Frugal Fashion: 12 Classic clothing pieces every gal should own

My closet has survived countless styles and trends and over the years. Acid wash jeans in the 80s (cough), plaid flannel shirts in the 90s (wheeze), and those belly exposing crop tops back in 2000 (spew). OK, I’ve owned a few too many jean jackets during these decades too. Sigh.

But regardless of the year, trend, or supermodel in fashion, I’ve managed to own a few select clothing pieces that have stood the test of time. These classic essentials have not only helped me build a wardrobe that’s always in style, but these key pieces have also saved me from spending thousands on needless clothing.

Here’s why every gal should stock quality, classic clothing pieces:

  • Girl, you’re lookin’ good! Classic clothes look good on everyone. The trick is finding the cut, length, and fabrication that works for your figure.
  • You get what you pay for. Investing in quality fabrics and great construction ensures your timeless classic lasts for years, not months.
  • Up or down? Classic clothes can be dressed up or down for every age, body type, and occasion. Making your wardrobe work double-duty will save you big money over the years since you’ll spend less on casual, workplace, and formal attire. Work it.
  • No more bad Facebook photos? You know when someone posts an old 1980s photo of you decked out in acid wash denim and your feathered bangs (spritzed with 1/2 can of Aqua Net) are teased higher than the flames burning in Hell? Yeah, covering that mess with a classic trench coat would have spared me *some* grief. Maybe.

Anyhoo, this post isn’t about keeping your hair backcomb-free. I’m more interested in saving you money by sharing some key pieces (my favorite wardrobe essentials) for every gal — whether she’s a student, a graduate interviewing for her first job, or a seasoned professional looking for a polished timeless look.

Are any of these 12 classic clothing pieces stocked in your closet?

1. A classic trench coat.

I’ve worn mine over baby-barf-covered yoga pants while standing in long lineups at Costco. I’ve also donned my trench while viewing priceless works of art at the Louvre in Paris. Designed to hide any fashion faux pas hidden underneath, the classic trench will take you from a schlumpy slob to a chic chick with the cinch of a belt.

trench coat

Van Gogh Museum Sightseeing: I took my trench to see the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Perfect for wearing around the world (or packed in a suitcase) three seasons a year, a simple beige trench is a reliable coat that’s worth the spend.

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Many ‘fashion bloggers’ would point you to the $1,000 plus coats made by iconic luxury designer Burberry, but I won’t. I snagged my fully-lined beige bargain for around $100 at Banana Republic years ago. Retailers like J.Crew, The Gap, Old Navy, Zara, and H&M all sell trench coats at affordable price points too, so try on a bunch to get the right fit.

BCBG Trench Coat

Heck, after wearing the same trench with classic lines for eons, I stepped it up a notch by ruffling a few fabric feathers. This BCBG eBay bargain is all business in the front with tiers of crazy ruffles on the back.

vancouver

Carl calls this fad-tastic gem “the mullet of trench coats”. Yes, Carl can be a bit of an a$$hole. So my advice is to always start with the classic first, and then go for the mullet later.

2. The perfect pair of jeans.

I have a well-documented thing for jeans. But if my house were to burn down, there’s one pair I’d rescue without hesitation — my Levi’s boot cut dark wash jeans. Long and lean when paired with my favorite black heels, this is the denim I reach for every time I attend a function requiring a little class or sass. Boot cuts balance out my booty while creating the perfect kick for my black heels. Classic and gorgeous, I love these pants.

Levis Jeans

Sure, I own skinnies, straight legs, and flares too, but those beautiful boot cuts seem to fit best, and that’s pretty much the point with jeans — find a pair that fits, regardless of cut, and dress ‘em up or down depending on your event or mood.

whisker jeans

Just skip distressed faded washes with whiskers — those pants will be the laughed at acid wash jeans of yesterday. Dark denim is both classic and timeless.

