In my last post, I shared the imperfections of my wardrobe. I mentioned how difficult it can be to find wardrobe “workhorses” — those practical, versatile items that will serve us day in and day out.
Many of my readers related to the challenges of this particular quest. Some shared their own struggles, while many said their strategy is to build around what they truly love, letting go of those items that don’t make the cut. This is good advice. Thinking back, I can remember several times when my style has taken a turn for the better. It always happened because I stumbled upon some unexpected, perfect item that took me in a new, promising direction. My first knee-length pencil skirt comes to mind, as does my first suede jacket.
Once inspired by clothing that looks and feels great, it’s easier to be a wardrobe editor. At times I’ve been quite ruthless. Some say that if you discard mediocre items, you are making room to find their more satisfying replacements. And this is true.
Meanwhile, though, I still have to get through five days a week at work. And that’s when I start digging things out of the “to be donated” pile. Sometimes, I need imperfect basics to tide me over until the right one comes along. Some of my items aren’t “Mr. Right.” They’re “Mr. Right Now.” Perhaps you have these in your wardrobe, too, in sizes that don’t fit quite as well as they should, or silhouettes that just don’t inspire.
But I’m always looking for something better. I’m always striving to replace the also-rans, and to collect as many of the “perfect” basics as I can. Today I’d like to look at tops. Tops are important, and this fact is reinforced every time one of those “10 items you must have” articles starts with — can you guess? — “a crisp, white blouse.”
Now, I’m really glad my commenters agreed with me, in the last post, that these “must-have” lists are not terribly useful. Jean from Dross into Gold put it really well when she said, “everyone’s basics are different depending on taste and lifestyle.” Because I’ll tell you right now: I will probably never wear a crisp, white blouse. They’re too conservative for me, for starters. White washes me out. And don’t get me started about the upkeep required for a crisp, white blouse! Even if I (miraculously) manage not to spill coffee on it, it will do nothing but yellow over time. And the ironing? An indignity not to be borne.
I tend to avoid all classic, button-down style blouses. I associate them with a time in life, before I had a style of my own, when I owned the most boring assortment of plaid, button-down blouses ever assembled. Just, no. And again, my blogging sisters have backed me up on this one. Apparently, there are a lot of women out there who feel the same way. Hooray!
You’ll be glad to know that I’m not going to make a comprehensive list of every top I own. How boring would that be? But when it comes to tops, here are the categories that I find to be indispensable.
Basic, short-sleeved tees
I’m not talking about your favorite “Beerfest 1988″ T-shirt. I’m talking about high-quality tees in versatile, flattering colors that can be dressed up and down and worn with almost everything you own. Patti at Not Dead Yet Style did a whole post about the quest for good tees, and she got about a million comments, so you know this shit is important!
In my world, good tees must be made from fabric that’s substantial enough not to be see-through. There are a lot of paper-thin tees out there, and I am not amused. At the same time, the material needs to be super-soft and comfy. I would prefer that it not wrinkle every time I touch it. With the right mix of substance and softness, the fabric can have a really polished, finished look to it. Sometimes a nice, 100-percent brushed cotton works; cotton poly blends can also be great.
The perfect tee is fitted enough to look streamlined rather than boxy, yet not so tight that it clings to every little bulge. If it just skims the body and nips in at the waist, that’s perfect. Since I am a dedicated non-tucker, it also shouldn’t be too long — hitting around the top of the hipbone. As for the sleeves, short sleeves can be unflattering, so they need to be fairly fitted and hit at just the right spot. The neckline should be somewhat open, with V-necks being my favorite. High crew necks are usually a no-no with my bustline.
Do you have any idea how much work it is to find the tee that meets all my requirements? I’ll bet you do. I recently purchased two by Charter Club (at Macy’s), even though they were wrinkled, stretched out with the dreaded “shoulder nipples,” and way too long. But the fabric and fit were nice, so I thought it was worth the gamble. I took them to the tailor to be shortened, and as part of that process, discovered that both of these tees had uneven hems. Seriously. One hung down a little lower on the left side; the other, on the right. My tailor was fairly baffled by this, and it took two tries to get them right, but I think we are there.
Yes, good tees are that important.
And hey, if the shoulder nipples come back, or if they are evidence of a fabric that won’t hold its shape, or if the hems still aren’t right? Then the quest will continue.
Long-sleeved knit tops
These serve a similar function as short-sleeved tees, so they are equally important and vexing to get right. Is it just me, or has the basic knit top, with a 3/4-inch sleeve and a versatile color, become really hard to find? It’s been almost two years since I bought a new one, because even when I do see them on the racks, the colors are usually all wrong for me. Right now, when it comes to long-sleeved knit tops in solid colors, this is all I have:
- one in a brown, textured fabric (by Christopher & Banks), that I’ve had for at least five years
- one wrap-style with a v-neck (by Lauren Ralph Lauren, from TJ Maxx), also brown
- one ancient brick-red one from Coldwater Creek, now too shabby and too short to leave the house in
These are definitely on my shopping list. Please, please let me find some, in a color that is not brown.
“Fun” or pretty knit tops – any sleeve length
Woman cannot live with solids alone, so tops in fun prints are great. My favorites are:
- A leopard print by Charter Club. It’s getting a little worn, but I still love it. Who knew leopard prints were so versatile? If it feels too “loud” for work, I can dress it down with a vest and belt:
but more about vests later.
- The newer top shown here, bought on consignment.
- This fun, printed top by Calvin Klein Jeans.
The greatest thing about the “fun” tops is that many of them can do double duty, for both work and play, with just a few styling adjustments.
I told you I don’t do conservative, button-down blouses, but there are a few alternatives. Here are a few examples from my wardrobe:
- The blouse whose pretty ruffles hide the buttons (Style & Co. from Macy’s):
- Two new short-sleeved tops (from the Van Heusen outlet) with no buttons, a V-neck, and a flattering shape and length. You can see one of them below; the other is quite similar but in a pink and white print.
They strike me as both classic and versatile — the kinds of things I’ll wear forever. They also hang nicely, and the quality seems decent. Fingers crossed.
- The very imperfect Woolrich blouse that will go as soon as something better comes along. OK, technically, it is a button-down blouse, but it has a more casual than classic style:
Unfortunately, the “casual” styling is partly due to a loose fit and all-cotton fabric. Too often, these lead to a wrinkled, rumpled look. The color is also a bit dull. But with the same vest and a belt that I wore with the leopard top, above, it perks up pretty well.
Sleeveless tops of all kinds and styles
I buy way too many sleeveless tops. They’re so much easier to fit than tops with sleeves, and any store you walk into is loaded with them. They’re comfortable and wearable under jackets year-round. However, since my jacket virtually always comes off at work, I should only wear them there if I don’t mind running around sleeveless all day. For this reason, I’ve had to force myself to not shop for them, at times. But here are a few of my favorites:
And finally, about those vests:
Debbi at She Accessorizes Well really nailed it in her comment on my last post. Given my problem with jackets being too confining, she advised vests as a perfect solution. And boy, is she ever right. I am always looking for new vests (and/or what my British blogger friends call “waistcoats”). Always. They’re not that easy to find. I own exactly two, both purchased secondhand — the one you saw above, and this one by Talbot’s,
which I was unsure about at first but have grown to truly love.
I hope that these two will hit it off and start to spontaneously reproduce in my closet! Maybe I should start playing some Barry White in there, on an endless loop.
What are your essentials when it comes to tops and blouses? Would you add another category to my list? Where do you find your basic tops?