Mighty Life List
Aug 23 2010

Flashback Monday: Women’s Fashion, Part I, Classics

In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, every Monday I post articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. This piece was originally published by the The Morning News in 2002. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin, for the edits.

Welcome to the first installment of the Women’s Fashion Guide. In this ongoing series, we’ll help fill in your wardrobe gaps, forgive your past sins, and encourage you to shine your stilettos.

This week’s article is about classic clothing. Recall your mother’s timeless refrains: ‘That won’t match anything.’ ‘That will fall apart in the wash.’ ‘That dress makes you look like a hussy.’

Mom was right. That dress did make you look like a hussy. Fortunately, your high-school crush thought so too. But mom was also right about sensible shopping. You could use a new pantsuit.

Building a Wardrobe

Thank god you were born a woman.

The sartorially adventurous man can have a red shirt made, perhaps purchase a loud tie. You, on the other hand, can pour yourself into a crimson dress with built-in panties and fish-scale sequins that chatter as you walk. You can halt conversation; you can smirk as gentlemen loosen their ties and swallow hard; you need never pay for a drink.

Wear what you want. Dive into feathery chiffon swing skirts, witty little gemstone bracelets, kissable cashmere wraps. Roll around in the delicate, glittering, unctuous glory of it all!

All right, now get up off the floor. You’re crushing your feather boa. Also, your closet is starting to look like the wardrobe rack for Moulin Rouge. Is it, or is it not true that you own seven brand-new miniskirts, but not a single pair of shoes that matches your interview suit? I thought so.

If you want to build a wardrobe, you have to start with the basics, clothes you can count on. Once you have some solid building blocks in neutral colors, buy the silly, sparkly separates and accessories that will keep your girlfriends from yawning. For now, we’ll focus on tried and true.

White Button-Down Shirt
If you’re a tall girl and you’re dating a skinny guy with a good tailor, you may be able to score one of these by batting your eyes and slipping it on. If you’re 5’3″ and your boyfriend is a linebacker, head to your favorite boutique and look for a crisp, white shirt made of 100 percent cotton.

Find one with darts that bring the waist in slightly. You need a shirt that looks good untucked: i.e., that doesn’t come more than halfway down your bum and isn’t too baggy—but can also be tucked in for wear with a suit.

Details will date the shirt, so find something that doesn’t have peasant ties at the wrists or prissy little flowers embroidered on the collar. Avoid shirts with breast pockets, that way you don’t have to worry about whether your bust line makes the pocket gape. The right piece will look as good with a business suit as it does with your white cotton undies. Press it until it crackles. Wear it with a pencil skirt for business or a plaid pleated skirt for pleasure.

Knee-Length A-Line Skirt
These look good on every shape and can be dressed up or down. Buy a skirt in a solid, neutral color and a fabric that will work in any season, like a lightweight wool gabardine.

Try a striped T-shirt, matching cardigan, and flats for breakfast with a girlfriend. Pair a black skirt with heels and something low cut for dinner.

T-Shirts
You’ll need one black, gray, or navy T-shirt and one in either white or cream, depending on your complexion. Look for a cotton/polyester blend: It will fit your curves better than a purely cotton version, it won’t look tired so quickly, and it will travel well. Find a thick, durable weave. Thin T-shirts wrinkle easily, and they also show every bump of lace on your bra.

When you find the right T-shirt, go back and buy two more in your favorite bright colors. They’re perfect for layering under a bulky sweater in the winter or for pairing with a pair of tidy, side-zip shorts when you’re out sailing. OK, washing the car.

Jeans
Pull them on; glance in the mirror. If your ass doesn’t look antigravitational in these jeans, if it doesn’t look like some other woman’s ass entirely, put them back. They should also break just-so over your sneakers. If you’re petite, consider having them hemmed by a tailor who knows that jeans should never, ever look like they’ve been hemmed.

Shop until you find the best possible pair. Can you heft moving boxes without displaying a porn-star triangle of G-string? Could you picnic with his parents in these jeans? Could you successfully accessorize with a tank top and a shot of tequila?

When you find the right pair, don’t agonize over the price tag. No matter how much you spend on them, it’ll still work out to about five cents a wearing. So buy the pair you want. Buy two.

Warm Sweater
If cream looks good on you, find a chunky turtleneck sweater in off-white. It goes with everything, and looks equally charming with a pair of jeans or with a skirt and boots. If cream makes you look warmed over, consider camel, chocolate, or black.

If you feel like something dead is wrapped around your throat when you wear a turtleneck, or if your neck is so short that you sometimes have trouble turning your head, opt for a very slight V-neck.

