Over the years several friends and colleagues have ask me for advice on basics they should have in their wardrobes, so I decided to compile a master List of items that I have in my closet that I always turn to when it's time to get dressed. Focus here is on casual and work wear for a business casual/dressy environment that does not require suits and allows for a certain degree of creative latitude. I'll start with some guidelines/quasi-rules to follow, and then, on to the List! I'll post a separate accessories list later.
Guideline #1: buy the best quality you can afford
This one may be obvious but given the temptation of sales and just the sheer amount of stuff out there, it's a rule that will help you make a better decision. If it's a basic included on my List, it's definitely worth the time, effort and money you will spend on the item to buy the better fabric, cut and make. This may or may not mean expensive or designer--but you are more likely to find classic cuts and high quality fibers with some sort of designer name attached and they will be more expensive than most items in your closet. For example, black narrow leg pants come in many, many fabrics. However, you should buy them in a high twist wool gabardine or stretch wool crepe instead of cotton or polyester since the black cotton will inevitably fade and stretch out over time and polyester tends to get shiny (and not a good shiny, like gold), whereas wool is less likely to do so, and can also be dressed up or down, unlike cotton.
Guideline #2: know quality when you see (and feel) it
Wool is better than polyester. Cashmere is better than acrylic. Not all cashmeres are equal (more to come on cashmere in the List). Italian tailors are the best in the world, especially in menswear. Become familiar with fabrics--how they look, feel, move and wear. Don't just look at the clothes on the hanger; feel the fabric, examine the stitching, check for a lining. Good quality items are usually lined (don't get me started with designers with $1,000+ price points that do not line their clothes). Linings make garments last longer, hang better, and feel and move better on your body.
Guideline #3: buy what fits, not the number
American sizing is absurd; vanity sizing is the new norm. Add to this the fact that there is no industry standard for any size. So, buy what fits, not the number on the label. If a garment pulls, puckers, or the seams are visibly pulling, it's too small. If a garment hangs, hides your hands, or requires you to hold it up lest it fall to the floor, it's too big. A good tailor can work miracles, but there are some fit issues that a tailor cannot fix since the problem is that the intrinsic cut of the garment does not fit your body. Take two consecutive sizes (e.g. 0 and 2, 4 and 6) into the dressing room to try on. For mass-retailer (e.g. machine-cut) items, it may be worth the time to try on two items of the same size, since machine-cut items can vary quite a bit in measurements depending on the location of the item's pieces were located in the cutting stack.
Guideline #4: know what you already have
This may require you to do some spring cleaning and inventorying of your closet! Yes it's work but it may also yield some items that you may have forgotten you had (good or bad), and will give you a good idea of what you have, but more importantly, what you need to add. I like the proportion of 3:1 for tops to bottoms as this should give you many options for seasons as well as occasions. If you already have lots of tops but no bottoms that are not jeans, then you probably need more bottoms. Caveat here is if the tops you already own are all t-shirts with a band name or graphic on them, you probably need to expand your idea of tops. If you have twenty skirts and two pants, you could probably use more pants in order to get more mileage from your existing tops. You get the idea.
Guideline #5: know your style, know your life
Yves Saint Laurent once said, "Fashions fade. Style is eternal." In this quote fashions and trends are interchangeable. Understanding and developing your personal style is the key to having the right wardrobe for you. What is style? Style is a consistent expression of who you are with what you wear. Note the word "consistent." Are you a fan of Holly Golightly, Kate Spade and Oscar de la Renta? Or do you gravitate to Jil Sander, Martin Margiela and Haider Ackerman? Or Levis, Rick Owens and Alaia? You'll recognize your style when you find what makes you most comfortable and projects "you" to the rest of the world.
Life matters as much as style. If your style is more old money heiress but you attend more soccer matches than art auctions, then it's hard to run around in a matched brocade suit and gloves. But it is possible to incorporate your style into your life with the right items.
Guideline #6: mix high/low
In spite of all the magazine editorials and catalogs that show a single designer from head to toe, including bags and shoes, this is crazy in real life--not necessarily because of cost (which will be an issue if we're talking Bergdorf Goodman-worthy designers) but because you will end up with a lot of items that are unwearable except with the entire ensemble (who dresses like this nowadays anyway?) and because you have now co-opted the style of the a) designer or b) the magazine editor/stylist. Either way, this defeats the purpose of reading these guidelines!
So, in order to avoid this style-less void, mix High and Low. High refers to classic, high quality (hopefully you've read Guideline #1 by this point) basics such as a narrow black pant that is worthy of your wardrobe. Low refers to casual, mass retail, or everyday items such as a white t-shirt. I love Gap long-sleeve crew neck t-shirts because they fit really well, are inexpensive, and look good under sweaters or on its own. The crew neck is also a great foil for big chunky necklaces that I tend to favor. I also love J. Crew for making great basics that aren't boring in price points and colors that every woman can use in their wardrobe. Zara's Collection line is also great for suits, fitted trousers and pencil skirts. Mixing High and Low will give your wardrobe the flexibility you need to make your budget go further.