Basically, it’s a question of style – a clothes call

When I was much younger, I was much more of an artist than a writer; and when I say “artist,” I mean “someone who liked to draw and wasn’t too bad at it.” I particularly liked illustrating and sketching clothes, and while I didn’t imagine myself becoming a fashion designer, fashion illustration was an appealing career prospect for a few years. That didn’t last, but it did help plant the seeds of an interest in clothing and style that I’ve never really lost.

If you’re interested in clothes and fashion at all, you’ve probably met Susan Wagner somewhere in your blog travels; it’s her beat in at least half a dozen online venues that I know of. She’s recently been dissecting Oprah’s “Ten Wardrobe Basics” list on her Friday Style blog, and has asked her readers to consider their own “essentials”:

(W)hat is basic when you’re in your 20s may NOT be basic when you’re in your 40s or 60s. In the same way, regional differences, which have just as much to do with culture as with weather, will affect what your basics are. To say that there is ONE list of basics that we ALL should shop from is both impractical and limiting. The idea of a series of cornerstone pieces, after all, is to help you streamline your look, not to encourage everyone to dress alike.

So tell me this: what is on YOUR basics list? What ten pieces do you either already own and wear all the time, or find yourself wishing for on a regular basis? Think about variables like your age and location and what you do all day. Look in your closet and your laundry basket and your favorite catalogs.

Keep in mind that the basics are building blocks; they are the foundations of your wardrobe. They are the pieces that work with everything else in your closet, the pieces that are appropriate for almost every place you go. They are the clothes that you wear and wear and wear. They are what gives you a specific, individual look.

She elaborated on the assignment on BlogHer:

I…believe that each closet must answer specific needs in order to be functional. To say that there is ONE list, or that there are TEN must-have items, sells each of us short, and can leave us with a closet full of nothing to wear.

The list, you see, should solve your wardrobe dilemmas, not create more.

I am also a big believer in the distinction between fashion and style; fashion is what’s on the runways and in the magazines, and while it is possible to make what’s fashionable part of your personal style, style isn’t about appropriating the Look of the Moment. Style is about creating a look that will last, a look that is personal and functional and, yes, fashionable. Style is about having a wardrobe that reflects who you are and what you do and how you want to be perceived. That’s not too much to ask of your clothes, is it?

Not at all.

If you’re waiting for me to get to the magical Ten Basics List, the one that will work for EVERY woman and EVERY closet, you need to keep waiting… Instead, I challenge each of you to create a list of ten basic pieces, things from your closet that you are really wearing (or things that you find yourself constantly wishing for, which is a sign that you probably really NEED them, by the way).

I’m going to start with Oprah’s original list, determine whether I’m on board with each item or not, and then add or subtract to make my own list.

1. Trench coat.

I had a trench for years, and just recently gave it away. I love a good coat, but that one never really worked for me, and being as short as I am, a full-length coat is a problem anyway, because it will nearly always be too long.

2. Black (or white) turtleneck.

I have a short neck, and turtlenecks are tricky for me. I really like them and I do wear them in cold weather, but I do it knowing they’re not the ideal choice for me. I’ll sign on for a boatneck or jewelneck sweater, though, and I don’t have a problem with its being black at all. Lately, however, I seem to gravitate more toward browns, and I love navy – but navy’s frustrating to match sometimes.

3. Black trousers.

This should probably be at #1 – goes anywhere, and with practically anything else in your closet.

4. Tunic. (?)

I do like a long top, but you do have to be careful that it isn’t too long, which on a short person can practically turn it into a dress (and that short-dress-and-leggings look is cute, which is why I think it needs an age limit and I won’t wear it); at the same time, it has to be long enough not to cut across the hips and look frumpy. I’ve honestly never seen them as wardrobe staples, though.

5. White jeans.

White jeans just seem wrong to me on multiple levels – and even if they’d work for you, they’re wrong for me. White pants of any kind are something I’ve learned to avoid. I attract too much dirt and too many spills, for one thing. For another, unless I wear them with a white top (which looks too much like a uniform of some kind), I’ll end up with a darker top and lighter bottom, which makes one look shorter, and I definitely don’t need that.

6. Dark jeans.

Yeah, I know, I really should get mine tailored or something. I go with the rolled-hem/small-cuff look most of the time (even though short women are supposed to avoid cuffed pants too), and I look for the shortest “short” lengths I can find (I’ve had good luck with Lee jeans in petite sizes); and I usually wear them with boots, so I can get away with them being a little long. When it’s too warm for boots, I generally find it too warm for jeans too, and that’s when the capris come back out.

7. Black dress.

A must, and ideally in more than one style; maybe that should be “dresses.”

