There are some woefully neglected pieces in a lot of women’s wardrobes, and that is the basics. Basics are those supporting players in your wardrobe that work with absolutely everything. They give you endless outfit combinations and pair well with the unique stand-out pieces that give your wardrobe a lot of style. 

When it comes down to it, basics are the secret to any mix and match, cohesive, easy wardrobe. Whether you create a wardrobe on your own, or grab our Capsule Guides, it’s important to start with the building block pieces and then add in the fun stuff! 

So let’s dive in and get back to the basics. 

What are Basics?

First, let’s really define what these pieces are.  There’s a lot of confusion, and just different opinions on what constitutes a basic.  Often when you google “wardrobe basics” you end up with a list of wardrobe must-haves or wardrobe essentials.  

I’m not a fan of these generic must-have lists, because they always include things like a white button-down shirt. In my experience, most women struggle to find one that fits properly, or suits their lifestyle. 

I don’t necessarily consider all wardrobe essentials to be basics either. There’s actually an important distinction.  All basics are essential, but not all essentials are basics.

This article from Refinery 29 has some great points about basics, but doesn’t exactly match what I consider basics. It starts out, “We know the hallmarks of a basic when we see them. They’re usually white or black. They’re simple and unobtrusive. And, in most cases, they can be totally predictable.” I agree to most of that, except I would change “black and white” to neutrals.  

It goes on to say, “It’s not just a neutral, safe silhouette that’s bound to complement everything — although we do appreciate that quality in our clothes.”

Here’s where I’d argue a bit.  Maybe it’s not just a neutral, safe silhouette, but that’s where every woman should start when building a great wardrobe. If you don’t have those neutral, safe silhouettes that complement everything, your wardrobe probably isn’t as efficient as it could be, and before you go breaking out of the basics box, you really should start there.  

So here’s my definition: Simple, unobtrusive, totally predictable pieces, in neutral and safe colors and silhouettes that complement everything.  Thank you to Refinery 29 for giving me the words, even though I twisted them from their original intent.  

Here’s what I want to point out though. This episode is not about the importance of basics–because you’re probably thinking, “well I have all of those things, so why isn’t my wardrobe coming together?’.  This episode is about the importance of great basics.  

In order for a basic to be great, it needs to be all those things–simple, unobtrusive, complements everything–but it also needs to complement you, fit you well, and be in good shape.  Most everyone has plain dark jeans, but a lot of women don’t have plain dark jeans that fit well, aren’t saggy, and haven’t faded and gotten sad. 

That’s the difference.  

Why are Basics so Important in Your Wardrobe?

It’s important to fill the basics gap in your wardrobe and/or upgrade your basics to have both form and function. Form is about how things look. Function is about how things work.  

Basics in general are about function. I used to see a lot of what I called “log jam” wardrobes, where my client had a ton of clothes, but she couldn’t wear a lot of them. Those poor clothes were just stuck in there, and they need a way to be able to get out of there.  I had a client with probably 30 cardigans that she couldn’t wear because she didn’t have anything to wear under them.  A simple, plain, good-fitting tee with a basic neckline freed all the cardigans.  It cleared the cardigan log jam. You may have interesting pieces in your closet, but if you’re missing the basics to go with them, they’re going to sit in your closet. 

Great Basics, on the other hand, are about form. The more simple the piece, the better condition and fit it needs to have. Condition and quality come through loud and clear in your basics.This is one reason jeans and a white tee can look like a million bucks or jeans and a white tee can look frumpy and dumpy. Great basics elevate things, bad basics bring them down. So if you have a closet that has fun, stylish, standout pieces, but they always feel off for some reason, check your basics. Check the quality, check the fit. Upgrade if you need to, and then reevaluate. 

Why Don’t Most Women Have Great Basics?

Given how much these simple, unobtrusive, items do in wardrobes, as a one-on-one stylist, I was surprised to see how many women didn’t have great basics or enough basics at all. There are a few reasons for this. 

First, I don’t think we really understand the impact great basics have on our wardrobes. We kind of think a tee is a tee, jeans are jeans, and that one piece doesn’t necessarily impact the way another does. I talked about this in our recent episode about how to look put-together. The fit and condition of simple things is just so, so important, and once you see what a huge difference it makes to your overall wardrobe, you can’t unsee it.

The other reason women don’t have these wardrobe building blocks has to do with how we shop.  Most women shop recreationally, or at least unintentionally. Recreational shopping is what happens when you shop for fun. Unintentional shopping happens when you shop without a plan.  Both scenarios are gathering approaches, and we collect things that will have an instant visual impact on our style.  Nobody goes “just browsing” and comes back with a pair of black pants that fit like a million bucks, go with everything, and cost more than you probably wanted to spend.  Items like that are acquired through hunting, not gathering.  Gathering creates the wardrobe log jam, hunting clears it.  So if your wardrobe building approach doesn’t include any hunting, you may not have great basics. 

