Wardrobe Essentials for the College Grad on a Budget

Until you graduated college, there wasn't much need for a week's worth of suits, dress shirts, and ties. Pulling together a professional wardrobe when you're offered a job doesn't need to be expensive or difficult. We'll show you how.

Grant Harris is a men's style consultant to A Tailored Suit

Congratulations, you've graduated from college! Now it’s on to the first interview or your first day on the new job. So what do you wear? Certainly not your favorite game day t-shirt of your college days. And since you have corner office aspirations but you're working on a corner cubicle budget, these wardrobe essentials are worth the initial investment to start your career off on the right foot.

Men's Suits for College Grads

Starting out you only need two suits in a year-round, 100% worsted wool.  Buy men's suits with two or three buttons, notch lapels, with one or two vents.  They should be solid or pinstripe in gray or navy blue. Keep the pinstripes thin and faint.  They should not be the focal point of the suit.

These two suits are the foundation of any professional man's closet. They can be worn with every color and more importantly will never go out of style. You can find both of these for $500 or less. Save the double-breasted and peak lapelled suits for when you get your first six-figure check. You'll need it just to buy one.

Men's Shirts and Ties

You'll need at least seven dress shirts. Five for the workweek, one for the weekend, and a professional man always keeps one crisp shirt at the office in case of emergencies like spilling coffee on himself.  Buy solid or vertically striped shirts in a combination of white and blue. The majority should be white. White shirts coordinate with every color and they can be bought for $40 or less at Nordstrom Rack.

Stick to the straight point collar, but feel free to throw in a spread collar for variety.  Whatever collar you choose be sure to wear collar stays for the best image.

Keep ties simple and conservative. Buy only 100% silk as they will last longer and look better.  Save other fabrics like wool, cotton, and linen for the more advanced dresser. Good options are solids in primary colors, pin dots, regimental stripes, or paisley for some variety. Keep tie knots simple and use the four-in-hand which is suitable for any shirt collar.

Today many young professional men may opt for a slimmer tie to accent their slinder frame. This is a bit of fashion mixed with style and can be played well.  Stick with simple colors and minimal embellishments. Quality slim ties can be had for $15.

Men's Trousers and Belts

Buy three pairs of trousers in solid gray, navy blue and black. Again, look for 100% worsted wool. You may choose pleats or no pleats depending on your body type and personal taste, but be sure they are meticulously tailored and fit you well. These pants should be versatile enough to be worn at the office or at happy hour.

You only need two belts in solid black and brown. Make them both high quality leather with sleek buckles that do not draw attention to the waist.  To be sure the leather is quality look for the 100% leather stamp or bend the belt back and forth. There should be no creases in the leather and it should reform to its original shape.

Men's Dress Shoes

Men who care about their wardrobe will invest their money in quality shoes. You only need two pairs; one in black and one in a brown. Be sure both are high quality 100% leather, thin soled, and simple. Choose an oxford, cap toe, or wingtip and keep them shined.

Stay away from fancy embellishments as they will only add to the cost of the shoe and make you look like you are trying too hard.  Avoid square toe, rubber soled shoes. They wear out quickly and only make you look like a new grad instead of a seasoned professional. Get free shipping both ways on quality shoes at Zappos.com.

Men's Underwear and Socks

Actually, more like undershirts. Again, you need at least seven. One for every dress shirt you own. Keep them white; short sleeved and 100% cotton. Buy a few v-necks to keep you cooler during the summer and they look better than a crew neck under an open collared dress shirt. Wal-Mart is a great option.

Keep socks dark and plain. Only buy over-the-calf hosiery as the bare leg should never be seen when a man crosses his legs.  Socks should be the same color as your suit or close to it.  This will elongate your leg and create a seamless transition from foot to trouser. Buy 100% cotton or a natural fiber blend so your feet don't sweat like the Sahara. Find some at Marshalls.

