Building a Workable Wardrobe – Part One

The following is a guest post from Dottie, a regular reader of this blog, who is sharing some strategies for building a workable wardrobe.  In this first part of a two-part series, she focuses on personal style, color palette, and other considerations that can help in the selection of clothing for a wardrobe that “works.” Dottie welcomes feedback from “Recovering Shopaholic” readers, especially those of you who have additional strategies that you’ve used for creating your own wardrobe.

For most people, building a wardrobe that really works may take years of trial and error. A lot of what we buy for our wardrobe is driven by what’s promoted as the latest fashion – and as this is constantly changing, it can be confusing when faced with so much choice. Just think of the options available for jeans: Slim leg or skinny? Dark wash or distressed denim? Bright colors or patterns? Coated or not? Mid-rise, low-rise, or natural waist?

One approach to building a wardrobe is to buy what fits and works within your budget. But you can end up with a lot of clothes that don’t work well across your wardrobe. When I was just starting to build a wardrobe for work years ago, I bought items in pairs – a top and a skirt or pants, for example. I made an attempt to purchase clothes in a particular color palette (the wrong one, it turns out). But, looking back, there was less cohesion – less of a wardrobe than a collection of odds and ends.

It took me quite a few years before I figured out what clothes worked for me and which ones didn’t. Part of this was a process of trial and error, but I was also helped in some strategic ways.

Here’s a short-cut guide, based on what I’ve learned over the past few decades, to developing a workable wardrobe. Focusing on these key areas worked for me – and may work for you.

1. Identify Your Personal Style

This seems like a no-brainer, but finding our personal style can be a challenge. Sometimes we are drawn to a friend’s personal style only to find that what looked so sensational on her just doesn’t work on us. I have a friend whose personal style is composed of dramatic, edgy clothes. Some combination of body type, facial structure, hairstyle, lifestyle, and personal vibe all contribute to making this style all her own. Meanwhile, I wear classically styled clothes with a feminine sensibility – soft blouses and cashmere sweaters with charcoal gray trousers, navy suits, and straight-leg dark wash denim. Again, some combination of facial structure, body type, lifestyle, and personality make this style all my own.

Dramatic, Edgy Style

This edgy style doesn’t suit everyone. (image: Stitch-Fix via Pinterest)

There are lots of resources to help you find your own personal style, and there are consultants who can help you with this process. A loving friend (or sister?) who is not afraid of providing an honest assessment is also helpful. I love “What Not to Wear” because it demonstrates the process of finding one’s personal style. As Stacy and Clinton (the hosts of that show) say, you have to try on a lot of clothes, including some you might not naturally be drawn to, in order to see what works and what doesn’t on your body.

The critical part of finding your own style is to focus on what works for you, not what “fashion” says you should be wearing. It takes confidence to develop and maintain your personal style. This doesn’t mean that you can’t adapt your style as fashion changes; having a personal style means knowing which fashion trends to embrace and which ones to adapt or ignore

2. Focus on “Your” Color Palette

The colors we wear near our face can either flatter our natural coloring (skin tone, eye color, and hair color) or drain the vitality from our faces. Color experts have divided the world into “cool” skin tones (blue undertones) and “warm” skin tones (yellow undertones). This works for women of all races and all skin tones. The “cool” and “warm” skin tones are further divided into additional categories which vary from consultant to consultant.  But generally speaking, most women can wear a blouse of arctic white (cool) or winter white / cream (warm), but only one of these colors will flatter her skin, eyes, and hair coloring.

There was a lot of buzz some years ago about color analysis, and although there is still a lot of information available as well as consultants who provide this service, the concept of working with your most flattering colors seems to have faded to the background. This is too bad because everyone I know who dresses within her (or his) “best” colors always looks sensational.

Having a color analysis in my late 20’s is what made the biggest change in how I buy clothes. My new “cool” color palette included lots of colors I have always been drawn to (red, gray, and white). More interesting was the absence of a lot of “warm” colors that were then in my wardrobe (peach, camel, etc.). Within my limited budget, I replaced the clothes in the wrong colors, and vowed only to buy from “my” color palette. So I wore a “cool” navy blouse with my “warm” camel suit until I could afford to buy a navy suit.

