Bulletproof your wardrobe - Ten basic pieces

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I have a confession: I am the only woman in my group of friends who is not addicted to Mad Men.  Shocking, I know!  Particularly since the draw of the show appears to be, in large measure, the clothes.  

(I plan to get caught up soon, and then I know I'll be totally hooked.)  

Once upon a time, not so long ago, women got dressed every day, regardless of what they were doing.  There were no yoga pants, and jeans were for weekends only, and even then they were typically reserved for yard work.  The day dress was ubiquitous and pretty shoes were a must-have.

Today, women have more options, both in terms of what we do all day and what we wear while we're doing it.  But while it may be fine to go to your casual office in jeans, or to work at home in your yoga pants, it's worth the effort and investment to have a core wardrobe of office-appropriate basics in your closet, just in case.  

What do you need?  Not much, really.

Tailored jacket in a neutral color.  Steer clear of girly details -- ruffles, for example -- and look for a shape that is sleek and slim.  But don't default to the women's version of his jacket; tailored doesn't mean masculine.  Look for a jacket that fits your shape, and please, don't buy it unless you can button it. 

Tailored pants in a neutral color.  Choose a shape and style that flatter your figure, and a color that will work with everything you own.  Black is the typical default, but think about gray or brown or camel; a subtle houndstooth or tweed is also an option.  The most versatile option is a three-season wool, in a boot cut.  Hem them for whatever shoes you will wear most often.  Alternatively, opt for a skirt, also in a three-season wool, also in a neutral color, if you think you will wear that more.

Day dress. Perfect for travel, or for those mornings when it is just too damn hard to make a decision about what top goes with what bottom.  Shirtdresses are great because they are tailored and crisp, but a sheath dress works well too.  Wear on its own or with a cardigan or jacket; pair with boots or pumps, depending on your schedule.

A fabulous sweater.  Choose a shape that is flattering and functional; cardigans are great for cold offices, while turtlenecks are useful in cold climates.  Pick a color that flatters you, something that makes you look healthy and awake (reds and pinks are good for this, as long as you don't go too over-the-top). 

A selection of great tops.  Look for pieces that can stand on their own or go under your jacket, either a beautiful blouse or a menswear-inspired shirt -- something dressier than a t-shirt, though.

Trench coat.  The trench coat is the perfect outwear layer; for any weather that is not extreme (sweltering heat, freezing cold) it is exactly the right layer.  If you live in a cooler climate, look for a trench with a zip-out lining.  Stay with a neutral shade, but don't assume that your only options are black and khaki.  

The right underwear.  Bras that fit properly, underpants that don't ride up, stockings or tights that don't have holes or runs.  The most beautiful dress looks less beautiful over a bra that is the wrong size, while a good bra can transform a basic tee into a work-appropriate top.

A really good pair of shoes.  Pumps are always appropriate, but if that's not your style you can look for embellished flats or great boots.  A pointy toe is dressier than a round toe, particularly if you're looking at flats and boots.  A neutral color is always appropriate, but shoes are a great place to add some personality to your basics.  

A beautiful bag.  Look for one that is large enough to hold whatever it is you need to tote during the day, but don't buy something that will carry the kitchen sink.  Files, your laptop, cell phone and wallet -- that's about it.  There's no reason to lug your entire makeup bag or three sippy cups to the office, and you certainly don't want those things tumbling out during a meeting or job interview.

A professional hair cut.  By "professional" I mean both one that looks appropriately work-ready and one that has been done for you by someone with hair cutting experience.  

Don't save these pieces for that as-yet-unscheduled meeting or interview; wear them during your normal day and get used to how they fit and feel.  Pair the jacket with your jeans, or the trousers with a tee -- and then, when you need to get all gussied up to go meet and greet, you won't be worried about your clothes.

And while you're shopping, keep in mind that there are a few things to skip:

Bracelet-length sleeves.  Shorter sleeves are fine for evening, but not for the office.

Peep toed shoes.  Again, great for evening, but not really appropriate for work, particularly if you're angling for a promotion or just trying to keep your job.

Embellished sweaters.  Beautiful buttons are fine, but embroidered flowers are not.

Anything pilled, stained, torn, or otherwise sad looking.  I don't even have to explain this, do I?

Pieces that don't fit your body, your age, or your job.  Skip the short skirts, baggy pants, and low cut everything.

Need more details?  Real Simple's Essentials for a Well-Balanced Wardrobe walks you through various pieces that ought to live in your closet, while Tim Gunn has his own top ten list.  And High Fashion Girl makes a really good argument about how basics lower your stress level.

Susan Wagner writes about style at ParentDish, and about everything else at Friday Playdate.  She'll be busting out her black pencil skirt, a gray turtleneck, and some pointy boots for yet another business casual meeting next week.


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