encore: rethinking classic

This post originally appeared in February 2015.

Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly
Images via Pinterest here and here.


When it comes to style taxonomy “Classic” is a word often used to describe a specific look. Symmetrical, tailored, polished, presumably timeless. Think white shirts, trench coats, Breton striped tops, black pumps, ballet flats…the pieces that always seem to comprise those “10 Items Every Woman Must Own” lists. While details and silhouettes may change over the decades, the idea is that a wardrobe of classics will cover you for most occasions and look good year after year. I’d always aspired to have a traditionally classic wardrobe, one with that kind of simple elegance exemplified by the style icons venerated by my mother’s generation: Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelley, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. (And more recently, by my own: Carolina Herrera and Ines de la Fressange.) It’s a look I’ve always admired and aspired to…and one that has never felt right on me. Many of those more tailored garments just didn’t fit, either physically or emotionally. They always skewed frumpy on me. But for a long time I persevered, thinking if I could just find the right cuts, the right sizes or lose enough weight, that iconic classic look would finally come together.

Over the last few years my style (both in preference and practice) has been evolving away from the crisply classic, and toward something softer, more fluid and draped. (And I should clarify, “fluid” to me doesn’t mean “flowy,” necessarily and I still avoid very voluminous pieces.) Even though these more fluid styles appeal to me aesthetically I resisted at first, having bought into the notion that opting for less fitted, less tailored clothing meant “giving up.” Giving up on attractiveness, on caring about my appearance, on femininity, and giving up on an ideal I’ve held in my head for decades. Instead, I’ve found that the softness, movement and fluidity feels more womanly, not less, and that I feel more myself, less self-conscious, more bien dans ma peau than when I was trying to force myself into more confining clothes. (Perhaps before I was also trying to fit myself into a mold of more contained, girlish femininity, another vestigial remnant of my mother’s ideals? Just a thought.) The fluidity suits my curvy shape better, too, and looks more current. I’ve bought and worn pants and skirts with elastic waists, even to work. The earth did not stop spinning, and I did not gain 80 pounds or stop washing my hair.  🙂

I’m going to take a sidetrack for a minute about that notion of giving up, or “letting oneself go” and fitted clothing. When Lisa at Privilege and I cross-posted about denim styles, she received a lot of feedback that she looked great in skinny jeans and should wear them more. Lisa has always expressed that she doesn’t like how she looks or feels in skinny jeans, not out of any insecurity but rather because they’re just not her thing. She posted a response to the comments, including acknowledging the cultural messages we receive about “good” bodies and displaying them. I’ve posted before about the notion of “flattering” which for most of us today, boils down to “makes you look thin(ner)” or whatever version of “conventionally attractive” you are attuned to. While most of us want to enhance our appearance, Flattering can become a real tyrant. If conventional figure flattery were my style Prime Directive, I’d probably wear nothing but fit-and-flare dresses. (They create the illusion of a waist, and highlight my legs.) But they aren’t my thing, and I’ve latched onto the notion of Flattering Enough, while opting for clothes that feel like a more organic expression of my self and style. It’s not about hiding or camouflage; it’s about starting from what appeals aesthetically and emotionally, and then finding a balance with what works for my body.

But back to the concept of Classic style, I think despite those “10 Items” wardrobe lists that keep popping up on Pinterest, cultural notions of style have also evolved in recent years. Whether every designer runway reflects it or not, comfort has become a higher priority, and fabrics with stretch have become the norm. (Fashion is having a Comfort Moment in a big way.) And outside of the fashion scene, our culture has also shifted in a more relaxed direction. The internet has globalized style to some degree, and that style is much more casual than even 20 years ago. The kind of tailored corporate uniforms that used to be expected in most workplaces would now be perceived as stuffy and out-of-date. Which isn’t to say that if you have a closet full of pencil skirts and crisp white blouses that you love and wear daily you need to get rid of them, just that there is no longer a single standard for what constitutes a classic wardrobe, or a work-appropriate one.

It can still be helpful, though, to think in terms of wardrobe “classics” (though by one’s own definition) in order to build and maintain wardrobe cohesion. What are those pieces that work for your lifestyle, body, aesthetic? What do they have in common and how can they work together? What design elements or colors are you always drawn to? These are your “classics.”

My classics? Jeans, slim black pants, soft jackets, tees, ankle boots, scarves. What are yours, and has your idea of a “classic” wardrobe changed over time?


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  1. I have often questioned why showcasing body form is so prized. We’ve all seen incredible structural, architectural clothes that barely touch the body and are gorgeous – think Comme des Garcons. I love your use of the word fluid to describe the cuts you are drawn to. I think the terms need to be changed. “Person enhancing” clothing is a term I like; clothes that make us glow.

  2. You have captured that realization that what you are drawn to doesn’t necessarily wear well on you personally. That is my dilemma too…..I love classics, but they look and make me feel frumpy. My style evolution has taken me towards softly structured too….and I’m finally relaxed and happy! Thank you for giving me that ahah moment. I feel better now!

  3. I like to mix-it-up, and don’t think of myself as having a specific style. Having said that, I do love pencil blue jeans, black booties with up to a 3″ heel, a crisp white collared shirt and a great-cut black blazer — the type with a little “lift” at the outer edge of the shoulder. Also, like you Susan, I don’t wear flouncy dresses and tops, not that I haven’t tried!! At 5’3″ I have to wear more fitted styles so I don’t look short… i don’t like to look short…but it happens 🙂

  4. As I grow older and wiser, I have gravitated towards dresses more often than not. I own and run a fine jewelry store and I feel more lady-like and business oriented in a fit and slight flair dress. Dresses that folow the shape of your body and have stretch (not tight tight tight) also help me feel more elegant as I go through my day. I have always worn stockings (pantyhose, tights, etc.) with a bit of support as I am always on my feet. Especialy since I broke my leg last year, I need a bit of support to remain on my feet all day. Dresses that have pleats or softly flow from the waist really make me feel beautiful. I love the travel wardrobes, of mix and match, but really like more color than black grey and white, so I always mix it up with some bright colors. I have even purchased several black and white dresses that I feel very elegant in when worn. I did folllow some of your suggestions on a ravel wardrobe for my trip to London last week, and it worked bery well, but I used skirts instead of pants as I was afraid of being too hot in August in slacks. Quality resale shops offer many solutions to those who cannot afford “the latest fashion” and are content to look good and wear clothes that flatter regardless of style. One must follow thier intuition and chose wisely for their body style, and then sit in the clothes for a minute to make certain they are comfortable. Chacun san gout! (Not able to add the accents and other thing for french on my computer)! Will have to learn how to access them. Many thanks for your words of wisdom.

  5. I love this post “the world did not stop spinning…I did not stop washing my hair.” Where do we get these ideas, and I totally have them too! I remember being in a baby group 24 years ago, and a mom (in her 30s) said, “If you stop untucking, it’s over.”

    A pair of slim elastic waist (and super flattering) black pants are among my wardrobe loves of late. You really articulated what many of us/them are feeling about “giving up.” My style today (at 53) and my idea of classics has changed over the years. I was a huge fan of the tight LBD during the years when I rocked it (if I may say so myself). Today, I love black pants (maybe with elastic, people!), a tissue leather jacket in cream or blush, beautiful shoes, a “statement” purse (for me LV, Prada, Philip Lim), a “partial” (why do some people call it the “shame tuck”. I don’t get that) tucked collared shirt in a a chiffon or silk, the color navy in everything (!). I so enjoy your blog and your insights.