The palette below (from – the other seasonal palettes are also shown there) has most of my colors in it. However, I further adjusted my palette so I could have a wardrobe of manageable size and because I didn’t like some of the colors, like all those pinks (I only wear icy pink). I limited the number of blues to my “best” colors and dropped all of the yellows and greens.

Winter Color Palette

I use my seasonal color palette to guide my wardrobe choices.

Buying clothes within a specific color palette is very freeing. My color palette is: black, charcoal gray, medium gray, light/silver gray, white, navy blue, medium (true) blue, icy blue, icy pink, blue-red, burgundy, icy violet, purple, and clear teal.

I organized the colors in my palette to “basic” or “core” colors: black, charcoal gray, medium gray blue-red, navy, and white. Most of my clothes are in these colors. I limit “accent colors” like icy blue (the palest blue), icy pink (the palest pink), light or silver gray, medium blue, etc., to blouses, tops, or sweaters. I have a few items in purple and clear teal, but I find mixing and matching with these colors more limiting than, say, medium blue.

Here’s another resource for do-it-yourself color analysis:

3. Know How to Enhance Your Body Type

I work in retail so I see a lot of women shopping for clothes. I am always surprised by the number of women who wear clothes that are all wrong for their body type. Some fashion trends work better for specific body types than others. A case in point is the current trend for skinny jeans. While body size and muscle tone can impact how one looks in skinny jeans, other factors include the length of your torso vs. legs, shoulder width, pant rise, etc.  Ditto for boot cut jeans and so on.

There are ways to visually lengthen a short torso, diminish broad or sloping shoulders, or enhance a pear-shaped figure. There are websites that help you determine your shape and provide pointers on how to shop to maximize your assets

Female body shapes

Here are some examples of female body shapes (image:

Here are some resources that might be helpful:

4. Additional Style Considerations


It took me years to realize that crew necks, boat necks, and shallow v-necks didn’t look good on me, so I limit my tops to deep v-necks, deep round (scoop) necklines, and deep square necklines – but not too deep that my cleavage is exposed.  I also avoid turtlenecks (polo necks) but have a few mock turtlenecks for warmth.

Finding a flattering neckline is essential for showcasing your face. This is an interesting article on how to determine the best neckline for your face and neck:

This also has good information:


While I have a raglan sleeve coat (so easy to get on and off over a jacket), I avoid raglan sleeves in shirts, blouses and sweaters. I have rather broad shoulders, and I don’t need the diagonal line of a raglan sleeve emphasizing their width.

Raglan Sleeve Jacket

This is an example of a raglan sleeve jacket. (image: Reiss)

The links listed above for dressing for your shape have information about sleeves, bodice shape and length, and other details appropriate for each body type.

Skirt Length and Width

I opt for just below the knee in pencil and a-line skirts. I have a mid-calf skirt that looks fabulous with boots or tights and ankle boots. A-line skirts are almost universally flattering. Gathered and pleated skirts can be less flattering on some body types, especially if you have a tummy. Again, the proportion of your torso to your legs will help you determine the right skirt length. If you have great legs, well, then show them off!

Pants (Legs, Length, Rise, Pockets)

Lots of details related to pants can impact how we look in them. Pants with a low rise can make a short torso look longer – and make someone with a longer torso look out of proportion, depending, of course, on what kind of top is matched with the pants. Other details to consider are leg width, rinse, horizontal distressing, and front and back pockets (size, placement, flaps, detailing, etc.).

Front pockets that don’t lie flat can visually add inches at the hips. Where the back pockets are placed on jeans is also critical. Real Simple magazine had an interesting article on jeans with flattering pockets. Their guide to denim is a good style resource. Here is an additional resource:

Single or Double Breasted Coats and Jackets

I love double-breasted jackets, but not on me. I need a single-breasted jacket with three buttons to accommodate my curves. The extra set of buttons on a double-breasted jacket creates a horizontal look that I don’t need. I also don’t like the look of an unbuttoned double-breasted jacket – seems very “flappy” and ruins any definition at the waist. However, a double-breasted jacket can look sensational on a woman with an all-over slim figure.

I think a single, 3-button jacket is the most flattering for women, but they are hard to find outside of traditional suits. Too often 1-button jackets gape open across the chest or pull at the waist.

