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Hear the phrase “capsule wardrobe” or “investment piece,” and there’s a chance you’re automatically thinking big-ticket items from major fashion houses. As such, because you see this goal as something far out of your reach, you stick in the mire of fast fashion and High Street brands, purchasing whatever piques your fancy. This buy-as-you-go approach without any real structure results in a wardrobe that feels like a series of leftover or disconnected parts: Some work together, many don’t, and in the end, you still feel like you don’t have the “right” clothes, especially for more formal, dressed-up occasions.

A classic or capsule wardrobe, going against assumptions, doesn’t need to solely consist of expensive, out-of-budget items. Rather, its building blocks begin with two-way versatility: Garments that work in conjunction with other garments, effortlessly complementing each other in various combinations rather than a “We’ll make it work” sense. On a similar yet separate note, this versatility often means that the white or light blue oxford shirt you own aligns with expectations for job interviews, client presentations, and even some networking or cocktail hour event. You’ll also likely be able to dress it down with denim and a leather jacket.


As a second part to this, the classics making up your wardrobe need to last: High-quality construction is part of this, but also the maintenance you perform. A wardrobe, by default, looks like it’s in need of a refresh when you can spot age and wear from across the room. 

So, how do you go about creating a classic wardrobe when your funds are limited? Get started with the following: 

Shop Vintage and Secondhand 

If it has held up steadily through a few decades, the garment still has life in it. Although secondhand shopping often feels like a brief yet strong nostalgia tour, certain silhouettes transcend time and trends, and that’s what you want to aim for. You’re going to have to search: Based on additional tips we have below, know what your exact measurements are, and already have a list of “classics” planned out, so you’re not buying at random. With this framework, you can take an elevated approach: vintage and consignment for a higher, more reliable quality than the local thrift shop, or browse online, be it through Etsy, eBay, or another secondhand marketplace like Depop.


Know What Fits 

Whether you’re purchasing secondhand or opting for something mid-priced, fit is everything. A poor fit – bunching or bagging in spots, to the point the garment distorts or camouflages your body shape – can occur at any price point yet makes the clothing appear cheap. Instead, really know what will fit you. This means measuring your chest, waist, hips, neck circumference, arms, and outseam. Many pre-1980s vintage garments use a combination of these figures, so you can narrow down your search. These numbers further assist if you’re dabbling in anything made-to-measure or taking off-the-rack garments to the tailor. 

As well, avoid “aspirational” purchases regarding sizing: for instance, telling yourself that if you lose or gain a certain number of pounds, you’ll be able to better fit into a pair of jeans or a slimmer-cut button down shirt. Especially when it comes to tailoring off-the-rack garments, anything more than a size too big or too small can’t be sufficiently adjusted.


Make a List and Look Through Your Wardrobe 

What makes an investment or classic wardrobe to you? Although there tends to be some flexibility, the general consensus tends to be: 

- One neutral suit, in navy, charcoal, or grey with notch lapels and a slim yet not skinny fit. You should be able to wear this suit in full and effortlessly as separates. Some might also say have a black suit for funerals and job interviews. 

- A couple of oxford shirts in white and light blue. 

- A few of button-down casual shirts in a neutral hue like white, grey, blue, or even olive green and a couple of adaptable patterns, like thin, two-tone stripes and plaid or checks. 

- A couple of jackets, including one suit jacket in a neutral hue, and something casual, like a leather jacket, trucker, or bomber. 

- A couple of pairs of jeans in a medium to dark wash or black. 

- A few casual shirts, ideally solid-colour crewneck tees or polos. 

- At least one crewneck sweater in black, tan, or charcoal. 

- A couple pairs of chinos, in navy, grey, or tan. 

- An overcoat in a charcoal or tan hue, although a peacoat is serviceable. 

- A pair of dress shoes, ideally lace-up oxfords or brogues. 

- A versatile set of casual shoes, from Chelsea boots to Converse high-tops to dress sneakers

- A few pairs of black socks. 

- A few accessories, like a pair of aviator or wayfarer sunglasses, a pocket square, a solid-colour or classic print tie, and a belt in black or brown leather.


After you’ve developed your own list from this, start to look through your wardrobe to see what you have, and areas that need to be filled in or expanded. 

As already mentioned, price isn’t a top priority. Even average quality can give you several years of use with the right care. On this note, be mindful with where and how you shop: You’ll end up with more options – styles and sizes – and likely better quality when you shop at a mid-tier retailer’s full-price offerings than to look through designer brands’ outlet goods – sometimes intentionally made to be lower quality and then marked up – or the limited offerings on a higher-end retailer’s sales rack. That isn’t to discount these mediums; instead, try to avoid purchasing garments that won’t fit or last. 

Prepare for Alterations 

When you’re dealing with a limited budget, seeking out something secondhand or from a reliable High Street to mid-tier brand and then getting it tailored to your form yields more effective results than simply purchasing something higher priced. This is due primarily to the precision conveyed through fit. As already mentioned, you end up looking more polished in something moderately priced but better complementing your torso and legs than something expensive and straining around the chest or creating a muffin top.

Ted Baker
Ted Baker

In considering this, be sure to set aside part of your budget for some tailoring. Also consider getting existing garments tailored to improve the impression they make. On this note, for tailoring, something slightly too large (no more than a size) is easier to bring in than to adjust a smaller, tighter garment to a wider frame. 

Care and Maintenance 

We’ve covered this before, but as a review, stains and dirt mar the appearance of your suits and shoes, so get in the habit of brushing them down. Storage, too, plays a role: Look for hangers that won’t create creases in your clothing, and use shoe trees for your dress shoes. As well, how you wash your clothing, from cycle to ironing to the frequency of dry cleaning, affects their appearance long term.

Lee Jeans
Lee Jeans

Ivan Yaskey

Philadelphia’s streetwear scenes and working as a copywriter for a Boston-based menswear brand sparked Ivan's passion for fashion and style more than a decade ago.

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