The Faux Amis: Wardrobe Essentials, Revisited (Part 3 of 3)
It’s been far too long since my last fashion-savvy post identifying overrated retailers and the biggest Faux Amis of them all, hazardous materials. To close out this semi-educational series, the last Faux Amis will examine the sustainability of the hackneyed “10 wardrobe essentials that every woman must own” list, separating the sartorial wheat from the chaff, and offering more applicable alternatives. Though over the last few years that “top 10″ list has seen about a thousand variations, the classic top 10 list (as identified by Tim Gunn, whom I generally love and with whom I generally agree on everything) consists of:
1. Basic Black Dress 2. Trench Coat 3. Classic Dress Pants 4. White Shirt 5. Jeans
6. Cashmere Sweater 7. Skirt 8. Day Dress 9. Blazer 10. Sweat Suit Alternative
For the most part, Mr. Gunn is on point. However, some essentials are not really essentials. And other essentials could use some serious elaboration so as to not leave room for misinterpretation.
1. A Basic black dress is definitely something everyone should own, with a couple of asterisks. First, the dress MUST fit properly. Second, it must have the proper length. I’ve seen countless women wearing black sheaths like shifts, wrap dresses like bathrobes, and rocking hideous crimes against polyester like it ain’t no thang. I’ve also seen far too many girls hide their knees, cut their calves in half (thereby exacerbating, or creating, the appearance of cankles), cling to cap sleeves (which, naturally, expose their flabby arms and/or the dreaded underboob fat), and generally skewing their proportions by picking something in the wrong size, material, shape, and length. Also, at one point or another, I’ve been the worst offender with respect to each of the above mentioned dress no-nos. And I looked like shit. A lot. Lessons learned!
Tim Gunn actually spends a lot of time talking about proper fit, which can make or break any outfit. Finding a dress of optimal fit and length is a good lesson in proportions for any girl lacking solid understanding of the subject. Because a dress hits all 4 measurements (bust, waist, hip, hem), learning how to pick out a great-fitting dress serves as great training for doing the same with any other garment; it’s the ultimate essential!
Every girl should know her shape, and her ideal proportions as far as length is concerned. For that basic black dress, there are 2 styles which work almost universally: the classic sleeveless sheath, and the classic long-sleeve bodycon. Ideally, both dresses should hit ABOVE the knee. If your legs look like sad tree trunks and/or you have knee jowls, then the ideal length is between the knee and calf — at the thinnest part of your leg. Any other length creates the potential for a visual nightmare. An alternative to lengthening the hem is wearing knee-high boots with opaque tights: boots balance out a form-fitting dress nicely, and conceal imperfections in tandem with smoothing tights. For those who are afraid to wear stuff that’s form-fitting, an amazing shape-saver (and shape concealer) is an all-over or side ruching: it smooths over fat, lumps, rolls, and all sorts of other problems, all the while creating a beautiful contour. Plenty of bodycon dresses are constructed with ruching details.
Cheap, well-made sheaths are a breeze to find, from Forever 21 to Calvin Klein to Zara. Cheap long sleeve bodycon dresses are even easier — if you’re in somewhat decent shape, you can get away with a basic cotton number from ASOS for under $40. Whenever possible, try stuff on in person, and stay away from cuts that are overly defined or embellished.
2. Trench coats are an absolute must. I recommend having a few in the arsenal: one in black, one in khaki, and one in a radiant hue. At least one trench should be seasonally universal, and at least one trench should have a zip-in/zip-out lining. Michael Kors and London Fog make amazing quality trenches on the cheap. A word of caution: always try on twill/cotton trenches in person before buying: they can feel like burlap-mâché and fit like crap. I’m looking at you, ill-fitting neon pink tulip butt trench coat from The Gap.
3. Classic dress pants are not a necessity, in my opinion. Dress pants have a tendency to fit poorly, probably because they’re cut for the petite, flat, mom butt shape. I am not saying that impeccably tailored dress pants do not exist, but finding them can be a challenge. Moreover, finding a reason to wear them can be an even bigger challenge. Unless you’re a cellist who routinely performs in a quartet (in which case your wardrobe probably resembles that of an MIB agent), or you are a prestigious dog handler who performs in dog shows more than once a year, whatever dress pants set out to accomplish can be easily outdone by a pencil skirt or a suit. Ixnay on the dress pants.
