I picked up the following habits from growing up down south (in North Carolina) and they’ve served me well and help me stand out on the casual left coast.
1. Buy a stack of handkerchiefs and carry one every day
Buy a set of 6 to 12 plain, white handkerchiefs. There’s nothing wrong with getting colored or fun patterns. But white handkerchiefs match everything and can be easily laundered (and bleached, if needed). Carry one in your back pocket, on the opposite cheek from your wallet.
When people think of handkerchiefs, they primarily think of snot rags. Carrying around a wad of snot-soaked cloth is unhygienic. That’s not what handkerchiefs are for.
Handkerchiefs are for emergencies
Snot-related emergencies, of course, apply.
In the following circumstances, producing a handkerchief will make you a hero:
- At dinner, someone has a spill. Offer your handkerchief.
- Someone gets a cut or a scrape. Offer your handkerchief as a bandage.
- Someone gets some terrible news and needs to cry. Offer your handkerchief.
In situations like these I have had handkerchiefs laundered, ironed, and returned to me as a way of saying thanks; in all cases you should be willing to sacrifice your handkerchief. If it’s stained with wine or blood, it’s probably ruined anyway. This is why you buy lots of them. This is why you buy white ones so none of them are special.
You might think you should reserve your handkerchiefs only for damsels who need un-distressing. But don’t be that guy. Offer your handkerchief to anyone who needs it.
2. Wear a plain white undershirt every day.
Much like with handkerchiefs, you can buy plain white t-shirts in packs of 6 or 12. Go ahead and get twelve. Again, you want white for no-conflict matching and for ease of laundering. I prefer a v-neck t-shirt so it hides discreetly behind an open-collared shirt, but this is just a personal preference.
In cold weather the plain white undershirt is an extra layer for warmth. In hot weather, the plain white undershirt wicks sweat off your body while preventing your nice clothes from getting permanently stained with deodorant. In all weather a plain white undershirt protects your nicer outer-wear from your stank-ass body and smoothes over imperfections in your torso. That extra layer of thin fabric makes your top layer lay smoothly over hair, and nipples, and what have you. This works whether you’re wearing an ironic programmer t-shirt or real adult clothes on top.
You’ll look better, your clothes will last longer, and if you peel off your dress shirt to jump under a sink to fix a leak you’ll look like the cover of a romance novel. Speaking of dress shirts…
3. Wear dress shirts
If you have a decent, professional type job - even if it’s a casual environment - do yourself a favor and buy 8 to 10 dress shirts. Before you buy, get yourself measured. Any decent men’s department should be able to measure your neck size and sleeve length. Once you know your size you can buy from anyplace online that posts a size chart. I like Uniqlo shirts; they're affordable and decent quality.
Buy at least a few white shirts, but don’t be afraid to buy some fun colors or patterns. Don’t buy 10 of the same shirt. You’re not Steve Jobs.
If you wear denim, a dress shirt will elevate your grungy jeans to something smart and casual. Throw on a cardigan and people will mistake you for that new professor. Pair with any old slacks and black shoes and congratulations! You’ve mastered business casual.
Bonus laundry hack
Now that you have enough dress shirts to wear Monday – Friday of each week, get them cleaned professionally. Wear the first 4 or 5 shirts. Then on Friday or Saturday take your shirts to the cleaners to be cleaned, starched, and pressed. On the following week, wear the next 4 or 5 shirts. Go back to the cleaners on the weekend, swap your shirts and repeat.
Where I live (not the cheapest place in the world) it costs less than $3 to have a shirt laundered, starched, and pressed. That’s cheaper than a latte. Having 5 shirts laundered each week will set you back maybe $15. That’s lunch one day.
Skip lunch, skip the latte, and spend less time each morning and less time at the laundry machine. It’s worth it.