Essentials in My Curated Closet

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Are maybe getting sick and tired of hearing about curated closets? About wardrobe essentials, and what we need to make a perfect capsule wardrobe? I am too, my friends. A little. But that doesn’t mean that we should stop thinking about, or reading about curating our closets. Not at all. Especially if the articles and videos we read and watch give us ideas on how to tackle our own closet. What we need to do is sift carefully through all the hyperbolic palaver in those capsule wardrobe articles, and on retail websites that are trying to sell us the perfect pieces for our perfectly curated closet. Because many times we already own perfect pieces. We just need to identify them, and style them in new ways that makes us appreciate their perfection.

These perfect pieces, whatever they are, are really the essential building blocks in our own curated closet.

Lady in black on the riverbank. Max Mara jacket, Vince leggings, Gap sweater, Fossil bag, boots from Brown's Shoes.
Some of my wardrobe essentials: black jacket, leggings, knee-high boots.

Apparently selling consumers on the need for “essential pieces” in our wardrobes is a growth business these days. In her article “The Secrets of a Perfect Capsule Wardrobe” in The Wall Street Journal, Jenny Hartman explains how Natalie Kingham of the high-end retailer Matchesfashion created a Wardrobe Foundations section on the Matchesfashion website during the pandemic. Kingham says when women were “stuck at home” they realized that they needed essential pieces, like the perfect white tank top and good quality leggings. “A lot of brands are looking at wardrobe foundations… and realizing that there’s an opportunity there,” she adds.

Other retailers are following suit and taking advantage of the desire for easy-to-style wardrobe essentials. Wardrobe NYC, according to Hartman’s article, offers prepackaged sets of wardrobe basics based on the styling work of its owner Christine Centenera. Designer Misha Nonoo created a collection she calls “The Perfect Ten,” a carefully edited capsule of ten pieces for women who want to invest in a “streamlined” wardrobe. Hartman observes in her article that this recent focus by brands on wardrobe essentials is simply a new spin on Donna Karan’s “Seven Easy Pieces” from the eighties. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Quite the contrary. When retailers respond to what women want, that’s always good.

Of course these brands hope we will purchase their essential pieces, chosen to make getting dressed easier because they’ve already told us what works with what. But I think we should ignore the idea that these carefully edited selections of “essential” pieces are meant to constitute a shopping list. And instead look upon articles like the one in WSJ, and the curated offerings of Matchesfashion or Wardrobe NYC as inspiration to help us shop our own closet.

Seriously, take a quick look at the pieces featured in the Matchesfashion Wardrobe Foundations. How many of them do you already own? They don’t have to be exactly the same, just similar. I’ll bet you own ankle boots. Maybe not as chunky as the current trend, but we don’t want them that chunky anyway, do we? How about a fisherman knit cardigan, straight-leg jeans, a denim shirt, down coat, heavy woolen turtleneck sweater? As long as the pieces you own still fit and are in good condition, why would you need to buy new ones?

Instead of shopping, what you might want to do is to play around with the “essential pieces” you already own to see if you can get excited about wearing them again. That’s what I did earlier this week with an old pair of black Vince leggings purchased on a trip to Montreal in the winter of 2016.

I thought I might be done with leggings. But these Vince ones (similar from Eileen Fisher) are still in really good shape. And I hoped that wearing them with my new black, knee-high boots would make them cool again, for me. So I tried the leggings with a black turtleneck from Vince, my ancient black Max Mara blazer, my new boots, and a sweater draped over the jacket.

At first I threw on an oversized grey turtleneck from Vince, and carried my grey AllSaints cross-body bag. This look, above left, was okay. But only okay. Was it the sweater? Maybe the ribbing on the arms and along the sides made it look too obviously like a sweater, instead of a sweater-as-scarf? Maybe the look was too dull, with only two colours. Did the grey bag look too insubstantial? Whatever it was, the outfit just wasn’t doing it for me.

Then I changed up the grey sweater for this old cream mock-turtleneck from Gap. And switched the bag for my new cognac Jolie Hobo shoulder bag from Fossil. Ah. This was more like it. I love the cream sweater with my white hair. And the cognac bag is a deeper colour than the grey one, and can hold its own better with all that black. Plus it adds a third colour, and makes the outfit a bit more interesting. This combination just works. I don’t have to over-analyze it… it just works.

Lady in black on the riverbank. Max Mara jacket, Vince leggings, Gap sweater, Fossil bag, boots from Brown's Shoes.
This is much better
Lady in black. Max Mara jacket, Vince leggings, Gap sweater, Fossil bag, boots from Brown's Shoes.
I might get a ton more wear out of these leggings yet.