4. The white shirt dogma is singlehandedly the most ubiquitous (and unnecessary) trend I see among all essential list-makers in the fashion industry. Does every woman REALLY need a white shirt? Or any shirt, for that matter? Sure, an oxford will work well dressed up or down, with a suit or with shorts, tucked in or hanging out, but there are so many alternatives to this item that I cannot condone it as a wardrobe must. Think of all the caveats associated with a white shirt. White stains easily and is hard to clean. Any shirt requires extensive ironing and takes way too long to button up if the cuffs are the kind that button twice over your wrist. Worst of all, if you are like 72% of the female population, you loathe the fact that there is ALWAYS a gap between the buttons smack in the middle of your cleavage. Unbuttoning the shirt to remedy the gap looks really trashy; buttoning it up to the top makes the gap even worse. I know that some shirts are made to combat this problem, but frankly, I don’t like how constraining they feel regardless of how closely tailored they might be. A fine alternative to the white shirt is the white shell or white tee or white sweater or white cardigan: clean, simple, elegant, versatile. Stick with organic fibers (cotton, wool, silk) and all is well.
5. Obviously, jeans are a wardrobe must. So obvious, in fact, that they don’t warrant a spot on the top 10 list.
6. A cashmere sweater is a nice and unnecessary luxury, but, as I mentioned before, it’s expensive and hard to maintain. Cashmere pills and wrinkles like crazy, costs a fortune to buy and dry-clean, and it really only looks good the first time you wear it (unless you’re an ultra-neat person who never gets anything dirty or pilly or wrinkly, in which case, (a) I am super jealous of your skills, and (b) a cashmere sweater should probably be at the top of your list of essentials, along with 5 pairs of immaculate white Tods driving loafers, paper-thin silk blouses, and other delicate things that the average person can’t handle). For someone trying to build a sustainable wardrobe, I’d swap the cashmere sweater for a wool/cotton blend. If you really want to feel rich or fancy or cozy in a sweater, opt for a cable knit: they are usually as comfy as they look, with a touch of WASPy awesomeness, but they’re constructed firmly enough to last for a while. To seek out a quality for a low price, J. Crew is sweater heaven, as are the Gap, Ralph Lauren and Uniqlo (PS – if you do have to buy cashmere, Uniqlo is the place to get a good deal). Though I do not recommend merino wool sweaters (unless they are very thoughtfully woven, they have a tendency to pill, shrink and itch), any blend of mostly wool and cotton is great.
7. Skirts, too, are sponsored by Captain Obvious, but also with a footnote. Just as the BBD must have the proper shape and length, the skirt needs to meet the same requirements. The best all-around skirt for most people is the pencil skirt, with a center back zip (side zip tends to contribute to bunching and less-than-stellar fit), simple back vent (or kick pleat, so long as said kick pleat does not resemble a stubby tail), and a slight stretch. The condition of your legs, hips, and bum should dictate the length and tightness of the skirt. Colors, in order of importance: black, gray, navy, brights, prints. Lined wool blend skirts are the best, cotton blends are okay too. Silks require more finesse to wear. Stay away from ponte. Ann Taylor and Banana Republic always have great sales where you can find an awesome pencil skirt on the cheap. Just make sure to try them on in person, both stores seem to run 11 sizes too large. J. Crew has amazing skirts too. But you already knew that, because J. Crew has amazing everything. Note: this post is not sponsored by J. Crew (though by golly I wish it was!).
8. The term “Day Dress” sounds super matronly and daunting, and kind of reminds us of the fact that this list was clearly constructed for women, like, over 35 women, not young ladies trying to make sense of their post-college wardrobe. Nevertheless, Mr. Gunn is right. A day dress (ie a dress that’s too fancy for lounging, too casual for an evening event, but perfect for work) is an absolute wardrobe must, just ask the bottom rack of my color- and sleeve length-coded closet. The nice thing about a day dress is that once you pick one off the rack, your outfit is 90% set. Though I often layer dresses with cardigans and blazers (that’s 3 layers which are still insufficient to combat this glacial freeze wave we have going in New York right now!), a dress worn by itself makes the outfit equally pulled together. As with the BBD and skirt, the dress has to fit appropriately.
