Are you 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.
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.
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.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.