Style Essentials and The Balancing Act

Have I mentioned recently how much I love answering questions? I received this one recently…

Here’s a very “hypothetical” question for you. How would you start
over if some tragedy befell your wardrobe and you were left with
formal gowns, lingerie, an old pair of jeans that stopped looking good
at least a year ago and a skirt that you’ve loved almost to death?
What are the essential basics? How does one embellish once these
basics are in stock? Do you have any shops to recommend? “Pretending”
that one is pretty cash-limited, how to keep a balance between clothes
that are “needs” (I can’t actually wear the lingerie to the
supermarket or the ball gowns to work) and things that are “desires”
(currently, a pair of red high heels)?

Dear M.,

Okay. A lot of questions there. Break it down now:

How would you start over?
Once I was over my initial shock & grief, I would go through my daily outfit photos… oh, wait! You probably don’t have those yet. (I wasn’t kidding, there really is value in doing this!) I would go through my old photos & pick out the ones where I was wearing clothing I loved. Then I would get organised. I would make some notes on the various items: why I liked them so much, what their shortcomings were, what sort of thing could be a suitable replacement. Say you had a blue cardigan that you loved & wore a lot, but when you think back more objectively, you realise it was a little too short, a bit natty around the edges, & blue… well, blue’s not a colour you wear that much. So maybe a grey cardigan that was a bit longer would be a good replacement. Obviously some things (like vintage items or really distinctive pieces) are going to be harder to replace.
I suggest making a list of items in your “dream wardrobe”. This can be as outrageous as you like. My list these days would probably contain at least a passing mention of a pair of Christian Louboutin heels, a Chanel handbag & a really nice knee-length coat for Winter. Anyway, you will find that simply making this list will help attract them to you. Yes, it sounds wishy-washy, but whether you believe in the Law of Attraction or not is irrelevant — this worked for me before I even knew about it. (A couple of years ago I wrote a list of things I wanted but thought I would probably never find, like a full-length white faux-fur coat & pointy turquoise high heels. After writing the list I pretty much forgot about it, but when I found it again a year later, I had about 80% of the items I wanted — the others I no longer desired.) Law of Attraction aside, having a list also means you have real things to hunt for when you go shopping.

There a few things to consider when you begin.
Working out what colours suit you is definitely a good starting point. Doing this will also make putting your wardrobe together MUCH easier, especially if you initially stick to only a couple of the colours from your palette. I personally have a lot of turquoise & royal blue clothing, which I supplement with black & grey classic pieces.
Make a commitment to amassing a good stock of wardrobe basics. The point of having a basic wardrobe is that it will prevent you from having those horrendous “I don’t know what to wear” moments. You will always have things that go together with ease.
The perennial rule of buying basics for your wardrobe is to always spend as much money as you can possibly afford. These things will last years if you take care of them & they are good quality to start with.

What are the essential basics?
The idea of wardrobe basics to me conjures up visions of my Aunt in a white shirt tucked into her jeans, with a set of pearls, a scarf tied around her neck & a nice pair of flats. Otherwise known as painfully conservative. Yes, if you were to put these together all at once, you would look a bit on the plain side — but you WOULD be well-dressed & classically stylish. The best thing is that you don’t HAVE to put them all together at once, so don’t fret. There is always a time for a white shirt, even if you end up wearing it with a pair of stockings & nothing else (like I did today).
So in my opinion, the “essential basics” for women are:
A little black dress (preferably two — one smart, one more casual)
> A pair of jeans that make you feel amazing
One pair of heel highs that are comfortable enough for you to be able to walk long distances in
One pair of flat, elegant shoes
A couple of white shirts
A neutrally-coloured suit
> A cardigan in a colour that goes with most of what you already own
A long, heavy, fitted winter coat
A pair of neutral-coloured pants
A flattering skirt (straight, bias-cut or a-line)
One really great bag.

Dear boys, don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about you! Menswear is a big subject on its own, so I am going to tackle it in a separate article. Please email me with any specific questions you have — it will make the article much better!

