Reader Request: Making Sense of “Must-have” Lists

style fashion must have list

Brenda popped this question into the suggestion box:

I’d like to hear more about how to use “the must have lists” of fashion as concepts instead of edicts. For example, I don’t wear black or white, so the LBD and the ubiquitous white shirt are never going to be in my closet.

Nearly every style guide includes a list of wardrobe staples, items that every fashionable woman simply MUST own. These garments and accessories are generally conservative, classic, and a bit dull … yet they are meant to form the foundation of every modern woman’s well-rounded wardrobe.

In my experience, these must-have lists are seldom helpful in generating productive shopping lists. Sure, they’re great jumping-off points if you’ve just graduated from college and have no idea how to transition from ripped jeans to business casual. But even then, most of those lists do not address the following issues:

  • Pieces like button-down shirts and pencil skirts do not work for all body shapes
  • In this day and age, buying a quality suit isn’t always a wise investment
  • Some of us just don’t LIKE pearls, dammit

There is no one-list-fits-all set of classic items that will suit every possible body type, budget, and lifestyle. Plus, so many must-have lists overlook bodily diversity. They offer up items that flatter only a small segment of the womanly population, and tell the rest of us to just keep looking until we find a trench coats that don’t make us feel like walking sacks of potatoes. And besides all that, few women could purchase a list of classic, must-have items and feel complete. These items may encompass a fashion icon’s ideal style, but they seldom reflect the wants and needs of us regular gals.

I am happy to say, “Screw the sanctioned must-haves! Choose your own wardrobe workhorses!” But since Brenda is hoping to take something useful from these lists, here’s what I’d recommend:

Analyze problematic items

If you don’t wear black and an LBD is never going to worm its way into your closet, think about what that dress represents in the context of a must-have list. It’s not the blackness so much as the versatility, classic styling, and subtle sexiness. Those characteristics can be found in a red dress, a navy dress, just about any dress that will work as a pivotal piece in your own wardrobe.

If an item on a wardrobe essentials list clashes with your own style, analyze that item and attempt to glean its essential traits.

Make substitutions

The next logical step is to swap in similar items. As mentioned in the example above, the LBD can be any color that suits you. If you’re told to buy diamond studs, feel free to go for CZ, Moissanite, or even a colored gem like amethyst or garnet. Black pumps are certainly classic, but if you can’t do heels go for a simple, versatile black flat.

If an item on a wardrobe essentials list just won’t work for you, swap in something similar that will.

Consider the classics

Very few lists of wardrobe must-haves will include polka-dot leggings, tiaras, or chartreuse skirts. Why? Because these lists are assembled from classic, time-tested, versatile pieces. Now, some more recent iterations will throw statement necklaces, skinny jeans, and other fairly recent favorites onto the fire, but the general idea is still to collect a bunch of items that work fairly well across time, stylistic preferences, and body types. Nearly all lists fail to actually DO that, but they try. And knowing a bit about what is considered “classic” can help shape your idea of style and fashion. Even if there isn’t a single item on Tim Gunn’s list that calls to you, knowing what he deems classic, time-tested, and versatile is good knowledge to bank.

Image courtesy J.Crew

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  • I think “must-have” lists can be helpful. Not everyone has a clear sense of what their style is, so having a list of what’s worked for others over time can help build a wardrobe. But I think the lists should be used merely as guidelines and not as the end-all, be-all of what to wear — that would be too boring.

  • Katharine

    Helpful if, as you say, one is a kid transitioning from student-wear to a formal office, or one REALLY doesn’t give a crap about fashion but for some reason still needs to present a put-together face to the world.

    However, even in those cases, I think such lists would be difficult to work with; after all, one needs to have a sense of classic vs. trendy and quality of construction to purchase such capsule basics successfully.

    For me, they are worse than useless; very few of the supposedly “classic” styles even suit my figure (button-up shirts? Wrap dresses? No.) and I’m not interested in the kind of image that sort of wardrobe would present — even as representative items, most things I see listed are not relevant to my interests. I am neither classic nor vaguely preppy, and most such lists seem to swing that way. So I mostly giggle at them and move on.

  • I recently read a post on Privilege (entitled “How Not To Wear Cardigans to Bangkok”) about designing a wardrobe around situation-specific requirements, so that you end up with a few outfits that are 100% right for each thing you have to do (but don’t necessarily have to play well together), rather than lots of outfits that are each only 80% right for things you have to do (or that’s my rough summary – the post is much more eloquent!). Would highly recommend it – Lisa’s writing is wonderful, as always. http://amidprivilege.com/2011/04/perfect-career-wardrobe/

  • elin

    I tend to over look the classics, so I find ‘must-have’ lists to be helpful in thinking about pieces that might fit in with the rest of my wardrobe. And then you can play with the classics, too, by keeping the shape similar or staying within the type of item, but mixing it up. For example, I have a trench coat, but it’s made for the rain and is black with small white polka dots. I love it and I get compliments on it every time I wear it.

