Dressing well in college is a fine line to walk. It’s very, very easy to drift over into that “trying too hard” territory. Especially when most of your peers are wearing pajama pants to class. But that doesn’t mean you have to wear sweats for four years. Here’s a few ways to dress a bit better and increase your style, while pursuing your degree, without straying too far from the campus norm.
Grow up your T-Shirt game.
- Made in the USA StringKing Custom Fit Poly/Tencel 155 Pocket Tee – $25
- Target Goodfellow & Co Standard Fit T-Shirt – $6
- Amazon Goodthreads Short-Sleeve Crewneck Cotton T-Shirt – $12
- J. Crew Garment-dyed Slub Cotton T-shirt – $20ish
Stick to the basics and keep any graphics/logos subtle. Solids and stripes are classy. Logos and clever slogans are not. Nobody ever saw a “funny” t-shirt and thought “now THAT is a guy I want to hire/buy a beer/get in bed with.” Even if your shirt isn’t trying to be funny, busy graphics and oversized branding can look tacky.
Keep up on your grooming, but don’t go over the top.
- Target Goodfellow & Co. Grooming Goods (cheap)
- Jack Black Grooming Products (mid priced to spendy)
- Kiehl’s Grooming Products (mid priced to spendy)
Dudes seem to go one of two ways once they move out of their parents house and into a dorm or close-to-campus apartment. They either become enormous slobs, or, they wear enough scent and grease to scare anyone away with functioning olfactory receptors. Land somewhere in between.
Wear slim (but not “bro tight”) solid or basic patterned button downs, sweaters, & polos.
- Target Goodfellow Slim Fit Stretch Poplin Button-Down Shirt – $25
- Amazon Goodthreads Slim-fit Oxford Cloth Button Down – $25
- GAP Poplin Button Downs – $30ish
- Amazon Goodthreads Merino Wool V-Neck – $35
- Amazon Goodthreads Merino Wool Cardigan – $40
- UNIQLO Extra Fine Merino Sweaters – $39.90
- Banana Republic Slim Luxury-Touch Polo – $30ish when on sale
- EXPRESS Piped Performance Polos – $30ish when on sale
Clothes should skim your frame. Not cling to it. Not hang off it and billow in the breeze. Shoulder seams should land about where your arm meets your shoulder. Short sleeves should go about halfway down your bicep, and not be tucked up in your arm pit. And skip the flashy colors and patterns made to be noticed in a nightclub. It’s just an obvious cry for attention.
Rely on clean, white leather sneakers.
- Stan Smith White Leather Sneakers – $60ish
- Banana Republic Nicklas Sneakers – $80ish
- J. Crew Leather Court Sneakers – $100ish
You can waste a ton of money on casual shoes that look awful. Or, you can stick with clean, simple, white leather sneakers that’ll go with everything. Shoe trends, especially super-casual/sneaker shoe trends, come and go pretty quick, but clean white sneakers seem to always be acceptable. The Stan Smith is the epitome of this kind of shoe. They won’t let you down. Ever.
Break your baseball cap addiction.
I have personal experience with this struggle. I was one of you. I still am some days. There are millions (not an exaggeration) of young men out there who won’t let anyone see them without a ballcap on because they think they have bad hair or their head looks funny or who knows what insecurity is eating them up inside.
But the hat, somehow to them, covers it up. Yet it’s not a fix. And there will come a time (many times) when you just can’t wear a hat. Maybe it’s a wedding or a job interview or you’ve got a professor who doesn’t allow it in their lecture hall. And you’re gonna feel super uncomfortable without your security blanket on your head, and it’ll show.
Breaking the baseball hat addiction is one of the easiest ways for a guy in his 20s to upgrade his style, yet it’s also surprisingly difficult to do. It takes some time away from hats, but if you stick with it, I promise you will get used to seeing your hair or your head or whatever and you’ll be okay with it. Perhaps more than okay with it. And then one of those times where hats aren’t allowed will come along and… and it’ll be okay. And you won’t feel weird. And you’ll be glad you beat the addiction. I believe in you. You can do this.
Wear a watch. Keep the phone tucked away as much as possible.