There has been a trend for longer jackets and longer cardigans or open-front sweaters. Proportion is critical when looking at jacket/sweater length. It’s very easy to wear a too-long or too-short jacket for one’s body type. For too-long jackets, adding a belt will sometimes work. Even though I have a curvy shape, I wear jackets that hit the top of my hipbones and look for dressmaker details at the waist – a belt, darts, and so forth, to accent my smaller waist.  I have a friend who also wears belted jackets to add a waist to her tall, slender athletic build. Funny how that works!

Belts and Belted Clothes

The width, color, and fabrication should also be considered when adding this important accessory. I almost never use the belt that comes with dresses or pants (and I take into consideration the added cost of a new belt – if necessary – when deciding to make a purchase). Most belts that come with a dress or pants are too insubstantial for the job they have been given.

A belt can be flattering for someone with an ample midsection as well as help define a waist for someone with a straight figure. Paying attention to the scale of the belt is important. A curved belt like this one by Steven Collins can be very flattering.

Gold leather hip belt

5. Buy Good Undergarments

We probably have all heard the statistic that 60% of women in the US are wearing the wrong bra. This may be an understatement (no pun intended). Unfortunately, I can usually tell when someone is wearing the wrong bra. Having a fitting at a department store or lingerie specialty store is very important, especially if you gain or lose weight, have a baby, get older, etc. I wore a 36B in my teens and early 20s before getting fitted; I was actually a 34D – a pretty significant difference. The change to my silhouette was amazing.

Also get the right underwear to avoid VPL (visible panty line). Get at least one bra as close to your skin tone as possible. Buy a lingerie bag and wash your undergarments on a gentle cycle and air dry to avoid damage. Some people hand-wash really delicate underwear.

More advice:

6. Maintain Your Clothes

An important part of your personal style is looking well-groomed. This means that clothes should be well-maintained and in good condition. Brushing suits, coats, and jackets after each wearing will add to their longevity and reduce the need for frequent dry cleaning (too frequent dry cleaning is not good for clothing). My clothing brush (see photo below) used to belong to my father and is at least 80 years old! Being well-groomed means sewing on loose buttons, making small repairs, laundering clothing according to instructions, and ironing blouses, tops, pants, skirts, etc.

Clothing Brush

Brushing your suits, coats, and jackets will help them last longer.

Shoes and handbags should be polished and fixed as necessary. I prefer all-leather shoes and bags because they can be taken to the cobbler for new heels or re-stitching. I clean and polish my shoes with every wearing. If you have good quality, well-maintained shoes you can look like a million dollars even if your clothes came from a discount retailer. Worn-down, scuffed shoes can really kill an otherwise great wardrobe.


Knowing your own personal style, wearing the most flattering colors, dressing for your body type, getting adequate coverage and support from your undergarments, and maintaining your wardrobe are all key elements of building a workable wardrobe.

I wish you lots of fun and success as your build your own wardrobe.

Stay tuned for part two later this week, which focuses on building a wardrobe using a color palette, developing a 3-tier wardrobe, shopping for a workable wardrobe, and more!

30 thoughts on “Building a Workable Wardrobe – Part One

  1. Thanks Debbie for having such a great guest post from Dottie! I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to the next one. I wish Dottie lived near me (who knows, maybe she does) so she could help me determine what looks good on my aging, menopausal body. I used to have a waist but not much of one anymore and I find it difficult to figure out what looks good anymore. I know I need to lose 10-20 lbs but I want to look good now!

    • Dear KimM. — Another solution might be to find a store with a personal shopper who will really work with your body type, style preference, and budget. Or find a sales person whose personal style you admire and go to the store on a s-l-o-w day (say, a non-sales Tuesday morning) and ask for help to find clothes to buy. You can build a client relationship with a sales associate over time. You could also try on clothes (add belts to recreate a smaller waist) on your own, but I’d advise taking a good friend or friendly sister to help you assess whether the garments work on your body — in a 3-way mirror. Good luck!

    • Dottie already gave you some great feedback, but I also wanted to share a link with you. Since you mentioned not having a waist anymore, I thought you might appreciate these tips from Angie of “You Look Fab”: Angie has been a stylist for years and really knows her stuff! I know most of us don’t like to be referred to as “apples” or “pears,” but if you read and use Angie’s tips, you’ll have a much better idea of how to dress your new body shape. Hope this helps!