  • Linda L

    I’ve always found the “must have” lists to be helpful to me – because I work in an office enviroment, I have a fairly easy to fit body, and my style leans towards classic most of the time. I get a ton of wear out of my white button downs, trench coats, dark wash jeans, wrap dresses, and pencil skirts. However, I work with a couple of woman who never wear skirts or dresses, another who hates collars, others with various hard to fit body issues and I can certainly see how one can look at these lists and say “I would never wear any of this!” So I think your advice is very sage – the articles cannot possibly address every single woman everywhere. The woman who hates collars could look for a collarless blouse or shell in a light neutral and find that it goes with every jacket and cardigan in her closet. The woman who doesn’t wear dresses can find a beautiful pant suit that she can wear to interviews or dress up for a holiday party.

    I think the general idea is to help women avoid those “I have nothing to wear” situations and have something to fall back on that always works, so you’re not stuck wearing an anorak over your interview suit or your scubby old khakis to a funeral. If you have those situations well in hand, maybe you don’t need the lists.

  • Lists have been the starting point in my style evolution.I started googling about how to make a wardrobe after my 3 children were born and I had nothing presentable to wear. Basics and lists were the first that gave me an understanding of what I need to be well dressed but mostly what are the qualities that my clothes need to have so that I look well dressed and stylish.

  • Aziraphale

    These lists aren’t bunk, but they are not perfect, either. I don’t think I could explain it better than you just did. I just googled Tim Gunn’s list of essentials, and it’s pretty good, actually. If you use it as a starting point, or as loose guidelines, it is kind of useful. (I notice it makes no mention of pearls). It is problematic mainly because the so-called “must-haves” do not suit all lifestyles and tastes. When are you going to need suit pieces if you work at Emily Carr school for art and design? What if you feel uncomfortable in a skirt? In jeans?

    But as far as body types, I saw nothing on that list that couldn’t be adapted to suit just about any body type. For example, while a nice dress shirt does not need to be white, in my opinion, it does need to fit well, and any woman with a bountiful rack is going to need to do some serious hunting to find one that fits her curves — or she’s going to need to visit the tailor. But that shirt would be useful in lots of ways, even if she never needs it for business wear. I wear mine all the time with anything from jeans to pencil skirts to a frayed denim mini. I don’t need it for office wear, but it’s great for adding a little polish to otherwise very casual outfits, or toning down the sexy in a pair of sky-high heels. I got along fine without one for years, but I knew that other women found them useful, so I started incorporating them into my wardrobe four or five years ago. I can’t deny that they have added a certain something to my wardrobe.

  • “Some of us just don’t LIKE pearls, dammit” – making me smile, Sally : > I agree with your advice- we have to adapt the “basics” to our own shape, vibe and lifestyle. I just don’t look good in a trench! But it’s a grand idea to have a foundation of basics – in my case, solid color full skirts, black and white tees, dark jeans and cardis – before we add the fun frosting.

    • M-C

      Oh, totally agree! If my grandmother didn’t feel like she had to do pearls, why should I inflict them on myself?!?
      I have good basics, but none of those lists ever corresponded even slightly with either my style or my lifestyle..

  • I always end up ignoring the “must have” lists. They always seem to be written for someone else’s life. The shoe lists are for someone who doesn’t have to stand or walk at work. The clothing lists are for someone who lives in a different climate, or for someone who works in a business semi-formal office. Maybe someday I will rise to an echelon of administrative power within my organization where it’s the “done thing” to wear a suit, but today ain’t that day and this year ain’t that year. Then there are the man-pleasing must have lists for women who want to be “sexy” — those also do not really fit my lifestyle. Maybe I should make a must-have list for thick-bodied middle-aged academics rocking Midwestern rugged straight lady style.

    • Angela

      Lol @ Cynthia

    • jos

      You should def. write that list!

  • I think the must have lists are good as a start, especially if you are just getting into business attire. You need to know what fits your body, though. Trench coats look horrendous on me, as I don’t have much difference between my waist and hips. You gave some good advice of looking at the list but finding the equivalent of what would work for your body and style. I look at those lists and think, “I have that and that, but no way would I wear this or this”. Like most lists, they are very generalized.

  • The answer I found to simplify my life and closet was to establish my own “uniform” of sorts. I prefer skirts and blouses so my summer wardrobe consists of a few solid skirts and blouses that I can dress up (or down) by the accessories (jewelry/shoes/purses) I wear with them. I have a somewhat casual lifestyle so I also have a few cotton print (home sewn) skirts and tank tops for fun days.