- Timex Leather Strap Weekender Chrono – $52
- Invicta Pro Diver Auto – $85
- Casio MDV106-1AV Dive Watch – $47 (review here)
Especially keep that phone in your pocket and off the table when on dates. Everyone else has their nose in their phone. It pays to keep your chin up and your eyes looking about. Wearing a watch means you’re less likely to whip that phone out and check the time. Checking the time only leads to checking Facebook. And Twitter. And Instagram. And before you know it, you’re a mindless zombie walking around addicted to the dopamine rush that plastic and glass rectangle in your pocket keeps hitting you with.
Pick your spots with athleisure, and know how to smarten it up.
- adidas Men’s Tiro Pants – $35
- Old Navy Tapered Drawstring-Waist Joggers – $20ish
- Target Goodfellow Tech Joggers – $29.99
- Lululemon Down for It All Hooded Jacket – $198
- Amazon Goodthreads Men’s Merino Blend Lightweight Hoodie – $45
No one is saying you have to burn your collection of hoodies and joggers. But wearing them to a job interview, to meet your significant others parents, or to any place/event where you’d kinda like to impress someone? It’s not a great idea. There are ways to smarten up athleisure, but for some occasions, it’s best to leave the sweats in the drawer.
Keep your place relatively clean & organized.
It doesn’t have to look like Martha Stewart lives there, but c’mon guys. Dust. Vacuum every once in a while. And for the wind and the rain, clean your bathroom every now and then.
Own a decent, tailored suit, & almost never wear it.
- Spier and Mackay Core Line Suits in Charcoal, Gray, or Navy – $328
- Suitsupply Blue Line in Charcoal, Gray, or Navy – $359 – $399
Strange advice, right? There aren’t a lot of reasons in college to wear a suit. Wear one on a date and boy, that’s almost certainly overkill. But heading to a wedding, a job interview, or (heaven forbid) a funeral? You’ll absolutely need one. Charcoal or Navy should be your first suit purchase. And it doesn’t have to be pricey at this point if you’re not wearing it all that often. Make it wool with a breathable lining (bemberg or acetate, not scratchy all polyester). And beware overly trendy cuts that come with super cheap suits (like Uniqlo or Target). A slightly shorter tail or slimmer lapels? Fine. But skip the hyper-chopped tails and razor thin lapels. You won’t wear your suit much. But when you need it, you’ll be glad you’ve got one that fits well.
Have the same person cut your hair, each time.
Doesn’t have to be someplace fancy and expensive, but do use the same person each time. You’ll get to know them, they’ll get to know you. And when it comes to avoiding bad haircuts, consistency is key. So is communication. Don’t go to someone that doesn’t listen, hacks up your head, or the results have your pals doing a double take at your hair. Find someone good. Stick with that someone. Make that someone the person you always go to. (Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash)
Don’t live your entire life on social media.
This is a hard ask for a lot of people under the age of, well, dead. Less is more when it comes to social media. Style is often sexy. And there’s nothing sexy about someone who posts every thought, outfit, and travel update to social media. Be at least a little mysterious, and get off the social networks every so often. Or, a lot.
Stick to dark wash, slim but not tight, hole free jeans.
- Levi’s 514 in Tumbled Rigid – $39.99
- Amazon Goodthreads Comfort Stretch Slim Fit Jean – $40
- Banana Republic Slim Dark Rinse Japanese Traveler Jean – $70ish
Putting on some dark wash jeans, maybe with some stretch woven in, is hardly a big ask. They look great too.
Wear classic wayfarer style sunglasses in tortoiseshell or black.
- Ray-Ban Polarized Wayfarers – $79.97 ($180)
- J. Crew Men’s Dock Sunglasses – $65
- Huckberry Weekenders – $45
- Target Goodfellow Sunglasses – $15
- Kirkland Wayfarers – $25 – $30 (Costco in-store only, if they’re carrying them at present)
Skip the trendy stuff and chunky sport shades. These are classy classics (no, that’s not redundant). They’ll go with everything. Ray Bans are awfully nice, but there are plenty of super-cheap alternatives that deliver the same look.
Own a classy mac jacket, wool topcoat, or peacoat
- BR Factory Water-Resistant Mac Jacket – $100ish
- UNIQLO: 90% Wool / 10% Cashmere Topcoats – $149.90
- J. Crew Dock Peacoat – $200ish
Mac Jackets are usually lighter weight, but can be layered under as long as it’s not too bitter cold. And they’re great for spring and fall. Topcoats are incredibly good looking, but are limited to the colder months. Bottom line: Get something you’ll wear all the time, with everything. From suits to sweats (as shown above). Puffers are fine, but they’re inherently casual. There will come a time when you’ll need something to go over an outfit that’s a bit more dressed up. Hard to do that with a puffer.
