Rethinking basics: what makes you feel most like yourself?

I talk a lot about wardrobe basics, and believe that a good core capsule of basics is key to making getting dressed easier. But everyone’s basics may be different. Not generic. It’s about finding the intersection between wardrobe basics and personal style. And lately I’ve been redefining my own basics as those pieces that make me feel most like myself.

I follow Amy Smilovic (the founder and creative director of brand Tibi) on Instagram and subscribe to her newsletter, where she often shares her thoughts on personal style. Though at time she goes pretty “deep into the weeds,” I always get some little takeaway nugget that either clarifies something I’ve been working on in my head or makes me look at something differently. Like wardrobe basics, or what she calls “WOF’s” (With-Out-Fails).

In a recent interview published at Who What Wear, she says,

I think that’s a mistake a lot of people make. When they buy a basic, they think that it has to be so noncommittal so that they can wear it every day. When something is noncommittal, it’s very average. If you are choosing something that you’re gonna wear every day, you’re basically saying outright, “I want to feel average and noncommittal every day.” No one wants that.

That really hit the bullseye for me. And explained why so many of my “good on paper” pieces have languished in my closet. Take classic trousers, for example. Even when they fit well, I always felt so “meh” in them. A little frumpy, even. So there’s always felt like this big gap in my wardrobe.

Susan B. wears a leopard print cardigan, gold jewelry, brown coated denim trousers, gold shoes.
My sizes: sweater S, pants 27 (they run large, suggest sizing down)

I feel most like myself when there’s something fun, quirky, or unexpected in my outfit. These coated denim trousers hit that note for me, and are something I can always throw on when I either want to dress up a bit or just take a break from my jeans.

Susan B. wears a print scarf, striped sweater, brown coated denim trousers, metallic sneakers.
My sizes: sweater XS, pants 27

In fact, these pants were one of my travel wardrobe MVP’s from my trip to London last fall.

The style I have is almost sold out, but here are a few similar options:

Susan B. wears a metallic textured ba&sh Gaston cardigan, v-neck silk shell, gold layered necklaces, brown coated denim trousers, and gold platform oxfords.
My sizes: cardigan S, top S, pants 27

Metallics are another of my non-generic basics. When my sister was visiting in December, we walked past a shop window with this cardigan on display, and I gasped and rushed in to try it. I loved it and she gave it the thumbs up too. I consider it a neutral that goes with just about anything! (👉 For a more budget-friendly option, check out this one.)

Style tip: Everyone will have their own version of their WOF’s or wardrobe basics. Think about those pieces that always seem to feel “right” and in harmony with your personal style. Even though they might not make someone else’s list of “basics,” they’re yours.

  • Is it comfortable? Can you put it on and forget about it?
  • Does it dress up or down, and work with a variety of other pieces in your wardrobe?
  • Is it something you keep coming back to when nothing else seems to work?

What are some of your “personalized” wardrobe basics?

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  1. Those brown trousers are indeed a staple piece. I love the leopard cardigan with it.
    Unfortunately I have no idea what good basics work for me. I am going to follow Amy as well. I need more lessons.

  2. Nice article. Great new sweater, by the way. I think your phrase “Put it on and forget it” is the most important for me. If I wear something that I am constantly adjusting, particularly the waistband of pants or the hem of tops, then those are not my basics. Thanks, as always

  3. Hi Susan, I notice you are wearing a slim belt with the coated pants. Do you think slimmer “ baby” belts ( as named by Rag and Bone are better for casual pants than say wider?

    Many thanks


  4. This makes sense. It’s the same reason I dislike capsule wardrobes comprised of black, white, grey and navy. A capsule wardrobe is really a portrait of your own personal style. Why wear those colors for a capsule wardrobe if you happen to have a closet filled with color, spiced up with pattern? My favorite pants are wide legs and flares. Those are my basics.