    In winter, I continue to wear my skirts and tops by layering with hoodies or cardigans and tights.

    I’ve found that I don’t have to have the latest fashion to be happy but I DO have to be ME to be comfortable and happy. 🙂

  • So many of those ‘must-have lists’ seem to be written from & for a certain dressy East Coast mentality & lifestyle that doesn’t apply to the more laid-back California world I live in. My fashion sense is more formal than those around me, but if I wore half of what any magazine or style guru suggested in those lists, I’d look totally out of place in the SF Bay Area! Even to a job interview!

    But the very rudimentary concepts those lists try to teach can be slightly useful: build a wardrobe of basics that can be dressed up & dressed down to suit different occasions; invest in flattering, high-quality classics that work in multiple situations; accessorize with less-expensive trendy pieces to look ‘in season.’

  • D

    The “must have” term really irks me, but I do concede that the lists can be somewhat helpful. I still don’t own a plain white button down, but I can get down with the spirit of it, and why people think they are classic.

    But yeah, at my last job steel toe boots and a hard hat were “must haves” sometimes, and I have never seen those mentioned on any list 🙂

  • I don’t really do “basics” I find I am ten million times happier with a wardrobe full of non-basic pieces mixed with other non-basics. It takes some time to learn how to wear things together and shop for a piece that’s interesting on it’s own, but looks good with everything else you own, but I have stopped thinking “oh I need a black skirt” or “white shirt”. I just don’t wear them.

    I DO have a wishlist, but it tends to be specific pieces I want to save up for. I’m a thrifter so I never know what is going to be a workhorse piece for me. I go into the shop with an open mind and think about everything in the context of my now-wardrobe, not my “what if I buy this and buy a red skirt to go with it” That leads to constant cyclical shopping and nothing that I really want to wear.

    Lists only make me feel like something is missing, and in reality I have a lot of great stuff with lots of potential for remixing.

  • Anne

    I certainly don’t think that the “Essentials lists” that are floating around the blogosphere are a one size fits all solution. I think they are helpful if you are at a transition point in your wardrobe, or, and I think these are the more helpful variety, when there is a look or style that you aspire to. I have Parisian Chic and The Lucky Guide to Mastering any Style ; I think they are great tools for giving an outfit or a wardrobe a very focused look. I think in general these rather generic lists can convince you to buy items that you really don’t need. Here’s an example: almost every list says that a woman needs a trench coat. I bought one, then moved to the high mountain desert to live for 13 years. That trench just collected dust. My insulated barn jacket: I wore it to tatters.

    I have started seeing some stylist and fashion bloggers using capsule wardrobes and to me they seem a much more effective tool. Imogene from Inside out style and Angie from You Look Fab do a really great job with these. The capsules require fewer items and seem to be a bit more focused.

    My final two cents: I think defaulting to these lists is a bit of a cop out. If you are looking to these lists to outfit yourself, I think this means you would like to be well dressed and prepared for the events in your life. I think to do that effectively you really need to do some reflecting and analyzing about your lifestyle. Most of us don’t want to sit around thinking about what we need, we just want to go get some stuff and be done with it.

  • Classics are my style, and I really like black and white and pearls, so those must-have lists really work for me 🙂 I like having basic classic items that will never go out of style that I can then combine with trendy items for lots of different looks. I totally agree with analyzing the item and substituting something with the same qualities, like something other than a white button up shirt or black pumps.

  • I really like the ‘use case’ analogy; thanks for that link, Eudoxia. I have gotten to the point that I don’t think these lists are useful for much. So many people live a much more casual lifestyle these days, and the prevalence of fast fashion, love it or hate it, means that most of us can stay pretty current for a low cost, so we really don’t have to do “investment dressing” like our moms and grans did – are we really going to wear the same LBD to funerals/suit to job interviews for twenty years? About the only thing that I would consider a ‘must-have’ these days would be a pair of dark-wash jeans, but then again I know people who never wear jeans and ladies who only wear skirts, so even that rule isn’t a hard and fast one.

    • AnnR

      I like the “use case” analogy too.

      What most women “must have” are clothes to meet the needs of their daily life.

      For me that means a minimum of 5 items to wear to work and enough underware to go at least a 7 days without doing laundry. It’s clothes to wear at home and on weekends so I don’t trash my work clothes. It’s something to keep warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

      Rather than focus on items, my focus is on actions.

  • Shaye

    I feel like I ignore these lists, but I’ve obviously internalized them, because even though I’ve never owned a single button-down that fit me properly or that I found comfortable, I’m still looking for the perfect crisp white cotton shirt.

