The following is a guest post from Dottie, a regular reader of this blog, who is sharing some strategies for building a workable wardrobe. This is the second part of a two-part series (read part one here). Part One covered essentials like body type, color palette, personal style, and so forth. This section focuses on a further strategy for building a workable wardrobe. Dottie welcomes feedback from “Recovering Shopaholic” readers, especially those of you who have additional strategies that you’ve used for creating your own wardrobe.
How to Build a Wardrobe Using a Color Palette
Years ago, I had a color analysis, which helped me identify the ideal colors that I should wear. My palette consists of: black, charcoal gray, medium gray, light gray, white, navy blue, medium blue, red (blue-red), burgundy, dark violet, icy violet, icy blue, icy pink, and a blue teal. The colors you wear near your face should be the most flattering colors for your hair color, skin tone, and eye color.
Having a limited range of colors was a great starting point for me. It helped me focus when I shopped and allowed me the ability to update my old wardrobe with new colors as my budget allowed. For example, I donated the peach blouse I used to wear with my camel suit and replaced it with a navy foulard print blouse. Eventually, I donated the camel suit when I could afford to buy a navy replacement suit. I still use a similar strategy for working with colors that aren’t in my palette. For example, I have a gorgeous pair of dark chocolate brown trousers (sadly, not one of my colors) that I wear with the grays, white, icy colors, and some blue from my palette. This works well for me.
Prioritizing the Colors within Your Palette
To maximize my wardrobe budget (it’s always been pretty small) and the wearability of my clothing, I identified the colors in my palette (from tinysparklythings.blogspot.com – you can see the other seasonal palettes there as well) that are my “basic” or “core” colors: black, charcoal gray, medium gray 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 gray, etc., to blouses, tops, or sweaters. I also have some clothing in purple and teal, but these are pretty hard colors to mix and match really well.
I also eliminated some colors so that I could have a wardrobe of manageable size – I really didn’t need 40 different colors of clothing in my tiny closet. Out went some of the blues and all the pinks (why so many, anyway?) except icy pink. Also, no taupe and no yellows or greens.
Developing a 3-Tier Wardrobe
This is how I’ve tackled building a wardrobe. I built my wardrobe over years (decades), but this strategy could also be adapted for people creating their first post-college wardrobe and so forth.
Tier 1 – “Big Ticket” Items
Tier 1 is composed of “big ticket” or heavily worn items like outerwear, suits, skirts, pants, jackets, and cashmere sweaters. These are the essential building blocks of a wardrobe. My goal has been to acquire quality “timeless” clothes within a limited color palette so that I can mix and match. I’ve spent most of my budget buying Tier 1 clothing. I am willing to pay a little more for quality – a 100% wool coat with a sturdy lining and thick cashmere sweaters – and I will pay for a limited number of alterations (hemming pants, etc.) for Tier 1 items.
I tend to limit the color for Tier 1 clothing to solid colors — black, charcoal gray, medium gray, red, and navy blue – so that I can wear a lot of different colors with each item. I’ve made a few exceptions to this rule, such as my gorgeous “non-palette” dark chocolate brown wool trousers that work with a large number of my tops, particularly my icy blue silk blouse. The key is to ensure that “my” colors are near my face when wearing dark brown. The pants were $10 at a discount retailer and amazingly they work very well as an alternative to black or charcoal gray.
Note that if you wear a non-palette color near your face, a scarf or statement necklace in “your” colors can “subdue” that color.
Tier 2 – “Go Withs”
The next tier, Tier 2, is composed of blouses, cotton and merino wool sweaters, cotton casual tops, a few additional jackets, and the like. These are the “go-withs” for Tier 1. This tier includes more casual pants (jeans, capris, shorts) and short-sleeve t-shirts. Again, I rely on my target colors (black, navy, gray, red, etc.) for pants, skirts, dresses, and shorts.
