Building a Basic Wardrobe– Part II

I hope that at this point you’ve done some serious purging. And while you may have cursed me in my first post, here comes the fun part: shopping!

No matter what your style, there are certain fundamentals that create a good wardrobe, these pieces are:

  • knee-length dress
  • knee-length skirt,
  • blazer,
  • button down shirt,
  • dress pants,
  • dark wash jeans and
  • black pumps.

These are the hardworking, versatile classic pieces that are the core of a good wardrobe and worth investing as much as you can comfortably afford. Set yourself a realistic budget (ask yourself “would Gail approve”) and hit the stores.

The reason that I suggest that you spend a little more on the essentials is that they are classics that won’t go out of style anytime soon. Generally speaking (although not always) good quality items will cost a bit more. But think of the cost-per-wear ratio: a pair of jeans may cost $150 but if you wear them twice a week, every week for a year, the cost-per-wear of that item is $1.44 as opposed to $10 per wear for a $50 pair of jeans that you don’t love so only wear a handful of times. I think that Gail would agree with this math J. Essentially pieces that you will wear to death are worth the upfront expense in the long run.

Keep these points in mind when you’re shopping:

  1. Ask yourself if the item is a”10”. You’ll never like it more than when you’re in the store. From here on out, only add pieces to your wardrobe that you love.
  2. Fit is crucial. If something is a little too long or big, take it to the tailor immediately after purchasing. If you wear it once, you’ll never bring it in.
  3. You’re not shopping trends (that’ll come later!) so stick to classic cuts and shapes. For jeans and trousers choose a straight leg cut which is universally flattering. Go for a dark wash jean that can be dressed up or down. Black is the most versatile option for blazers, trousers and skirts. (Although I also think that navy or dark gray are nice alternatives).

Be sure that you have set aside the time to shop so that you don’t feel rushed. And eat before you start so that you don’t lose energy. I personally prefer to shop alone but if you bring a friend make sure she’s someone who will give you honest feedback and not distract you from your shopping mission. Spend time looking at yourself in the mirror from all angles. Have fun! You’re on your way to a beautiful wardrobe!

48 Responses to “Building a Basic Wardrobe– Part II”

  1. Great ideas

  2. Great ideas that I’ll pass along to my wife, I on the other hand would look pretty funny in a knee length Dress or skirt.



  3. Looks like I’ve got some serious work ahead of me when I got through my closet… YIKES! Last time I wore a dress was Oct. 12. 2002… yep… my wedding day 😉

    Great advice Gail… as always!

  4. This sounds like an awful lot of work for moi who hates shopping and is fashion useless. Thank the Lord I have a very fashionable and budget appreciative best friend who can help me here.

  5. avatar Elizabeth Says:
    January 26, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Great points, but I disagree with #2. While it’s a good idea for items that are dry-clean only, most tailors prefer you wash items first to get the shrinkage out of the way. For instance, if a pair of jeans is going to shrink a little in the leg, better get that dealt with before you shorten them!

  6. That’s true, usually high quality items cost more, but not always. I have some great dark wash jeans that I wear all the time – got them at Superstore for 10 bucks!

  7. I’d agree with this as a general wardrobe. Although… I should mention that I only bust out my suit when I have to go on an interview.

    I was told I’d wear a suit at work all day.. and it has NEVER HAPPENED. I also don’t work in a bank or in a fancy consulting firm. Maybe that’s why.

    Otherwise, I am in a simple top (almost a t-shirt) and dress pants. 😛

  8. One of my favorite sayings I heard once goes well with this, “Buy quality for economy”. If you purchase good quality, in the long run it will cost you less than buying multiple cheaper items.

    I’m enjoying these posts, thanks!

  9. Straight-leg dark wash jeans have saved my life! Obviously, not literally – but when I want to look nice but still casual, nothing beats it. In fact, for that reason, I only own this type of jean.

    I’ve learned that I’m lazy about tailoring, which means I just shop a bit more consciously. I also recommend asking stores about in-house tailoring which several do – they send your stuff away right away, so you don’t even have to go the extra step and often times it’s free. Always ask about that, because you’ll be suprised what stores do it but don’t advertise. This has been a saving grace for short me! I’d be less likely to chance it with a top, but with pants I do it all the time.

