Sunday, March 11, 2012

Top 10 Wardrobe Essentials

I've squandered a ridiculous amount of my life browsing fashion magazines, websites, and blogs. If I had devoted the time I've spent on all that (since maybe the age of 11) to something worthwhile, I'd probably have a decent career and maybe even a MacArthur Fellowship, Pulitzer, or Oscar for best screenplay on top of it. I'm not saying I'm particularly talented — just that the sheer number of hours I'd have spent doing something productive would surely have resulted in some kind of achievement, possibly by accident.

But it's all water under the bridge. Instead of artistic or academic glory, you're getting stuff like this post.

I've been thinking about those "Top 10 Essential Items" lists that are supposed to help you fill out your wardrobe and solve the "I have nothing to wear" problem once and for all. They are perennially attractive to all of us who love lists and are a bit insecure about how we dress. I think they keep reappearing because they inspire us to go shopping, even though we haven't yet worn the stuff we got the last time we paid attention to a Top 10 list. I also wonder if any author of a Top 10 list ever succeeded in curbing her shopping habits after finding the universal solution to America's fashion problem in her own closet.

Those lists never work for me. They are too specific and too much like the Ten Commandments. If the list includes a black jacket with matching pants and a pencil skirt — and it always does — forget it. As I've said before, I feel phony wearing a suit. I get rebellious urges to roam the streets committing petty crimes whenever I foolishly decide to wear the black suit I foolishly bought a few years ago. I also look terrible in pencil skirts and I don't like pants except jeans.

The other items that are always on Top 10 lists are plain black pumps and a white cotton button-front shirt "that can even be found at the Gap." I'll pass on both of those, too. If you wear all five of those items together, without irony, you might as well tell the world that you get all your fashion sense from a magazine list. Many of us instantly figured that out the moment we saw you. You will also be mistaken for an off-duty flight attendant.

It's time I made my own "Ten Essentials" list, so here you are, beginning with the core items first. Please note that I will give you very few specific items to buy, and nothing should be newsworthy. You know what you love, and what looks best on you; I don't.

1.  A classy bathrobe. It's the foundation of the freelancer's career attire. I spend more hours in my bathrobe than in anything else. It's my suit. Mine is burgundy cotton-poly velour, full-length, with set-in sleeves, broad lapels, and an attached sash.  It looks like something out of a 1940's Katharine Hepburn movie. It even had shoulder pads but they were scratchy so I removed them. Even if you work outside your house, a great bathrobe is lovely to look forward to and is a vast improvement over baggy or shrunken PJs.  I think it's as important to dress well at home, around your partner or family, as in public. Maybe it's more important.
     Avoid thick terry, kimono-style robes. Every time you raise your arms, the whole robe will lift up and disarrange itself, and that thick belt will unknot itself as often as possible — especially when you're signing for UPS or letting the plumber in. Also avoid poly-fleece robes: they attract lint like crazy, and crackle with static if you think too hard.

2. An elegant winter coat. Coats cover a multitude of sins — practically everything can be improved or concealed by the right coat. Choose wisely, and you will look put-together no matter what's going on under there. I recently found a black, ankle-length princess coat by DKNY at Lord &Taylor, on sale for $112 instead of $450. It's a wool-cashmere blend, fit-and-flare and sweeping. All you'll ever see peeking out from it are my boots. And perhaps the hem of my bathrobe.

3. A light jacket or coat. Same theory as the winter coat, extending coverage for extra seasons. If you're the trench type, you're all set. I hate belted coats, so I'm hunting for a simple, black, waterproof coat.

4. Basic, high-quality sweaters in neutral or jewel-tone colors, including cardigans, pullovers, and turtlenecks. They have to fit well, skimming the body and neither too tight or too loose. A richly colored cashmere or merino sweater looks handsome and enriches everything you're wearing. If you're always roasting, you get a pass on this one, with my sympathy. It's hard to go wrong with a navy or black V-neck or turtleneck.

5. Scarves. You can't have too many, in cotton, silk, or whatever you like. They'll "finish" your coats and make whatever else you threw on look vaguely French and put-together. You can invest in vintage Herm├Ęs on eBay, or shop street vendors' stalls.  I bought a soft, yellow plaid rayon square from The Limited, in 1982, for $12.99. It's gone with me on all of my travels ever since, and shows no signs of age. If you think you don't know how to wear a scarf, you're mistaken. The more casually you fling one on, the better it usually looks. Scarves, like sweaters, look fantastic on everyone.

6. Lingerie that does its job and doesn't show. With a good foundation, all of your clothes will look better. The engineering feats wrought by Spanx and its copycats are small miracles when you want to look very, very sleek. The rest of the time, you can enjoy blissfully comfortable yet sexy lace underwear from Hanky Panky, which disappears under clothing. And everyone makes invisible "T-shirt" bras these days.

That's as specific as I'm going to be. Your style is up to you to figure out; far be it from me to tell you that you have to own a pencil skirt. I'll just provide scenarios so you can make sure you have something that works for the following occasions.

7. Cocktail parties, concerts, gallery openings, dinner parties. Whenever I think that none of these events is looming on my horizon, whammo, we get invited somewhere nerve-wracking. It is awful to shop for special occasions; you never find what you want when you're hunting for it. So I make sure I have a few pretty dresses in my closet and a couple of pairs of heels. Maybe you're the pants-and-silky-top type, or you are chic enough to have a dinner suit. Boston is not a glitzy town, so our "good" clothing tends to be classic and quiet. (We got most of it at the original Filene's Basement years ago.)

8. Funerals, etc. No one likes to anticipate such events but they often come up suddenly. If your wardrobe is strictly casual or largely technicolor, make sure you have one or two sober, conservative items to get you through sad occasions. And court appearances — you never know when life may suddenly get complicated and you'll have more important things to worry about.

9. Work. I have no idea what the dress code is at your workplace. It can be mysterious: at my last office, my female supervisor wore hiking sandals and shorts while others wore suits or jeans. My only advice is to take your cues from the colleague you consider the best dressed, and never wear anything that makes you feel the least bit uncomfortable or unprofessional, even if it fits the dress code.

As you can see, sedate dresses, skirts or slacks and sweaters, or suits will cover all of the above situations, with the right accessories to dress them up or down as occasions dictate. It's your choice. Most of us have too many clothes although we need relatively few items to dress well for all occasions.

10. Three casual outfits for every season. These can include anything that makes you feel chic and put-together. You need three because two will inevitably be in the laundry. If you don't have a third, you are guaranteed to run into your ex, your boss, your best-dressed friend, your most obnoxious acquaintance, and/or Tom Brady as you're sneaking to the supermarket at dusk in ratty clothes. I've learned the hard way: get rid of whatever embarrasses you even slightly.

Bonus accessories: books. Carrying the right book raises both your perceived IQ and your style quotient. No one will care if your chinos are ragged if you're reading Wittgenstein, or Donald Hall, or Michael Pollan, as you're walking down Newbury Street. But you must actually absorb some of it, or you'll be busted when the cashier at Trader Joe's begins sounding you out. And besides, improving your mind is much more important than whatever you're wearing. I think I read that in Elle.

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