I’ve added my additional palette colors here: white, medium blue, icy blue, icy pink, burgundy, cranberry, purple, icy violet, and blue teal. These colors are found mostly in tops – sweaters, blouses, and long-sleeved t-shirts. A few of the classic silk blouses in this category have been on the expensive side, but a lot of the clothes in this tier were very affordable and often bought at a deep discount. I try to buy only quality pieces, so the clothes in this tier also have to last, too. However, I don’t expect a $20 t-shirt to last as long as an expensive 100% wool coat.
My Tier 2 clothing can seem repetitious. For example, I have an icy pink long-sleeved silk blouse and an icy pink short-sleeved scoop neck cotton T-shirt, as well as an icy blue silk blouse and an icy blue long-sleeved cotton V-neck t-shirt. In the cooler months, I wear the icy blue blouse with navy pants or a navy suit. In warmer months, I wear the icy blue t-shirt with dark wash jeans or navy cotton trousers or shorts.
Tier 3 – Accessories and Accents
Tier 3 is my accessories/accents tier. This includes shoes, handbags, scarves, hats, belts, gloves, jewelry, hosiery, and lingerie. My shoes are red, black, gray (one pair), navy (one pair); sandals are black or red with one pair of leopard slides for fun. Black boots are also included, of course. My purses are red, gray, pewter, or black. My scarves mostly feature the colors black, red, navy, gray, white, or icy blue – and I try to avoid or limit colors like yellow or gold that are not “my” colors. (As I mentioned, one benefit of knowing your color palette is avoiding unflattering colors near your face.)
I also limit the range of color in my accessories but these, in general, are very colorful. My “good” jewelry is sterling silver or black pearls, and most of my inexpensive jewelry is white, black, and/or red. This includes a red wooden cuff I’ve had for decades, a new black acrylic cuff, a white “ivory” cuff, etc. I look for quality in this tier and have some amazing finds from flea markets, church rummage sales, and antique stores. I try to wear everything I own at least twice a year, and some pieces get a lot of wear – weekly if not daily.
I have found that accessories really help to lift, say, the icy blue/navy clothing combination or the red/white/black combination out of the ordinary. And I try to keep up-to-date with fashion trends in accessories as an affordable strategy to wear my wardrobe in a new and fresh way.
A Bottom-Up Approach to Wardrobe Planning
Here’s another view on building a wardrobe in layers, starting with undergarments and working up to outerwear. This is a fascinating approach to wardrobe planning! The following blogger has lots of good info on wardrobe planning and lots of thumbnail illustrations:
There are several blogs that discuss how to build a wardrobe. I particularly like The Vivienne Files for all its good sense about clothing and MaiTai’s Picture Book for her focus on spicing up her mostly solid color capsule wardrobe with accessories and lovely Hermès scarves tied in a thousand interesting ways.
This link to MaiTai’s capsule wardrobe is a primer on how to build – and continue to update – a basic, classic wardrobe (if ever lovely French clothing can ever be considered “basic”).
Here’s yet another blogger’s approach to wardrobe planning:
Most of my “big ticket” clothing is devoid of pattern, but not entirely. I have a black suit with a faint red “chalk” stripe (looks fabulous with a red silk blouse, red silk tee, white shirt, or icy blue blouse) and a medium gray suit with a muted light gray/light blue window plaid (especially nice with the icy blue blouse but also very pretty with a navy top). I try to find “dressmaker” details in blouses, sweaters, and other tops that I wear with these items. I try to add texture wherever possible – such as my red faux lizard handbag, “hairy” faux leopard belt, etc.
Patterned clothes present their own limitations, but an all-solid color wardrobe can be so b-o-r-i-n-g. I try to find clothes with woven patterns (like stripes or checks) vs. printed-on patterns that can fade with washing. I have several black and white tops, a navy floral blouse, a navy and blue striped shirt, and a burgundy paisley blouse that have worked very successfully in my wardrobe. There are some patterns that are timeless – polka dots, for example. Generally speaking, I spend less money on patterned clothing than my solid color clothing but I still look for quality. And of course, the patterns must match at the seams, etc.
