn’t feel flashy or out of place. That’s a good tip to remember – when wearing items that are a little more adventurous than you’re used to, begin by surrounding them with conservative counterparts.

How to Wear It:

  1. The Getup: Pumpkin Patch Hayride Date
  2. The Getup: Spring Wine Tasting
  3. The Getup: Getting It Done
  4. The Getup: On the Go

The Non-silk Tie

For some reason, smooth silk ties are the de facto go-to for boys as they grow into men and need neckwear. “Silk ties are professional and businessmen wear them.” That’s true, but businessmen also wear power shirts with contrasting collars and we don’t buy them as wardrobe foundations.

In fact, if we’re going to define a wardrobe staple as something that a man should buy before differing options because of its versatility, a non-silk tie is the way to go hands down.

As someone who does not work in a highly uniformed industry like law or finance, I can’t even tell you when the last time I wore a smooth silk tie was. If that sounds like you too, someone who wears a tie occasionally to the office, or rarely to weddings and events, your start should be options like wool, cotton, or knit.

Also, smooth silk ties are inherently formal.  They’re hard to dress down or wear more casually such as with jeans and a sweater. However, the texture that a wool, cotton, or knit tie provides allows you to wear a tie while also dressing down. It creates a more “smart casual” look rather than business casual or professional, though these ties also look fantastic paired with khakis or a suit.

How to Wear It:

  1. The Getup: Summer Smart Casual
  2. The Getup: Fall Business Casual
  3. The Getup: The Grad Student

Herringbone trousers: Similar, $98, Belt: Homemade, $18

Textured Trousers

On the surface, most guys assume there are four levels of pants: jeans, chinos, khakis, dress pants, in order from most casual to most dressy. But there are other options tucked in-between these staples that allow you to diversify both your overall style and dressiness of a getup. Similar to our non-blue denim above, finding a pair of pants with texture can ground an otherwise dressy outfit, the same way a textured tie can reduce the dressiness of an ensemble.

Take for instance this Getup I did last year. Not one of the other 4 standard pant styles could achieve this balance of casual and dress the way these herringbone trousers do. Jeans, obviously more casual. Chinos, more casual and a more weekend appearance. Khakis and dress pants would both overdress the rest of the outfit, even though its very sharp and an option for a lot of not-so-casual destinations.

Just as with the tie, we’re looking for something that can bring a little texture to the party; maybe that’s with the material like with flannel trousers, or with the pattern like the herringbone ones above.  Now imagine those pants with a dress shirt and tie – what do we have? A “smart casual” option appropriate for networking, a less-than-formal office, or even certain dating scenarios. All which would look too much like “I work in a bank” if paired with chinos or khakis.

Shawl Collar Cardigan – similar options: Macys, $70, Target, $30, Nordstrom, $90, H&M, $50

Shawl Collar Cardigan

If you’ve been a reader of Primer for any length of time you probably read “shawl collar cardigan” and thought, “Geez man, just quit it with the darn shawl collar cardigans.” And I apologize for featuring them so frequently but I do so for a reason: It’s probably one of the most versatile layering items in my arsenal.

Knit tie: Ties.com, $19, Pants: Gap, $60, Boots: Wolverine, $350, Watch: Citizen, $139

Much like the chambray shirt, the shawl collar cardigan is neutral on the dressy scale – it can dress up a henley, or dress down a shirt, tie, and trousers away from a sportcoat.

Why the shawl collar specifically? These sweaters  tend to be of a heartier knit, closer to the fisherman’s cable knit sweater, than the smooth merino wool Mr. Rogers variety. The result is a rugged appeal, balanced with the sleek shawl collar most commonly found on tuxedos.

There’s literally nothing this sweater can’t do. Wear it casually to brunch with jeans and a henley, or dress it up with your nicest dress shirt and wool pants. Either way, you’ll look damn good.

How to Wear It:

  1. The Getup: Up and Autumn
  2. The Getup: Coffee Date
  3. The Getup: Summer Weekend Freedom
  4. The Getup: Casual Fall Weekend

Henley: Similar, $18

Henley

Ah, the henley. Perhaps the most ruggedly masculine shirt in existence. The ruse is that fundamentally it’s just a t-shirt with some buttons (or a polo without a collar), but somehow those buttons create a look that is lightyears beyond what any normal long sleeve t-shirt can do. A perfect layering item like the shawl collar cardigan or chambray shirt (which look great all together, see above), the henley adds a bit of visual texture to any outift.

The henley is available in a variety of configurations, long sleeve, short sleeve, thermal, etc. Worn underneath a button-up shirt creates a sense of rugged Americana, bonus points if you roll up the button-up’s sleeves to reveal the henley’s sleeves underneath. But the henley looks sharp on its own also, paired with some dark denim and hearty boots, and you’ve got a super simple, handsome look that’s about as comfortable as they come.

