It was 7:05am, and the sun peeked over the hills outside my window. Frost had developed overnight at the edges of the glass, hinting at a crisp, fall day ahead.
I groggily started the process of getting ready for school. I washed my face and styled my hair. All I had left to do was get dressed before grabbing a quick breakfast and heading out the door.
Except I was paralyzed. Leaning against the wall, staring into my closet.
I must’ve been standing there 5, 6 minutes, in my half-woken stupor, just staring, like I was glancing into the abyss.
I had no idea what to wear!
I didn’t like any of my options. It was as if I only had 3 outfits to choose from.
But if this were a cinematic film and the initial shot was cropped close, right over my shoulder, with me staring into the closet… the next shot would be a slow zoom out, finally showing the whole closet, FILLED WITH CLOTHES.
The camera would then cut to the two other closets stuffed with clothing. And then back to my face, staring blankly like an idiot.
THIS, my friends, was me in high school and college.
A young guy who enjoyed clothing and style so much that he had too many clothes, yet nothing to wear.
No simple basics in somber, neutral colors that all go with each other. Few perfect essentials.
Instead, old T-shirts and pants I wasn’t into anymore, super trendy pieces that matched with a limited number of other things, and cool stand-out clothes that I loved, but didn’t feel confident enough to wear.
Lean, Minimalist Wardrobe Essentials = Fewer, but better clothes
It wouldn’t be until many years later that I discovered how great it is to own less. Fewer (but more awesome) items that fit well, are neutral in color, and go with everything else in my closet.
While I’m still perfecting my ideal minimalist wardrobe (at this point, I’m pretty sure it’s a lifelong, ever-evolving process), and I still fall victim to the occasional “What was I thinking?” purchase, I’ve gotten better.
If you’ve ever been in young Barron’s position—staring into your closet with tons of options but feeling like you have nothing you want to wear—a lean, minimalist wardrobe may be your saving grace.
What exactly is a lean, minimalist wardrobe?
There are a few terms—minimalist wardrobe, capsule wardrobe, lean wardrobe (what we call it on EG)—that all describe the same thing:
Minimalist Wardrobe: A man’s wardrobe essentials; classic, quality items in neutral colors that are interchangeable and easily worn with each other.
My story of getting dressed as a teen may sound familiar. It’s a similar one echoed by many young’ns experimenting with their personal style. As a result, they end up with a closet filled with clothing, yet wear only a small handful of those things.
Keeping a lean, minimalist wardrobe requires some effort and regular pruning… but day to day, this type of wardrobe makes putting together sharp looking outfits much easier.
Seeing MY wardrobe essentials will help you identify yours
A few days ago, I singled out what I actually wear on a regular basis, and what makes up a versatile, interchangeable wardrobe. So I’m presenting that to you today.
One thing to remember: Don’t look at my set of essentials as some hard-and-fast rule. I’m not saying you have to own these things.
Consider it more like a boilerplate template; a place to start. Feel free to add and remove items that make or don’t make sense for you.
My Suggestions For Men’s Wardrobe Essentials
Denim is a standard in most guys’ closets. Perfect for everyday, casual activities… from running errands on a Saturday, to meeting friends for drinks and dinner after work.
If you want to be truly minimal, you only need one pair: Dark, raw, unwashed indigo (similar to the pair on the left). My go-to denim brand is Levi’s, and I prefer the 501 Tapered or the 502 model. The problem with Levi’s is that they change model numbers all the time and it’s hard to keep up.
I like slim and tapered (or athletic) cuts because they’re designed to have room in the legs and seat, but the leg opening tapers, or becomes smaller, which looks much more clean (clean lines, clean lines!).
I also have a medium- and light-washed pair. Because, well, I like variety, and I don’t always want to wear dark denim, especially in warmer weather.
If I’m not in jeans, I’m wearing chinos. I don’t particularly like the medium khaki color (I call them “middle management khakis“), but I do like the british khaki / caramel color, a few shades darker.
I also wear a medium-grey or charcoal pair a lot. Grey goes with everything and these chinos are so versatile.
As far as fit is concerned, they’re similar to my denim: medium rise, athletic, tapered cut, no break. You can see how some of my casual pants fit here.
Dress pants / trousers
For slightly dressier situations, I have more formal options for pants. In this case, dressier chinos and wool trousers with extended tab closures, cuffs, and sharp pleats. These aren’t essential for a dressier pair of pants, but all of mine happen to have these characteristics, because I like them.
While any man can benefit from a variety of dress shirts, the true workhorses will be those in white and light blue.
If you’re like me and sport a smart, sharp, casual style, your go-to combo is more denim, sport shirts, and sport coats instead of full suits, so maybe you don’t need any more than two.
Again, feel free to adjust this number. If you wear suits every day, you’ll probably need several of each, plus other easy-to-pair options. In this case, I prefer a light lavender, light pink, and a light blue and white candy stripe.
By the way, are you unsure what the different stripe widths are called? Check out this post on the Ask Andy About Clothes forum.
Allllrighty, now we’re getting into the shirts I wear most. First up, these OCBDs.