Assess your shape, your problem areas, and your wardrobe, and figure out what you’re missing and what will look best on you. For example, I disclose my hatred of my arms on a monthly basis. I hate them so much that I am rarely caught dead without a long-sleeved layer covering up their illogically protruding, flabby appearance. If you have unsightly arms too, you might want to invest less in sleeveless/cap sleeved dresses (nothing accentuates a fat tricep quite like a crepe cap sleeve) and more in 3/4 and full length sleeves. For this reason, I adore wrap and sweater dresses (they usually have longer sleeves), dresses with kimono/batwing/dolman sleeves (they hide EVERYTHING!!!), and all other dresses that flaunt everything but hide the arms. As a bonus, dresses that are constructed the kimono way are often balanced to emphasize a skinny waist and toned legs, so they are literally optimal for toned apple shapes. On the flipside, if you are ultra-toned up top but hate your ass or calves, go ahead and rock dresses that show off your arms and shoulders, but balance them out with a more demure length, a giving cut (A-line; fit and flare), and big chunky boots. Remember: if your dress flaunts everything and hides nothing, then you need to cover something up. One cut I don’t really recommend: the empire waist dress.
Day dresses are easy to find anywhere, just remember to stick to good materials and always assess how they will fit in with the rest of your wardrobe. It’s important to have a nice mix of solids and prints, jacquards and matelassés.
9. Blazers are a great staple, but, as with the white shirt, easily replaceable with something of similar utility, like a cardigan or even an indoor/outdoor leather jacket. My concern with blazers is that too many people don’t know what works for them, and it’s hard to find a blazer of that perfect length and proportion. If a dress has 4 points of measurement (bust, waist, hip, hem), the blazer has an additional 4 on top of that: sleeve length, cuff circumference, shoulder width, and shoulder height. Like a good man, a good blazer is hard to find.
The path to securing a suitable blazer is littered with a million caveats. Shoulders that are too padded result in a dated look; sleeves that are too long (or too short) look very sloppy; too tight a fit ensures the dreaded sausage effect; too loose a fit makes the blazer scream “hand-me-down!” Cropped blazers tend to look a bit puerile, or 80s, or unprofessional. ”Boyfriend” blazers can be hard to pull off without looking like a hipster or a college junior trying too hard at life and failing with flying colors. Double-breasted blazers, blazers with wide pinstripes, or blazers with too many buttons, ornamental lapels, cheesy sleeve ruching or rounded patch pockets tend to look tacky. If you’re sensing a pattern here, it’s that clean lines, close tailoring, and, above all, simplicity, are at the crux of a good blazer.
Because we’re all unique, there’s no single blazer that will look great on everyone. It’s important to try on a bunch of different styles from a few labels to see what works best. The best blazer I’ve ever come across? The 1035 jacket from J. Crew. It fits so nicely that it feels like it was cut to my specs. Banana Republic, on the other hand, does not work nearly as well for me — it favors double vents and shorter lengths, which are my 2 blazer no-nos. Alas, Zara blazers don’t fit me well either, which is a damn shame because their blazers are super cute. Moral of the story: do a thorough search of blazers in person, don’t settle for schlocky, and know what works for you.
Another quick unintentional ‘Crew plug: the best way to ensure that you have the best blazer, dress pant, and skirt for a reasonable price is to invest in a J. Crew suit. Their cuts are pretty forgiving and well-thought out, their quality is insane, and they have numerous coordinating styles in the same color and material. All of their suit pieces can be worn as separates (as they’re all impeccably tailored and cut for durability and versatility), which means that picking up a suit doubles the utility of each individual item. When J. Crew has their sales, you can score a suit for just over $100, which, considering what you’re getting, is a complete steal.
10. I don’t know what a Sweat Suit Alternative is, but I’m guessing it entails anything casual that doesn’t say JUICY on the ass. Instead of worrying about the details (or looking like a slob in oversize sweatpants), an acceptable scrubby outfit can be as simple as a pair of non-see-through leggings and a large, roomy sweater (or cardigan, or clean hoodie, or whatever). However, I’m pretty sure that if you’re building a wardrobe, you’re not starting from scratch, but from at least 4 giant tupperware bins of sorority sweatshirts, running pants, and hoodies which you wore to class for 4 years thinking that those clothes were total closet staples, so there’s a 120% chance that any college graduate trying to fill her closet with smart decisions does NOT have a shortage of SWEAT SUIT ALTERNATIVES. My guess is that Mr. Gunn is rallying for clean and presentable casual wear that doesn’t look like it was ripped off the pages of peopleofwalmart. And that is a fair point of concern: looking sloppy in public is not okay.
Questions for the readers: do you agree with Mr. Gunn’s top 10 list? What is it missing? And what’s your take on the importance of the white shirt?