Slim Casual Pants
Think Jackie Kennedy, not Army/Navy. No pleats, no bottom cuffs, no cargo pockets, no kicky little waist ties. No. Find a pair with a flat front, one button, and one zipper. Go with a slightly tapered or straight leg.

You can wear them with anything, but keep them pressed. Pull them on when you’re running for bagels in the morning. For a well-scrubbed look, pair with bright, fitted V-neck sweaters, or a T-shirt and a front-zip, hooded sweatshirt.

Knee-High Leather Boots
Some women take to these, other women feel like hookers. Nothing is sexier or classier with a skirt. If anyone propositions you, your skirt is too short.

Trench Coat
Buy yourself a black or khaki trench coat and you’ll wear it everywhere but the opera. It looks great with jeans and winter skirts, and adding a colorful scarf will pull most looks together with minimal effort.

Find a coat that’s fully lined and impeccably tailored. If you can’t afford a new coat—and they can be expensive—you can usually find them at vintage boutiques. Vintage varieties have luxuriously deep pockets that let you shove your hands in up to your elbows. This is a rare and wondrous element in women’s clothing, so seek it out.

Dark Pant Suit
Why are most women’s suits a little Miami Vice? It’s a hundred times easier to find an affordable and flattering suit in lavender or sage than in black. But it’s worth the extra cost to own a suit that doesn’t make you look like an after-dinner mint.

Look for a single-breasted pantsuit with classic lines and trousers that you can wear separately. Search out light, seasonless fabrics like crêpe. Avoid odd, trendy buttons and synthetic fabrics. The pants should break over the shoes you’ll be wearing (heels or flats: choose before you buy) and the sleeves shouldn’t be too long or too short.

Little Black Dress
Cigarette holders have gone out of vogue, but as long as you can still order a good martini, you’ll need a little black dress.

Avoid ruffles, lace, multiple fabric combinations, and asymmetrical tailoring (a toga top, or a skirt with an uneven hem). The perfect dress should be comfortable, well fitted, and just the right length to hit the most flattering point on your let. Too-tight dresses sacrifice elegance. You’ll most likely be wearing shoes that hurt: do you really want to suck your gut in all night, too? Find something with both elegance and sex appeal.

In the dressing room, ask yourself a few questions. Do you feel calm? Slightly superior? Could you wear back-seam stockings without looking trashy? Could you make eye contact with a charming gentleman across the room, part your lips, and raise your eyebrows ever so slightly? If so, wrap it up.

What’s Left Unsaid
If you have to try on dozens of outfits to find one that looks handsome but still casual, you don’t own enough classic pieces. The above list is by no means complete. We haven’t even touched on wool pants, minimalist leather jackets, black heels that you can dance in, cashmere cardigans, and the multitude of accessories you should have in your arsenal.

Too many women waste too much time trying to look as though they’ve just thrown something on. With these pieces, you’ll actually be able to choose an outfit at one go, which gives you more time to decide which lipstick to wear.

32 Responses to “Flashback Monday: Women’s Fashion, Part I, Classics”

  • Kat Says:

    Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes. The world is all full up with yes.

  • Miss B Says:

    So many pants in this list, though. Some of us don’t wear pants (that sounded much more risque than it was meant to). I do own a couple of pairs of jeans, which I only wear if absolutely necessary. Otherwise, it’s all skirts and dresses. (I also do not wear sneakers, ever, unless I am in gym clothes, in a gym. I own exactly one pair specifically for this purpose. I have never, ever worn them on the street or otherwise in public. But that’s an entirely different issue, I suspect.) I’m also violently anti-trench coat — for me; I think they look smashing on others — because there is nothing I hate more than a coat with a belt. Except maybe a coat with a hood, or a coat with a zipper. Combine all three to make my Nightmare Coat.

  • nelking Says:

    unctuous :)

  • Tina Says:

    I don’t even look at the price tag on jeans. If they look awesome. I buy them. Ditto for bras and swimsuits.
    Best,
    Tina

  • auntie Says:

    I love you more with every Flashback Monday post. Seriously.

  • Sassafras Mama Says:

    I’m with Miss B on the pants front. They just don’t make the cut. Pun intended.

    On the other hand, your are spot on about a proper A-line skirt and a black dress. Makes all of life more manageable to have these in my closet arsenal.

  • Sassafras Mama Says:

    Oops….that should read:

    you are
    or
    you’re

    edit as you see fit.

  • Maureen Says:

    That photo of your buddy with the cloche hat is one of my all time faves on this site.