  2. Dottie- I enjoyed your post and look forward to the next one!

    I have trouble figuring out my coloring when looking at the charts, but stick to colors I like and I think I look good in. I have brown eyes, dark brown hair, and pale skin with an olivey-yellow undertone. I look like death in yellows, olives, khakis/nudes, and pastels (particularly lilac blergh). I stick to black, grey, white (true white), burgundy/garnet, cobalt blue/sapphire, teal, cool red-orange, coral, royal purple, chocolate brown, emerald (bright jewel tone not the darker color). I like tan for accessories and pants sometimes because it looks nice with other colors. Some of my colors are on the chart I ‘should be’ using and some are not. Some of the colors on the chart I look awful in.

    I’ve never heard of brushing your garments and am intrigued! I have to admit, I do not own an iron and shy away from fabrics that require ironing. I am VERY careful with my clothing though- I take my nice clothes off the minute I get home and only wear ‘lounge wear’ around the house. I have a couple special pieces of clothing (downgraded items) set aside for gardening/outdoor work. I launder on gentle cycle and hang or lie flat most things to dry. I do NOT wash clothing items (not undergarments or socks! pants, tops, etc.) with every wearing- I only wash when dirty.

    • Meli: I had to have a color analysis because I was wearing colors across several palettes. Some people fall more obviously into one palette than another but my case was a bit difficult because I have (had!) dark brown hair with a lot of red in it (and it’s gotten redder, thanks, Miss Clairol). As I’ve gotten older, some colors aren’t as flattering — all those pinks. I think folks should wear colors that make their skin glow and give them confidence. Actually, you can wear any color but some look better near your face than others. It sounds like clear colors — garnet, sapphire, chocolate brown — work best for you.

      • I wonder about the hair color issue, Dottie. My hair was always medium to dark brown, but I’ve gone more red/auburn in recent years (I have to dye my hair every 4 weeks anyway, so why not be a redhead if that’s what I want?). Some color analysis websites put me in the Autumn category because I have the red hair, but I don’t think I look good in that palette. Like you, I think I fall more into cool tones and am between a Summer and a Winter. I have basically removed almost all warmer tones from my wardrobe (no more brown for me!), so hopefully I’ve got it right, especially since I’m aiming to shop less!

      • Brown hair with red highlights is generally in the summer (cool) category, but for some reason (lost in the mists of time) I was put into the winter category. I think the critical factor was whether cadet blue (a blue-gray, like Air Force uniforms) or navy blue looked better on me. Also arctic white (winter) vs. winter white (summer), and so forth. The clear colors looked so much better. Today my hair is slightly redder (but with dark ashy brown undertones) than it was years ago but I still have the blue undertones in my skin, so I am still a winter. But, generally speaking, winters and summers should keep their hair color in the cool color range — ashy blonde, ashy browns, blacks, silver grays, and white. Springs and autumns look best in golden (warm) colors — strawberry blonde, golden blonde, auburn, red, golden brown, and so forth. The same with highlights, brow color, and so on.

  3. This is an informative post, and I found myself nodding in agreement quite often. I think I always ‘knew’ instinctively which style looks best on me. But oh, the money, time, and energy wasted by copying what looked good on a friend. Now I am back in my comfort zone (as an autumn with winter tendencies). I can get away with white, black, and navy as long as I warm them up (my scarves do the yeoman’s work here), and I will never ever buy baby pastels (apart from camel) or icy summer colors ever again. Lessons learned, and I could not be happier with my streamlined wardrobe. But I does take determination to shop with blinders on, as sometimes those other clothes look so tempting. 🙂

    • Cornelia: I had to get blinders too. Dark red-orange is a favorite color of mine, and it looks sensational on my red-haired sister but not on me. So I painted the insides of my closets dark red-orange instead. I still have the color “in” my wardrobe but not to wear!

    • Cornelia: I forgot to mention that I am a “winter who just missed being a summer.” So the icy colors look good on me and charcoal and navy (and dark pine green — which I don’t wear at all) my best darkest colors. I wear a lot of black but have to soften it with scarves and jewelry because it is too dark on its own — I look like Mortitia Adams. I don’t wear pastels either – too wishy-washy on me. The icy colors have a lot of white undertones so they work well as an alternative to white.

  4. For my high school graduation present, my mother gave me a “color analysis” session — the best gift, ever! I had previously shied away from wearing jewelry, always removing the gold necklaces and copper brooches I borrowed from my mother. Once I found I should be wearing silver and pearls, it was a revelation!

    • Bette: The silver vs. gold is a great test for helping folks decide on a color palette. Your mother was very savvy to give you an color analysis session for graduation. This is a great gift idea!

    • I’m very much like you, Bette! I never liked wearing the gold jewelry I received as gifts, either. Even my wedding set is platinum (with some gold accents). I’ve never had a formal color analysis and have basically had to figure things out on my own, but the silver vs. gold thing was instrumental for me! One bonus is that silver jewelry is less expensive 🙂

  5. Last year I posted that I had every neutral color in my closet. Getting dressed was a nightmare and my closet was too big. Yes, I suffer from shopaholism, or used to.

    I have always known that cool colors are best for me. This winter I decided to narrow down my palette and only have black, pale (silver) grey, white and denim as my core colors and blues and pinkish reds as my accent colors. I eliminated all other colors from my closet.

    It was a fantastic thing to do as I was able to eliminate a huge chunk of clothing that did not make me happy. I don’t have to agonise over what to wear, what goes with what and it has also curbed my shopping habits as I am only thinking of what will go with the items I have. I have managed to live with less clothing but with more options and have worn my clothes more.

    • Carolyn: You’ve just explained one of the mysteries of working withing a specific color palette: You can have fewer clothes but more options when getting dressed because everything works together. More from less — it does work! Also, with fewer garments, the per-wear ratio increases.
      Result: Increased satisfaction with the clothes you have and that make you happy. Thanks for your insight.

    • Thanks! Working from a specific color palette really made clothes shopping so much simpler for me. I’m somewhat surprised that color analysis isn’t still all the rage as it was 30 years ago. And I wonder, why?

  6. Hi, I’m a winter but brown isn’t in my palette although my eyes are really dark brown – as is my hair. Should I avoid it and wear bright pink instead?!

    • Dear Sue: Brown isn’t in my winter palette either but I have very dark chocolate pants that I wear with a lot of my winter palette, keeping my winter colors (white, light gray, icy blue, etc.) near my face. I’m not an expert in color analysis but you can find lots of videos on YouTube (Like this one: that can help you identify your best colors. Generally, the options are dark brown vs. black, rose brown vs. dark brown, or dusty brown vs. camel. Or peach vs. clear pink, icy pink vs. pastel pink, salmon vs. peach, etc. Hopes this helps.

  7. Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a comprehensive and informative post, Dottie. The second part is equally as interesting and useful, so I know everyone will enjoy that one, too!

    The color piece is so important! For years, I bought whatever colors were “in” and didn’t pay enough attention to whether or not they worked for me. The result was a lot of garments that sat in my closet because I just didn’t feel pretty in them. Anytime I wear anything that is beige, I look like I’m gravely ill! Most pastels don’t look good on me, either. And while some people say I look good in brown, I just don’t like it. I much prefer the cooler tones and I think they suit me better, too. I finally got rid of my last brown pieces last week and I now love all of the colors in my closet and I feel good in them! Your other tips are key, too, but I just wanted to comment on the color piece. Very helpful!

  8. Thank you for such a well-written post. Do you have any suggestions when you don’t like the colors in your palette?

    I’m a deep autumn but really dislike most colors with brown. Since I’m a deep autumn the light colors like ivory, creme, and tan are difficult for me to pull off as I do better with the low contrast and darker colors in my palette.

    I’m drawn to the versatility of the winter palette and want to wear mostly neutrals like black, gray, and navy. While they don’t look horrible on me they don’t do anything for my coloring. I see a huge difference between the warm and the cool but I am really drawn to the euro/french look (think something you would see on display at Zara).