    One thing I learned from WNTW is the 4 key ways to make an outfit interesting: color, texture, pattern, shine. Typically, the outfits that you think of as boring or dated they have none of these things, so I try to keep that in mind when adding the staple items I have – I try to buy tops, accessories, shoes, and cardigans that have one of those 4 characteristics. I also believe that brown, burgandy, and navy are as neutral as black or grey, so I buy basics in those colors.

    I NEVER buy button down shirts, but that’s because (1) I’m lazy about tailoring, and (2) I have a hard-to-fit chest. Not worth the headache!

  10. Jason:
    You’ll be fine once you shave your legs! 🙂

  11. I’ve got a question. Are there other women out there that never wear dresses and skirts? The last time I did put on a skirt was about ten years ago and it was floor length. Can’t a woman be well dressed in appropriate pants?

  12. One thing I never understand in posts like this, is who is this basic wardrobe for? The business working woman? Everyone (but not males obviously)?

    I’m a grad student. I wear jeans, t-shirts and sweatshirts pretty much everyday. I’d like to know how to dress up slightly – but obviously not as someone heading to a law office. What about the female who works at Safeway or Chapters? The stay-at-home mom?

    Also, why does every woman apparently need a skirt, dress and heels? I don’t own any of those three. The last time I wore a dress was also in 2002, but that was for high school. The last time I wore a skirt or dress before that I was probably 10.

    I wish these lists would provide reasoning, instead of just the list. Or a list of this or that. “Buy a dark skirt or nice pair of black dress pants.”

  13. Oops, wish I could edit my post.

    The dress was for high school GRAD, and only because I was forced.

    Linda – I completely agree.

  14. Good points. I definetely agree that it is better to buy a few more expensive things that you will wear all the time than many cheep things you don’t love. I also find I don’t go clothes shopping as often because I really like the things I have and so don’t open closet and think I have nothing to wear. I did a purge of my wardrobe last winter to get rid of all the things that don’t fit (at nearly 30 I no longer fit into the clothes I wore when I was closer to 20!), but I need to do another purge as I still have many items I don’t wear because I don’t really like them. I also find that if you are shopping for key pieces and not fashion you can save a lot by shopping the end of season sales if you know that you have certain items that needs to be replaced.

  15. I agree about not wearing dress/skirt — dress pants for special occassions should suffice. I work in a convience store & wear a uniform — nothing special for pants except durable! This is great advice about purging clothes and buying quality items that last!!!

  16. avatar Flynnycat Says:
    January 26, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    I wonder why so many women are so dead-set against wearing skirts or dresses? I personally enjoy dressing up a bit once in a while, and my skirts are longer (below the knee, or just at the knee). It’s a different look that breaks up the utter monotony of wearing one of five pairs of pants every single day of my life. You don’t have to wear heels–ballet flats are comfy and pretty. Or, I wear high boots with skirts. It makes for a nice-looking, classy but comfy and easy outfit. I even wore skirts to school (gasp!). I actually really enjoy wearing skirts, although I tend to save the dresses for special, non-work occasions. I wonder why so many women seem to hate skirts so much??? Weird.

  17. avatar psychsarah Says:
    January 26, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    FlynnyCat-My pet peeve with skirts/dresses is that I loathe pantyhose/tights. I wear them in the summer a lot, as they are much cooler, and my workplace is not so formal as to eschew bare legs, but I go all winter in pants. To each her own I guess.

    Jessie-I’m with you about the button down shirts. Fit is so difficult that inevitably it pulls or looks big somewhere. I don’t feel like spending a fortune on tailoring, so I choose other styles. I’ll also add that I’m lazy and hate ironing, so shirts that need ironing get worn quite infrequently.

    I think the suggestions are a good starting point if you’re feeling totally lost. Obviously, make allowances for your lifestyle. I always get annoyed at myself for not having these basics when I need them (e.g., nice heels or a suit for an interview/formal work occassion) and then I have to rush out and find them on short notice which is a) impossible, b) expensive or c) I find something that will “do”, but I never wear them again (so rather wasteful).

