Back To Basics

So many of us seem to be searching for our own version of a uniform or at least The Well-Edited Capsule Wardrobe: those dozen or so timeless, ageless pieces that will flatter our unique proportions and carry us through just about any situation save Black Tie or Red Carpet. It’s a concept that’s easy to conceive, but hard to achieve. Perhaps we just can’t make the individual pieces “gel,” or maybe styles change, our bodies change, our circumstances change and our trusted-and-true basics no longer feel right.

My own wardrobe has been in transition the last few years. I’ve swung from more classic/tailored to softer pieces, but found an ensemble comprised entirely of unstructured knits too “droopy.” Currently I’m finding that a balance between structured and soft feels grounded, comfortable, appropriate for the office and appealing to my eye and tastes. I’m redefining “Classic” for myself and am finding ways to re-incorporate those more structured elements in a way that feels modern and fresh.

For work wear, I’ve settled into three variations on a uniform.

  • Jeans and Jacket
  • Pencil skirt and Jacket or Cardigan
  • Dress-n-Boots.
On the weekends, at least during the cooler months, it’s about jeans and a sweater.

Below are a few of the pieces that I currently find myself reaching for more than any others. They are my New Classics. Nothing flashy or fancy here; these are the workhorses, not the show ponies.

Trouser Jeans. I really love the bootcut/slight flare silhouette which is flattering, works with a low-to-mid heel, and in a plain dark wash feels right for a Business Casual office. My current favorites are these by Ann Taylor.

Blazers. Pop the collar, roll up the sleeves, and don’t be afraid to throw on a brooch or three. (I’d recently expressed my frustration with finding blazers that didn’t look mannish and stodgy, but I’ve since decoded the design formula that makes them work pour moi, which I’ll share next week.) A style along the lines of this navy J.Crew Schoolboy Blazer is hitting the jacket sweet spot. And it looks great with the dark wash jeans!

Pencil Skirt. I’ve collected a few over the last year or so, but my current favorite is this ponte knit version from Ann Taylor. The length is just right, and the vertical seaming makes it very flattering.

Dresses.  I’ve recently begun mixing the soft and feminine silhouette of my Karina Dresses with a more structured blazer (see above). It was a running-out-the-door experiment that worked!


Boots.  Ankle and knee boots are my go-to footwear for the cooler months, and I’ve collected several pair in recent years. I prefer knee boots with my longer, softer dresses, and ankle boots with pencil skirts and tights, as well as under pants.

Now four years old and still going strong.

Pointy toe low heel pump or flat. I love a pointy toe. For some reason they just feel more graceful, classic and timeless than any other shape. This style from Stuart Weitzman is my current favorite. (Mine are tortoiseshell brown, no longer available.)

V-neck sweaters. Mostly for weekends, but occasionally under a jacket during the week on colder days. Charcoal grey is my go-to color, and right now I’m loving this one from Land’s End. The cashmere is very soft, I’ve worn it a dozen times and washed it once, and no pilling so far!

I’m going to also include two accessories, as earrings and a watch are the only jewelry I wear without fail, every day (other than my Wendy Brandes designed engagement ring, bien sur).

Big Hoop Earrings. I like a larger size to give some edge to the classic. 
These from Stella and Dot are fun, 
and I also like an oval shape, like these from Lauren by Ralph Lauren. 

The watch I wear most days is a few-years-old version of this one. (Raymond Weil “Tango.”) Roman numerals non-negotiable.

I utilize tops, scarves and bags to add some interest and color to my basics. I’m already thinking about how I’ll tweak this mix for the warmer months.

What are your tried-and-true basic pieces? Do you find your basics change over time? Or do you prefer more variety and to mix it up?
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  1. This makes so much sense. As you read off the list, I could see exactly how these items work on you – as we’ve seen in outfit photos over time. I love the small details, i.e. a pointy toe. That is how signature styles are developed.

    1. LPC, thanks! It’s so funny, I’ve consciously tried to develop a “signature style” over the last few years, but when I just let go and go with what I like, Whoomp, there it is.

  2. Yes, I like basics. In fact, I wear mine so often that they almost wear out! THEN, I’m left with shopping for more basics. I’ve never liked the look of bootcut jeans for me. Maybe I’m missing something–or maybe it has to do with my body type. I’m not sure.