  5. Susan, your thoughts and the Tibi article really gave me a lot to think about. Not just basics, but clothes in general. Recently, I’ve been pondering why I reach for certain things, basics or other. Style personalities, color theory and such do make a difference, but for me, it’s the construction and fluidity of a garment. CIP, I’ve been sorting through my crew neck sweaters. All from different brands, price points, material and colors. I’ve divided them into two groups. The ones I reach for and are easy to style and the ones that aren’t. From there I looked at the similarities of the most worn pile. There were two. They all had a higher crew neck with a slightly wider band at the neck, and all but two had a wider more defined waist band. I’m plan on doing this with all my clothes because it has really help me define what works, what doesn’t, and why.

  6. It would surprise me if any one else thinks of teal (light or dark) as a neutral but I do. I have a lot of it and it goes with almost everything else in my closet (navy, brown, khaki, black, denim, etc.). It’s a color I don’t see on many others, but I love it and wear it a lot. An orange jacket, teal top and white jeans just screams summer to me. A light teal jacket over black makes an interesting piece of jewelry “pop”.
    If I could only take what I could carry out of my closet, it would be my scarves and all the teal.

    1. I agree with you Teresa. I have a woollen open cardigan/jacket in teal which falls beautifully and can be dressed up or down, and always makes my travel capsule wardrobes. It goes with everything and I hope it lasts forever!

  7. After reading your newsletter today, my newsletter from Talbots popped up in my email. One of the items is the Kate Cardigan in a Taupe metallic. It’s similar to your pretty cardigan in your newsletter.

  8. So true! Everyday items that truly are your own, that you feel good putting on, so important. Slightly flared dark jeans are my fun basic lately. They feel true to me, and I feel comfortable and put together. Go with many tops and jackets. Little thinking involved!

  9. I do so love those coated pants and as an autumn, I’m always in search of brown bottoms. I only wish they came in a longer inseam

  10. Yessss Susan. This post really hit home for me. Thank you so much! I need the basics to be more in line with my personal style than some catalogue. What a great AHA moment you have given me. Thanks have a beautiful day!

  11. I think I reach for jeans and a tee or an oversized oxford the most (sometimes open w a tee or not), then add a colorful shoe and a Longchamp tote. Colors I’m gravitating toward are winter blues, black, charcoal with pops of fucshia and deep red. Throw a blazer, barncoat, or jean jacket for more interest. My go-tos are failproof, business-casual, non fussy with not too many layers. I really dislike checking and rechecking my outfits during the day. Writing this down is a great exercise! Thx always for your posts. 🙂

  12. Great post. This is what’s wrong with all the “top 10 things every woman should own” lists. Everyone’s list is different, and should be! I never wear jeans, for example. Your list and mine will be different. Being too vanilla about your fashion choices is not the answer. You need to be specific about the key pieces that work for you every time.

  13. Good morning!
    Love your style though as either a winter or winter fading to summer its just not right for me. I think the Mafia wives and Jersey shore have made me ( and my husband ) leopard skin adverse but it looks great on you. Between weight gain, hair thinning and gravity I want things to make me more feminine. I have tried the Nutrafol you advised but alas I cannot keep it down. So I will keep reading for more aging tips. Could you also add in some more budget friendly options? Thank you

  14. Such a great post, Susan! An unbasic basic in my closet is a penny-colored, high-waisted pair of corduroy trousers that I made and can’t seem to stop wearing. They somehow go with everything (?!) and, like you said, are a piece I can put on and then forget I’m wearing.

  15. Susan, this is such an insightful and helpful column. First, your denim coated trousers are my favorite of all the pants you wear. You have good instincts. Second, I now understand how I end up with clothes that just feel bland. I am going to be a better shopper from now on!

  16. Now I understand why the quality well fitting trousers had to come out of my closet, thank you! It has been a long unlearning curve from the past of “needing the basics in good quality” to “why doesn’t this make me feel good”? I purchased the coated brown pants and as a winter I can tell you they are my MVP. They go with everything and always perk up the look. Susan, thank you for sharing your insight and knowledge, we all benefit.

