You could spend a year’s salary on suits for every occasion, but chances are you’ve got bills to pay and other things you’d rather spend your money on. If you’re just starting out in your career, or you recently switched to a job that requires suits most days, how do you make sure you have what you need in your closet?
This is where the essentials come in. Chances are, you’ll need to purchase at least one decent suit after college, but your lifestyle and personal preference might require you to have a few more on rotation. Still, it’s possible to choose just a few good pieces that won’t break your bank, but will also serve you for pretty much every function you’ll ever need.
Sites like Reddit and StyleForum show that men’s preference vary widely in terms of how many suits are necessary, so you’ll need to know that for yourself. Generally, if you’re just starting out in your career, you probably won’t be expected to have more than one or two good-quality suits — you just need to switch up your wardrobe with different colored shirts and ties to add variety. As you get older, it’s likely that you’ll add a few more options.
Regardless of how many you own, the fit of the suit is what will set you apart. GQ suggests focusing on the fit in your shoulders first — the total suit will look wrong if it doesn’t fit there. They also encourage becoming buddies with a good tailor who can make your $250 investment look like a thousand bucks. He can take in the sleeves, make sure your pant hem just skims the tops of your shoes, and the other finer details that GQ suggests.
One other tip — no matter how many you own, try to limit the number of time you dry clean your suits. It wreaks havoc on the suit fabric, and will make it deteriorate much faster. Have it steam-pressed if it’s only wrinkled, and save the dry cleaning for when the fabric is actually soiled.
And now we’ve ranked the top five suits you’ll ever need to buy. You’re welcome to purchase more than these, of course, but if you’ve got these staples in your closet, you’ll have all you need.
1. The navy wool suit
Through corporate hell or high water, this suit will be the one that gets you through just about anything. Esquire calls it the “workhorse,” and it’s true. Choosing a breathable wool fabric will make sure that it doesn’t get too warm in the summer, but has what it takes to get you through the coldest months, too. If you’ve only got room in your budget for one suit purchase, make sure it’s a single-breasted navy one.
To select the one that will wear the best for the longest, the fineness of the wool matters, and is rated with a “super” number. (In most cases, it’s on the tag.) Men’s Fitness suggests purchasing a suit with a super number in the low to mid 100s range. It’ll be finer and lighter than cheaper suits in the 80s and 90s ranges, but won’t be as expensive or snaggable as selections in the upper 100s and higher.
To top it off, everyone looks good in navy, no matter your complexion. It’s also appropriate for business meetings, dinner dates, and even weekends if paired with the correct shoes and ensemble. “A navy-blue suit is the most basic necessity in a man’s wardrobe, up there with a pair of jeans and underwear,” Details states.
2. The gray suit
Experts vary on which material your gray suit should be made of. No matter whether it’s made of flannel or wool, a mid-gray suit should be second on your list. Gray tends to be slightly more formal than navy, and the darker the shade, the more formal the event.
Esquire suggests a flannel version with a white shirt and black knit tie for the “perfect nine-to-five look,” and layering with a sweatshirt or just wearing the jacket on the weekends.
“This is basically the man’s version of the little black dress. I call it the no-brainer suit. It works during the day; it works at night. It works at every occasion you’d wear a suit to. But you do need to make sure you’re getting the right shade of gray—not one that’s light and summery, and definitely not a somber charcoal. You want a gray that’s right down the middle,” GQ’s creative director Jim Moore suggests.
3. The summer cotton suit
Cotton suits are the stars of spring and summer, and are decidedly more casual than their wool cousins. Their versatility is great for switching from the office to the weekend in the warmer months. Khaki is the classic choice here, and Men’s Fitness suggests wearing it with a crisp white shirt and pocket square to add a little flair.
Details gives some hints about how to wear it year-round, but it will definitely depend on your office’s dress code for that. During the summer, you can also pair it with a patterned short sleeve shirt and canvas sneakers (white, with no socks), Esquire suggests — to give the indication you’re headed to your boat after work, of course.
4. The subtly patterned suit
If you’re all about bold pinstripes and crazy plaid patterns in your suits, then you do you. But if you’re looking to round out your suit collection with just a little bit of pizazz, try a subtle pattern first. GQ suggests a shadow plaid pattern, which gives a hint of the classic pattern without being overwhelming. “Our aim is to inject a bit of personality without making the guy look like a buffoon,” GQ writes.
Men’s Fitness offers some rules of thumb for how to pair the shirts and ties underneath. If you can see the pattern from afar, stick with solids underneath. If it looks solid until you’re standing right in front of the mirror, treat it like a solid and feel free to add some pattern in your shirt or tie, too.
5. The classic black suit
Though Men’s Fitness states that navy and gray colors are more appropriate for the workplace, a classic black suit still has a place in your wardrobe. It works well for black tie events and parties if you don’t want to spring for a tuxedo. It’s also appropriate for somber occasions, giving it a multi-purpose function.
A note about wearing black suits to funerals: white shirts and black ties underneath are always going to be appropriate. Keep patterns and other colors for the celebratory occasions.
Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS