How to Tell if a Piece is a Classic

The following is a guest post from Erin DePew (this is Erin’s second guest post – read her first one here).  Erin is a web developer and graphic designer who happens to love shoes almost as much as “hackathons.”  Her blog, Pixel Perfect, is dedicated to musings on minimalism, client-side scripting, and the pursuit of the perfect pumps.  

If you have an idea for a guest post on “Recovering Shopaholic,” please connect with me to share your thoughts.


Every woman knows that having a closet of classic pieces is the secret to a versatile wardrobe. Of course, actually finding classic pieces is a lot easier said than done. While top-ten lists and fashion blogs are a good place to start, it’s important to take the time to learn your own personal style and to find out what your classics are. Because at the end of the day, some of us are just never going to wear a white button-down.

Distinguishing Classic Pieces

Can you tell if a piece will stand the test of time?

Even if you know what your personal classics are, it can be overwhelming to wade through the myriad of options out there. Here are five simple ways to tell if a piece is a classic or a trend du jour.

1. The time machine test

An easy way to tell whether an item is a classic or just a trend is to see how it has held up over the years. Something like a trench coat has been worn by stylish ladies in the ‘30s, ‘50s, ‘70s, and today, and a trench coat from the ‘50s would not look out of place on the streets in 2013. Since a tan, double-breasted, belted trench has been in style for the past 80 years, I know that it will probably be popular for another thirty. Just remember that designers are constantly putting trendy twists on classic pieces, so just because black pumps in general are a classic, that doesn’t mean that bedazzled black pumps with a six-inch heel and a platform are classics, too.

2. Keep it clean

Classic clothes have very clean, minimalist lines. There’s a reason why there are not many embellished shift dresses on top-ten classics lists. Embellishments, patterns (with some exceptions), decorative buttons, ruffles, sequins and embroidery are usually “of the moment” and tied to a particular season, which means they make a piece of clothing appear dated very quickly. So when shopping for classics, steer clear of any sort of embellishments extras and patterns. Although it is worth noting that some patterns, such as leopard, stripes, and small dots, are classics.

3. Practice moderation

Trends usually swing from one extreme to another, such as padded shoulders, bell bottoms, and platform stilettos. A classic is very subdued and never really goes out of style because it was never in style to begin with. Classic pieces are neither over-sized nor body-con, but are simply tailored. A classic shoe shape is neither too pointy nor too round, but an almond shape. A classic pant leg is neither a jegging nor a flare, but a straight cut. Always look for a moderate shape when buying classics.

4. Color code

Most colors never go out of style (as much as Pantone would have you believe otherwise) as long as it’s flattering on you. However, every couple of years the trendy color just looks incredibly cheap (neons anyone?). It’s a good to keep in mind that jewel tones, dusky colors, and of course neutrals are always popular and look very luxe, while neons and Crayola colors are best kept to fun trendy pieces.

5. Quality counts

And of course, quality matters. As a rule of thumb, stores that carry quality merchandise tend to err on the side of classic. Another reason to search out quality is that once you go through the effort of finding that perfect classic piece, you want it to last a while! So before you buy, check the stitching, look for lining, make sure the materials are natural, and keep an eye out for all of those little extras that make for a quality piece of clothing.

As always, I am a big believer in moderation. A woman cannot live on classics alone! However, your closet should be at least 80% classics with just a few trendy pieces for fun. So when you’re out shopping for those wardrobe workhorses, just remember to look for timeless pieces with clean lines, moderate cuts, rich or neutral colors, and quality workmanship.

Read more from Erin DePew at her blog, Pixel Perfect, and connect with her on Twitter.

15 thoughts on “How to Tell if a Piece is a Classic

  1. I have to make an effort that at least 10 % of my wardrobe are non-classics. Almost every item I purchase is evaluated on its long term viability. Not much fun, is it? For the longest time I have been thinking that I look the same day in and out, and maybe I do. I do rely on scarves and some nice pieces of (real) jewelry to spice things up. Of course, all these scarves are classics too, some dating back 25 years. Maybe that is how I justify spending a bit more on a single item by getting a lot of mileage out of it. And almost every time I purchased something inexpensive ‘fun’ item, I regretted it later.