  • meg Says:

    This is almost item-for-item the same list as Tim Gunn’s “10 essential items every woman should own” (http://goo.gl/jFdn)– and we all know Tim Gunn can do no wrong. Great list!

  • meg Says:

    Darn that silly parenthesis: http://goo.gl/jFdn

  • Liz S. Says:

    Really though, could you do this for accessories, please? I never know what to do with jewelry, hats, scarves, any of it, and rather than overdoing it, I err on the side of not doing it at all, and end up looking like I’m making a new-wave Quaker statement.

  • Grace @ Sandier Pastures Says:

    Love this post! Thanks for making it simple. I think the first thing I’m going to do when I get home from work is to dash to my wardrobe and do a spring cleaning! Unnecessary stuff be gone!

  • Megan Says:

    Darn. I don’t have any of this. Damn you H&M.

  • Beth Says:

    Damn, I needed this.

  • Andrea Says:

    THIS is why I love your blog. I need to march right home, okay maybe not now as I am at work, and clean out my closet, my second closet, and all my storage bins and stick to these rules. If only I was not such a wimp about getting rid of clothes…

  • NicoleT Says:

    I am having flashbacks to my 4-H Sewing days – I was on the “Fashion Board”. We called ourselves the Fashion Police – every year we did some sort of demo show based on this same idea (wardrobe must-haves, dressing for your shape, etc.).

    That said, my Fashion Police alter-ego agrees with ALL OF THIS – especially the parts about keeping comfort, tailors, and ignoring the cost of your favorite jeans.

  • NicoleT Says:

    Gah… that should be “…keeping comfort and tailors in mind and ignoring the cost of your favorite jeans.”

  • melissa Says:

    I’m sad. I don’t think I have any of these things. So that means I’m poorly dressed wherever I go?

  • CC Says:

    Can you give an example on a good t-shirt?
    Thx

  • JSweet Says:

    Good article. I think I have to offer a caveat to the slim Jackie O trousers, though. If you are petite but pear-shaped, or otherwise booty and hip-licious, I would say trade out that slim pant for a tailored, wide-leg trouser maybe in a wool or heavy fabric. Otherwise the attempt to look classy and Hepburn-eqsue ends with you looking like you shopped two sizes too small at Forever 21 in an attempt to quickly become impregnated.

  • Annabelle Says:

    Hear, hear, JSweet. (here, here?) The wide-leg trouser works wonders for the curvy among us. Otherwise, great list. As soon as I’m done bearing and feeding infants (exactly one year from next Wednesday…) I will be buying that tailored white shirt. I already have it picked out. Oh, and thanks for the permission to spend a fortune on jeans. I just needed to hear it.

  • Maggeh Says:

    No Melissa, it means it’s harder to put outfits together. If you have the basics, it’s easy to find something to pair with everything, you don’t have to spend hours putting something together to look awesome.

  • Maggeh Says:

    JSweet and Annabelle, you don’t find wide leg trousers… widening? I feel like a straight leg is a more flattering cut.

  • Kara Says:

    As someone else who belongs to the “junk in the trunk” club, I find wide-leg trousers slimming because the wider legs de-emphasize my gargantuan trunk. Straight-leg pants on me always tend to look like they taper from my hips down to my ankles and give me that dreaded “ice cream cone” silhouette.

    The absolute narrowest cut of pants that I will wear is boot-cut, and I prefer well-tailored wide-leg pants. (Anthropologie is excellent for great wide-leg pants, in my opinion.)

  • Annabelle Says:

    What Kara said. The wide leg trousers don’t have to be the super-wide ones, boot-leg cut in a heavier drape is ideal. The worst is knee-length, slim shorts. I might as well wear horizontal stripes across my hippy hips.

  • elz Says:

    There is nothing to add, this is a perfect guide. Thank you. Very well said. I linked to this post I liked it so much!

  • Sarah Brown Says:

    UN-unctuous

  • Alex Says:

    Seconding the request for a good t-shirt recommendation. I used to buy mine at the Gap but the last time I went looking for white t-shirts they were all paper-thin and nearly transparent. Not what I was looking for.

  • NicoleT Says:

    I would HIGHLY recommend LL Bean’s T-shirts. They have some that are a slimmer fit and some that are baggier – and they all are made to last.

  • Amy H. Says:

    Second what Kara and Annabelle said (another serious pear here).

  • Alexa Says:

    In order to build a wardrobe with women’s skirts you have to include your basic black and nuetral. Be sure not to forget the matching shoes.

  • MelissaOklahoma Says:

    I love this post about acquiring a wardrobe based on classic pieces. I feel inspired to go through my closet and see what I need and toss what I don’t!