My Top 10 Casual Wardrobe Basics

5th March 2012

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A while ago, I did a post on Wardrobe Basics from Real Women, and I’ve been meaning to do one about the clothes I can’t live without myself. I don’t have a washer and dryer in the apartment, so there are a few things I’m always fishing out of the laundry basket to wash by hand in the bathtub. And no matter how many pairs of shoes I own, I seem to wear the same two every day.

These are absolute basics, nothing edgy or revolutionary, which is why I can’t keep them clean. They’re what I wear as a base for more daring pieces. Some of the stuff isn’t available online because I got it awhile ago or at a thrift store, and in those cases I’ve linked to alternatives below. We’ll start with the obvious T-shirt and jeans:

1. V-Neck Tee
American Apparel Deep V-Neck
Oddly, I discovered these when I was nursing, the deep V makes it easy to pull aside, and I liked the look much more than those weird half-wrap-top things they try to foist on you when you’re too tired to think clearly. Anyway, they’ve become a layering staple even now that I don’t need constant boob access. Great under blazers and sweaters.

2. Skinny Jeans
Levi’s® Modern Slight Curve Skinny Jeans
As we’ve recently discussed, skinny jeans and boots is such an easy go-to. I especially like to pair mine with something voluminous on top. Speaking of which…

3. Dolman Sweater
H. Fredricksson Dolman Cardigan
I have a huge red batwing sweater I got at an antique shop ages ago, and it’s so cozy. I’ve worn it so much it’s probably time to replace it. Caveat: This is an easy look for a tall girl, but shorter folks needs to watch the proportions to avoid looking like a Fraggle. Here are a couple more options in red and grey.

4. Knit Scarf
Jumbo Nomad Rag
If you’re a little more advanced sartorially, you can go with a pattern, texture, or a bright color here, but if I’m being honest, I do always find myself reaching for the grey knit. Mine is an eternity scarf, which I’m a little over, so I’m linking to a fuller version here with loose ends that give you more options for tying.

5. Riding Boots
Frye Jackie Button Boots
I’ve had my riding boots resoled twice, which is about as many times as I’ve been on a horse in the six years I’ve owned them.

6. Little Black Dress
Dolman Sleeve Dress
I have a few versions of the knit little black dress. I like this one because it looks so different belted and I can also wear it as a shirt by pulling up the bottom and letting it bunch. Versatile when I’m traveling.

7. Black Miniskirt
Pins and Needles Pleated Twill Skirt
This is what I wear when I want to feel cute, but don’t want to worry about trying too hard to get there.

8. Travel Flats
If you’ve been reading for a while, you knew this was coming. When I’m not wearing my boots, I’m wearing these. The cutest, most durable folding travel flat I’ve found. And yes, orange is my go-to color.

9. Cropped Cardigan
Cropped Cashmere cardigan
I wear a lot of 50s day dresses, so I need cropped sweaters that compliment the high waists. I also find this a good length to even out my long torso, and it works with any length of T-shirt underneath.

10. Narrow-Collar Blazer
Button Blazer
This is pretty much the only coat I wear anymore. A looser fit is more casual, and works with almost everything in my closet.

Those are the big ones for me. Which pieces do you buy in duplicate, and what are you always digging out of the laundry basket so you can wear it again right away?

33 thoughts on “My Top 10 Casual Wardrobe Basics

  1. Nance

    Toss in an oversized but well-tailored white (preferably men’s) Oxford shirt. I wear it belted or open like a jacket over a cami or tee and skinny jeans or denim leggings (or the wonderful Hue corduroy ones). Add the requisite scarf, boots or flats, and it’s an easy outfit. Many good quality shirts come in a no-wrinkle finish, so they are great for travel.

  2. Jori

    A pair of superbly fitting black pants. I have a pair of cropped slim fitted ones for summer and a pair of wool gab ones for winter and I would immediately replace either pair at full price if something happened to them. Anything I throw on with them, even a basic tee or tank, instantly becomes more chic and stylish.

