Mastering The Basics

Wardrobe Basics

In last week’s Encore post of Simple Is A Tool, the subject of “uniforms” came up in comments. While we might tend to think of a “uniform” as a single notable look such as Steve Jobs’ jeans and black turtlenecks or Anna Wintour’s knee-length dresses, it doesn’t have to be quite so rigid. Duchesse in the comments described her uniform as those items she reaches for again and again. Rosie mentioned “knowing what designers work for me and sticking with what works.” Both of those statements align with how I’ve come to envision and build a workable uniform.

Relying on a few basic styles as a wardrobe foundation has simplified getting dressed considerably! Each woman will have her own list of “Basics,” but mine (summer version) include variations of what you see above:

  • Jeans (skinny, straight, bootcut…all in various washes). I live and work in Southern California, and there are few venues here where jeans could not be worn. (Styles shown above here and here.)
  • Black trousers/pants. When I want to dress up a bit more, or just need a change from the jeans. (I mostly stick to slim/straight styles but am wearing the slightly wider-leg J.Crew Curator pants shown above quite a bit this summer.)
  • Tees and lightweight sweaters (short and 3/4 sleeve, scoop-neck, v-neck and boatneck styles). Silk jersey dresses up or down. Linen and cotton knits in mostly slouchy or A-line cuts. (Shown above here and here.)
  • Jackets. “Softly structured,” simple cuts. Throwing on a jacket makes jeans and a tee feel office-appropriate. I also like the structure they add to an outfit. Eileen Fisher tropical suiting jacket shown above: misses, petite, womens.

Keeping my basics within a range of neutrals (black, white, navy, denim) maximizes the number of possible combinations. In comments last week on this post, Sandy asked how I’m able to acquire so many outfits. My answer was that I don’t think in terms of acquiring outfits, but rather acquiring (and keeping!) pieces that are versatile and can be combined easily with other items in my wardrobe.

Cropped Black Pants Styled 2 Ways

I’ve learned that trying to limit myself to a single color or silhouette feels too restrictive and have come to recognize and respect the need for some variety and novelty in my wardrobe. For the most part, I’ve looked to accessories (shoes, bags, scarves, jewelry) to freshen my basics, but I’ve also found that a well-selected stable of reliable workhorses can help settle the occasional “spirited filly” too.

Versatile Denim Jeans

Another advantage to my know-what-works uniform is that shopping is simplified. Rather than agonizing over a vast range of styles, brands and fabrics, I’m able to do the majority of my “basics” shopping online which is now mostly about replenishing/replacing worn out or the occasionally outdated pieces. I stick to retailers that offer free shipping (and returns) and will sometimes order multiple sizes of an item if I’m not sure of the fit, and then promptly return what doesn’t work. I’ll usually shop in person when I want to try a new-to-me style or just get some “re-mix” inspiration, but I rarely spend more than an hour or two per week browsing on foot (and some of that is doing bloggy research, which provides cover 😉 ). Getting to this point has required a substantial investment of time and a lot of trial and error over the past few years. I finally feel as though I’m on wardrobe “autopilot” a good percentage of the time, but a change in circumstances at some point in the future might require recalibration.

Other items shown above: Link Necklace: Nest // Striped Sweater: Eileen Fisher // Ankle Strap Heels: Sam Edelman // Denim Jacket: J.Crew (similar) // Watch: JORD // Leopard Flats: Steve Madden // Floral Blouse: J.Crew // Metallic Flats: J.Crew // Bracelet: Nest // Pendant Necklace: French Kande

Do you have a core wardrobe of basics? What are your criteria for choosing them? Are there certain pieces you find yourself wearing more than others?

BUILD YOUR WARDROBE FOUNDATION

Jeans:

Black Pants:

Knit Tops:

Jackets:

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18 Comments

  1. July 7, 2014 / 3:24 am

    By looking at my uniform, the pieces I go to over and over again, I have come to sharpen the messages and style which define me!! It is not boring or unimaginative to have the uniform as some would think, but I believe helps us all to develop our own personal style when we begin to understand why we are drawn to them consistently. Like you are seeing, sometimes accessories are the way to mix it up and make it fun! Tomorrow on my blog Tish Jett answers one of my readers with a discussion which pairs beautifully with what you have started here…I hope you will stop by to read her answers! Good post!!

  2. July 7, 2014 / 5:24 am

    I have a uniform now, but it’s nothing like this. My “basic” is actually a shape — a full-skirted bell shape with definition but no hard stop at the waist, no added volume at the shoulders, and most of the action/embellishment below the hip. Any combination of items that can make that shape seems to work. And I have a color space that I stay within, but it has colors in it in addition to neutrals.

    • July 7, 2014 / 9:18 am

      I love the idea of shape as your uniform base. I use shape, as well, sticking with bermuda shorts in the summer (not capris, they just make me look short) and straight pants in winter. I stick with solid colors on the bottom, though. I find I keep taking off anything with pattern or embellishment on pants or skirts.