How to Wear It:

  1. The Getup: A Great Night of Music
  2. The Getup: Slushcapades
  3. The Getup: Watching the Game at the Bar
  4. The Getup: A Full Saturday

Card case: Tagsmith, $48, Watch: Timex, $32, Knife: Victorinox, $20, Sunglasses: American Optics, $46

Card Case or Money Clip

Women figured out ages ago that we don’t need to carry everything with us all the time. They have giant sacks for purses when they need all their stuff, but they also have minuscule clutches for an evening out. Our wallets are no different.

Heading out on a nice date? Why do you need your Costanza bi-fold with superfluous tag-alongs like your gym membership, Costco card, grocery store card, office keycard, and 5 charge cards. The reality is you don’t – and if you’re overcome with a sense of nakedness just thinking about it, let me assure you that goes away the first time you try it.

There are even health consequences to sitting on a thick wallet, which is common sense if your hips and back are constantly uneven while sitting.

There are tons of options out there, from the simple two-pocket number shown above, or a simple money clip that can easily hold some cash, credit cards and ID.

Non-boring Socks

If you’ve done even light reading on men’s style then you’ve certainly heard that good style “is in the details”. Outside of proper fit, nailing small details is one of the biggest things separating the well-dressed from the “eh-it-looks-ok,-I-guess” dressed. Barron from Effortless Gent has touched on it, so has Joe at Dappered. But this detail is more than just about looking sharp, it’s about not embarrassing yourself.

Socks are underwear, but there are a lot of common situations where people will see them unlike our skivvies. Unfortunately we typically don’t put a lot of importance on them outside of being absent of holes (none of your socks have holes, right?), so we don’t like investing a lot of money in them. But just buying that 12 pack of black dress socks and wearing them all the time to everything is a little like just wearing white briefs all the time: In a word, boring. By opting for socks with more colors and patterns you’re immediately creating a sense of personality and a display of intentional style to all who get a peak at them. Details like these can be huge on dates, since a lack of care for your ratty black socks can easily be misconstrued for a lack of care for other details in your life.

That’s not to say you should go around wearing rainbow colored socks everywhere, there is a time and place for conservativeness as well as flash, but you can wear socks of a pattern or color while also being subtle.

And perhaps the best part of it is, you don’t have to drop a ton of money on them either. A little secret: Surplus department stores like Marshalls, Ross, Nordstrom Rack, and TJ Maxx are all great places to find huge deals on designer socks. Take for instance this mult-pack of Ralph Lauren Polo socks – only $10 at Marshalls. These will be perfect for jeans and sneakers, a date, or even a suit.

Bucks: Similar, $70

Suede Oxfords

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Did you know?

The difference between suede and nubuck is which side of the leather is being used: Suede from the inner side of the hide, nubuck from the outer. Because of this nubuck is tougher and more expensive, generally with a finer grain.

Just like pants, men’s shoes are seemingly bilateral, casual and dress. This makes the middle ground of dressed-well, not dressed-up hard to style for. Most times, we default to a boot in this scenario, since the brown leather is reminiscent of dress shoes, but its rugged design is more casual. One of the worst mistakes a guy can make, and ultimately make him look like he’s 45, is wearing casual jeans with dress shoes. In most cases, it just doesn’t work. Like trying to wear a suit jacket as a blazer…they’re designed differently and don’t look right.

There is a happy compromise however, the suede oxford. Affectionately referred to as “bucks” because they’re commonly made of nubuck (or buckskin back in the day), these oxford-style shoes feature a napped leather upper and, usually, a brick red rubber sole. Bucks were originally intended as tennis shoes, and the suede upper and colored sole create a shoe that is both casual and dressy, and the perfect option when dressing for an in-between style situation.

Pair them with almost anything, jeans, chinos – some even work with suits.

How to Wear It:

  1. The Getup: Rehearsal Dinner
  2. The Getup: The Whiskey Bar
  3. The Getup: Smart Casual Office

Minimalist Watch

The chunky dive watches made popular by the likes of Rolex and Omega have dominated men’s watch designs for more than fifty years. Much like a good boot, these watches create a piece that is gentlemanly with a rugged aesthetic. They’re incredibly versatile, can be dressed up or down, with a suit or with a t-shirt, and will remain a smart investment and wardrobe essential for as long as men still wear watches on their wrists.

But there are other watch styles. Particularly in contrast to the visual details of a diver is a minimalist watch. These timepieces intentionally have very sparse designs, some even without numbers on the dial. This deliberate minimalism brings quite a different detail to an outfit, in a similar way that different shoes can completely alter a look.

The use of a minimalist watch can have multiple effects. First, in a more dressed up ensemble a thin, minimalist watch can appear more dressy and sleek. In a casual outfit, a minimalist watch can further enhance the intentional casualness by being less sporty and less cluttered.