Men's Accessories

Accessories should be kept to a minimum, but every well-dressed man needs a watch. It will set you apart from the iPhone carrying crowd that only reads a digital clock on a touch screen.

Show some old-world class and strap on a watch. Keep it thin in a leather or stainless steel band and avoid digital faces at all costs.

Citizen is a quality brand with style that will last until you can buy that Rolex with your big promotion.

Professional Intangibles

No matter how well a man is dressed it doesn't account for the intangibles. Smile a lot, shake hands firmly, respect your co-workers and superiors, show up on time, and put 100% into everything you do. If the college grad follows these simple principles his wardrobe won't be the only thing the boss remembers when bonus time comes around.

Header image by J.Crew

Grant Harris is Owner & Chief Style Consultant at Image Granted; a Washington, DC based Image Consulting Company dedicated to solving the complex image, style & fashion issues of today's professional man. He has a healthy obsession with socks. Follow him on Twitter & Facebook.


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  • Reply January 4, 2010

    George Dunhill

    Another great article Grant.
    .-= George Dunhill´s last blog ..Côte et Ciel Diver Sleeve =-.

  • […] For Suck-sess: Tips for the college grad on a budget. (Primer […]

  • Reply January 5, 2010

    Grant Harris


    Thanks for reading! Is there any material you would like to see more of?
    .-= Grant Harris´s last blog ..Image Granted and Primer Magazine Collaboration =-.

  • Reply January 12, 2010

    Sukanta Sarangi

    yea nice Work 😀

  • […] a clean pair of under garments, and a blue blazer for happy hour on Fridays.  Keeping these wardrobe essentials on hand when you don’t need them will leave you with a sigh of relief when you […]

  • Reply June 24, 2010

    Work Shirts

    Seeing this post really make me think again about what you are talking about and seem that it’s true

  • Reply July 12, 2010

    Formal Shirts

    Brilliant post Grant. Some really great tips. Thanks!

  • Reply August 3, 2010

    Cool Tee Shirts

    Great article
    thanks for sharing and thanks for the tips
    .-= Cool Tee Shirts´s last undefined ..Response cached until Thu 5 @ 4:13 GMT (Refreshes in 23.92 Hours) =-.

  • Reply August 31, 2010

    Offshoreally Only

    Thanks for sharing wonderful tips.

  • Reply September 8, 2010


    Great, concise article. I do think it can be improved though. Instead of suggesting 3 additional pants, you should just get two pairs of pants to match each suit. This way your suits will last longer. You will end up wearing your pants more than the jacket, and they just wear faster anyway.

    I would also suggest a navy blazer for “casual Friday.”

    I think it should also have been pointed out that when you do chose a pinstripe suit, you lose the ability to wear it as often without being known as the “pinstripe guy.” Your first two suits should be solids, and add a third in a pinstripe to mix into your attire (bust it out once every other week or so). Also, pinstripe pants can’t really be worn without a matching jacket -or at least a matching vest.

  • Reply March 23, 2011

    Michael Dykes

    Regarding the Undershirts. Forget Wal-Mart. Go to ribbedtee.com. They produce undershirts that redefine undershirts. They may cost more but they are well worth it.

  • Reply March 18, 2012


    thanks for sharing this great post! 🙂

  • Reply April 22, 2012


    fantastic article

  • […] the finer details of a quality handmade dress shirt. Today we would like to give our readers a primer on the man’s dress shirt from collar to tail and in between. The dress shirt is a staple of […]

  • […] my personal favorite–fashion.  Image Granted was recently interviewed by the WSJ and gave our thoughts about the wardrobe habits of the recent college grads and how to stay a step ahead of the pack.  Being interviewed by the WSJ is no small task or […]

  • Reply May 12, 2014


    Basic, but covers most everything a kid coming out will need. Only thing I’d change is some kind of gray is better for undershirts. They are less likely to show through lighter colored dress shirts.

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