    Also for me, dropping a few pounds (at least 15) would make a huge difference in which structured pieces I might choose. I find structured pieces look better on me when I am slimmer.

    1. Susan, like you I think that a lot of structure looks better when I’m slimmer, which is why I still think a structured/soft mix is working best right now. I think bootcuts help balance out curves on some of us, but if you’re taller and “straighter” you might look better in a straight cut jean.

    1. hostess, thanks. I think it’s a good sweater for the money. No one is doing *great* cashmere at this price point anymore, but I’m happy with the quality of this one. And the grey is really nice; not too dark, not too light.

  3. I live in combinations of jeans/simple silky tops/jackets, and heels or flats depending on my destination.I love the redesign Wendy did with your ring – it’s beautiful. Your blog is great!

    1. Frugal Scholar do you wear the same in the summer months as well? I’m wondering how you manage with all the black, isn’t it too dark for the heat even if it is in lightweight fabrics?

  4. I have pencil skirts in several colors, primarily white, beige, light blue, red, and navy. I have a pair of charcoal pants and a pair of dark-wash trouser-jeans, but I rarely wear them unless it’s really, really cold; I prefer skirts.

    Then I have little jackets with nipped-in waists and little cardigans that I belt in order to have a nipped-in waist, and both of these in several colors, primarily white, pink, light blue, red, burgundy, and navy.

    Then I have blouses and knit-shells in solids and prints, primarily white, pinks, blues, reds, burgundy, and navy.

    I have a couple of dresses for day and night in blue and navy.

    I have scarves (I especially Love Hermes, which you can get at lovely prices on ebay) in pink, blue, red, burgundy, and navy. I use these especially with tweeds and solids.

    I have pointy-toe heels and ballet flats in beige, red, and navy. I have flat-boots and heel-boots in burgundy, and I wear these mostly casually on weekends.

    I have clutches in white, yellow, pink, red, blue, navy, silver, and gold.

    My week-day carry-all bag is a lighter shade of navy. My coat is a navy trench. I have a navy-wool medium-brim hat for winter, and a wide-brim cream hat for summer weddings & garden-parties. I have leather gloves in white, red, burgundy, and navy.

    I mix & match everything, and have something unique to wear nearly every day in a two- to three-month period. I love mix-&-matching my wardrobe, it always makes me feel good, even though the sillhouette is always the same feminine style.

    I also have day- and evening-wear in black that I can also use for funerals, including a winter- and a summer-hat, heels, flats, and clutches; but because I perform (piano) so much and have to wear black so much in performance, I don’t like to wear that color in my personal life (except for funerals, of course).

    1. What Did You Learn, wow, I’m impressed! You’ve really worked out your wardrobe for just about any occasion. But I can see the theme; you’ve kept the colors to a few basics, which is key.

  5. What a great post! I’ve been tailoring my signature style for years and am finally hitting my stride in my mid-30s. Yesterday I actually took scissors to my head and gave myself Audrey “Roman Holiday” bangs. I now feel sophisticated and grown-up! Also, funny you should mention the J Crew Blazer… it’s been on my “need” list forever. And now with my new hair it should go quite nicely with a black and white striped tee…

    1. sonia, thank you! I’ll bet your haircut looks great! (And that’s one of my favorite movies!) I really recommend this blazer; I’m finding it to be quite versatile.

  6. I’m with Susan…as soon as I drop some weight I will add some more basics and continue to tailor down…which I have attempted to do. I think that J. Crew Blazer might be a way to reward myself WHEN (not if) my weight loss happens.!!

    1. Pam, I spoke to a J.Crew associate today who said that this blazer is popular and is here to stay. It will be in the summer and fall collections. So something to look forward to!

  7. Every time you post a link to your redesigned engagement/wedding ring – I enjoy looking at it all over again. I live in jeans, ankle boots, and a sweater, tee shirt, blazer, whatever – in LA I find the weather changes so much during the day, it’s always confusing.

    1. kathy, glad you enjoy the ring. Wendy did such an amazing job on it! Even two years on, sometimes I can’t stop looking at it. LA is *hard* to get clothing right. I was freezing this morning so put the sweater under the jacket, but when I went out at lunch it was probably in the low 70’s. And then factor in air conditioning….