    • Without seeing your hair and skin coloring (and knowing your style preference), Anon, it’s a bit hard to give specific advice. My “autumn” sister has fairly dark red hair and she re-introduced black into her wardrobe because she likes black. But this is what she does — she wears it with other autumn colors, particularly a dark bronze that looks very sophisticated with black. She has a dark iridescent green jacket (one of her autumn colors — and much prettier than my woeful description) and a tweedy jacket that she also wears, depending on the season and the occasion (the green jacket is dressy). And her accessories also are in her autumn colors. She tends to wear a column of black — black top and pants or skirt or a black dress with an “autumn” jacket or pashmina. I wonder if you could also do this with black and with the creams and tans and cocoa browns in your palette — wear head-to-toe cream (very pretty, I think) with a bronze jacket or a chocolate brown and cream tweed jacket with lots of great jewelry (a gold or dark red-orange statement necklace or a scarf).

      The autumn palette has a LOT of neutrals — dark brown, cocoa brown, bronze, tan, cream, camel, dark red-orange, several greens, and teal blues. I love (and used to wear) a lot of autumn colors but they didn’t love me. My sister hated switching from navy and gray to brown and cream, but then she started to get a lot of compliments when wearing “her” colors.

      Not all colors in the winter palette work for me. I’ve all but given up on the pinks (kept icy pink) , cut a number of the blues, and ditched the yellows and greens. My sister avoids the blues, yellows, lighter oranges, and camel (except for pants) in the autumn palette. My spring friend avoids all of the yellow and blue hues in her palette, sticking with peaches and greens.

    • Anon: I had my colors “done” with a friend who insisted she was a winter. However, when she was draped in dark brown (vs. black) her skin came alive and her eyes seemed dramatically bigger. She was always pretty but the right autumn colors made her look sensational, and she kindly donated a number of her “winter” clothes to me and I gave her several of my “autumn” garments.

      This is an old video but it demonstrates the color draping method:

      • Thanks Dottie for some ideas. I’ve read through a lot of the color me beautiful books and draped a lot of colors when I read that and I definitely need dark, warm colors. I look OK with clear and bright colors but best in muted colors.

        I have dark brown hair (just short of black), golden brown eyes, and olive skin. I definitely need warm colors near my face. Since it looks like you read Imogen too (Inside Out Style) I have what she calls low contrast coloring. I am between her 8 and H body shapes.

        I am drawn to euro style, especially French style. They tend to build mostly on neutrals – especially black. I am very minimalist on accessories as I hate to feel weighted down. I tend to just wear my watch and maybe a necklace.

        I was thinking of trying something similar to what you mentioned. I only like creme/ivory and cognac from my palette but with my low contrast coloring they are not my best. Darker colors look better. I don’t like how dark browns look so dark and un-2014 with the winter neutrals. I tried for awhile only using autumn colors and I just couldn’t get the sophisticated look I was going for.

        I was thinking of picking mainly winter neutrals and just picking the autumn colors that I like with the winter neutrals such as teal and navy or teal and gray. I wish I could wear more scarves to add my good colors near my face but I don’t like the look with a large chest and it’s too hot where I live most of the year.

        Do you have any blogs or other ideas of autumns out there? Mostly I see fashion bloggers who are winters and long torso-ed.

      • A good blog for you to read is Bridgette Raes’ blog ( While she doesn’t specifically reference seasonal color palettes, she does a lot with color combinations and uses a wide range of colors in her ensembles. Also check out “The Vivienne Files” ( for the same reason. She used a lot of warm colors in some of her recent posts and writes a lot about building a small but workable wardrobe. Hope this helps! Maybe Dottie will have other things to add…

      • Debbie has given you links to two very good blogs. I will just add that almost any color can be a neutral color. I’d select a color that goes with a lot of the colors I really like and want to wear near my face. This could be navy or black or gray or red or even white from the winter palette or brown or tan or bronze or violet or a dark green from the autumn palette and so on. I think the theory about low contrast, medium contrast, and high contrast was designed to help you choice the intensity of color appropriate for your coloring. And I wonder if having someone else (a professional or an objective friend with a good sense of color) helping you with your color analysis would be helpful? I was pretty sure I was an autumn (dark brown hair with a lot of reddish highlights) but the professional color analysis I had clearly showed that I was a winter (actually, I’m a winter-that-just-missed-being-a-summer — mine is dark ash brown hair with red highlights). I hope this helps you in your quest for the perfect wardrobe.

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