  17. Susan, thank you for another relatable and liberating discussion! For a long time I struggled with the basics concept which seemed to absolutely include “trouser” types of pants, with belted waist. I tried to make them work in my casual life–for decades–but I never, ever felt like myself in them. Several years ago I stumbled upon a style that is a kind of modified, leveled-up legging–a more substantial knit, not quite as tight as leggings but still a stretch pant, with wide yoke-ish waistband. I have lived in them ever since, because they DO feel like me. I also don’t wear the shorter length tops that are so stylish right now–again, I don’t feel like myself in them and prefer sweaters and tees to be hip length. Even tunic. I hope they don’t all disappear in light of the current trend for short. Thanks again, great post.

  18. Talbots has a sweater which is very close to your lovely purchase. It was one of the VERY FEW sweaters (and tops) at the store which were not overly cropped- I am 5’6” with a tummy, so that is not my best look- and had small shoulder pads which helped the sweater hang better. Unfortunately my upper arms are a bit heavy and the vertical stripe in the knit made them look bigger. It was a very, very nice shade of gold..hopefully your readers with skinnier arms will do better.

  19. It looks good on paper. My answer here is jeans. I know they are basics and everyone wears them and I really should have some, but the ones I do have I hardly ever wear. I feel “underdressed” in them and always uncomfortable.

  20. Love the pants, I’ve seen them on here before & have been meaning to tell you so. In the picture with the leopard top, they look like they are velvet (of course, it could just be me). I made a vow a couple of years ago to not buy anything unless I completely love it & the way it fits. That has been a process for me. I absolutely adore cashmere, but it is hard on the budget, so I always buy at the end of the season. I just snagged a $150 cashmere poncho for $40. I rarely pay full price for something. I pick something out then wait. I wait to make sure I like it & I wait for it to go on sale. It’s actually like a game to me & it cuts down on the impulse buys. My closet is looking & feeling much better! Thanks for all your hard work & advice! Love your blog & suggestions!

  21. Susan, thank you for all of your posts. I enjoy your insight on fashion and all of the clothing items you feature.
    I had not noticed coated denim until this past year. Are they a classic or a trend? How many seasons can you wear them? I love the ones you have on and would like to know that I will be able to enjoy them for awhile.

    Thank you

    1. Hi Terry, thanks! Coated denim has been around to varying degrees for the last few years. Because it has a subtle leather-like appearance, I don’t forsee it looking dated anytime soon. But I’d also add that pieces you love and find easy to wear are often the longest-lived in your wardrobe.

    2. We see quite a lot of coated denim here in France – it’s budget-friendlier and easier to care for than real leather, while giving you a slightly edgy leather look without overdoing the rock-chick thing. And much better in many ways than non-breathable faux leather jeans.

  22. I love your contemplative pieces on style, they are what has kept me coming back to your blog over many years. Still love the Rethinking Classic piece. I wish you would do more they low your writing to shine!

  23. I think my must-haves are jeans, especially white or écru (although I also have blue, black and grey ones). I also have 2 pairs of “smart” trousers but always feel I need to dial down the corporate look by putting something more colourful and/or quirky on top. Other than stripes (yep I live in France!) and polka dots, I don’t wear a lot of pattern but love bright colours, especially winter-friendly ones like fuchsia, purple, cobalt blue etc.

  24. Hi Susan,
    These are great questions. For me, my answers change with the seasons. Right now in the heat of summer I’m wearing loose dresses more than ever before. Loose pants come a close second. But all too soon jeans will take over as my MVPs.
    I’m enjoying doing some 10×10 capsules, shopping my wardrobe and finding new combos. I’m not reaching for many plain basics; I’m preferring those with a little twist.
    Best wishes,
    Julie xx

  25. Love a bit of quirky myself! Recently learned I’m a “spring” and am replacing many items in my wardrobe…especially anything slightly masculine. I “feel” so wrong in denim button up shirts, chunky loafers and a lot of items I was told are necessary for a capsule wardrobe. I love a bit of romantic, vintage look or detailing. Viva la difference! Love your blog,
    A fellow Californian