  8. We have similar tastes as far as the tried-and-true basics go. Boot cut jeans for me are essential. I would love some trouser jeans but haven’t found any that look good on me. I also adore blazers. I wear them all the time.

    For work, I have a black pencil skirt that I can style in innumerable ways. It’s such a great item.

    I also like solid color sweaters in either crew, V or turtleneck and button down shirts. I prefer having a simple outfit that I can jazz up with accessories rather than clothes that have patterned prints or embellishments.

    1. Adrienne, I think you’re right…our tastes are similar. Have you tried the Talbot’s Tall jeans? Duchesse recently recommended them. I don’t know how I went so long without a pencil skirt, but it’s become such a staple item! Like you, I find prints tricky. I need to keep them to the smaller pieces.

  9. Your navy blazer and dark Ann Taylor jeans are a suit in and of themselves. You can add a dark denim pencil skirt and voila! An entire suit to work with. Imagine if you did the same thing in taupe. You’d be set with Chanel’s concept of the “two suits and a few careful accessories” capsule. I love these thoughtful posts of yours. K

  10. Your basics are my basics! I’m in the market for a good pair of trouser jeans and a flattering blazer. Maybe I’ll find something while we’re traveling.

    1. Susan T., if you have a chance, do check out the Ann Taylor jeans. I was quite happy with the fit. But clothes and accessories make great travel souvenirs too, and will remind you of your journeys each time you wear them.

  11. I love my clothes, but decided I need to change direction a bit. My goal is to incorporate more skirts and dresses. Armed with generous gift certificates and cash from friend and family, these are my new basics.

    Pencil shirts, sheer blouses and camisoles.It’s like your combination structured/soft.
    Faux snakeskin boots, textured hose and polka dot trench coat. I’ve wanted to add pattern mixing and this is just the right combination.

    Two basics that I bought-a black jacket and black kitten pumps-were great finds, but I haven’t worn them and suspect they probably don’t fit my lifetyle.

    1. sgille, it sounds as though you like a bit of pattern and visual interest in your ensembles. Perhaps the black jacket and pumps just don’t have enough “oomph” for your style. You should check out Karina dresses; they have some really nice patterns!

  12. my basics definitely include pencil skirts: denim, courduroy for the winter, v-neck and turtle neck merino sweaters
    I’m currently avoiding jackets like the plague, I feel they make me look too severe
    as for shoes: only boots in the winter, I don’t do ankle boots, I love flats or wedges, heels are a no go for me on a day to day basis, too uncomfortable

    1. coffeeaddict, I can’t do really high heels either, but a 1-2″ is workable. I had the same issue with jackets, but found some styles and ways to wear them that don’t look too severe and blocky.

  13. I wish I did have a capsule wardrobe. I just cannot seem to get that together. Maybe someday. I just like too many things and it is almost like I have fashion ADD because I am always seeing something else that interests me.

    1. Debbi, that’s OK. Having a lot of variety might suit you and your tastes. You seem to really enjoy mixing it up a lot and getting creative, so don’t feel like you have to limit yourself. Have fun!

  14. My work wardrobe is a skirt most days. In the winter, I often pair it with a fine gauge sweater and or a blouse and jacket. many of my younger colleagues are wearing jeans, sweaters, scarves. I like your idea about the Karina dress with a jacket…

  15. My basics have reduced now that I don’t go to an office in a corporation. I had an unconscious belief that to appear at work, I needed many changes of clothes. People always commented on the new. Had way too much stuff. Now, live in pants and cashmere sweaters most of the year, but would love more dresses. At 5′ 10″, find nearly all cut too short in the skirt and waist, so I look like I’m wearing someone else’s dress unless I can get it altered or (best) made to order.

    1. Duchesse, even going to an office to work, I’ve realized I don’t need as many clothes as I’d previously assumed. The right pieces will mix and match just beautifully. Dresses can be tricky, for sure, at either end of the height spectrum.

  16. Love the concept of a ‘uniform.’ To me, it signifies being true to yourself.

    I’m a stylist and blogger for Ulla Popken and we do plus size really well. So I’m loving tunics, twin-sets, and shackets!