When I was a kid, my closet included a mix of nearly every kind of clothing a teenage boy can wear: jeans, khakis, polos, free t-shirts, jackets, coats, and hand-me-down blazers and suits. You could say my personal uniform back then was not having one.
It stayed this way until I started working at Texas State. My mother-in-law turned me on to Land’s End one Christmas, and I swapped out nearly everything in my wardrobe for a slim collection of slacks, shirts, and t-shirts, all from LE.
I really liked those clothes, mainly because LE had slacks that included an elastic band along the sides that allowed them to stretch. This was important a couple years ago, when I was fifty pounds heavier and five inches bigger around the waist.
One day, about a year ago, my wife and I went to the San Marcos outlet malls. I’d lost of a lot weight, and some girth, so I wanted a new pair of jeans. I stopped in the Eddie Bauer outlet store. I’d always liked the subtly tough but relaxed vibe I got from Eddie Bauer, and I had a pair of jeans from there in high school. One of the workers told my wife about their Travex pants, and I tried on a pair.
That’s what I’ve been wearing since. I have three pairs now, in tan, grey, and navy blue. I also have three vests, in grey, navy, and brown.
A couple weeks ago, John-Stephen Stansel, the social media manager at Texas State, posted about his personal uniform. I realized I too had developed my personal uniform, and I think it’s been a great change in my daily life. Here are some tips I’ve come up with for developing your own personal uniform.
Determine your main clothes needs
Stop looking at clothes as fashion statements, work apparel, team support, or whatever else, but also don’t dress in away that looks like you just picked it up off the back of your kitchen chair for the sixth time since it’s been washed. You need to take two major considerations into account.
First, how do you want to feel in your clothes based on your environment? Is it usually warm where you live and work, but you tend to get a chill from air conditioning? Does the weather change substantially from season to season, or does it transition from mild-to-cool or mild-to-warm?
Second, your clothes should fulfill an actual function, either protecting you from the elements or providing storage for the things you need at hand throughout the day. If you have an accessory that holds most of your tools, such as a purse or tool belt, then don’t worry about this one as much. I always need a pen, notepad, keys, and my wallet, so I like to have pockets for those things.
Ask yourself the following:
- In what kind of environment do you spend most of your day?
- Does your environment typically change throughout the year or from moving inside to outside?
- What tools do you routinely grab that could go into a pocket?
- Would those tools fit better in a pants pocket, shirt pocket, or vest pocket?I especially like the vests when I travel. Once I get to the end of the waiting line, I breeze through airport security. I watch people fill little cups with change, pens, watches, phones, and wallets, all while I zip up a couple pockets, pull off the vest, run it through the X-ray machine, and I’m good to go. They definitely help in that area.
Be honest with yourself about your clothes
I need clothes that fulfill a variety of criteria:
- I want to look good, though I don’t obsess about style. I’m an academic after all.
- I need my clothes to look professional enough for teaching, conferences, and workshops, yet comfortable enough for days off, shopping trips with my wife, and conferences and workshops1
- I need the clothes to be cool and light. I’m fairly hot-natured, and I’ve moved from Kentucky to Louisiana to Texas. It just keeps getting hotter for me. Chinos, much less a suit, are out as options.2
- I realized a few months ago that I don’t like polo shirts. The generic “I’m at work, so I need a collar, but I’d never wear a tie, and I may also want to go have a beer or even hit a few balls at the driving range after work” look does not work for me. I’ve never found a polo that was comfortable around my midsection. My barrel chest and pudgy tummy just do not work in them. They never have really, and it took me about 31 years to realize that. When I did, they immediately came out of the closet, and I pass right by them at stores.
Choose your clothes intentionally
Now that you have a better idea of what you need, you can think about how you want to look. Find a style, preferably a single brand, that meets all your idiosyncrasies:
- Are you warm or cool natured?
- Do you feel more comfortable bit overdressed or a bit underdressed?
- Do you use pockets?
- Which sections of your body do you want to flatter, and which sections do you want to not flatter?
Now think about what you have in your closet—I mean really think—and decide what works and what does not.
Take something you always grab to wear and figure out why. Now take something you haven’t worn in months and figure out why. Write down these criteria if you need to do so.
Now pull out everything from your closet. Run each individual item—every shirt, pant, blazer, sweater, dress, suit—through those criteria.3
Search for a brand, not a deal
Mainly you are looking for a comfortable, consistent look. The best way to do this is find a brand that cuts their clothes to your shape—they are all different—and that you like the look. Always try to put together entire outfits and ensembles in the same brand.
This means no more walking across an entire mall, shopping center, or department store seeking the best prices on a random assortment of “cute” pieces. Stick to your brand, develop your complete but minimal wardrobe, and replace worn out pieces when necessary.
This will mean spending full price most of the time, unless you’re lucky enough to find what you need at an outlet mall like I did. Otherwise, prepare yourself to pay full price, but reassure yourself that in the long run, you will have a smaller, better set of clothes, and spend much less money overall, than if you had a closet busting at the seams full of pieces you got deals on.
Develop your own personal uniform
- Find out your needs (comfort, formality, functionality);
- Be honest about your clothes;
- Clean out your closet; and
- Stop shopping for deals and pick a brand.
I cannot honestly say that doing these four things will make you feel or look amazing, that you will be completely satisfied immediately (I ended up tossing lots of great Land’s End clothes before I got to where I’m at now, and I originally went into Eddie Bauer looking for jeans). I can say doing this will give you a better idea of what works for you, which will help make you a happier, more comfortable person—both inside and out—in the long run.
- I’ve gotten some looks wearing my outfits at conferences, as if to say “Where’s your tie and blazer?” I don’t see many ties, blazers, or really even suits, so I don’t worry about it that much. ↩︎
- I apologize if I look underdressed for your event, but I’d rather be decent looking and cool feeling than dressed up and sweating bullets. ↩︎
- A similar method is Marie Kondo’s method: hold each item individually and, for each, ask yourself the following: “Does this bring me joy?” If not, toss it. ↩︎