  18. To make sure men don’t feel left out, here’s a list:

    1. A suit (navy or gray)
    2. Black shoes and belt
    3. White dress shirt
    4. Solid tie
    5. Blue blazer
    6. Khakis and jeans (a plea from me: no pleated fronts!)
    7. Overcoat
    8. Athletic wear
    9. Casual shirt

    Lots of sales going on right now — a guy friend who generally doesn’t like to shop sounded quite pleased with the shirts he just bought…

  19. I agree with Akajb’s reply. When I read this I immediately thought “business woman”, which is fine, but it doesn’t speak to everyone.

  20. Right on about washing jeans first – I always wash and dry them 3 times before hemming, otherwise you might end up with floods afterwards!

  21. @Rebecca and Akajb: I don’t think this list is prescriptive, just suggestive. After all, you generally need to cover your chest to your bum in most situations, so these are the types of clothing you may want to consider using to do that! 🙂 It’s not hard-and-fast; after all, some women do not ever show their legs and need long skirts; some women can’t wear heels (I have no idea what ‘pumps’ are but I assume that just means heels).

    However, as a recent grad student myself, it sucks to find out that you have a conference / job interview coming up and have nothing you feel comfortable wearing in that situation because your whole wardrobe is sweats. When that happened to me, I went out and spent too much money because I needed something NOW. Would have been smarter to already own one or two nicer pieces, even if they aren’t part of my day-to-day and even if I’m not a business woman.

  22. avatar Melaniesd Says:
    January 26, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    There’s never going to be a list that’s perfect for everyone.
    AnnieA – thank you for including a list for the men who frequent here. I was surprised that this was not included in the post.
    ~ OH YEAH! Men please don’t forget dark socks with your dark shoes.

    For me as a professional, I appreciate the list as some basics to build on. I love clothes & accessories, and the list above would not be enough to satisfy me at this point, however if I was just starting out it would certainly be a great starting point to then build a wardrobe from.

    FlynnCat, I’m with you. I really enjoy wearing skirts & dresses. They make me feel feminine and attractive. As for nylons – if you have the right size I don’t mind them at all.

    I have to disagree on the point of the jeans. You don’t have to spend a fortune to get a well made pair of jeans that will last a few years. I typically spend $40-$50 at Reitmans on my jeans. I take care in how I wash them and they last well for me. If I was wearing them daily, that might be different.

  23. avatar Catherine Says:
    January 26, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    To each their own re: skirt vs pants. I usually wear pants. But, as a girly girl I do love dresses – if they are tea length at their shortest.
    My pet peeve are panty hose. Save me from them. Who in their right mind developed ‘one size fits all’? I ask you? I refuse the go anywhere with the panty hose crotch down at my knees trying to trip whem when I walk!
    Have heard that the stretchy jeans in blue and black are all the rage at Reitman’s. I’ll be checking them out.

  24. If I had a choice it would be sweats and a nice looking hat. For work I always try and stretch my clothing budget and whatever I buy should go with something I already have. My work is pretty casual, but not jeans and t-shirt casual. I pay more for pants because I have a hard time finding them and cheap on shirts because I’m easy to fit. I don’t mind wearing skirts, but tend to wear them in the winter with high boots, (don’t like my legs). And don’t wear pantyhose but love tights. I don’t have tons of clothes, but believe in quality over quantity. Shoes are hard to fit, so I will spend more on those, but I don’t have anything fancy, and my closet isn’t full.

  25. I have purchased blazers in the past but have rarely worn them. My work is more casual. I love skirts and dresses in the warmer weather but loathe pantyhose for the winter too.

    I appreciate the advice on dark wash jeans.

    One question for the dress is should it be pattern or plain to get more use out of it? I can see certain patterns going out of style, faster than plain.

    I guess this advice can also apply to shorts or capris. Buy neutral colours and build from there.

  26. I was also thinking that you really need a basic wardrobe for winter and for summer in this country.

  27. …..I also find when you have the money you can’t find what you’re looking for. And when you don’t have the money, you find a lot you’d like to buy. And a peeve of mine, I find alot of the stores carry the same thing. So if you don’t like the trends you’re out of luck.

  28. I’ve been purging my wardrobe for the last few months as the seasons change. I am finding it difficult to only buy things that are a “10” at the stores though.

    I’m average size and I can get away with wearing a sweater dress or a skirt and top at work. But I can also wear jeans and a top with a blazer too.