Carry a minimalist backpack, or, a smart casual style briefcase with a shoulder strap.
- Boarding Pass NYC Flight Brief – $199
- TIMBUK2 Duo Convertible Laptop Briefcase – $107.60 ($269)
- TIMBUK2 Authority Backpack – $70 FINAL ($130)
- Solo New York Backpack Briefcase – $42
- AER Fit Pack 2 Backpack – $54 – $81 ($135)
Backpacks can be unavoidable if you’re spending almost all day running from class, to your job, to your next class, etc. And especially if your main mode of transportation is a bicycle. No shame there. Just try and keep it clean, smart, and minimalist looking, and less like you’re about to head up K2. Meanwhile, if you prefer a briefcase, stick with a canvas or nylon exterior. Hauling a leather attache into your Western Civ class is gonna look pretty damn pretentious.
Know how to tie a neat, tidy, 4-in-hand necktie knot.
No sloppy, bulky knots that drift half an inch away from your collar to expose the button. The four in hand is easy to tie and terrific looking. Practice till you get it right. One day it’ll come in handy. Want to move onto a half-windsor or something else later on? Fine. That’s up to you. Just get the four in hand down first.
Give it a rest with the binge drinking.
College is a land of opportunity. And it’s just four, short years. But so many spend those four years drinking or smoking their potential away, and get lost in the predictable hazy binge of hedonistic now-ness. If you can hold off, just a little, and SOMETIMES (or more) turn down the beer or weed in favor of focusing, then that focus and attention will pay huge dividends for decades to come. It gets better after college. That is, if you don’t allow your potential to go down the crapper with the jager and pizza you just threw up all over yourself.
Wash your sheets regularly.
The name of my first roommate in college was Andrew. Andrew was a pretty cool guy, but keeping his side of the dorm room clean wasn’t really a priority. And that extended to his bedding. Rarely was his bed made (I couldn’t care less about that) and he never changed his sheets. Like, ever. I found this out on the last day before break when he realized, just before he stripped his bed, that he hadn’t washed his sheets that year. At all. He said as much, and then ripped the covers back. The collection of dead skin cells and leg hair at the foot of his bed was so disgusting that he actually gagged upon seeing that nightmare. Wash your sheets once every other week. At least. More if you’ve been sick (especially the pillow case).
Acquire a casual, knit or chino sportcoat (& use sparingly).
- Old Navy Built-In Flex Blazer – $60ish ($79.99)
- J. Crew Factory Chino Suit Jacket – $100ish
- Bonobos Tech Blazer – $115 FINAL ($400)
- Suitsupply Navy Stretch Cotton Havana Fit Jacket – $259
A fuddy-duddy, gold buttoned, hard shouldered blue blazer is gonna look way out of place on a college campus. But a more casual option, with subtle buttons and a trim cut? You can absolutely wear one of those depending on the circumstances. Wear it with a collared shirt and dark wash jeans on a date. Wear it over a t-shirt to class when you’re out of clean laundry. There’s plenty of ways to wear one of these anything but stuffy jackets.
Avoid the just shirt/tie/slacks look.
There are untold advantages to wearing a suit jacket, sportcoat, or blazer. So do that. Meanwhile, wearing a shirt and tie and skipping the jacket can look a little… 8th grade school dance. Use that suit and go tieless, or, wear your unconstructed blazer. (Photo credit)
Grocery Shop/Watch what you eat in the dining hall.
If you’re living off campus, get to the grocery store with some regularity. You’ll save money in the long run, and you’ll keep the pounds off (assuming you shop with some sort of healthy choices in mind). Learn to cook a few simple dishes. If you’re in a dorm and stuck with the dining hall? Keep a food journal and avoid the junk. That Freshman 15 (or 25) can sneak up on you real quick.
Good luck to all of you pursuing higher education. And above all else, don’t fall into the trap that is thinking you’re currently, at college, living “the best time of your life.”
This post originally ran in 2018 but has since been updated with current product suggestions.