So the dress code at your new job is "business casual," and you're thinking, "What the … ?" Don't fret, at least not about your wardrobe. Business casual is less straightforward than a suit and tie, but it's not rocket science. And if you're smart about it, you can look as sharp as the next guy for a whole lot less.
While it depends on the kind of office in which you work, business casual typically means crisp, professional and sober. "You don't need a tie, per se, but we're not talking about sweatpants. Think of the overall look and make the pieces work together," says Khurshid Begum, creative director for Modern Culture at Oved Apparel and a fashion industry veteran who's worked for Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani. Here's how to do it:
Step No. 1: See What You Have
Everyone owns jeans, and if you don't have a pair of dark, fitted denim, you should. If you work in a more creative environment, the same goes for a pair of simple black sneakers in either canvas or leather, like Converse Jack Purcells or Adidas Stan Smiths. You probably own a few long-sleeve button-up shirts and a pair of khaki pants as well. These are keepers. "The key here is to look polished, but not too formal. That means your things can't look too worn-in. If you see yellowed armpits or frayed collars, replace the item," says Begum. For everything else, he says, get thee to a dry cleaner. "Get the wrinkles out and show up looking crisp."
Step No.2: Fill in the Gaps in Your Wardrobe
If you're on a budget, keep the colors basic; don't buy orange pants or green shirts, because you'll be limited in how you can put them together. Stick to blues, grays and beiges and you'll get more outfits out of the same group of clothes. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to pair every item you purchase with at least two other items. This is how you build upon your wardrobe rather than just buying more clothes.
Keep the following in mind as essentials: a nice belt, a good pair of leather dress shoes, a few pairs of khakis, a good sport coat, and several shirts (a couple of whites, a couple of blues and a couple of stripes to mix it up). Begum also recommends owning a half-dozen pairs of dark socks that come up to the calf. "The easiest way to look like an idiot is to show up in a great casual outfit and ruin it with white sweat socks," he says. If there's still room in your budget, a couple of sweaters in different styles, while not necessary, can be useful extras: a cardigan that can be worn in place of a sport coat or under one if it's not too bulky, and a crew neck or v-neck or even sweater vest that can be worn in the same way.
Step No. 3: Put It All Together
You can wear a blue shirt and khakis twice in a week, but change it up the second time, maybe with that cardigan, or with a navy knit tie (another good extra if you have the budget). If you go with the tie, and you're in the right work environment, you could also wear sneakers that day to balance out the look. Get the idea?
Step No. 4: Shop
Consignment shops, thrift stores and eBay are great if you genuinely enjoy shopping and have a gift for putting things together. If not, contemporary men's brands like Banana Republic and J. Crew are good for inspiration even if they're a bit out of your price range, because practically everything goes together already. Pick up a couple of basic outfits at either of those stores, or use them for ideas before you head to H&M or the Gap.
Michael Rovner is a freelance journalist who has covered fashion for The New York Times Magazine, Details and the New York Post.