3. A crisp white shirt.

Tuck it into a pair of jeans, wear it under a boyfriend blazer, or layer it with a cardigan and skirt. The crisp, white, button down shirt is a must-have wardrobe staple that can go from work day to weekend without a hitch.

white shirt

OK, there’s one hitch — yellow armpit stains. If your pits are like mine and have the superhuman power of turning any white shirt into a yellow pit of reverse frugality, then do yourself a solid by spending very little on your white wares. Direct sunlight can bleach the yellow outta most pit stains, but spending around $20 on your crisp white shirt might make the yellowing seem a little less pitiful.

4. A lightweight cardigan.

I have a thing for a mid-length merino wool cardigan. It’s the perfect four-season piece for layering over tops, dresses, skirts (and yellow-pit-stained white shirts). The most serviceable colors are black, grey, and cream, but I love pops of color in blues and deep reds too. Wrap a skinny belt around your waist to complete the look and you’ve got a layered outfit that looks very put together.

cardigan

A quality merino cardigan can be hand or machine washed with ease and last years past the purchase date. Retailers like J.Crew, Banana Republic, and Club Monaco are known for their huge cardigan selections year round, so watch for sales and know your size.

5. A little black dress.

Wear it to weddings, dinners, Wednesday work day meetings, parties, or roll it up and wear it on a trip around Europe — the little black dress (LBD) is a wardrobe essential that works hard for you when that surprise last-minute party invite lands in your inbox.

little black dress

Dress it up with a silk scarf and heels, or down with a fitted cardigan and flats — a well-cut LBD can be your best friend for years. I love my lightweight wool shift (with stretch) for longevity and clean-a-bility. I picked mine up at Banana Republic for around $75.

6. A fitted single-breasted jacket.

Upgrade that basic jeans and crisp white shirt ensemble with a simple single-breasted blazer. A basic black blazer is perfect for meetings, funerals, weddings, and can even turn your LBD into a suited option for work.

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Long time readers will remember that a black blazer was the ONE PIECE of clothing I desperately needed before my big interview with million dollar man and Dragons’ Den star, Robert Herjavec.

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Check out Date with a Dragon: Meeting Robert Herjavec from Dragons’ Den for the story behind finding my favorite BCBG blazer.

7. A black skirt.

A figure-flattering dark skirt can be paired with countless items in your closet to create a perfectly polished outfit. Whether your best fit is an A-line, pencil, or straight cut skirt, be sure to invest in a dark or neutral color hemmed to the knee for a timeless take on this wardrobe essential.

8. Slim black pants.

Who doesn’t own a pair of basic black pants? I must own three pairs, and each pair plays well with everything in my closet. Stick to pill-proof fabrics that resist attracting pet hair, and you’ll be happy with your slim black pants for longer than a few dog-snuggling minutes. Promise.

9. A comfortable pair of flats.

If you wear them often, then a comfy pair of ballet flats can dress up an outfit without becoming a heel.

ballet flats

granville vancouverWalking shoes: I took my ballet flats for a stroll around Vancouver.

Wear your ballet flats in place of running shoes to look a lot more polished and put together — especially if you’re shopping at IKEA in a pair of skinny jeans wearing a white shirt and wrapped in a cardigan. Maybe.

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10. The perfect black heels.

I teetered and tottered on this one — mostly ’cause I only own one pair of black heels, and they’re weird. OK, they’re very weird.

Fluevog Lily Darling

My Fluevog Mini Lily Darlings could never be considered a classic shoe with that 3-inch hourglass heel on a thick rubber traction sole. Seriously, this shoe is neither a classic nor a fad. Heck, I don’t think this wacky heel has ever been in fashion. Perhaps that’s why it’s never out of fashion?

I’ve owned this very comfortable excuse for a black heel for nearly a decade (maybe) and it’s been my tall friend at countless Christmas parties, events, and day trips out for coffee. This heel is durable, gives me traction when a little tipsy, and I love walking around in the wacky.

My point here is to find a pair of sticks you love and wear the heck out of them. Those 6-inch platform hooker heels may be cool today, but will they be comfortable enough to endure tomorrow?