8. White denim jacket.

Again, the white-denim thing isn’t working for me. I think the jacket is too trendy, and the wrong color. (I actually like white, especially in warmer weather, but I’m afraid of it; it’s a virtual guarantee that I’ll spill something.)

9. Black skirt.

No argument whatsoever. I have two or three.

10. Timeless cashmere sweater.

Objectively, I get this – but at a practical level, no, since if it’s not machine washable I’m not interested, to be honest. I have too many other things to deal with.

I’d keep some of these items on my own personal “ten essentials” list, but clearly not all. I’m a professional woman in my (almost!) mid-40’s, working full-time and living with my husband, three “part-time” children (two “steps,” and a grown one who visits sometimes), and a dog in Southern California, and here are my “Ten Best Basics”:

  • Black trousers
  • Black skirt(s)
  • Dark jeans
  • Black dress (two – one more casual, one for “occasions”)
  • Tailored capri pants in a neutral color – dark khaki, olive, or brown. In SoCal’s normally temperate climate, they can be worn practically year-round. They’re adaptable for almost any occasion, depending on the top and shoes – I’ll wear them with a knit jacket for casual workdays.
  • Red cardigan – Deep red, tailored and shaped, V-neck (not too deep!), in a cotton-based knit (machine washable!); goes with almost everything.
  • Long-sleeved black boatneck top – This is in place of the black/white turtleneck, and could just as easily be a crew- or scoop-neck (not too deeply scooped, though). The sleeves can be 3/4-length or full. The color could be dark brown or navy instead of black, and the fabric should be a high-quality knit. Too specific? Sorry, I was describing a couple of shirts that are actually hanging in my closet right now.
  • Tailored tee – Not the sporty kind, but one made like a good knit shirt, in stretch cotton.
  • Tailored stretch jacket – This is styled somewhat like a blazer, but isn’t part of a suit, so it’s not too dressy to wear with jeans. It has some stretch in the fabric, and it’s not denim.
  • Short-sleeved fine-gauge cotton sweater – Lightweight enough to layer, dressy enough for work, and a good stand-in for a tee.

And now that we’ve got the wardrobe basics sorted out, we may just be ready to tackle that minefield known as “Casual Friday.” Thanks to Laurie Ruettimann for this helpful guide.

Casual Fridays

Week 1 – Memo No. 1

  • Effective this week, the company is adopting Fridays as Casual Day. Employees are free to dress in the casual attire of their choice.

Week 3 – Memo No. 2

  • Capris, cropped jeans, and shorts are not appropriate attire for Casual Day. Neither are flip flops. (I have to agree about the shorts and flip-flops, to be honest.)

Week 6 – Memo No. 3

  • Casual Day refers to dress only, not attitude. When planning Friday’s wardrobe, remember image is a key to our success.

Week 8 – Memo No. 4

  • A seminar on how to dress for Casual Day will be held at 4 p.m. Friday in the cafeteria. A demonstration will follow. Attendance is mandatory. (OK, here’s my question – what kind of company schedules a mandatory meeting at 4 in the afternoon on Friday?!? Doesn’t sound all that casual to me…)

Week 9 – Memo No. 5

  • As an outgrowth of Friday’s seminar, a 14-member Casual Day Task Force has been appointed to prepare guidelines for proper casual-day dress. *(Side note – I actually worked somewhere that had this committee. And I was on it. I helped draft the policy memo.)*

Week 14 – Memo No. 6

  • The Casual Day Task Force has now completed a 30-page manual entitled “Relaxing Dress Without Relaxing Company Standards.” A copy has been distributed to every employee. Please review the chapter “You Are What You Wear” and consult the “home casual” versus “business casual” checklist before leaving for work each Friday. If you have doubts about the appropriateness of an item of clothing, contact your CDTF representative before 7 a.m. on Friday.

Week 18 – Memo No. 7

  • Our Employee Assistant Plan (EAP) has now been expanded to provide counseling for employees who may be having difficulty adjusting to Casual Day.

Week 20 – Memo No. 8

  • Due to budget cuts in the HR Department we are no longer able to effectively support or manage Casual Day. Casual Day will be discontinued, effective immediately.

But seriously, the casual office can be a challenge, and on her Working Closet blog, Susan’s talked about that too.

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  1. Lots to laugh about in this piece! Thanks. I always thought “Casual Friday” was secretly dreamed up by the clothing industry: a way to force people who possibly cannot afford to go to a resort at least buy the wardrobe to dress for one.
    Or by upper management, to stress the difference in options between those who can afford what is “acceptable” casual wear and those who cannot–who then get hit with office demerits for “not getting it.” It’s hard enough for many people (especially those in traditionally female low-pay occupations) to afford the pieces to make up ONE adequate working wardrobe, let alone TWO!