  3. abby_wan_kenobi

    I bought a plum-colored velvet blazer at NY&Co several years ago and have kicked myself for not also buying it in navy, black and forest green ever since. It’s two buttons, ends right at my hipbone and is shockingly versatile. It looks great over a party dress for holiday cocktails, dresses up a t-shirt and jeans running errands, and is very rock ‘n’ roll over a miniskirt with big jewelry. Easily one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.

  4. Cupcakekarate

    Sorry, man. I got stuck at “looking like a Fraggle” and haven’t been able to stop picturing myself as Mokey and laughing like an idiot.

  5. Jessica Roberts

    I have a simple, lightweight jean jacket (happens to be from G Star) that I bought a decade ago. I don’t know what I will do when it does wear out. It is timeless and fairly fitted – nothing baggy. I like to wear it when I am pretty dressed up, too.

    Also, I just fell in love with these shoes, in “bordo” colorway. Suuuuper comfortable but a snazzy slim fit that feels stylish. I call these my “10,000 steps/day in NYC without feeling like a schlub” shoes because that’s why I bought them.

    My two blazers – one black, one wool brown/cream plaid – are my latest discoveries. They dress up any outfit, and keep you warm – which is what I need as I run cold. I feel like telling all the men I know that I discovered their secret: blazers are really just stealth cardigans.

    For me, my clothes are often neutral but when it comes to shoes and jewelry I am a magpie – I just can’t resist color and shine. You could do a whole ‘nother post on the accessories that dress up any outfit – I’d be more than happy to share some of my Etsy go-to shops…

  6. Samantha

    Long-sleeved black v-neck ts from J Crew. I have three of them.
    Here’s what I need to find and maybe you can help: a blazer that looks good with big boobs (like D-DD big). I long for that straight up and down line. Alas. Any tips?

  7. alison

    Samantha, most off-the-rack stuff is made for A-B-C cups, so you might be out of luck there. I’d buy a good quality one in a neutral color and have it professionally altered to fit you.

    My staple is a mustard-yellow cotton cardigan. With our mild Texas winters and insanely strong Texas air-conditioning in the summer, it’s useful all year long.

  8. laura @ in widening circles

    Samantha, I was going to request the same thing! I am *DYING* for a chic blazer but also have DDs and it is straight up impossible for me to find anything at a price point I can afford.

    Maggie, I have so missed your fashion posts! This is a great one. I would say my staples are decidedly less chic… However, I just purchased my first pencil skirt (from J.Crew Factory) and I am obsessed! Why, oh why, was I so afraid of skirts for so long?! It’s spectacular, makes me feel like a foxy vixen and goes with damn near everything.

  9. Amber

    For the DD-ladies above, I am in the same camp, and have had great luck with shrunken/cropped blazers in fabric with some stretch to it. I have a navy cropped one from Brooklyn Industries and a black tuxedo cut one (no buttons on that one, which helps for those of us with larger chests) from the Gap, both made of ponte fabric with some stretch, both under $100, and both nip in at the waist to avoid what I like to call the shelf effect. I don’t have links as I bought them both a while ago, but it’s worth trying the sort of shrunken fit. I wouldn’t have thought it would have worked, but it does. (I have real trouble with the boyfriend cut which looks so good on my flatter-chested friends, as it hangs all weird on me.)

  10. Sara

    Camp shirts with roll-up sleeves, I have 3 (in different colors) from Old Navy. Office is cas so they’re perfect with jeans + flats, and you can dress it up with a skirt and/or jacket. Win. Also, they don’t look terrible when they’re wrinkly so I don’t iron them either. :)

  11. Catherine

    I have a basic sleeveless T from Target – scoop neck, racer back – in about 6 different colors. I find I wear at least one a week during winter, and about 3-4 times a week during winter. I’ve had them for years – found that one fit and looked good with everything, so I bought it in 5 other colors. I love these shirts – they fit and are so comfortable that I barely even remember that I’m wearing clothes, but they’re long tees so they cover up my love handles (I’m a curvy girl) so I never feel self conscious in them. They layer under tees, under sweaters, under blazers and cardigans, under EACH OTHER, and in summer they’re a fantastic casual with a skirt and flats. I LOVE these shirts.