  3. Ellen
    July 7, 2014 / 5:46 am

    I have a uniform much like your own with similar (sometimes identical) pieces and colors, but it forms only part of my wardrobe. I am fully retired, and while this uniform works for going out to lunch, museums, appointments, travel, etc. it is actually too dressy for the more playful parts of my days, and I feel that I’m not as well organized for that. Plus, I live in the upper midwest, and nothing in your wardrobe could withstand a Minnesota winter. Developing a “wardrobe” of coats is an interesting challenge, choosing and maintaining great sweaters is harder in an era where 100% real wool (in heavier weights than you would buy) is harder and harder to find, at any cost, boots that are functional, etc.

    I don’t really expect a Californian to address that in a blog, but its something to be mindful of.

    • Mary Beth
      July 7, 2014 / 9:17 am

      Fellow Minnesotan here and also retired. The need to keep warm and somewhat stylish, while attempting to avoid looking like the Michelin tire man is a challenge!

    • July 7, 2014 / 9:21 am

      After living for 5 years in St. Paul I had a collection of coats ranging from cold, colder, coldest, and “damn it’s cold.” I have cut it down to only the first while living in the Chicago area. After moving again Washingtong State at the end of the month it will only be wet, wet and cold, and snowing. 🙂

  4. July 7, 2014 / 6:15 am

    You read my mind when you wrote this post! Shopping is so much simpler when we know what we love. And it’s still fun to experiment with a new shape or color, but that’s the icing, not the cake.

  5. Mare
    July 7, 2014 / 6:24 am

    Your uniform was my uniform, living in three of the frigid S Ontario seasons. Now I’m trying to keep the same vibe here in hot humid FL and it’s going slowly but it is going. I keep thinking how much I like your style and now I know why – it’s my natural comfort zone too 🙂

  6. July 7, 2014 / 7:12 am

    The uniform has evolved and makes dressing so much more fun with way less stress. I have you to thank for opening my eyes to this new way of thinking. You must feel so confident and at ease now that you have arrived at your personal style uniform.

  7. Vivi
    July 7, 2014 / 7:26 am

    I really enjoy your posts because they are extremely helpful. I retired and moved to a small-ish beach town that has pitiful local shopping. I have to travel for 3+ hours to get to stores that have beautiful clothing and a variety of choices. I do most of my shopping via the internet, but have begun to think there is something lacking in my search terms because I’ve never come across sites like French Kande and Halsbrook – which you included in this post – and which I absolutely love. So – thank you for sharing the information. How did you find these types of sites? Certainly will make my shopping easier.

  8. July 7, 2014 / 9:29 am

    I used to have a book called “Simple Isn’t Easy” by Olivia Goldsmith. She offered a few ways to create a uniform: Stick with a signature color, use a signature dress shape made in every fabric possible, stick with a designer, and her own method of wearing a dark bottom and a colorful top with or without a jacket. As I mentioned, that is about what I do, but I include khaki bottoms. She gave the example of a pair of sisters who used the signature color, one was candy apple red, the other was pink. A lot of women choose black and white or black and red. Do any of you use an unusual signature color? It seems like it would be terribly difficult to find certain colors some years.

  9. July 7, 2014 / 11:21 pm

    I am all for creating the “uniform” idea of sticking to what works! The staple collection fits in very well with my taste and requirements for mixing up outfits. Can one ever have to many pairs of Black pants in different styles-particularly in a cut that fit ones body. Well documented Susan-great advice!

  10. Wendy
    July 8, 2014 / 12:28 am

    It would seem most of us are wearing this current ‘street fashion’ even though we are thousands of miles apart ( regardless of what the major fashion houses are decreeing ). Ellen makes a good point about colder areas though the UK rarely gets the seriously low temperatures she speaks of . It means we need our favorite navy top layer in various weights including waterproof & ,if there is a stretch of grey days , we need brightness or at least lightness – cream or pale grey for me . Personally , I love distinct seasons which means bringing out the winter/summer stuff alternately & finding favorites I’d forgotten . Also , I do prefer winter clothes with their different fabrics & textures ,even though they’re more costly .

  11. July 8, 2014 / 4:54 am

    Thanks for following on twitter, first of all. I totally love the idea of your basics uniform. Agree with Pam that it helps sharpening your sense of style AND makes life easier. Could not decide on which outfit I liked best though. Tough call. Happy blogging! Sabina @Oceanblue Style
    Oh, and red heels in your other post I am going to check out right NOW:)

  12. July 8, 2014 / 11:04 pm

    Aha, I’m learning. I see how your jackets really finish your look. Because of “hot flashes” I stopped wearing jackets. I also rarely find the need for a jacket in Southern California. But, I’m now on a quest for just the “right” cool looking jacket. I love wearing scarves. They are able to adjust my body temperature and still have a cool individual look. Recently I ordered a bunch of pants from Eddie Bauer in diferent sizes. Wish me luck. I love the idea of shopping on line. So many more styles are offered on line and it’s easier than driving all over this city. The look I’ve been wearing tights on the bottom on larger tops to cover my ample top. Not sure how that will translate with a jacket. A whole new adventure.Thanks for the post and the help.

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