    I think I’m subconciously convinced it would make me look glamorous, classic and sleek, rather than like the bra-revealing, wrinkled, food- and pit- stained frump I logically know it would, even if it did fit.

    Yet every time I see a rack of high-quality white button-downs, I’m right there, browsing for my size (which, in the world of button-downs, doesn’t actually exist).

  • Lydia

    I think lists are .usually generated for ‘someone’ else’s life’ as another commenter mentioned. Usually, it is someone in fashion (Tim Gunn, Stacey & Clinton), who ha.ve.s a specific stereotype/ perception of what a particular profession may want to ‘project’ when in fact, the reality of day to day work is quite different.

    I do agree with many other commenters though, that lists may be a staring point. I have never been into LBDs or white shirts (do not like those colours too much on my top half), but I like yellow and inky blue instead. Many of my colleagues ‘follow’ the list — I see some in only neutrals, black, white — It suits them, but I think the ‘list’ or being seen as different scares them somewhat. Again, I am not saying that my preferences, or that their adherence to the ‘must haves’ is good or bad; I simply think that when they see someone who does not follow the must haves, they veiw that person as being out of touch, rather than seeing themselves as wanting to conform (which is fine too). I had a woman declare to me once at work that she only wore black and white — she said this when I was wearing red — this is what lead me to write this — hope it makes sense.

    • Sue

      Lydia, I think I’d have been tempted to say something sarcastic like “what a shame. don’t you have any pretty colours in your wardrobe then?” Or just “Boring!” Not that I have anything against black and white I hasten to add, but I do like colour more.

  • I think they’re useful if you use them with several grains of salt and a very loose translation.

    So instead of trench coat (which makes me look like a badly tied sack of wheat) – think versatile overcoat of some sort. This then takes into account your local climate, your life and clothing preferences. Me, I end up with several jackets of different lengths and styles (actually, spouse would much rather I didn’t acquire any more) that suit 3 of our 4 definite seasons.

    And while I do have classic button downs, I find it helpful to think – basic tops. Then – what colours, styles, necklines am I going to get the most mileage from? Perhaps surprisingly, good basic tops can be the hardest pieces to find. And a useful hint when looking for a good shirt – check out the men’s racks. As long as it fits around the chest, the rest of it can be dealt with by a good tailor.

  • Lucy

    I get frustrated because I work in a casual office. Proper casual, in that everyone wears jeans, maxi dresses, flat sandals, crazy coloured tights.. even the MD wears a check shirt and jeans. There’s this attitude on blogs that anyone who really thinks they will be taken seriously going to work in jeans and trainers are in denial and should be wearing trousers, wrap tops or shirts and at least a low heel or 2. I don’t need a suit, court shoes, or a sensible handbag.

  • Jenni

    thanks for this post, sally. in a round-about way (that started with me making a list of my work wardrobe basics), it led me to a fairly major revelation that i have unconsciously chosen jobs/workplaces/career paths based on what i want to wear! (ie, how clothes make me feel – both the physical contact of fabrics on my skin and how they make me feel emotionally about my body, and only choosing work environments where i feel like i can have a certain level of comfort in my clothes.) does this sound super weird? i just realized that it’s totally backwards from most people’s idea of effective career dressing: analyzing your work environment and choosing clothes you need to fit in / excel there. huh. learn something new every day. i didn’t even realize i was doing this and how big a role it was playing in my choices.

  • Irene E

    I will admit, Tim Gunn got me to re-consider the idea of trench coats, and a couple years ago, my MIL bought me a lovely dark red hooded trench that I love for fall and spring. It has turned out to be the perfect fall/spring layer, especially considering how rainy it has been the past few years (which made my other nice lightweight jacket, in suede, very impractical!) I don’t wear it when I want to be super casual, but it works well for many levels of business casual, which is my usual weekday uniform.

    I also think it is useful to have at least one outfit that is appropriate to wear to a more formal event, whether celebratory or not (wedding or a funeral) if needed on short notice. Even if your life doesn’t tend to include such events on a regular basis.

    (But I still don’t have a white button down shirt. Sorry.)

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  • Sabrina

    Sally, I’m so happy to be catching up on your thought-provoking posts, now that I’ve discovered your blog! Thank you!

    For those looking for an alternative interpretation of Tim Gunn’s “must have” list, Imogen did a closely-related post in which she lays out her suggestions (which are modified to suit a wider variety of color palettes and personal styles).
    http://www.insideoutstyleblog.com/2012/07/what-every-woman-should-have-in-her-wardrobe.html
    She makes it very clear, however, that such lists are just a jumping off point, to help folks think about different sorts of clothing they might want, to be prepared for a variety of situations. Their personal style, taste, climate and activities might lead them to disregard certain items entirely.