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed reading it. And Debbie, I am still following along and cheer on your progress. 🙂

    • I’m afraid that we’re very similar! I’m pretty content with all classics, but I try to buy something a little different and a little trendy every season to keep my look current. My favorite way has always been scarves and accessories too, since they’re relatively cheap and work with a lot of different outfits.

      Honestly, I think there are worse things than being a little too practical with our wardrobes 🙂

  2. Amen! This is spot-on advice. I avoid too much pattern unless it also is classic — as mentioned in this post, some stripes, polka dots (a favorite of mine), leopard print, etc. I have a lovely somewhat over-scale glen plaid blouse designed on classic lines that is both very “lady-like” and a bit jazzy, depending how I wear it. Alas, some classics do “go out of fashion” for a while but may have a second life in a few years. I have a red wooden cuff bracelet that is at least 30 years old. It has gone into and out of hibernation and is very au current just now. I think I paid $3 for it – good value for money.

    • I agree with classics that go out of fashion and come back! Just the other day, I was contemplating whether I should get rid of a pair of 2″ heeled sandals with a heavy gold zipper detail from 1997. I have worn them for 16 summers and they are still going strong. Then, I received in my email box, one of the wardrobe updaters (Mary Lou Andre) I look forward to each season: http://dressingwell.com/index.php/advice/top-ten

      And there she says, one of the newest trends (#7) is heavy gold exposed zipper hardware! Hooray for my classic sandals!

      • I subscribe to that newsletter, too, Deby! How great that your shoes will continue to serve you well for at least another year. I’m not sure how old my oldest pair of shoes is, but I’m sure it’s not 16 years! But that’s the beauty in buying classics, isn’t it? 🙂

  3. I’ve purged pattern from my wardrobe almost completely. I like simple, clean colors and saturated mid-tone colors. It was liberating to understand that some of the classics simply don’t work on me. White button-downs and white tees don’t really work with my coloring (neither does bright red lipstick). Anything black and white completely washes me out. But some classics are really my thing: my go-tos are chambray and blue oxford shirts, camel knits, Chanel-type jackets, jeans in all possible shapes (I spent the entire summer in white jeans), sleek dresses, V-neck merino and cashmere sweaters, long necklaces, chain-strapped purses, LBDs and kitten heels. Some classics look great when you choose a traditional shape but a different material – I love wearing a pleated skirt made from leather.

    • Your wardrobe sounds quite lovely, FrugalFashionista! It seems like you really know what you like and what works best on you. I think that once one trusts herself more, it gets easier to invest in well-made, classic pieces that will stand the test of time. Of course, it’s good to throw a few trends into the mix (20%, like Erin recommends). Your leather pleated skirt sounds fun!

  4. Very nice post, and nice blog too, just discovered it via Erin’s Pixel Perfect that I follow on a daily basis and like a lot. I think the classics conversation is a difficult one because one can easily fall into the trap of listing “must-have” items, which just don’t work for everybody.

    But this post is very well thought, because it is universal! No matter the body shape or taste, these elements define classics very well in my opinion, bravo 🙂

    • Welcome, Kali! I’m glad you found me through Erin’s wonderful blog. I love this guest post from Erin and feel her advice is spot on. I agree with you that “must-have” lists can be a trap. I don’t have a white button-down shirt and I’m doing just fine without one. One’s lifestyle, body shape, and personal style preferences always need to be taken into consideration and no one should just follow an expert “prescription” to the letter. Such lists can be good guidelines, but they’re certainly not laws!

  5. A HUGE thank you to Erin DePew for writing this excellent guest post! Her tips were very useful to me and I’m sure for many of you as well. I encourage you to check out Erin’s blog, as she shares a lot of style tips there, including a recent post on creating a minimalist wardrobe on a budget. Erin really knows her stuff!

  6. I never considered that colors will also dictate whether an item is going to be classic or not, but that is so true. What great insight! This probably explains why after 3 seasons I am tired of my kelly green blazer, yet still enjoy my black one.

    • Yes, this guest post brought up a lot of interesting points, didn’t it? I think that neutrals tend to stand the test of time more than bright colors in general. I haven’t done the math on this one, but I’d be willing to be that my longest lasting clothes are neutral pieces. Your kelly green blazer sounds very pretty, though!

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