- Feb 15, 2020
IntroductionAfter a great recent discussion about women’s clothes options for vacation schemes, I was reminded of some of the challenges I had when I was first building up a wardrobe of formalwear, both in terms of finding clothing options at an accessible price and actually putting together formal outfits. As such, I wanted to put together a little guide on how to shop for formalwear at different price points, what to look for, and some general pointers in constructing a formal outfit.
Sourcing formalwearOne of the major barriers to entry with formalwear, often, is cost. I’ll quickly cover some options for formalwear at different budget levels, giving a few ideas at different price points for both suits and shoes. Before I go any further, though, there are two very important principles to remember when planning formalwear in advance of a vacation scheme or even starting a new job. Firstly, you will absolutely not be judged negatively on your appearance so long as you are dressed appropriately - firms are far more interested in who you are as a person than how you look. Secondly, you do not need to spend a huge amount of money on formalwear to look smart and feel ‘the part’.
On a constrained budget (£0-£60 per suit):
If working on a tighter budget, fear not. As mentioned above, there is no need to spend a lot of money on formalwear. For those who are in the most challenging financial positions, there are some organisations who will assist candidates with free or vastly discounted formalwear (see, for example, Suit2Go and Suited & Booted) for things like interviews and internships.
If you don’t mind buying second hand, charity shops can often have absolute bargains if you know what you’re looking for. Obviously, you’ll want to check carefully for any obvious marks or wear, and non-smokers ought to check for smoke smell (as this can be hard to remove). Nevertheless, charity shops often have brand new or barely worn items on the shelves for a fraction of their RRP.
If you’re looking to purchase your formalwear new, but are nevertheless working on a slimmer budget, supermarkets are often a good starting point. At the time of writing, you can purchase a black suit jacket and trousers for £32 from George. Some online retailers and more budget-friendly high street shops also provide formalwear which looks great and won’t cost the earth. I’ve personally had suits from Primark and ASOS in the past – at the time I bought them, I was able to pick up a jacket and trousers for around £50, even less with a student discount. Both options fitted well and lasted a good amount of time, too.
In terms of shoes in this market bracket, Shoe Zone have some £10-15 pairs, Matalan have some great options at less than £20 per pair and Samuel Windsor also represent great value with pairs around £25. Whatever you go for, I would always recommend ensuring that you try shoes on before extensive use – the last thing you want is to be on the second day of a vacation scheme with blisters! If you’re worried about this, though, carrying a pack of Compeed blister plasters is worthwhile.
On a mid-level budget (£75-£100 per suit):
If you have some more money to spend, there are a number of high street stores which will give you a lot of bang for your sartorial buck. At Topman, now owned by ASOS, a grey two-piece suit starts around £100 at time of writing (they also have a sale on with loads of formalwear much cheaper). H&M, another high street stalwart, come in notably cheaper with a two-piece suit starting at around £75. At this market bracket, my personal favourite option is M&S. A two-piece suit starts around £80 and, in my experience, their suits are great quality and probably represent some of the best value for money on the market.
In terms of shoes in this budget bracket, there are a lot of options. Again, M&S have some great options starting around £30 per pair. I’ve also had shoes from Next before which were around £45 at the time of buying (albeit a few years ago now) and lasted quite well despite daily use and abuse.
Speaking from personal experience, investing in a good pair of formal shoes is great where possible – from a comfort perspective, as well as longevity, better shoes are likely to last a lot longer and get more comfortable as they wear in.
On a higher budget (£120+ per suit):
If you’re in the position of being able to spend a some more on your formalwear, there are myriad options to consider. Again, M&S deserve a mention here with options around the £120 mark for a two-piece, and ‘Ultimate’ collection suits around £150. TM Lewin also have options in this price bracket – they’re also usually quite good for sales and offer a 10% student discount.
In terms of shoes at the higher price bracket, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, M&S have some great options around £60. If you’re really looking to make an investment in your footwear, I’ve had some fantastic results shopping at outlet stores of otherwise-expensive brands – I recently picked up a pair of Oxfords at around a 75% discount!
Having the fit of an off-the-rack suit altered by a local tailor is a great way to make a suit look like a custom piece. Some simple jobs, like having trousers hemmed or a jacket taken in, are not particularly expensive and can be genuinely transformative to a formal outfit.
Multiple outfits from one suit
Buying multiple suits is where it’s particularly easy for budgets to spin out of control. Rest assured, though, there are lots of things that can be done to make multiple outfits which look very different using the same base suit.
The first, and most obvious, is by having multiple shirts in different colours and designs. I personally keep a combination of light and dark blue, plain white, striped, pink, and lilac shirts (for wear with mostly charcoal and navy suits) – you would be surprised how something as simple as a radical shirt change can alter an entire outfit! Buying multiple shirts is likely to be more budget-friendly than buying multiple suits! On the point of shirts, single and double cuffs are both completely acceptable. Personally, I wear double cuffs, but you do then need to buy cufflinks too. Whatever cuffs you go for, do make sure to opt for long sleeves in the first instance. In terms of choosing a length for both your shirt and jacket, a general rule of thumb is to aim for around 1cm, or half an inch, of shirt cuff on show below a jacket sleeve when your arms hang by your side. For those of us on the taller side, buying extra-long bodied shirts is the best way to prevent untucking every time you sit down.
Changing up ties can also help get more use out of a limit number of suits. Again, I keep a wide variety of ties in all different colours, patterns and materials as these can change the dynamic of a formal outfit. If at all possible, avoid novelty ties. For anyone who isn’t used to tying ties, here’s a good tutorial.
Shoes and leather accessories
Where possible, try and have your shoes and belt match in colour. Either black or brown is acceptable, though black is arguably more versatile if you only want to buy one set. In terms of shoe style, any formal shoe is generally acceptable – Oxfords are probably the most classic and versatile option, though, so it’s hard to go wrong here.
If your shoes have a leather upper, giving them a quick touch-up with some shoe polish to cover up any scuffs or scrapes can often give them a new lease of life.
Dressing to virtually impressWearing a full suit and formal shoes is, obviously, unnecessary for virtual events where only your head and shoulders will ever be in view. When I attended my virtual vacation schemes, I tended to err on the side of caution initially in wearing a shirt and tie until I got a better picture of the general dress code. The tie tended to disappear by day two! Wearing a suit jacket in your own home is not necessary, although I would consider it as an option for exit interviews which are often much more formal than the preceding vacation scheme was! In terms of your bottom half, wear whatever is comfortable for a day of sitting at a desk or table. Again, from personal experience, I usually found myself in jeans or comfortable chinos, accompanied, of course, by my favourite fluffy slippers.
I'd be really interested to hear some of your best pointers/ tips and tricks for formalwear! Please feel free to share some of your own favourite brands, options etc below
As usual, if there's anything particularly confidential arisen out of this discussion then please feel free to DM me