    I just find the quality of clothing in a lot of shops in the malls in Canada is sub-standard. A friend of mine works in fashion and besides the rules of fit and colour etc, she taught me what to look for when it comes to seams. High quality items (like wrap dresses or blouses etc) should have as few seams as possible. That means the designer was able to drape the fabric perfectly, without cutting it and sewing it back together.

    I’ve gone to the mall two weekends in a row here in the Maritimes and come home empty handed! (Although my boyfriend scored some decent working man clothes at the Gap.)

    Does anyone else feel like the affordable clothing is poor quality?

  29. Erin,

    Totally agree with your point about mall clothes. I am in Newfoundland. I NEVER go to the mall for clothes. I am a huge supporter of local business but I have a huge problem with buying say a pair of Clark’s sandals locally for 100 dollars when I can get them shipped for 40.

    I also find malls never seem to have classics or basics, just trendy stuff which is fine but not great if you are trying to build a basic wardrobe in a new size for instance.

    My exception is Reitmans jeans. They are really good quality. Right now I am fitting in a pair that I haven’t since 2007 and they are still really attractive and do not look like someone had already slepped around in them for 2 plus years.

    With regard to business wear, I don’t think many businesses adhere to the same guidelines as in the 90’s etc. I haven’t worn a suit since 2000, and have been in the coorporate world ever since. A jacket yes, but one that also goes with my jeans. I laugh at old corporate pictures. There is one with my boss at the time in a head to toe lavender pantsuit combo. Lovely.

    To me, a classic business outfit these days is black dress pants and cardigan, and you can let your style shine through with the top underneath, and the style of pants and cardigan and your accessories.

    I also think that quality clothes can be purchased from some terrific retailers for well under 100 dollars. You just have to do a little investigation up front. Once you do, you will probably return to the same ones again and again because they reflect your style.

  30. i waited til part II came out to comment. i’m definitely a skirt and dress girl. and i love a beautiful white cotton/spandex button up blouse! a 4″ heel is my preference but 3″ is much more acceptable in the office. i work in a very laid back company and i tend to overdress (yes, it’s been mentioned to my face and behind my back) but i am completely comfortable with my style & my clothing.
    i also build around basic black. so many wonderful combos in eye popping colors and jewelry. and i certainly agree, with basic black and some accessories you have an outfit for any situation.
    geoff and jason, ha! love your commentary!
    i agree with the blog for the most part; while i will not pay full-price even for a “10” i will keep my eye on it for the sale, or on line. i pay extra for quality & don’t really waste my time with trendy pieces, though i’m happy the pencil skirt came back!

  31. avatar Tennis Fan Says:
    January 27, 2011 at 2:27 am

    I think you should take the list and edit it for your life. I do not own and have never needed a blazer so that doesn’t fall into my basics. I have a couple of pairs of dark wash jeans and lots of bright shirts. I have a couple of cute flats in neutrals. I also have a nice wool coat for the winter. These articles were very timely I was just getting ready to clean the closet if for no other reason than it is tiny.

  32. Even the most sporty woman should know how and when to pull off a “polished image” and you’re just not going to accomplish that in faded jeans and sweats. Even when there’s no “dress code”, make use of opportunities like dinners out, girls shopping trips, etc to look your nicest. Natural accessories and clothes that fit well make all the difference.

    For those who really never wear skirts and dresses, really ask yourself why not. Stacy and Clinton (from TLC’s WNTW) have expanded the Hemline Horizon for so many women…what’s holding you back?

  33. What’s bad about skirts?
    You have to sit properly.
    Nylons are uncomfortable (even the good ones).
    Not apppropriate for job where you have to crawl on hand and knees every now and then.
    Flowing skirt + wind? Funny for some but not the one wearing it!
    Slips that slip and twist.
    Does not generally look good with running shoes.
    Some suffer from bad backs with the slightest heal and need to wear footwear that is not elegant but comfortable.
    Cold in the winter.

    If people want to wear them, go ahead! Don’t force everybody else to embrace your values.
    If skirt are so good, men would wear them too!

    P.S. I do own a few skirts, but I don’t wear them often.

  34. avatar Flynnycat Says:
    January 27, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    to all the women who hate nylons/tights/pantyhose, I’m with you! That being said, if the situation or weather warrants wearing something like that, I do like the garter belt with knee-highs. A bit more work, but much nicer overall. And comfier. No one is “forcing” anyone to “embrace values”, whatever that actually means, I was just curious as to why women seem to hate skirts/dresses so much when they are so pretty and, unlike high heels, comfortable….That was all.
    Oh, and obviously, if you are a woman who is a mechanic or something, skirts aren’t appropriate for work wear. I never said they were.

