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This is the secret to building a man’s suit wardrobe

These are the 4 suits every man must have in his closet

Tailor stretching measuring tape across suited chest
Pressmaster / Shutterstock

Every man needs a good suit. And while there are those out there who will tell you every man needs a black suit, that is an antiquated sentiment that needs to be updated. Instead, there are other options that are better suited for today’s world. Sure, you need to pick up a black suit eventually, but there are better ones to start with, something we like to call the four-legged stool.

The four-legged stool covers the four essential pieces of a man’s suit wardrobe you need to keep looking sharp at the office or after you clock out, much like the four legs of a stool are essential to keep you from breaking your tailbone on the floor. 

Man in charcoal suit
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1: The charcoal suit

There is a bit of contention with some of the more conservative people in the industry. In the old days, the first suit you would buy, regardless of age or profession, was a black suit. It is what you wore to weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, or your sister’s dance recital. While it is still quite useful for all of these occasions, it is a little too formal for the workplace, which makes it not the best choice for a first suit because it lacks versatility.

The alternative? A charcoal suit. It’s dark enough that it still brings a level of formality to the occasion, but it’s also light enough to be appropriate at the end of the table when in full view of the boss.

Keep it simple A lot of guys get in trouble when they try too hard. One of the hardest things to do is to reign in the compulsion to buy something trendy. You want to look good; therefore, what looks good at the time is the first thing one goes for. However, what is fashionable today may not be trendy tomorrow. Keep the lapels at a medium width; too narrow will look like you are channeling your inner 2007 Justin Timberlake, and too wide looks like you want to be Ross Gellar (token Friends reference). There is an entire conversation on the suit’s style and details that go in and out of favor all on their own. Just remember, people remember the suit if you get too flashy, which limits how often you can wear it. So, basic charcoal.

Flash it up – Now, for the times you want to stand out. There will inevitably be a time when you want to be the center of attention. You want to show off your ability to elevate your look. The best way to do that with any basic suit will be the shirt and tie. Brighter colors and patterns are a great way to grab the eye. Also, consider wearing tan dress shoes to brighten the whole suit up for the office. The rule of thumb here is before 6 pm, go with your tan dress shoe and belt, and after 6 pm go for black and wear it as a black suit. 

Man in suit and blue tie
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2: The blue suit

While the Charcoal suit may be the most versatile for parties, funerals, and formal events, the second piece added to the four-legged stool is arguably the most important. The blue suit is the one to elevate your suit collection from Mom got me this for graduation” to “I am ready to be promoted.”

This is The Banker Suit. Worn traditionally as the professional business suit, the blue suit is a must for your wardrobe. This was traditionally navy — the darker, the better. However, going a bit brighter gives a little more contrast to the charcoal you already have. It’s best worn with tan or burgundy shoes.

Keep it simple – Once again, this is about versatility. This suit should also be a basic color, without a pattern. People remember patterns too easily to wear often. Keep this solid and open to many shirts and tie combinations.

Flash it up Breaking the rules is a dangerous proposition with menswear. You either look like a revolutionary, a schmuck, or a fossil. When it comes to the blue suit, black shoes are a source of contention. Used to be our fathers and grandfathers would only wear black shoes. Then sometime in the mid-2000s, that became a no-no. Now, as long as the shade of your blue is light enough, black shoes are a great way to make the look pop. You want some contrast here. You don’t want it to look like you thought you were putting on a black suit and made a mistake. 

Man in gray suit
Nejron Photo / Shutterstock

3: The light gray suit

The third leg is light gray. This is what I call the Dummy-Proof Suit. It’s light enough to work well at daytime weddings and at the office, and dark enough that you can wear it year-round. It’s versatile enough to go with brown shoes, black shoes, burgundy shoes, green shoes, Chuck Taylor’s, or Jordan’s. Now… if you wear the last two, we will have a different conversation about being an adult when needed and Justin Bieber whenever else. The point is that it goes with nearly everything.

Keep it simple – This is the suit in your wardrobe most likely to be worn to weddings, reunions, and office parties. It goes with any color your significant other wears, making it useful if it is a basic solid. However, if you have the other two basics, this one could have a pattern like a window pane or check.

Flare it up – Since this has few color restrictions, this suit can best accompany your bright dress shirts. If there is a crazy-colored shirt and tie that your girl loves and thinks matches your eyes perfectly, this is the suit to wear it with.

Note: When wearing this to a formal evening event, remember that the more formal the event, the darker you want to dress, so wear dark colors in the shirt and tie if you decide to wear this in lieu of the darker charcoal option. Having said that, this suit remains at its best before six p.m., while the charcoal is best suited for your later events. 

Blazer with silver buttons
Muhammad Numan / Unsplash

4: The blue sport coat

No wardrobe is complete without the fourth and final leg to the stool — the navy sport coat. There will always be confusion between the blazer, the sport coat, and the suit jacket (a later discussion). You need to know that the sport coat has buttons that typically do not contrast with the jacket, while blazers have metal buttons that pop. The idea behind the sport coat is to keep it a little more casual and dress up jeans or dress down the shirt and tie.

Keep it simple – In a casual situation, the sport coat speaks for itself. You are dressing up a pair of jeans or chinos, so you don’t need to get too flashy with the shirt or tie underneath. Keep this in mind: If you elect to go with a blazer (gold or silver buttons), chinos, and a white shirt, you will look like you’re right off the Harvard Rowing Team. An excellent option for an evening out is a darker shirt and casual knit tie under the sport coat and jeans.

Flash it up  If you want to stand out, don’t do it with a shirt and tie; a pocket square will add a dash of color. Make sure it complements the shirt or tie (complementing the shirt is more formal, and complementing the tie is more business). Don’t match them. If they are made out of the same material, it looks like you got it from a boxed set at Khol’s.

A man in a suit lacing his shoes
AlexButova / Shutterstock

Taking it a step further

If you wear a suit every day, then you can’t last long on only four tailored garments. Therefore, you need to know what comes next. We go a lot deeper into what suits you should invest in if you wear them to the office every day, but the gist of it is that once you have these options, you can start going for more colors and patterns and picking some things for specific events. Of course, no suit is complete without the right pair of shoes. So, to add to the four-legged stool of suits, you should also pick out the shoes to go with them — one pair of black, one dark brown, one tan (or cognac), and one burgundy (oxblood).

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Mark McKee
Mark is a full-time freelance writer and men's coach. He spent time as a style consultant and bespoke suit salesman before…
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