Be Prepared to Adapt “Wardrobe Basics” Lists
Generally, I don’t mind lists of wardrobe “must-haves” (e.g., white shirt, black pencil skirt) because many of these items are already in my wardrobe. But even I find most of these lists too prescriptive. The key is to review them with an eye for your lifestyle and personal fashion style. For example, Real Simple’s wardrobe basics checklist includes a lot of items I would never buy, such as a cashmere hoodie. If I’m dropping serious coin for a cashmere sweater, it had better be a classic style (v-neck, cardigan, etc.) so I can still wear the sweater for years to come. I’m sure that most people could go through this list and flag items that just would never be found in their closet.
But here’s one way to look at these lists – as purely advisory. The Real Simple list includes jeans, khaki pants, skinny jeans, dark wash jeans, gray flannel pants, wool trousers, capri pants, chinos, shorts, drawstring pants, and white jeans. If you live in the South, you probably don’t need wool trousers or gray flannel pants (or maybe you did this winter!). If you have a casual lifestyle, you may only need the jeans, shorts, capris, and other casual pants.
Shopping To Build a Workable Wardrobe
Before I go buy any clothes, I know a few things:
1. I am only going to stores and/or departments within a store (or to on-line retailers) that offer “classically feminine” clothing for my personal style. I no longer shop at stores that don’t carry the clothing I’m interested in. Why bother when there are other retailers that have more of the stuff that appeals to me?
2. I am only going to purchase items that fill gaps in my wardrobe or that replace a specific garment. I never buy a garment without knowing exactly how and where I will be wearing it. Every purchase has a purpose, even the ones that might be construed as “impulse” buys (meaning that I only considered the purchase for a day or two).
My glen plaid blouse (see below) was an “impulse” buy, but even then I waited a few days to think it through before buying. It was on sale, so it was a risk to wait, but I did.
As a rule, I don’t troll the sales or clearance racks, and “one day special” signage doesn’t elicit a “FOMO” (fear of missing out) response. This UK blogger has an interesting take on sales.
3. I am only going to look at clothes within my limited color palette. I don’t need to saunter among the yellow and orange clothes because I will never buy anything in these colors. If a season features colors outside my palette – like those neon colors of a few seasons ago – I stay home or shop online at retailers that always have white tops or navy blue pants, if this is what I need.
4. I am only going to buy garments that work well within my existing wardrobe. This may sound simplistic but it is pretty easy to get overwhelmed by a great sale price or fabulous fabric or perfect color and end up buying something that doesn’t work. Or would work if you also bought a new top or pants or sweater or camisole or shape wear to make it work. Nope. No add-ons. And the garment must work with LOTS of stuff I already have, not just one or two items.
5. I am only going to buy what fits me now (a few minor alterations are OK). I don’t buy clothes for a body I don’t have or a lifestyle I wish I had. I try to limit alterations to hemming pants, taking in the waist, etc. Sometimes I move a button or add a snap. If a garment has to be altered in the shoulders or neckline, I pass as these are very tricky (and expensive) alterations to get done correctly.
6. I am only going to buy items that I really love and that make me happy. I am done with buying “placeholders” – stuff that doesn’t quite work but might fill a void until the right garment comes along. I only take home clothing that I will keep; returning the unwanted consumes too much valuable time.
Before I Head to the Dressing Room
This is how I approach buying clothes – purpose, color, fabric, fabric content/care instructions, construction, and fit.
I start with a purpose (clothes for work, etc.). If I need a suit, I stay out of the jeans area and vice versa. I don’t wander around the store. It’s in, buy (or not), then out.
Then I focus on color. Limiting my field of vision to specific colors really saves time.
I then focus on fabric. I prefer cotton, wool, and silk over most man-made fabrics. I like cashmere or cotton sweaters. I don’t even look at acrylic sweaters. At this point, I choose by the “hand” or feel of the fabric.