Since my Vince turtleneck is very light and thin, I can pull my heavy sweater on over the black one, if I want, and still get the whole thing under the jacket. Plus the Vince turtleneck is so slippy that when I take off the cream sweater I don’t leave fuzz all over the black sweater underneath. And with the jacket on, if I utilize the long strap on the bag I can wear it cross-body and keep my hands free for ruffling through racks of clothes, or browsing antique shops. I like this outfit. I feel pulled together, current, and very comfortable.

So what are the essential pieces in my fall curated closet?

Well, lots of black. This black jacket from Max Mara, of course. These black Vince leggings, black jeans, my black Vince turtleneck, a black cashmere crew-neck sweater, and a black zippered coat sweater with a quilted front from Lafayette 148. I have two pairs of black ankle boots, my lace-up Stuart Weitzman, and a pair of Cole Haan Chelsea boots. And now my black knee-high boots that I bought at Brown’s Shoes here in Ottawa.

Let’s see, what else? Chunky turtleneck sweaters are and always have been on my list of fall essentials. I have several. Cream, grey heather, burgundy, dark grey, and navy. Four light cashmere sweaters in various colours. Jeans: bootcut, skinny, and straight-leg. Three blazers: two tweed, one camel. A down jacket and a new down coat bought recently. And a couple of dress coats, one short and one long. One pair of leather pants. One skirt and two sweater dresses.

That’s about it. Many of these pieces I’ve had for several seasons. A few pieces I’ve had for decades. They are all essential to my curated closet. And every time I try to style them in a new way, and come up with an outfit I like, I’m even more convinced that they are perfect pieces. For me.

That is not to say that my style has stayed exactly the same over the years. I’ve discarded looks because they no longer suit me, my lifestyle, or my changing body. I’ve moved away from certain looks because they make me feel as if I’m trying too hard to be something I’m not. Sometimes it’s because they make me feel like mutton dressed as lamb. And yet there are certain pieces (or kinds of pieces) which have stayed part of my essential wardrobe despite all the changes in age, lifestyle, and body shape. And despite changes in fashion and trends that come and go.

It’s funny, but for years and years I had way more clothes than I have now. Since I retired I have pared my closet down to exactly what I want to wear, and edited out pieces which do not make me happy wearing them.

I think that building a curated closet of well-loved essential pieces is a bit like sculpting. And that oft repeated quip that Michelangelo was supposed to have said, but which we know he didn’t say at all, when asked how he created his famous masterpiece… “All I did was chip away everything that didn’t look like David.”

Maybe if you have an unmanageably large wardrobe, and so many clothes that you don’t know what to wear, or even what’s actually in your closet, you just need to start chipping away. Piece by piece chip away everything that is not essential to a wardrobe that makes you happy. Everything that no longer fits, and which you don’t love. Don’t get rid of a piece because it’s not trendy, but because it doesn’t make you feel like your best self. Store pieces which still fit, but about which you are unsure. I’m thinking of pieces like my Max Mara fisherman knit cardigan that I kept saving year after year.

Then what is left should be a curated closet full of essential pieces with which you can make innumerable outfits that you will love. Pieces that look good on you. Which make you feel like you. Perfect pieces… for you. Sounds easy, eh?

Then once you have the essentials, you can make judicious additions. A sweater here. A pair of boots there. You know. Pieces you buy for a specific reason, but which become work horses because they go with lots of other things in your closet.

And here’s where all the articles about what to wear, all the edits of “essential pieces” on various brand and retailer websites, all the “hauls” on all those vlogs and blogs come in handy. They can act as inspiration. Giving you, and me, ideas of how to style the essential pieces, the perfect pieces that we already own. And help us to appreciate what’s already in our closet.

So, how about you, my fashionable friends? What pieces in your fall closet would you consider essential? Do they play well with other pieces in your closet?

P.S. I couldn’t find the exact knee-high boots I bought on-line anywhere. Here, here, here, and here are some other boots I like. Classic, not too fancy, not too chunky, but still current.

P.P.S. There are affiliate links in this post. If you make a purchase after clicking my link I will earn a commission.

P.P.P.S. By the way you can read an interesting article here on all the many attributions of that line about sculpting, attributed to Michelangelo, John Ruskin, an anonymous “rustic”, and others over the years.

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31 thoughts on “Essentials in My Curated Closet”

  1. Another way to think about it is, what sites do you like (Everlane, for example), and do they show the item? I had exactly the same examination about my longest skirts. My absolutely-need basics are narrow jeans, cashmere v-necks.