  35. avatar Melaniesd Says:
    January 27, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    “Forcing to embrace values”? Seriously?
    If you don’t like/want to wear skirts or dresses – don’t.
    I happen to feel good in them. I don’t wear them a lot in the colder months but in the warmer I don’t need hosery. To each their own.
    Some men like ties, some men don’t…

  36. “I wonder why so many women seem to hate skirts so much??? Weird.”
    FYI, the use of the word weird in this context puts a judgement on the prior statement. This is just an FYI.

    Not a mechanic… but there are days I wish I were… it could save me $$

  37. avatar Flynnycat Says:
    January 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    I disagree that the use of the word “weird” puts a judgment on the prior statement. I do indeed find it odd that some people have such an aversion to a particular article of clothing, and was curious about it. And what I discovered was the it was not really the skirts they don’t like–it’s what they feel they must wear under it. That made more sense to me. 🙂

  38. Flynnycat:
    The statements I copied can be interpreted as “Women who hate skirts so much are weird.” Again, just an FYI. I am glad the replies did clarify things for you.

  39. Late to the discussion, but to add my 2 cents worth:

    1) I’ve learned that no matter how lovely the piece of clothing is, if I don’t like the feel of the material it will end up not being worn. So I always touch an item first before deciding whether it is worth trying on.

    2) I find I rarely wear jackets or shirts with long sleeves. They make me feel claustrophobic so for myself I only buy the 3/4 length styles of these.

    3) I’ve adopted the “if something goes into the closet, something leaves.” You can also try the “if I don’t have any more hangers than something has to go” approach.

    4) I love the feel of good rayon and in the hot weather we get in the summer I find rayon dresses and skirts are so much cooler and more comfortable than pants, shorts, or capris. If the dress is ankle length it doesn’t matter if the wind blows (though we don’t generally get much wind where I live anyway). I retire my pantyhose from May until end of September, and if the dress or skirt is lined there is no need for a slip. (I live in a tourist area where people dress casually most of the time so lack of pantyhose is normal for the summer).

    5) I too discovered that certain colours are not in my palette. The yellows and oranges that one of my friends looks gorgeous in make me look like I’m very sick. Since making that discovery many years ago I choose only the colours that make me feel good wearing and complement my complexion.

    6) When traveling abroad for 8 weeks I discovered that it is possible to be a woman and live with what is only in one small suitcase. The trick is co-coordinating items well before you leave, and having items that can be layered if the weather turns bad (bulky sweaters and jackets are a waste of space.)

    My biggest problem? I always seem to need a cardigan or hoody in a colour I don’t have. There are too many different shades of “White” “Black” “Navy” & “Red” out there, and don’t get me started on greens, blues, and browns, not to mention the different lengths that are required to layer over my tops.

  40. Loved this article, but as a health care worker who wears scrubs to work, I need a wardrobe that can go from chasing around a two year old and a four year old to going out for dinner with my husband.

  41. Well if anyone cares to knit a sweater – is the best place to get free patterns & tips for knitting!! She’s a friend of mine and is very creative and crafty.

  42. Debbie, thanks for the link to your friends knitting website. I just checked it out. She has made some beautiful things. I haven’t really tried knitting yet but I think I may be inspired to try someting easy now.

  43. @ Susan, start with a scarf. Uncomplicated and simple. Get some wool at second hand/charity shops. Or I can send you my collection. (I have determined that I am NOT a knitter)

  44. @ Sherrie, Thanks. I didn’t think of looking for wool at the thrift store (I’m embarassed to say that) but it is a great idea. I was thinking sweater but you are so right, I’m really at the scarf level!

  45. […] Lately, I’ve been thinking about my wardrobe. I’m a “less is more” kind of girl but I also think variety is the spice of life. I’m trying to think about ways to reduce my laundry wardrobe using functional pieces that can be dressed up or down with accessories instead of having a bunch of clothes that I don’t like “just because.” Here’s a few tips if you are contemplating the “less is more” mentality: Building a Basic Wardrobe Part One and Part Two. […]

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