I also look at fabric content/care instruction tags. I don’t mind dry cleaning clothes – say a black suit that can be worn a few times and brushed and aired after each wearing (think of what Mr. Bates does with Lord Grantham’s clothes on Downton Abbey) before it needs dry cleaning. A white blouse that needs dry cleaning after each wearing is another story; it has to be a fantastic blouse to overcome the cost of maintenance.
Next, I eyeball the garment, looking at its construction. This means hems, buttonholes, facings, seams, and so forth. Stuff that is clearly poorly made stays on the display rack. Other garments that look okay but may need more scrutiny might come with me into the dressing room for further inspection.
Now I am ready to try on the garment(s). At this point, fit is the deciding factor. I include here sleeve length, pant length, neckline, shoulders, torso, rise (in pants), waist, etc. If a blouse has darts, these should be placed just below the bust. I check the placement of buttons on a blouse to ensure that there are no awkward gaps at the bust line. I also check that pockets lie flat, zippers stay zipped, hooks and eyes are present and work, and extra buttons are available. I do deep knee bends and other gyrations in the fitting room to ensure that the clothes allow for movement and don’t gap or sag (or tear) when I move
Five Easy Pieces and Why I Bought Them
Listed below are five garments that I bought on sale or at discount stores. I paid no more than $30 for any of them, except the cashmere sweater ($40-50 “new with tags” at a consignment shop). Here’s why I bought them and why they work with my wardrobe.
1. Red Jacket
This red jacket with black trim seems like the antithesis of my “solid color only” dictum for Tier 1 items like jackets, but this is actually a Tier 2 garment that gets lots of wear. I hesitated about purchasing this item, but I finally decided that the “dress-maker” detail of the black trim elevated this classic but basic 3-button knit jacket to a higher level. And it worked with my mostly black, white, red, and gray wardrobe.
I wouldn’t have bought this jacket had the trim been navy on red, for instance, although I do have some navy clothes (pants, print blouse, and a long-sleeved top). Nor would I have bought it if the jacket had been navy with white trim, because I don’t have enough navy items to make the purchase worthwhile – even if it’s a bargain (navy can be tricky to match). I like softer knit jackets that allow for better movement and are cozy to wear. This jacket cost $30 at a discount retailer. The seams are very nicely finished, and the jacket came with extra buttons and some matching thread for repairs. It also travels very well.
The reason this jacket works is because it can be worn to a business meeting or, paired with jeans, to a weekend brunch. It works with the following items already in my wardrobe: black pants, black pencil skirt, black and white skirt, charcoal gray pants, white tops, black tops, jeans, and a few red tops that color match exactly!
2. Black and White Glen Plaid Blouse
This black and white glen plaid blouse is a soft, drape-y knit (man-made and machine washable) fabric. The low bow tie is a neckline that flatters my face. Glen plaid is a classic design usually found in men’s suits but has made a dramatic appearance in women’s clothing from time to time. While a smaller scale glen plaid would have been more traditional (and maybe more predictable and boring), this slightly over-sized print adds pizzazz to my solid color wardrobe.
I get a lot of compliments when I wear this blouse – at work, out for dinner, etc. I wasn’t crazy about the “faux Chanel” buttons but it would have cost more than I paid for the blouse ($20 on clearance) to replace them, so I have come to like them more and more (and I have a few extras—just in case).
This blouse also travels really well and is very easy to care for. It feels great on, too. Because the fabric has a printed design, I wash the blouse inside out on “gentle” and with non-abrasive stuff (e.g. not jeans or stuff with zippers, heavy buttons, hooks and eyes, etc.) in an attempt to lengthen the “life” of the design.
This blouse works because it can be dressed up or down, depending on what it’s paired with, and it works with the following items already in my wardrobe: black pants, black pencil skirt, charcoal gray pants, red jacket, black suit, black jacket, etc.
