THE ESSENTIALS is an ongoing series where show you pieces that belong in every guy’s closet. By building a closet with these core essentials, you make it nearly impossible to ever put together a bad outfit.

The first Essential recommendation might be surprise to many.

I’m not going to be talking about navy suits, or a great leather jacket. (Maybe later)

My first recommendation for an essential that every guy should have in his closet?

The chambray shirt.

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STEVE MCQUEEN WEARS A CHAMBRAY SHIRT WITH A SUIT IN THE CINCINATTI KID (1965)

WHY THE CHAMBRAY/DENIM SHIRT?

The chambray/denim shirt is one of the few pieces that looks universally good on any kind of guy.

Tall. Short. Skinny. Big. Light Skinned or Dark.

I would go so far to say that it works on more guys than actual denim jeans.

The chambray/denim shirt is a masculine piece of clothing. Maybe because of it’s historical origins as workwear. It not only makes you look manly, but makes you feel more manly. 

Chambray/denim blue is also unique enough to break the monotony of the white dress shirt. But the style is classic enough to not be out of place, so long as you follow a few rules.

But before we get into that, a quick technical note.

jeanandchambray
DENIM’S WEAVE (LEFT) SKIPS THREADS, RESULTING IN THEIR SIGNATURE DIAGONAL TWILL PATTERN VS CHAMBRAY’S (RIGHT) EVEN PLAIN WEAVE (PHOTO VIA PROPER CLOTH

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHAMBRAY AND DENIM?

While I lumped these two together because they give off a similar vibe, they’re not technically the same thing. (Though brands will sometimes use chambray and denim shirt interchangeably.)

WEAVES

Chambray and Denim both get their looks by weaving colored yarn (usually blue) and white yarn to make up the fabric.

Chambray however is a plain weave, where threads alternative evenly. Denim is a twill, where threads are woven skips a few sets of threads. This creates denim’s unique diagonal twill pattern.

Styling wise, you should treat them the same.

Other differences? Denim shirts tend to be heavier than chambray shirts. You can find light denim shirts and heavier chambray shirts.

Which one you decide to get depends on where and how you plan to wear it.

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BAR TO BUSINESS MEETINGS:
HOW TO BUY THE RIGHT CHAMBRAY FOR THE RIGHT OUTFIT

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THE “DETAILS” RULE

Can’t figure out if a piece of clothing is casual or formal?

Use this trick: The more details a piece of clothing has, the more casual it is.

Chambray and denim shirts in the last 20 years have stepped out of the western cowboy box. Now you can even find chambray shirts from luxury suit makers like Brioni.

Classic, more casual shirts will have western style yokes that end in points. Traditional closures are pearl and metal snap buttons, though on cheaper shirts they’ll be faux pearl along with light metal or plastic.

If you plan to wear your chambray along with a suit, stick to minimal details with regular buttons. 

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HEAVIER WASHES FOR LIGHTER SITUATIONS

Heavily washed chambrays and denim shirts give off a “worn in” denim jeans vibes. When it comes to more formal situations this can feel too casual and out of place.

Solid color, unwashed or lightly washed shirts will be more appropriate replacements for your standard light blue cotton button-up.

If you’re trying to look a bit more serious look, stick to a darker indigo, a much more interesting choice than black but not as harsh. 

 

chambray

THE WEIGHT

Chambrays and denim shirts come in a huge variety of different weights now. You have denim shirts that are so thin and light you can wear them in the summer, while you can have raw chambrays that feel like stiff cardboard and need heavy breaking in.

Choosing the right weight will depend on your usual climate and what you decide to wear with it.

The obvious piece of advice is that a thinner, more dress shirt type of chambray or denim will be the best alternative to wear with your suit.

Heavier weight chambrays and denim shirts are great alternatives to jackets on warm days. Roll up your sleeves, throw it over a white t-shirt and you have a very timeless looks. This is one of my absolute favorite ways to wear chambray in Spring and Summer.