How Much Should You Spend on Basics?

The last reason women don’t have great basics is that it’s not fun to spend the money on things you don’t think have an impact on your style, even though by now, you know they’re super important. 

There are a couple of schools of thought on how much to spend on basics. There are those who say you should invest in great basics because you’ll have them forever.  Others say you shouldn’t spend a lot, so you can replace them often. 

In my opinion, regardless of whether an item is a basic or not, I encourage you to stick to my wardrobe-budgeting philosophy, which is to splurge on underwear and outerwear, spend on the bottom, and save on the top.  There’s no reason to invest a lot in basic white t-shirts–they will need to be replaced more often. Expensive tees stain just as easily as inexpensive ones. Bottoms, on the other hand, always show quality more than tops, so you should spend a little more there.   

What Basics Do I Need?

I know that everyone wants a list of what basics they need.  If I put “white t-shirts” on that list, I’m going to hear from the people who never wear white because it is not their color. If I say you need a pencil skirt, there will be those who say they never wear skirts, or pencil skirts aren’t the best for them.  

So instead, let’s focus on categories, not specific pieces. 

Your basics should be shapes and colors you like best on you, in silhouettes that make sense for your lifestyle. For example, instead of saying you need a white shirt and a black blazer, I say you need layers–base layers, like white tees or an ivory shell, and top layers, like a navy blazer or black cardigan. 

Go through the wardrobe categories like tops, bottoms, dresses, and accessories and think through what pieces and in what colors would make it easy to get dressed.

Think about tops–base layers, top layers, and stand-alone pieces, like sweaters.

Consider bottoms like skirts, pants, shorts, jeans.

Think about dresses for each season, and shoes for each area of your life, whether it’s work or running errands. 

When you’re thinking through these things, it’s easy to think, “Oh, I couldn’t live without that floral dress I love, so it must be a wardrobe basic”.  Or to think about a really fabulous pair of stand-out shoes, and put those in your basics list because you love them so much. 

But, remember the definition of basics–they’re not the standouts. They’re the simple, unobtrusive, pieces that work with just about anything. The magic of basics is that they make other things look great–not that they steal the show on their own.

How do Basics and Essentials Differ?

When you’re talking about things in your wardrobe you love, things you couldn’t live without, things that bring your style to life, you’re talking about Wardrobe Essentials.  We have a list of 100 Wardrobe Essentials you can download and on it are things like a statement skirt and a special occasion dress.  Those are not basic. They’re not going to go with everything and maximize the versatility of your wardrobe. They’re meant to bring your style to life. There are definitely some basics on there too, but the whole list is meant to spark ideas about what you need to create a fabulous, functional wardrobe for yourself. It’s not meant to be a shopping list of pieces every women needs.

So while some basics might be essentials, and some of your essentials might be basics, there is a difference, and I think that’s where the majority of these internet “must-have” lists go wrong.

How Much of Your Wardrobe Should Be Basic?

There’s no wardrobe formula, you’ve got to find the right balance for yourself. A couple of things to consider:

When your wardrobe is full of nothing but basics, it can be a little dull. If your style is simple, look for pieces that go beyond basic–that add a little texture or pattern. This will keep your style from becoming too basic.

But, not having enough basics makes your wardrobe less efficient. The fewer basics you have, the more clothes you need. For example, if you have multiple pairs of black pants and one can only be worn with heels, one that has a texture that doesn’t always work with everything and another that has a high paper bag waist, that’s less efficient than one pair of great basic black pants that can go with everything. 

When we put our Capsule Guides together we start with the basics–we start with the kind of boring, building block pieces, and then we add the fun stuff–the colors, the patterns, the trending silhouettes. If we started with the fun stuff and then added in the basics, we’d end up with way more pieces, and way fewer outfit combinations.

There is nothing wrong with having interesting clothes–I highly encourage it, but basics are a really important part of every wardrobe.

Speaking of Capsule Guides, the Winter Capsule, with all of its basics and Trendy stand-out pieces, is coming out next week! It is so pretty and fun, and if you’re tired of all the warm neutrals we’ve been seeing lately, I think you’re going to love it!

I hope this encourages you to think about the basics in your wardrobe–whether you’re missing some, or yours could use a bit of an upgrade  These items are money well spent in your wardrobe, so don’t neglect them!

Additional Links & Resources from the Episode:

Need Holiday Outfit Ideas? Check out Episode 20 or Episode 79

Find the perfect gift doesn’t have to be difficult! Turn to Episode 81 for a great Holiday Gift Guide.

Great Basics & Stitchfix? Find my thoughts in Episode 58.

Grab the 100 Wardrobe Essentials Checklist!

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