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How to Wear and Shop for Wardrobe Basics

Jayne has pursued a successful career in the beauty business for almost 20 years, where grooming and immaculate dress are paramount.

Whether you're on a tight budget or you just want to be more organized, wardrobe basics make quality affordable and keep everything streamlined. All you need to know about wearing and shopping for wardrobe basics.

If you find yourself in less formal surroundings, you could buy separate jeans and jackets in place of suits, but stick to the color schemes suggested.

If you find yourself in less formal surroundings, you could buy separate jeans and jackets in place of suits, but stick to the color schemes suggested.

Why Wardrobe Basics?

I've always been in the beauty business in one way or another, which means perfect grooming has always been a must; even when I was completing my first apprenticeship as a hairdresser and earning a pittance.

Back then, I bought my makeup for next to nothing from Woolworth's and got my hair done for free at the salon. But affording decent clothes was a huge problem. Although the kind of stuff they sold at the Sunday open market was cheap, it was also badly made, and I usually ran into half a dozen other girls who were wearing exactly the same thing.

The Challenge

Dissatisfied with the junk in my closet, I eventually devised a way of putting together a wardrobe of well-made, interchangeable basics that emphasized quality rather than quantity. The challenge was to create as many unique outfits as possible with the fewest clothes possible. Of course, no matter how basic, replacing an entire wardrobe costs a fortune. The secret is not to buy everything at once but by season.

If you buy wisely, you'll have a complete wardrobe of good quality garments after just four seasons with everything you need for work and play. And you won't feel the pinch.

I still use this system today, not only because it makes good clothes affordable, but because it keeps my wardrobe manageable.

What Are Wardrobe Basics?

Skirts, pants, suits, dresses, tops, blouses, sweaters, jackets and coats are the basic items every well-dressed woman needs in her closet. They are 'wardrobe basics'.

For a workable wardrobe, your basics should be of solid, neutral, interchangeable colors: darker for fall and winter, and lighter for spring and summer. You can buy blouses and tops in matching colors from the color wheel (see below), but if you're on a tight budget, it's better to keep these neutral, too. Use accessories and costume jewelry to add color.

Wardrobe basics should be made to last. You need classic designs that won't go out of fashion too quickly. Before buying, examine cut, texture and color.

The Color Wheel

Primary colors are red, yellow and blue. Mixtures of these are secondary; orange, purple and green. Those that merge on the wheel, like reddish-purple, are tertiary. A primary color and its opposite secondary color, like orange and blue, are complementary colors.


Warm and Cool Colors

Neutral colors are those that do not appear on the color wheel, like brown, black, white, taupe and gray. Their undertone determines their degree of warmth and which colors they can be matched with. Warm gray, for example, has a yellow undertone, while cool, steel gray has a blue undertone. A warm brown has more red than a cool brown, which is also less saturated. You could match a warm gray with a rich burgundy, and cool brown with pale blue.

Which Colors Suit You?

You can tell what type of colors flatter you by looking in a mirror in a fluorescent-lit room and holding a piece of pure white fabric to your neck. If your face looks sallow, yellow-ish, olive or golden, you need warm colors. If your face looks rosy or pink, you need cool colors.


Pay as much attention to texture as you do to color.

Rough or heavy textures should be contrasted with smooth textures to set off their structure. A tweed suit, for example, looks better with a plain cotton blouse than with a heavily textured Aran sweater. On the other hand, a flimsy or glossy fabric that bears no qualitative similarity to tweed wouldn't look good, either.

Or consider a silver sequined party dress. It would look better with a black or white patent leather purse than with a glittery or matte one.


Cut is important because it determines how well a garment 'hangs', and how comfortable you feel wearing it. Comfort ensures free, natural movement. Armholes that bind, for example, will make you appear stiff and undermine poise.

If you own a garment you love too much to throw away, but it doesn't quite look or feel right, take it to a dressmaker who might be able to alter it.

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Think of all the things you could do to a little black dress.

Think of all the things you could do to a little black dress.


The only thing that should be fashionable about a wardrobe basic is its cut. A garment with faddy trimmings can't be termed a 'basic', and will be out of style almost as soon as you take it out of the store.

But faddy accessories are very useful. Shoes, bags, belts, scarves and costume jewelry are what keep wardrobe basics looking interesting, colorful and up to date. They help you vary your look in spite of few garments.

Glamorize a pair of white pants and a white top by adding a gold belt and bag, and a pair of strappy spike heels. Dress up a plain overcoat with a faux fur boa around the neck. And think of all the things you could do to a little black dress.

If you use accessories well, nobody will ever notice you've been wearing the same clothes for the past three years.

How to Shop for Wardrobe Basics

Buy according to season. Lighter spring and summer clothes tend to be less expensive than heavier winter garments, so this is the best time to start shopping if you haven't got much money. You should have most of what you need before summer is over, which means you'll be able to start saving for your winter wardrobe.