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3 CHAMBRAY LOOKS TO INSPIRE YOU

CHAMBRAY LOOK 1
COTTON & WOOL BOMBER: A.P.C., $545 | CHAMBRAY SHIRT: NN.07, $110 | SLIM FIT TWILL CHINOS: CLUB MONACO, $90 | BACKPACK: DESCENTE X PORTER, $365 | MARLED COTTON BLEND SOCKS: ANONYMOUS ISM, $22 | WELLESLEY SQUARE FRAMED GLASSES: GARRETT LEIGHT, $285 | KENTON LEATHER PACER BOOTS: J.CREW $248

TO THE COFFEESHOP OFFICE

The rise of the internet has given rise to the mobile casual worker. Suits are great, but if you don’t need to wear one, why bother? Especially if you’re going to be working out of your favorite coffeeshop.

Here I picked a chambray that sits right in the middle of everything we discussed earlier. Solid blue. Minimal details. The most versatile chambray you can get.

Chinos are a lot of guy’s favorite go-to pant, but khaki is a bit boring. A nice deep wine color gives your look more depth, especially if you’re going to be grabbing an easy black bomber.

Denim blues always looked great in contrast with leather, black or brown. Here, I opted out of my usual go to white sneaker for a contrast welt brown boot. Classic.

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NAVY SUIT: LANVIN, $1725 | CHAMBRAY SHIRT: PAUL SMITH LONDON, $132 (SALE) | WILSON ROUND EYEGLASSES: GARRETT LEIGHT, $310 | LONG KNEEHIGH SILK SOCKS: SUIT SUPPLY, $39 | SUEDE DOUBLE MONK SHOES: SUIT SUPPLY, $299 | NAVY WOOL WOVEN TIE: DRAKES, $160 | BURGUNDY LAMBSWOOL POCKET ROUND: ALEXANDER OLCH, $60

TONE ON TONE BUSINESS DEALS

Tone on tone can be scary for a lot of guys.

It’s a lot easier than you’d think.

Where a lot of guys get it wrong? They outright wear the same tones of colors, when it should be a mixture of lighter and darker tones.

Take a look at this example I put together.

The navy grey Lanvin suit is edging towards gray. I’ve paired it with a formal Paul Smith chambray shirt that edges towards blue. A black tie would be the “safer choice”, but wearing a dark navy instead will still feel the same as a black tie. The subtle dark navy, however, makes you look a lot more sophisticated.

Brown and blue is a classic combo. These suede double monk shoes by Suit Supply give it a nice, extra formal warmth, as opposed to the high contrast a shiny leather will give off. While the brown tortoise of the glasses work beautifully with the blues of the suit and call to the shoes. 

Finish it off with a deep burgundy pocket square (or round, in this case) and you’ve pulled off a subtle yet advanced tone on tone outfit.

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CHAMBRAY LOOK 3
SUEDE TRUCKER JACKET: RAG & BONE, $995 | BARSTOW WESTERN SHIRT: LEVIS, $56 (SALE) | JAPANESE BRUSHED COTTON TWILL CHINOS: RAG & BONE, $210 | JACQUARD MULTICOLORED SOCKS: ANONYMOUS ISM, $28 | KINNEY SUNGLASSES: GARRETT LEIGHT, $420 | COTTON CREW NECK T-SHIRT: JAMES PERSE, $55 | 1970S SUEDE CHUCK TAYLOR ALL START HIGH TOPS: CONVERSE, $95

THE NEW CLASSIC

When it comes to wearing color, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t reference the color wheel.

Primary. Secondary. Tertiary.

Who thinks like that?

Here’s my stylist trick. Think of mixing color like flavors in food.

What do you think of when you eat mexican food? Chili powder, lime, garlic, cilantro.

Or vietnamese? You taste ginger. Garlic. Lemon Grass. Fish Sauce. Cilantro.

This look calls back to Classic American. 

Denim blue. Brown leather. Army Green. White and Red.

As much as I love this brown suede jacket by Rag & Bone, this outfit gets a lot easier to wear when you take it off and roll up your sleeves.

Now, I want to hear from you

Are you a fan of the chambray shirt? Maybe you never considered it.

Let me know. Leave a comment below.

peter@theessentialman.com'
Author

Hi, I'm Peter. I spent 11 years as a menswear designer here in NYC. Now, I help some of the most successful men look really good as a Private Personal Stylist and writer of The Essential Man. You can learn more about what I do by clicking here