11. A simple scarf.

I wasn’t a ‘scarf person’ until I traveled to Europe, where every man, woman, and child wraps themselves in some form of scarf thinger. Tie it, knot it, or casually drape it around your neck to stylize a basic t-shirt, fight the breeze in a trench, or add some pizazz to a LBD.

GemaldegalerieGemäldegalerie, Berlin: The perfect place to wear a scarf.

My scarf is a $5 special bought at The Gap. I love the thing so much that I’m on the lookout for something more colorful, perhaps in silk.

12. A statement piece (or two).

Want to really pop? Not afraid to stand out in a black blazer-clad crowd decked out in white shirts and dark jeans? Then add a statement piece (or two) to your wardrobe to show your creative side.

Fluevog Mini Gorgeous

Based on my super fun Fluevog Mary Janes (yep, wore ‘em to my wedding) and this crazy Prabal Gurung J.Crew Exploding Bow Blouse (an almost frugal find found used on eBay) you gotta know I like a shock of color and a fun pair of kicks to pair with my grey cardigans and Levi’s.

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Prabal GurungMake a statement: A bright freaking pink Prabal Gurung blouse.

When choosing your statement pieces, be sure to weigh the cost of the clothing versus the longevity of the fad. Buying too many fashion pieces will make you look a little dated a year from now.

Your Turn: What wardrobe essentials have I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Love,
Kerry

Your two cents:

  1. Michelle August 27th, 2012

    I definitely agree with your list. I’m trying to buy more quality pieces right now, and stay away from Forever 21.

  2. Carrie Smith August 27th, 2012

    This is great! I need to buy a trench coat of some kind. Which is difficult since I’m so short. I’m always trying to get people to buy dark wash jeans. I’m not even sure why clothing companies make whiskered jeans. They don’t flatter many body types at all.

  3. Jules August 27th, 2012

    Definitely seconding the trench coat. I found mine at a thrift shop, of all places, but it’s great for most of the year and goes well with everything except khakis.

    And, hehe, yes, everybody in Europe wears scarves. I have several, to be paired with anything and everything.

  4. Cynthia August 27th, 2012

    I really love this list. I was so happy when I found a petite trench coat that fits my 5’1″ frame; I’ve gotten so much use out of it! I only started wearing scarves in the last couple years; I love how they dress up whatever you’re wearing. I usually refuse to wear heels, but those Fluevog Lily Darling Pumps might convert me; looks like something I could actually walk in without breaking my neck!

  5. Holly August 27th, 2012

    Great practical list! I live in my black jacket (more of a swingy thing with no button, but much the same idea) – it goes with everything).

    I have to disagree with the trench coat though as they don’t work for everyone – it makes us top-heavy girls look pretty bad, kind of matronly. Every so often I try one on, hoping it might be okay, seeing if it works with the buttons undone maybe… but it always makes me look at least a size bigger!

  6. Beth August 27th, 2012

    Love this list :) I have most of these items, but the blazer continues to elude me. I have a long torso, so finding the right fit is hard!

    One thing I would add is something in your signature colour — like a blouse, scarf or cardigan that you can throw on and instantly look and feel good because the hue flatters your colouring. I look awful in black, white and beige so adding colour is a lifesaver.

    P.S. Love the shoes!

  7. teresa August 27th, 2012

    I would add that a black blouse and skirt separates can substitute nicely for an LBD. I’ve been wearing a silk black sleeveless blouse with a black skirt for years. Best of all, they can be worn with other pieces, making them extra versatile.

  8. L August 28th, 2012

    About those yellow pit stains: I always toss about a cup of ammonia in my white wash. DO NOT EVER use this with bleach!!! Just ammonia, detergent, and warm or hot water. If the yellow is really bad, try soaking just the pit area in ammonia first, then wash. It may not get rid of old stains, but ammonia is the best ‘solvent’ for body oils and the greasy-ness left from deodorants, which are what cause the yellow stains. My classic white shirt is six years old and still fresh-looking with this method.