  12. Catherine


    *sleeveless T = tank top

    *3-4 times a week during SUMMER.

  13. Jacque Avery

    Black tank, white tank. Great for layering in the winter or summer, great alone in the summer. Easy to dress up.

  14. findingmagnolia

    The timing of this post is perfect, as I’m currently upgrading my wardrobe basics. A move from Kansas City to San Francisco has left me needing to make changes, and I needed to replace some items as well. I’ve found that my go-to pieces lately are long sleeved shirts and jeans or comfortable trousers, with either a cardigan or jacket on top depending on the weather. Depending on the cut of the trouser and what I’m up to that day, I wear boots, flats, or sneakers. If I want to feel like I’m wearing pajamas but still look presentable, I’m a leggings and tunic girl. I’m on the hunt for good leggings for long torsos, so if anyone has suggestions, I’m all ears. I’d like to stop tugging at my leggings in public.

  15. Isahrai

    Are Tieks good for every day walking all around town or for occasional jaunts (ie wearing in an airport or commuting to change into heels later). I walk everywhere and am constantly on the hunt for cute all day shoes.

  16. leslie

    maggie, these posts rock. well, all yours do, but…

    and the comments are so inspiring, too.

    basics? levi’s from thrift stores. cashmere from thrift stores and flea markets. black cotton basics (yes, the basics line) from h&m.

  17. Casey

    Maggie, Have you found a new comfortable underwear since Old Navy discontinued their line?

  18. Laurie

    I want to know the same thing as Isahrai. I need to replace the black flats I got 5 and a half years ago that I took to Europe. Are Tieks good for all day, heavy duty walking?

  19. Heidi C.

    Love the Tieks but….Wow, $165 is a little out of my budget for a pair of ballet flats. But, man, they are cute in Tangerine!

  20. Martha

    I love these clothing posts. I wear uniforms for work, but I can dream. I’m currently trying to lose baby weight, so I needed some shopping inspiration!

  21. Amber

    For those looking for cute, comfy everyday shoes, I sing the praises of the Cece flats from J. Crew. Also not cheap at $138, but I bought them with a discount code, and my rationale is that for shoes that are INSTANTLY comfortable and well-made, and I will wear everyday, I’m willing to splurge a little. Love the blue pair I bought so much I may go back for a second color the next time a discount code comes up:

    They’re super-soft leather, so no “wearing-in” blisters, and they have a slight, hidden wedge, so city-dwellers like me will not feel the sidewalk directly beneath them. Plus, fun colors!
    I swear I don’t work for J. Crew. I just have bought too many pairs of cheap flats that either ripped my feet apart or fell apart way too fast (Gap City Flats, I am looking at you!), so I can’t stop singing their praises.

  22. Kimberly

    I will say that, while I LOVE the idea of the Tieks, they did not work out so well for me. I think that has more to do with the way I walk than the actual shoes though. The couple times I wore them before a hole developed in the leather where it meets the sole, they were comfortable. I think I may just need an indestructible shoe designed especially for supination (supinators?). Le sigh.

  23. greta

    oh! I’m so glad Casey asked the question about underwear, because I have been wondering the same thing. Why oh why did ON have to discontinue them? They were the best – comfy, no lines, and lasted an eternity. Sadly, an eternity is coming to an end and I need to replace several pairs, and I still haven’t found anything as awesome as those ON hipsters.

  24. Holly from 300 Pounds Down

    For someone who is a fashion disaster lol this helps a lot!! I really love people who clearly lay it out for those of us like myself who couldn’t put an outfit together if our life depended on it. Thank you!

  25. Angie

    $165 for TRAVEL FLATS???? I think not!
    Thanks for the suggestions, and I hope your budget allows for these luxuries. I know mine doesn’t.

  26. Maureen Donovan

    Love all of these pieces, except not so crazy about the flats,,,but WANT the Frye boots – $348, no way I can pay that =(

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