3. Black and White Skirt
This black and white skirt is a heavy 58% cotton, 42% polyester jacquard weave, and it’s a great alternative to my black pencil skirt. It’s virtually wrinkle-free, too. The thick (but not stiff) “hand” of the material gives the skirt oomph and the pattern almost reads “black.”
I’ve worn this with various color blouses, tops, and sweaters, and the red and black jacket noted above. This skirt had a matching jacket that could have been purchased separately. I felt that that both pieces were way too much together – too pattern-y, too heavy, too-too. I prefer less structured jackets nowadays, so I opted for just the skirt, which I bought for about $20. Sweet! It’s dry clean only, but I expected that with a lined skirt.
This skirt works (see fabric detail above) because it can be worn for work, dressy, and casual occasions. And it works with the following items already in my wardrobe: black silk blouse (almost tunic length), white silk blouse, red silk blouse, medium gray silk blouse, red sweater, black sweater, gray sweater, wine sweater, medium blue cardigan, icy pink silk blouse, icy blue silk blouse, red jacket, black jacket, black cashmere cardigan sweater, black t-shirt, red t-shirt, white t-shirt, black and white polka dot blouse, etc.
4. Wine Color Sweater
Strictly speaking, my new wine color sweater (not pictured) isn’t really the burgundy or cranberry in “my” colors, but the color looks very good on me, so I wear it. Because this color was very popular this year, I decided to add one new item to my wardrobe. I’ve been waiting some time for this color to reappear, and I was able to score this sweater on sale for less than $10! It has a scoop neck and is very flattering in style and color.
This sweater works because it is a classic flat merino knit that can be worn under jackets and on its own. It also works with the following items already in my wardrobe: black pants, black pencil skirt, black and white skirt, charcoal gray pants, navy pants, chocolate pants, medium gray suit, black suit, black jacket, jeans, etc.
5. Black Cashmere “Cardigan” Sweater
My single button black cashmere “cardigan” sweater was purchased at a consignment store for $40-$50 – I forget the exact price (it was new with tags). This is the thickest cashmere I’ve bought in years. I wasn’t sure this sweater would work as a Tier 1 basic building block because of the ¾ sleeves, but it does. It makes a very warm alternative to a structured jacket, and it works very well with my glen plaid blouse and other classically feminine tops. It’s sensational with my skirts (black and the black-and-white one shown above). I love it! (The photo just doesn’t do justice to the sweater.)
This sweater works because it’s a classic cashmere and the ¾ sleeves makes it both dressy and casual, depending on what it’s paired with. It can be worn with the following items already in my wardrobe: black pants, black pencil skirt, black and white skirt, charcoal gray pants, navy pants, chocolate pants, jeans, and a whole array of black and white and solid color tops.
As you can see, I give a lot of thought to the clothing I buy, although I only buy a few items per year. Even a $10 sweater has to earn its livelihood in my closet by working with the clothing I already own. I keep a spreadsheet of all of my clothes by color and I organize the clothes in my closet by color, then sleeve length (or pant length) so I know what I have. I buy something – say, a new black short-sleeve v-neck t-shirt – knowing how it will fit into my wardrobe. But even with a less well-planned purchase, like the glen plaid blouse pictured above, I know what will fit in and what won’t. There’s very little guesswork in building my wardrobe.
I have found that by breaking down my clothing by tiers, limiting my color palette, and focusing on my personal style, I can put together a workable wardrobe for a small investment of time and money. Of course, I have been following these strategies for decades, so I own scarcely any clothes that don’t work well for me. I will break my own dictums if I find something I think is a worthwhile purchase – like my dark chocolate brown pants I bought for $10 – and which goes with other clothing I already have. Most importantly, I don’t buy clothes that require additional purchases – a camisole for a too-sheer blouse, etc. And, as always, quality is very, very important.
My clothes get worn – a lot! I don’t buy anything that I can’t, practically speaking, wear weekly or bi-weekly. I don’t have that many clothes (about 135 items for all 4 seasons), but EVERYTHING I have is cherished and worn with pleasure.