    1. I also peruse sites I like, not to buy necessarily, just to get ideas. Some are wonderful Massimo Dutti, Fabiana Filippi, Filippa K… I like all of these for the aesthetic on the site. Also Matchesfashion.com for their “edits.” But some sites are terrible merchandisers. If I’d seen many of the pieces I bought at Nordstrom on their website, I’d probably not have bought. Somehow they make the clothes look less appealing than in real life. Ha.

  2. I love your introduction of a third color – I’ve always felt that the two color idea needed a pop! That cognac bag did the trick, which made me think my cognac boots could have that same same effect with all black, or mostly black and some white. Thanks for the inspiration, as always!
    XO

  3. I have lots of leggings for barre class but don’t wear them for other activities. Well, if I don’t count just staying in them for hours after class because they’re so comfortable! Last winter I planned to repurpose them with tees and long cardigans at home, but I never really did it. This winter I’m recovering from shoulder surgery and won’t be back to barre class for several months so its time to actually implement the plan: leggings as daywear at home. And your Vince leggings remind me that I have a pair of NYDJ skinny stretchy pants that could look about the same. Hmmm…. Maybe there’s a reason I haven’t gotten rid of them. You’re looking great in your photons and I love that you tinker with an outfit till it pleases you!

  4. There’s a lot of “noise” out there in the fashion/retail world, which tends to mute our own thoughts on what we like. One of the best things that curators and icons like Marie Kondo have done is to encourage us to revisit a question we seem to have put on the back burner – What items in my life make me happy? It seems like an easy question to answer, but I’ve found it’s taken me some time to dust it off and put it to back to use. Still working on it. Fashion is all over the map now. But more and more of us are opting for a more personal, wholistic relationship with style. Thanks for thoughtful writing that reflects that. And BTW, love those boots.

    1. I think it’s interesting that just as retailers are offering more quality basics, the spring fashions for next year are all about “maximalism” as opposed to minimalism, and low rise pants. I will never again wear low-rise jeans! If I find the high-rise ones disappearing, I’ll have to stock up.

  5. Love this post. You present a practical yet creative approach to curating our own wardrobe without following the “must buy new” impulse. Also, your presentation of creative neutrals, rather than a riot of color, is refreshing.

  6. At the beginning of lockdown I went through and cleared my closet of unwanted or unworthy pieces. I even tried it all on and made outfits, which I hung on a little rolling rack. They hung there so long, seasons changed, and I gave up and put it all back in the closet. So I suppose I need to go through it all again, and make outfits with my essentials. I miss having a girlfriend around who can spend a leisurely afternoon critiquing outfits and suggesting new options, because I don’t feel I am very good at the whole process. Your blog quite inspires me to up my game though, as I do love a well put together outfit, especially one with no faff. Thank you for always giving me food for thought, whether fashion or books, or wanderings around outdoors, I really do cherish my Sunday blog reading time.

    1. Thanks so much, Judy. I gave up making outfits about halfway through the first lockdown. Then had to go back after a few weeks because I missed thinking about clothes. I don’t think I wore half the ones I concocted after that.

  7. Love this, Sue. I am always inspired by your outfits and how you style them. I am more into monochromatic outfits with very little prints or patterns. It is so much easier to put a look together. I wonder if you ever consider adding a “dicke” to a crew next sweater. I have a new black cashmere crew neck sweater that looks unfinished on its own. I could wear a scarf but I am thinking about repuposing a white shirt and cutting it down to wear with the sweater. I would like your opinion on this.

    1. No, I have not worn a dickie since the seventies. But it’s an interesting idea. I love the look of the collar of a blouse peeping out of the neck of a sweater. But I hate the way a shirt feels under a sweater. So a dickie might be the perfect solution. I remember back in high school I had a sweater with a cotton collar and cuffs attached.

      1. Dickies never took off in Australia for some reason even though they seem a good idea for when the weather is being a bit changeable.

        I just dress in layers and if I’m wearing a turtle/poloneck under a jacket or another sweater I just take off the outer layer when I start to overheat.

          1. A TV reporter revealed she was wearing a polo/turtleneck dickey when she working at an outdoor location layered under her overcoat and a crewneck knit top. She said it was easier to pull on and take off than a regular poloneck if the weather changed.

  8. Margaretanne Clinton

    I simply cut the arms off the crisp white shirt! Then the bulk is gone. The sweater with the collar of the shirt and the bit at the bottom hangs bellow the sweater. If you like , tuck it in for a different look.
    I love the outfit look with tobacco bag. Boots look terrific on you.
    And. Especially love the Peter Pan shadow in the shot. !

