How to Dress for a Successful Transition to a Civilian Career

businessmen in circle

The transition to civilian life is filled with challenges, but one looms large in the minds of all military personnel: making the move to a civilian career. In addition to learning new skills, such as job interviewing, resume building and networking, every service member has to confront the fact that they are in charge of picking out their new uniform. And the choices are sometimes overwhelming.

As you prepare to hang up your uniform, it's time to think about how you're going to build a new wardrobe suitable for the trenches of civilian life, whether it's interviewing or everyday wear for your next workplace. The shift to a more casual workplace has made your job even harder. Not only do you need an array of suits, dress shirts and ties for your upcoming job interviews and many office environments, you also need to keep room in your closet for clothing appropriate for casual Fridays and the more relaxed workplace found almost everywhere these days.

This guide will help you plan the building blocks of a multi-purpose wardrobe suitable for what lies ahead.

The Job Interview

You want to stand out from the other candidates when interviewing for a job, but you also want to be remembered for your abilities, not for the outfit you were wearing. This doesn't mean you can't look sharp and be well-groomed, but you don't want your brightly colored tie to be the one thing they remember about you.

Appropriate Suits

The best interview suits are either navy blue or charcoal gray. This is especially true in more conservative or traditional fields, such as insurance, finance, banking, law and government. As far as the fabric pattern itself is concerned, solid suits are best, although subtle pinstripes are also acceptable.

Dress Shirts

You can't go wrong with a classic white dress shirt, but Oxford blue is acceptable as well. All-cotton shirts with a spread or point collar, or even a traditional button-down style, are best for job interviews. A spread collar can accommodate a larger tie knot. Hidden-button and tab-collar shirts are generally too informal for the interview, so save them for day-to-day wear.


Stick with conservative repeating patterns or traditional striped neckties. Leave your favorite sports-theme or cartoon-character tie on the rack.

Footwear and Belts

Interview shoes should always be leather lace-ups. No loafers. Cap-toes and plain toe models are the predominant choices. Black is the preferred color, with brown in second place. Match your belt to your shoes.

Plan for the Follow-Up Interview

You should bear in mind that interviewing is almost always a multi-step process so you should be prepared with an equally appropriate additional ensemble for a second interview (and sometimes a third). Pay attention to the prevailing dress code in the office at your first interview; this will serve as your guide for what to wear if you're called back.

Office Formal

The rules have changed for office attire, but if you've got your sights set on a white-collar job, you'll still need a few white collars and the essentials that define the traditional work wardrobe. Here are the basics every man should own:


Suits are suitable for so many occasions that no wardrobe is complete without at least a few. If you haven't shopped for a suit lately, you may be surprised when you encounter the Modern Fit suit that's come to the forefront in recent years.

Slimmer through the torso, with a narrower lapel, shorter jacket and flat-front, narrow-leg pants, the Modern Fit suit flatters anyone with an athletic or slim build. Whatever you choose, it's good to have at least one or two crisp, single-breasted suits on hand. Look for styles with two or three buttons in shades of navy, gray and black.

Sport Coats

Sport coats or blazers are perfect for mixing up your wardrobe since you can pair them with your favorite jeans or khakis for a new look.

Dress Slacks

Even if you own a couple of suits, you'll need at least a few pairs of dress slacks in dark colors to mix and match with various blazers and dress shirts. Also keep at least one pair of khakis on hand for spring and summer wear.


If you're building a wardrobe, start with six well-fitted, conservatively styled shirts in solid colors. You can never go wrong with white or light blue. If you prefer patterns, select subtle stripes and patterns that add interest without being distracting.


Suit silhouettes and styles change very little from season to season, so they remain in your everyday wardrobe for years. That's why a good selection of ties is an integral and cost-effective way to diversify and update your business wardrobe. Buy the highest-quality ties you can afford, made of silk so they easily shed wrinkles and drape elegantly.

While many men have dozens of ties they've acquired over a lifetime, a good rule of thumb is to have 3-4 ties to pair with every suit you own. The selection of colors and patterns is literally limitless, but there's no need to feel overwhelmed.

Start with the basics: a brightly colored tie -- chosen to complement your dress shirts and suit -- with a small geometric or abstract pattern, a diagonally striped tie, a small- or medium-dotted tie, and a solid tie. These basic patterns will work with a variety of patterned or solid dress shirts and suits.

Office Casual

Anyone who's ever worn a military uniform appreciates the comfort of knowing exactly what to wear every day. The workplace used to have its own uniforms, but many of the hard and fast rules have been confused over time by concepts like "business casual."

Depending on where you work, this term can mean anything from jeans and T-shirts to khakis and dress shirts. Here are a few guidelines to ensure you're never confounded by this ambiguous clothing category again:

Evaluate Your Surroundings

Regardless of your company's dress code, the best bet is to take your cues from your supervisors and higher-ups. Even though business casual might be a subjective concept, you can't go wrong if you dress for the job you want. Certainly, it's better to be overdressed than underdressed.

Casual Does Not Equal Sloppy

Take an objective glance in the mirror before leaving the house. Is your shirt yellowing around the collar or fraying at the cuffs? Do you see holes at the knees or seat of your pants? Are your shoes dull and unpolished? A guy wearing an unkempt suit and tie will always look sloppier and less professional than the guy wearing a crisp sport shirt and non-rumpled jeans.

Look for a Good Fit

Whether you have to dress up or down for the office, some basic rules always apply. Jackets and sport coats should fit well through the shoulders and across the back. Pants should be neither too baggy nor too loose; this goes for jeans, khakis and slacks, too.

Dress shirts should hit at the wrist, and pants should never drag on the floor. No question, a good fit goes a long way toward achieving a perfectly polished look.

Wardrobe Checklist

Here are a few items that work well for any business-casual wardrobe. Try different combinations of styles and colors to learn what works best for you.

  • Structured jackets. A black, charcoal or navy sport coat in wool, corduroy or cotton.
  • Shirts. All-cotton dress shirts and sport shirts in a variety of colors and patterns.
  • Pants. Khakis, corduroys, dress slacks and dark denim in neutral shades, which are easy to match.
  • Knits. Lightweight sweaters and vests to layer over dress shirts and under sport coats.
  • Shoes. Polished leather oxfords, loafers or clean street sneakers as appropriate.

Get Expert Advice

If you want to be taken seriously, you need to look your best. To get expert style advice on how to make the transition to civilian life, visit your local Men's Wearhouse, where our wardrobe consultants are on hand to give you the advice you need to dress for success.

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