These are just a few of my favorite essentials. Now over to you! Do you have other not-so-obvious style essentials to add to the list? Keep the conversation going in the comments!

Special thanks for the fine gents over at Cladwell for making this post possible. If you’d like even more specific ideas for your wardrobe, based on your personal style, you’ve got to check out their customized wardrobe builder. It’s pretty cool, and free!

Andrew is the founder and editor of Primer. He's a graduate of American University and currently lives in Los Angeles. Read more about Primer on our About page. On Instagram: @andrewsnavely and @primermagazine.

  • Christian Naylor

    Wow. You really outdid yourself here, Andrew.
    Thanks for all of your hard work! It’s really helping me stand out as a 22 year old in business school. Better dressed = more confidence = better grades and more opportunities.
    Thanks so much!

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Thanks Christian, I really appreciate that! I’m glad it’s been helpful!

  • J

    Great article. More like this please

    • bryclops

      Definitely nailed this one.

  • Gizmo

    For shows I am personally a fan of these. Not too dressed up, but casual enough o where around. The boot style adds a flare to the normal dock shoe as well.

    http://www.zappos.com/steve-madden-gizmo-black

  • Gizmo

    Edit to fix major typos:

    http://www.zappos.com/steve-madden-gizmo-black

    For shoes I am personally a fan of these. Not too dressed up, but casual enough to wear around. The boot style adds a flare to the normal dock shoe as well.

  • James

    Excellent article! I really want to pick up some suede oxfords. Grey bucks I think look really sharp but can they work with other color chinos/pants besides blue/navy jeans and chinos?

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Absolutely, gray is a smart choice because it goes with practically everything except maybe gray pants.

      • brandon_ROTU

        I’ll wear gray suede oxfords with gray pants only if paired with very bright socks and a contrasting shirt. Otherwise I look like the tin man.

  • Clasifyd

    Nicely done Andrew, great stuff. Definitely going to pick up a pair of the suede oxfords. Still can’t get on board with the shaw collar, though.

    • Jon

      I personally love the shaw collar cardigan after reading a previous article I went out and bought one and it was one if the best things I’ve done I can wear it with almost anything. Great work Andrew I really enjoyed this article

  • Rob

    Nice article!
    I’m intrigued by the frequent references to khakis though. I’m amazed that these are so prevalent in American wardrobes that you say most guys think of only four levels of formality, with khakis as one of them. Coming from the UK, I almost never see anyone wearing khakis (working and living in central London), and don’t remember seeing many people wearing them in my travels in Europe either. Must be a cultural difference! Here I’d think of khakis as being associated with an old guy with a yacht. Love the ideas in the article though!

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Yeah, khakis are pretty common here, especially among those working in a cubicle life. That’s not to say they look that good, but they’re very common.

  • Keith Dodge

    Andrew, you are the best. You make it so simple to look good. I love that the emphasis is always on simple, classic pieces put together well. Keep the good advice coming.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Thanks Keith, glad you liked it!

  • Will

    Outstanding article. I would love to see more like this in the future. Thanks so much!!

  • Nim

    This is the sort of article that many of us want to see, great work.

  • Jon

    What’s your take on pairing belts with suede bucks or desert boots?

    I have different pairs of navy, natural, and gray suede shoes and I always seem to struggle with grabbing a belt that doesn’t clash with not only the material but with these colors.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      I hear you. I personally don’t have a suede belt. I always default to a conservative dark color. My olive/gray bucks usually get paired with a dark brown belt.

    • Del Johnston

      THIS. This is the reason I rarely wear my tan suede Clark’s desert boots. I have trouble matching a belt. Thanks for this question.

  • Dubly

    One of the better pieces in a while. Great stuff Andrew.
    Komono makes solid minimal watches as well. Textured trousers were a great add.

  • Marc

    JCrew “rugged”??? I thought the first time you mentioned this it was a joke.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Compared to most men’s retailers, J.Crew is considered to have a rugged design aesthetic. Heavy emphasis on thick wools, patterns like herringbone, boots from Red Wing, flannel shirts, etc.

      • Allen

        I have to agree with Marc. The only times I’ve ever heard of anything from J.Crew called “rugged” were by J.Crew and this article. I too thought it was a joke.

        • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

          Are you talking in terms of quality? I’m not following.

          • Allen

            I think we probably have two different definitions/intended meanings of “rugged”. It sounds like you’re talking about items that look rugged (which is still arguable with J.Crew), while Marc and I seem to be speaking of items that have both a rugged look and would hold up and be useful in rugged conditions.

          • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

            Ah yes, no these are not items you’d take on an expedition by any means. Just a rugged aesthetic.

          • Allen

            That definitely makes a lot more sense. Thanks for clearing that up. Good article by the way!