    1. That’s a great idea if you have a shirt that you don’t mind sacrificing. Or I suppose one could have a trawl through some of the thrift shops for a shirt. I liked the shadow too. Besides it was impossible to get a shot without a shadow that day. 🙂

  9. I like that you ask ‘what is essential for me’ as opposed to the myriad of fashion bloggers who ‘dernier cri’ the latest mode. I feel it’s a mark of maturity to curate ones wardrobe mindfully. To consider the changing body and/or changing lifestyles . So many of us have that ‘so much in the closet yet nothing to wear’ syndrome. I do! When I started to dissect my closet it revealed that I do have a style ( long over narrow) that works for my body. That black is not going anywhere not because I am boring or minimalist but because it suits me. It appears that I love a good suede or leather boot, long or short and am not much into dresses. Luxurious fabrics like cashmere, silk, leather and velvet make regular appearances as well. I am more into texture than pattern.
    After taking stock this season it boils down to I need to replace a bra or two (I don’t stint and head to Brio or Bra Chic in Ottawa because nothing looks chic with droopy boobs) as well as a black cashmere cardigan that can be buttoned or not. ( Last year I succumbed to that siren call of the dernier cri and bought a black cashmere turtleneck that’s too darned hot except on the coldest of days) That’s it. I could shop my revamped closet for years, be happy and only replace or add a few things here and there.
    You look smashing in your leggings, black boots and that cognac bag. Did you ever think you would style the jacket and leggings like that? We evolve and so must our wardrobes!

    1. Oh… bra shopping. Let’s not go there. I have worn leggings with boots before, but not with a blazer. I like the combination of the really casual leggings and boots and the more spiffy jacket.

  10. I just thoroughly enjoy your blog! You always give me much to contemplate. Plus, you have a lovely group of readers that I also learn much from. I’ve cancelled my subscriptions to many bloggers that only promote the latest trends, because that’s not where I want to spend my energy. Now, if only you could come to my closet and help me put together outfits like you can do at yours, I’d be in heaven! I know there are some possibilities in my closet, just can’t find them like you seem so good at doing!

    1. Thanks, Susan. One thing I do for inspiration is to scroll through Pinterest or on brand websites looking for pieces I already own, and see how they style them. I start with that. Then usually end up changing things round a bit like I did this time.

      1. I like Pinterest because it helps me to focus on what I want if I am not sure of a style that takes my fancy. Hence my boards which define it for me. Then I can shop around online and check a. if those pieces exist and b. if I can afford them or c. find a cheaper alternative. The only problem is that, after all these months of semi-seclusion, I appear to have curated myself up the ying-yang and now everything is so monochrome I can barely see what is in the cupboard. Never mind, I could pass as an assassin any time.

  11. I love the idea of wardrobe essentials. I have far too much stuff in my closet and I don’t use a lot of it. I’ve tried to pair down a little, but I haven’t approached the job seriously yet.
    I do have my favorites and some of them have been around for years. I have some velvet, cashmere and velour pieces that I tend to use during the holidays and I go back to them over and over again.
    I have a few blazers that are favorites. The elbows are a bit shiny on an old Ann Taylor black blazer that I wore all of the time for work. It’s my favorite basic black blazer. I have a longer black blazer that has a pattern in the fabric and I won’t part with it. It’s great for more casual dressing.
    I recently dug out an old Coach bucket bag that I had packed away and I have been enjoying it very much.
    I have been trying to be more discriminating in my purchases, first checking if I already have something like it in my closet and thinking about how I would use an item.
    I like your blazer and sweater combinations and the new bag goes well with them.

  12. So, I found this image. I gave away my riding boots a long time ago. Wearing jeans/leggings with riding boots really isn’t my thing until I found this image on another blog. Very similar to your outfits. So, I’m going to give it a try.
    Hope these links work.
    If not go to The Flair index.

    1. I used to wear leggings in high boots a long time ago. But then stopped liking the look. Preferring cropped leggings with loafers or short chunky ankle boots. Now I like the tucked in look all over again.
      P.S. I had to delete the links to The Flair Index, Robyn. My spam filter would not let them through. Sorry. 🙁

      1. Wasn’t sure I could include it. If you get a chance look at the outfit. It’s very you! Actually this combination could work in many different ways. But I think black leggings or black skinny jeans are what add the elegance. Blue jeans wouldn’t give the same effect.

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