Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My take on Tim Gunn's 10 wardrobe essentials

We can (and should) all have a good foundation wardrobe. By that, I mean we should all have a set of basic pieces that work well in every season, no matter the trends (and can be worked in with trends), and they don't have to be expensive. They should, however, be of good quality, so consider them investment pieces, and shop with that in mind. With so many people unfortunately back in the job market, it seems like a good time to remind everybody how to build a wardrobe of essentials and make sure you have everything you need for job interviews. The good thing is, you probably have a lot of what you need already.

So, before you go shopping, you must do the one thing we all dread: clean out your closet. Or, as Uncle Tim (that would be style expert Tim Gunn, my pretend adopted uncle) says: "edit" your closet. If you'll look to the left on this page, I have a link to his style guide; it's a worthwhile addition to your bookshelf.

Take everything out of your closet. Yes, everything. Go through piece by piece, and try on everything (yes, everything). Whatever doesn't fit, is faded or worn, or so hilariously out of fashion that you can't remember why you ever bought it in the first place, fold neatly and put in a box to take to Goodwill (don't forget to ask for a receipt for your taxes). A good rule is that if you haven't worn it in 6-9 months, out it goes; you probably won't ever wear it again. Once you've gone through everything and purged, take an inventory of what's there. Set aside anything that needs to go to the dry cleaner (and then remember to take it).

Now you're ready to take inventory of what you've got on hand. I'm a devout believer in Tim Gunn's "10 Essential Items Every Woman Needs." It's a great basic list, and a good foundation on which to build a wardrobe, especially a career wardrobe. In a moment, I'll tell you some places where you can pick up those items, but first--his list, with my comments added:

1. Basic black dress. Don't necessarily think little black dress here, especially if it's critical that you put together a good career or interview wardrobe; what works well as a good wardrobe essential is a basic black shell dress that can be worn with a cardigan or blazer, dressed up with a scarf, or just worn by itself with a simple strand of pearls.

2. Trench Coat. This is a wildly popular piece right now, with budget-minded places such as Target and Old Navy selling them in a range of bright colors and patterns; those are certainly fun, but make sure you have a good basic trench in a neutral color before you go nuts with all the colorful options. Look for one that's lined, includes a belt, and has a good, classic fit (single- or double-breasted is up to you and should be whichever looks best on you).

3. Classic dress pants. This is one piece where fit is critical. You need to know which styles look best on you, but a good mid-rise with a slightly wide, flared leg is flattering on just about everyone. Look for quality construction, because you'll want these to last, and you should also go for a good fabric like a lightweight worsted wool or poly blend. Darks or neutrals are best for color, because they'll be the most versatile with other pieces.

4. Classic white shirt. This may be a recommended "piece" for your wardrobe, but I'd recommend having 2 or 3 of these, perhaps in a color or two in addition to white (off white or blue work well). Places like the Gap have these as a year-round staple, so they're easy to find. On days where you're running late and can't decide what to wear, grab this, a cardigan and your dress pants, and you're set.

5. Skirt. Think knee-length or slightly (but not too much) above the knee. A-line, straight or pencil skirt are all flattering on almost everyone, and can be paired endlessly with other items. As with the pants, you're best served to go with a dark or neutral for greater versatility.

6. Blazer. Nipped-in profiles with 3/4 sleevess are all the rage now, but don't think that means you have to overlook a classically tailored blazer. Those never go out of style, and will probably have greater wardrobe longevity than the shrunken variety that dominates right now. That said, the more fitted, smaller silhouette can be extremely flattering, and is a knockout combo with a pencil skirt (or paired with jeans). Again, know what looks best on you.

7. Day Dress. This can be something as simple and basic as a shirtdress, or something trendier, like a kimono-style dress. Try to choose something that works well with the rest of your wardrobe, especially if you're on the interview trail. A blazer over a shirtdress, for example, is a workable alternative to the more traditional business suit uniform.

8. Cashmere sweater. Gunn has this on the list because it's a classic, and because they wear well with good care. You can throw this together with a skirt or pants for an easy, elegant work outfit, and feel good about yourself with the luxurious touch of that soft knit against the skin. Feeling good about ourselves is as important as looking good, and having a piece like this in your wardrobe is a functional indulgence.

9. Jeans. Good jeans, specifically--not ratty, torn or acid-washed jeans. Not faded jeans. Look for a good dark jean that fits you as a good pair of dress pants would--in other words, do not buy jeans so tight they look like they're painted on. The same rule for fit with dress pants applies here, too--a mid-rise with a slightly wide, flared leg (or bootcut, in jeans) is a great look. They're most flattering paired with heels, but if you're just not in the mood to wear heels with your jeans, at least go for a modest heel--my go-to is a good pair of cowboy boots with a 2-inch heel. It gives a longer, slimmer look.

10. A comfortable alternative to a sweatsuit. This is the only item on which I differ from Uncle Tim; I've just never liked sweatsuits, even the "dressier" French velour sets that are so popular now, but that's me. There are some darling matched sweatsuits out there, so if that's what you feel comfy in on weekends, go for it. I'll make no. 10 "jeans, part 2," and keep a spare pair around.

So, you've purged your closet, inventoried the good stuff that's left, and you need to add a few pieces to fill out your basic wardrobe. Where to go without spending too much? Well, for basic white shirts, the Gap is always a good choice; even better is a Gap outlet if you have one nearby. They have almost everything the retail stores do, but they're discounted and they run great sales.

For pants, skirts and blazers, the Gap is good, as is Express. If you add yourself to Express' mailing list, you'll start receiving discount cards in the mail--good ones, too. If you prefer catalog or online shopping, Newport News and Chadwicks offer great career pieces at low prices, and you can always find coupon codes online for both stores to improve the already good deals. For department store shopping, J.C. Penney has great career pieces and good prices. And don't forget to check out the racks at Target, because they're adding more and more career separates with really up-to-the-moment styling.

And, as I recommended in an earlier post, don't forget to shop eBay. I picked up a nicely tailored trench coat for $60, and a Ralph Lauren pink cashmere cardigan for $60; both were brand new with tags still on them--and both are key items on Gunn's list.

Now would be a great chance to use the comments section here--I'd love to know where you find your bargains, so please feel free to share!

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