  • Jay

    Love stuff like this. Very practical with all the options. No shame in bringing items in over and over, Andrew. I love seeing how you tie new stuff in with previously covered items. It makes it more realistic for the majority of us. This is the kind of thing that keeps me coming back to primer.

  • http://drewcurtis.me/ Drew Curtis

    I’m not a big commenter, but I have to say this article is great! Thank you fro sharing. My go to casual shoes are desert boots.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Thank you and thanks for commenting!

  • Pingback: CuffLinks – 11/7/14: All About Style | CuffLinked Magazine()

  • Del Johnston

    Another stellar post, Andrew! Thanks for this! I have a question. You stated, “One of the worst mistakes a guy can make, and ultimately make him look like he’s 45, is wearing casual jeans with dress shoes.” I just turned 44 (LOL) and need a little more clarification. I regularly wear my dark or selvedge denim with my brogue wing tips. Specifically, the Dockers Moritz (a fantastically comfortable and cheap wingtip). I know I am lumping my denims in the casual jeans category and my casual wing tips in the dress shoe category, but is this what you meant? Or, were you meaning faded, dad-jeans with glossy formal dress shoes (eww)? Thanks for all that you do!

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Hey Del, It’s more the latter. I think the Moritz should work in that situation, it really comes down to the fit and color of the jeans (not faded dad jeans like you mentioned), and the shape of the shoes. For example, I’ve just never been able to get my Allen Edmond Strands to work with jeans. Some people might be able to get it to work, I just haven’t been able to personally. So, it’s kind of harder than a lot of style pairings since its so dependent on the details of the two items.

      • Del Johnston

        Are your Strands the walnut ones? I have those and love them. I wear them with slimmer tapered jeans like the Levi’s 513 because the Strand is so narrow. Have not tried them with straight leg denim though. Thanks for the clarification. I was worried I looked 45. :)

  • se7en

    Thanks for sharing…58eveningdress.

  • ikillbears

    in the daniel craig picture, what cut would you say those jeans are? also, any ideas on the boots ?

    • Bo

      From the look of it, those are slim/straight (like a Levi’s 513). If they’re the brand he normally wears (Scotch and Soda), they could be the Ralston. The boots look like a wingtip — a cheap option for a look-alike could be the Deacon from Stafford at JC Penney.

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    How to Save Your Relationship And Marriage from Divorce or broke up

    An amazing testimony on a spell caster who brought my husband back to me.. My name is Natasha Johnson,i live in Florida,USA,and I’m happily married to a lovely and caring husband ,with two kids.A very big problem occurred in my family seven months ago,between me and my husband .so terrible that he took the case to court for a divorce.he said that he never wanted to stay with me again,and that he didn’t love me anymore.So he packed out of the house and made me and my children passed through severe pain. I tried all my possible means to get him back,after much begging,but all to no avail.and he confirmed it that he has made his decision,and he never wanted to see me again. So on one evening,as i was coming back from work,i met an old friend of mine who asked of my husband .So i explained every thing to him,so he told me that the only way i can get my husband back,is to visit a spell caster,because it has really worked for him too.So i never believed in spell,but i had no other choice,than to follow his advice. Then he gave me the email address of the spell caster whom he [email protected]}. So the next morning,i sent a mail to the address he gave to me,and the spell caster assured me that i will get my husband back the next day.What an amazing statement!! I never believed,so he spoke with me,and told me everything that i need to do. Then the next morning, So surprisingly, my husband who didn’t call me for the past seven {7}months,gave me a call to inform me that he was coming back.So Amazing!! So that was how he came back that same day,with lots of love and joy,and he apologized for his mistake,and for the pain he caused me and my children. Then from that day,our relationship was now stronger than how it were before,by the help of a spell caster. So, i will advice you out there to kindly visit the same website { http://enchantedscents.tripod.com/lovespell/},if you are in any condition like this,or you have any problem related to “bringing your ex back. So thanks to the Dr Brave for bringing back my husband ,and brought great joy to my family once again. [email protected]}, Thanks..<<<>>

  • Bo

    These are great essentials and this is an excellent list! Proud to say I own one of every category on this list — took a heck of a while to build up though! And that Stuhrling watch at the end is an awesome pick– I wear mine pretty much every day.

  • BabalooMandel

    I thought chinos and khakis were the same thing. I figured chinos was just the word more preferred by writers or something. I’ve never heard it used in real life.

  • Chip Bolton

    Andrew,
    I work in the brick industry and I am based out of East Tn. I am in architectural Sales so I am in architects offices, but I also call on a lot of distributers. More times than not I also find myself on a jobsite with construction workers. I am struggling to find a style that blends well with all of these aspects. Right now I am wearing Red Wing Iron Rangers with Khaki Pants and a collared Polo of some sort and I find myself looking like all of the other salesmen and it drives me crazy. Do you have any advice
    Chip Bolton
    Johnson City, TN