Your clothes should correspond with your lifestyle and/or job. The following wardrobe suggestion would work well for an office or corporate worker:

  • Two or three pant/skirt suits in black, gray and cool brown to provide all the skirts, pants and jackets you need, which you can mix and match.
  • Three (low-cut) tops and three blouses in colors that match all three suits.
  • Two or three elegant sweaters in the same colors as the suits.
  • A black, gray or cool brown coat.
  • Two black jersey dresses for formal occasions; one short and one long.

Alternative colors for suits are navy, taupe/beige and white depending on the environment. The only trouble with navy, which is a corporate favorite, is that it doesn't go well with black and brown, so it may limit mixing and matching ability.

If you find yourself in less formal surroundings, you could buy separate jeans and jackets in place of suits, but stick to the color schemes suggested.

You Don't Need an Extensive Wardrobe

With just a few basics, you'll never be short of something to wear, no matter what the occasion. And you'll never look as though you wear the same thing more than a couple of times with good mixing and matching and proper use of accessories.

A less extensive wardrobe certainly doesn't have to be a limiting one!

© 2010 Jayne Lancer


mysisters on January 19, 2011:

Nice Hub. These are wonderful tips. Its good to have staple pieces in your wardrobe that you can mix and match also. Skirts,dresses, suit jacket, pencil skirt, etc.

Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on March 26, 2010:

Just keep everything simple and managable, and you'll be fine. I've yet to write about accessories etc., but have to get those make-up Hubs out of the way; did you ever wish you'd never started something?

I'm glad my suggestions are of some help. Any more questions, don't hesitate to ask.

And thank you for reading!

Mental Ink from Metro Atlanta on March 26, 2010:

Great advice even I can follow. Reading your hubs is making me feel less anxious about clothes shopping; a task I really hate unless I am on a mission to find something specfic.

Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on March 24, 2010:

Yes, I'd recently featured a photo on Lauren Bacall in another Hub, to demonstrate how fantastic a woman can look regardless of age; but with proper skin care, of course.

Glad you found the colour wheel useful. Although most of us are well able to judge colour instinctively, a basic knowledge can confirm our instincts, making us more certain in our choices.

Thank you for coming by!

VeggieJenn on March 24, 2010:

hi Jane, great info, especially the color wheel and yes, I agree with your comment above, Lauren Bacall looks amazing! And is so charming.

Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on March 07, 2010:

I'm still up, watching the Oscars and writing a new Hub. Doesn't Lauren Bacall look fabulous at 86? She certainly does!

Ana, I'm so pleased you've learned something from my Hub. My suggestions are for any woman of any age. I hope you do change your wardrobe, if that's what you feel you need to do. You'll certainly find it worthwhile; especially if you do it with system.

Ana_Fabiola_H on March 07, 2010:

wow...i just learned a whole lot. I like reading articles like this too. I am always wanting to change up my wardrobe I just havn't but I defenitely liked what I read:]

Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on February 08, 2010:

You certainly don't seem like a 'slouch' to me. I think we can all learn from one another. Thank you for taking the time.

Alfreta Sailor from Southern California on February 08, 2010:

I learned a little about fashion when I worked retail, but next to you I'm a slouch. I really like articles like these, looking forward to more.

Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on January 28, 2010:

Yes, I've seen SteinMart on the Web. They seem to have a great selection. Unfortunately, we don't have it here in the UK.

Spending a little more on less always pays off if you want quality, and to actually enjoy wearing what you have.

Thank you for commenting!

Julianna from SomeWhere Out There on January 28, 2010:

These are wonderful tips! Personally I love skirts and dresses and trousers, I love shopping at SteinMart because I save and I always go for the quality it last longer then things that cost a little less. Sometimes you end up spending more on less.:)

Jayne Lancer (author) from West London, UK on January 26, 2010:

Thank you very much for the nice comment, and for confirming that my suggestions really do make sense.

I thought the picture at the start nicely demonstrated how a simple outfit can take on new dimensions with the addition of a simple accessory, in this case a hat (the shoes are gorgeous too), not to mention the stunning effect neutral colours can have.

With spring just around the corner, I guess I'd better get down to writing again. We 'need' to accessorize our new wardrobe ...

rontlog from England on January 26, 2010:

Hi Jayne,

a stylish, well written hub, with a great picture at the start.

Two years ago, I decided to start shopping just twice a year and concentrate on building up a wardrobe of basics, that match my lifestyle, which you also recommend. I found that planning and building a wardrobe in this way does pay off eventually, as all I "need" to buy this spring is a pair of flat shoes for work. The rest of my clothes budget I plan to spend on the fun stuff, so I look forward to reading your next hub on that.

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