  9. April August 28th, 2012

    I almost always buy used, because of the budget, but what I love about it (besides the price) is that I get items the size and condition they will be after washing and drying. Buying new to have it then shrink or fade early is no fun.

    Love your choices and the comment on the black skirt and black blouse. Great ideas!

    I always wash my whites together with oxyclean and some borax. Soak in hot water until cold and then double rinse. My whites stay white, wash after wash.

  10. Connie August 28th, 2012

    This is the thing about those yellow pit stains. They are not just sweat but rather perspiration and anti-prespirant. I got them on one of my favorite summer seersucker shirts which I didn’t want to bleach. Sat down with ammonia and a old tooth brush and scrubbed from both sides of fabric and washed in warm water. Got it! Then changed brands of anti-prespirant. Worth considering.
    As to classic colors, I look deathly in black and beige changes the color of my eyes from blue to muckeldung. So I go with navy and white. Any navy is not necessarily “in” from season to season and not on offer. Makes the shopping a little bit harder when your favorite shoes finally wear out. But good guide lines and a place to start in thinking about what to wear.

  11. Connie August 28th, 2012

    This is the thing about those yellow pit stains. They are not just sweat but rather perspiration and anti-prespirant. I got them on one of my favorite summer seersucker shirts which I didn’t want to bleach. Sat down with ammonia and a old tooth brush and scrubbed from both sides of fabric and washed in warm water. Got it! Then changed brands of anti-prespirant. Worth considering.
    As to classic colors, I look deathly in black and beige changes the color of my eyes from blue to muckeldung. So I go with navy and white. But navy is not necessarily “in” from season to season and not on offer. Makes the shopping a little bit harder when your favorite shoes finally wear out. But good guide lines and a place to start in thinking about what to wear.

  12. Stacey August 29th, 2012

    I agree with the list, would only add a handbag (or three). I switch between black, grey and this cool green handbag. All from nine west which if bought in the US can be a very affordable price!!

  13. Alice August 31st, 2012

    Dark jeans + any top = awesome.

    I think your wardrobe lacks t-shirts and that clothing thingy that I think is called a wife-beater in english (strange name though).

    And I’ve never been a heels person, so I myself would skip the heels and have flats and a pair of sneakers/converses instead

  14. Marguerite September 1st, 2012

    You never go wrong when you buy quality. I still wear dresses, skirts and coats I bought decades ago (won’t say how many). The fabric looks great after repeated washes or dry clean. Ideally light fabric are washable.

  15. Susan September 1st, 2012

    Where did Cynthia find a trench coat for a 5’1″? I’d love to buy one too.

  16. misha September 1st, 2012

    I hav a pair of black leggings and a grey and black striped tshirt dress that I can’t live without. I agree with what others are saying – not everyone looks good in neutrals like beige – I have a lot of chocolate brown in my wardrobe and I make some of my own clothes – fits me perfectly and saves $$!

  17. Dianne September 1st, 2012

    Love, Love, Love your “mullet” trench coat and the “weird” shoes. Unfortunately due to crushed vertabrea I cannot wear high heals or belts of any kind.

  18. anexactinglife September 1st, 2012

    I would add a cable-knit pullover sweater and a pair of tall, classic riding boots! I also agree with others above that each person needs to figure out their own best neutral colour, which might be black, navy, grey, khaki or beige. And, each person knows if white or cream looks better on them!

  19. Carol S September 1st, 2012

    Hi, Kerry, you missed basic black tall winter boots for us Canadians. Do you have a separate article on winter clothing basics? Aside from those, you seem to have all the basics covered.

    My black dress pumps are much like yours, except in a 1920s style with pointed toe and three buckled straps across the instep. They’ve been my pals since 1994 and I’ve paid $40 to have them resoled, for a total cost of $90 + 40 = $130.

    My statement piece is a plum wool frock coat, to the knee, bought from Ms Emma in 1996. It looks fab with a black skirt, or plum corduroy trousers for a suit. Since I’m 168 cm tall (5 feet 6) I like to dress in one colour from shoulders to ankles whenever possible. It cost me $60 and it gets out on the town at least 10 times a year.