Okay — from here you can start building up the rest of your wardrobe. But of course, the things you buy will depend on what your lifestyle is like. Do you work in an office? A shop? Do you engage in much manual labour? Do you work from home? Are you a socialite whose life consists solely of dining upon cucumber sandwiches & chatting with Bitsy on your cellphone?
Break your life down into various areas. Get a few pieces of paper & put category titles at the top. You will need different sorts of clothing for working, exercising, socialising (this could mean going out to dinner, going dancing, getting drunk or taking photos of yourself for your Myspace profile), & a final category we will just call casual. You might have other slots that you need to fill, but we don’t need to be too pedantic. A category named “Outfits for Sunday brunch when I think that cute barista might be working” may be overkill.
Now fill out the lists. In addition to your basics (above), here are some suggestions:
Working: Stockings (some plain, some with texture), some coloured v-neck sweaters to wear over white shirts, long skirts, plain coloured round-neck tops, a cotton scarf in bright colours.
Exercising: Trackpants, a couple of t-shirts, sports shoes, athletic socks, hoodie.
Socialising: A wrap dress is a very good thing to have, as is another cardigan as an alternative to the one in your “basics” set (different length, colour or weight). Also various skirts (knee-length, mini, etc.) & tops (long-sleeve, t-shirts, sleeveless), a couple of really nice dresses that you could wear out to dinner, boots, fitted trousers.
Casual: Shorts, more jeans, sun dresses, swimsuits.
You will of course have your own ideas of what you could wear on these various occasions, & you should always give consideration to your body shape, the kinds of things you like to wear & things that are impractical for your lifestyle (maybe owning anything other than a shirt in white is a bad idea, as you love jam or children or something). Write everything down & go shopping. If you have a set amount of money to spend, you may find it helpful to allocate amounts to various items or situations (like $200 towards clothing for work & $100 for exercise gear, for example).

How does one embellish once these basics are in stock?
Read my hints on wardrobe organisation & daily outfits. Start wearing your new items & make notes as to how they work together & what could be improved. Unless you’re wearing an incredible piece, most outfits lack something crucial without the aid of accessories. Again, this comes down to personal style. Are you a minimalist, do you like excess or are you somewhere in the middle? Accessorising is much easier when you have colour themes in your clothing, as pointed out earlier. Since I almost always use blue as my example, let’s say you have a lot of blue clothing. You can buy accessories in blue, sure, but you could also try wearing accessories that are a complementary colour. If you’re not sure how this works, here’s a Wikipedia page on it. Blue’s such a wonderful colour, I love it. It’s so versatile, & also looks great with pink, yellow, purple & green.

There are so many different things you can wear in addition to your clothes — sunglasses, necklaces, belts, scarves, socks or stockings, legwarmers, leggings, bracelets, earrings, rings, flowers in your hair, brooches, gloves, hats… & the list goes on. However, beware. There is a point where too much is just too much, & you will look like a brain-damaged kindergarten teacher. Coco Chanel once advised that one should “take off one accessory before leaving the house”, & it is possible she was onto something.

Do you have any shops to recommend?
Not really, especially since I have been travelling around so much recently. I hear good things about American Apparel in terms of buying basics, but if you’re not in the States & want to actually try something on to make sure it suits you, you’re out of luck. There are certainly a lot of places to buy things cheaply online, but it’s so easy to make such a big mistake. On the other hand, the prices & range of items tend to be so good it’s hard to resist. But maybe that’s a story for another article…

How to keep a balance between “needs” & “desires”?
Basically everything beyond the “basics” list is a desire rather than a need, & that’s okay. Dressing is a pretty frivolous affair at the best of times. I would suggest you make sure you have a good stash of things to wear day-to-day, & then splash out on something you really want. The thing is, if you really want those red high heels, you’ll find a way to incorporate them into your wardrobe & they’ll get a lot of wear. If you don’t mind going without an extra shirt in favour of the shoes, I say DO IT! Fashion is meant to be fun. Don’t feel guilty for buying anything, as being well-dressed is a major component of how most of us feel about ourselves. Don’t deprive yourself because you have an overwhelming need to be responsible & practical. I would venture that even the Dalai Lama would feel less enlightened if his underwear didn’t fit or his robes were scratchy — & even the Pope has been seen in Prada shoes.