Naturally, light blue and white go with everything, so these two see a lot of use. I also own one in a light pink and a light grey. I don’t wear them quite as often, but they do come out once in awhile, so I hang onto them.
Chambrays in all shades are a mainstay in my lean, minimalist wardrobe.
I have a few versions with different styles, from short-sleeve to long-sleeve band collars and button-down collar popovers, like the one on the left.
These two see the most use: the light blue chambray popover and the standard medium blue chambray with button down collar and extended tab collar.
I’ve owned a bunch of plaid shirts in the past, but my favorites have always been this red, black, and grey check (slight lumberjack vibe) and black watch, both from J.Crew (though not available as of this writing).
So, I’ve whittled down my winter-weight shirts to these two plaids in flannel. I like to pair them with any of the casual pants I pointed out above: dark denim, caramel chinos, or charcoal chinos.
These shirts in particular provide more warmth compared to all the other casual shirt options I’ve featured here, since they’re made from a cozy, heavier-weight flannel.
Midlayers are your best friends during fall and winter. In fall, they can serve as your outerwear piece if it isn’t cold enough for a coat. And during the winter, they’re the perfect layering piece over a shirt and underneath a peacoat for added warmth.
On the left is an example of a casual spring / summer midlayer – a lightweight cotton wide stripe sweatshirt. Feels a bit nautical, perfect for warm weather. On the right is a thicker grey and brown marled wool sweater I typically wear with denim and chinos.
For a formal outfit, I’d probably go with something a bit more refined, like a fine-knit merino V-neck or cardigan.
I have plenty of belts, but I find myself using the same 2-3 almost every day. For my casual outfits, a grey canvas belt, and depending on my shoes, a tan cognac or medium-dark brown belt.
Huge fan of Anson Belts because of the micro-adjustability and the large selection of leather and canvas options. I suggest the 1.5″ width if you’re looking to customize your own.
Hats—fedoras, in particular—may not be for everyone, but I wear them all the time.
Wool felt in the colder months, packable straw versions for the warmer months, or whenever I’m lucky enough to hop down to Miami or somewhere else with humidity and palm trees.
Just make sure you choose a fedora with a classic brim (2.5-3″ wide), not the stingy brim versions that douchebags always seem to wear.
I love wearing military-influenced field jackets, especially during those transitional months in spring and fall.
These are two that see the most use in my closet. The green jacket on the left is a Canada army-issued MK II (I’m wearing it here). The left is a heavier-weight field jacket from J.Crew. This model is the closest version they have, as of this writing.
Finally, a denim jacket is another good light outerwear option. If you get the right shade, similar to the Buckman or Spire colorways here, you can wear it with medium or dark-blue denim (without going full Canadian Tuxedo), as well as your caramel and charcoal chinos.
My buddy Peter has a great tip when it comes to sport coats: Look at them as jackets instead of half a suit.
You throw jackets on without a second thought. You can do the same with sport coats, too. Sure, they can be dressed up with a shirt, tie, and trousers, but you can also wear them with denim and a T-shirt… or like me and my default uniform: denim, OCBD, and loafers.
These three colorways will serve you well if you’re still trying to figure out which sport coats you should buy first: one in a medium grey with a bit of texture, a brown or tan-colored jacket (mine has a glen check pattern), and a navy jacket (this one being a double-breasted, brighter navy).
I bought an incredible Canada Goose Citadel parka when I first moved to NYC, and it saw plenty of use my first winter here. But honestly, it hasn’t been that cold since.
In contrast, I use my J.Crew pea coat almost every day during winter. It’s perfect for layering and protects me from most New York winter days. If you’re further north or west, you may need something more substantial (like the Canada Goose coat), but for me, this works just fine.
I mentioned earlier that I don’t have to dress formally too often (I’m more of a chinos-slash-jeans-and-sport-coat guy), but I have a few lace-ups that fit the bill should I have to throw on a suit. These black oxfords with subtle wingtip detail and plain oxblood bluchers are my “dressiest” pairs.
The Allen Edmonds Strand on the right would serve as my least formal pair, based on color and broguing (but these days, still totally fine with a suit). I wear these with dark denim as well as wool trousers.
Finally, my casual line-up. This obviously spans the spectrum, from “running errands” casual to “drinks and a nice dinner” smart, sharp, dressy casual.
Some see more use during certain seasons. The unlined suede loafers and boat shoes are more spring and summer, while the suede chukkas (part of a Massdrop x AE collab) and leather chelseas are more fall and winter. The white sneaks are year-round, of course. (Here’s a similar pair from Nike.)
What are YOUR wardrobe essentials?
Finding a definitive list of wardrobe essentials is tough, mostly because every guy has different needs. My essentials may not work for a guy who lives in suits during the week (and vice versa).
But finding YOUR definitive list is much easier. You just have to observe yourself, see what you do during the week, consider the weather where you live, and how much you’re willing to spend.
Will your essentials change? Over time, sure, probably. I own and wear things regularly today that I didn’t have 5 years ago. I can think of items I wore 5 years ago that I wouldn’t dare wear today.