    My “trench coat” is a balmacaan (raglan sleeves, single-breasted, back inverted pleat) bought in 1997 from Talbots. After 15 years it is still going strong, in a non-traditional periwinkle blue. My favourite things about it are its gigantic fitted pockets, and that it is machine-washable.

    In addition to a LBD, I think every gal should have a silk dress in a vibrant colour. I bought a red silk dress in 1988 that I wore till 2002. It suited every occasion perfectly, and was comfortable and elegant.

    Thanks for this great look at frugal fashion, an art form I mastered in my university days.

  20. Laura September 1st, 2012

    I love this list and you’ve inspired me! But commentor Holly, what kind of coat have you found is good for well-endowed women? I agree, much as I’ve tried because I love the look on others, I’ve never looked good in a trench coat. I’m short, about 5′, and large chested and need a go-to coat!

  21. Ann September 2nd, 2012

    I love your list. I’m a classical dresser myself, and over the years have amassed a very nice collection of eBay and flash sale finds. One item I would add to the list would be a wrap dress. This type of dress is very flattering and is appropriate for both work and after-hours, and it never goes out of style. My favorites are the classical Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses; I have scored a few mega-deals on occasion at Saks and Neiman Marcus outlets as well as on eBay. It takes time and vigileance :-)

  22. Ajka September 3rd, 2012

    I am sorry but I think you are in denial re your mullet of a trench coat. Tell me again this look will survive years – I don’t think so.
    Also, we don’t all in Vancouver and the climate in the rest of Canada is quite different.
    A single breasted jacket – not a “classic” piece for every body type.

  23. Laura September 3rd, 2012

    Ajka, she didn’t say the Mullet Trench was classic – she in fact called it fad-tastic.

  24. Kerry September 3rd, 2012

    @Ajka — What Laura said. Also, I don’t live in Vancouver. I live on a rural Farm in BC where the snow falls and the chill freezes. I wrote that a trench coat is “Perfect for wearing around the world (or packed in a suitcase) three seasons a year” — not four seasons. Being from Ontario and living in Ottawa for number of years, I’m quite familiar with the Canadian climate. ;)

  25. Ami September 4th, 2012

    I LOVE that we both have the love of the same shoes!! And that you featured my fav black shoes ( and my most comfy ) in this article. ALWAYS pay for quality, and comfy shoes :)

  26. Maya September 7th, 2012

    I like your list, but these must be the ugliest shoes I’ve laid eyes on…

  27. cherie September 8th, 2012

    I am 5’1″ and well endowed on top as well. I wear a princess cut coat. It doesn’t make me look like an old school mistress …it flatters my shape. I kept it above my knee because I’m so short. No belt on it…
    Here’s a hint: if you are short and top heavy and have to buy a trench coat #1 hem it to above your knee #2 put in front and back darts so it shapes the coat then you don’t look so harsh since it makes the trench more feminine. Do buy black if heavy chested instead of a nuetral taupe or tan which increase your size when you are short…hope this helps!

  28. Joann September 13th, 2012

    Oh I love your fashion advice. you are so good at this.

  29. Dawn September 24th, 2012

    I would add winter coat & boots to this list. Winter is too long to wear a coat that you hate. I have 2 winter coats: one for “PLAY” for the long days shovelling snow, or tobagganing with my family, and a dressier coat for work. I change into shoes when I get into work so I have one pair of utilitarian, keep-the-feet-warm-but-look-awful boots.

  30. Cindy B November 11th, 2012

    Those two pairs of heels have to be the ugliest things I’ve ever seen in my life. Other than that, great article!

  31. Lianna December 21st, 2013

    Thank you SO MUCH for mentioning the Fluevog shoes… I had never heard of these before. I’ve been hunting shoes online and when I searched for that brand, I was overwhelmed by tons of shoes that I could totally see myself wearing. If they ask for some kind of referral or something I will totally give your site.

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