Basic wardrobes can end clutter in the female closet

A way to keep clothing from cluttering up your life and taking over your bedroom is to have only a basic wardrobe. Stocking your closet with essential pieces limits frustration and saves you time and energy. A previous post focused on the elements of the basic wardrobe for a man. This post, to conclude the brief series, targets items for a woman’s closet.

The basic wardrobe is a tricky discussion piece because what is basic for a 20-something woman who works in a corporate environment is very different from what is basic for a 60-something retiree. Mix in varied climates, social demands, and fashion preferences, and basic is even harder to determine. I’ve tried my best to construct a list for the widest audience, but keep in mind that your specific needs might be different. Consider this post as a “big picture” look at building a basic wardrobe.

The basic wardrobe for a woman should contain:

  • Two heavy white t-shirts/knit tops, a short-sleeve white blouse, a long-sleeve white dress shirt, and a white cardigan sweater set.
  • A black cardigan sweater set and a black lace-weight shawl.
  • A complete black suit with every piece made out of the same four-season wool fabric. A complete suit for a woman in a corporate office should include an ankle length skirt, knee length skirt, tea length pencil skirt, knee length tank dress, two slacks in different waistband styles, and two suit coats in different styles. A complete suit for a woman who works in a casual environment or from home should include one skirt, one pair of slacks, and one suit coat.
  • A black dress that works well with the black suit coat, but can be worn on its own to a cocktail party or an evening wedding.
  • A summer suit in a light color. Women in corporate and casual offices, as well as women who don’t work outside the home, should have a summer suit with a skirt, slacks, and suit coat.
  • Two solid color shells to wear in combination with both the black suit and the summer suit. Slate blue usually fills one of these niches.
  • One pair of dress khakis and one pair of khaki shorts, a tea length khaki skirt, or a pair of khaki capris.
  • A neutral, solid color sports coat that wears well with jeans, khakis, and your black suit slacks.
  • Two/four pair of jeans as described in my fewer clothes post.
  • One formal ankle-length gown in black.
  • One colorful dress that is appropriate to wear to a cousin’s day wedding your mother will be attending.
  • A heavy sweater in a solid color.
  • A pair of yoga pants and a t-shirt you wouldn’t mind if paint were spilled on it.
  • A nightgown or pajama set.
  • A swimsuit.
  • Fourteen pair of underwear, seven bras, one strapless bra, one camisole that matches your skin color, one short slip, and one tea length slip.

Any additional clothing is beyond the limits of a basic wardrobe. If you build up around the basic wardrobe, make sure that what you buy can be worn with many of the pieces in the basic set. It can be good, too, to set a number of how many items above the basic wardrobe you will own. The fewer additional items, the less cluttered your wardrobe will be.

27 Comments for “Basic wardrobes can end clutter in the female closet”

  1. posted by Leslie on

    Interesting. But what about those of us who look icky in black (and gray, for that matter)? And what qualifies as a “summer suit” when summer is 115° Fahrenheit? Thanks!

  2. posted by Lori on

    Although I agree with keeping a minimal wardrobe, I have to say that clothing is supposed to be a means of expression, not a uniform. To me this seems like it would be a bit depressing.

  3. posted by beth on

    nice list, thanks!

  4. posted by cs on

    ANKLE LENGTH skirt!?!?!? For the office with a suit?? Who wrote this, a nun?

  5. posted by Kate Murphy on

    I can claim to have come to this party very early. When I was about 13, I looked at my closet and realized there was a limit of accessories my mother would let me buy. I made a decision right there to limit my darks to navy and black, avoiding brown in particular as not my color. My wardrobe is still built around navy and black with accent brights, khakis, and some khaki green that looks good with both navy and black. Now 53.

  6. posted by pj on

    The idea of a core wardrobe is great, and like the poster said it is certainly not universal since people and lifestyles differ so greatly. For example, I don’t get the emphasis on ankle skirts and tea length skirts — I wouldn’t get caught dead in either. But, having just replaced my entire wardrobe after losing 100 lbs, it seems a good start to me. You just have to taylor it to your needs and preferences.
    However, the a six piece suit seems like overkill. In my opinion, two suits with maybe a pair of pants or skirt for each would work better and give a little more variety. Heck one suit can do you if you work in a business casual environment. I would ditch the formal gown, too — not a basic at all. And, who needs 2 to 4 pairs of jeans if you work in an office all week? I usually have one pair at a time that fits great. You know you are going to where the favorite pair all the time anyway. Then, there are a few things I would add to this list. First, a good winter coat and a raincoat or a trench with a zip out lining. And, shoes: a pair each of pumps, loafers, boots, and sandals in neutral colors, and a pair of casual walking shoes or trainers.

  7. posted by chris ertel on

    So much black!!

  8. posted by Lisa on

    Perhaps instead of trying a one-size-fits-all wardrobe list, you would have been better-served by canvassing women in different regions, with different occupations, and at different ages. They may all have different ideas of streamlined, versatile, occasion-appropriate wardrobes.

    I also found it problematic that you don’t tackle necessary wardrobe considerations like shoes, outerwear, luggage and bags.

    Finally, why no consideration for style? An uncluttered wardrobe does not have to automatically equal a dowdy one. Unfortunately, this shopping list doesn’t reflect that.

  9. posted by IK on

    I love the idea of a basic wardrobe, but who in the world can afford all this? If this is “basic,” I guess I’m working with “doo-doo.”

  10. posted by KateCoe on

    While I don’t believe for a second that getting dressed is a creative act, I’d die before I’d wear any of these suggestions. As a middle-aged creative professional in Hollywood, I need to look smart, well-dressed, successful and clean. I buy an Armani/Jil Sander suit every other year and cheaper pants and tops that coordinate as often as needed.
    Buy a copy of Simple Chic, get things tailored so they really fit, and don’t spend a lot of money on anything white.

  11. posted by Erin on

    Again, I meant this post as a “big picture” look at building a basic wardrobe. Obviously, each person has different needs. I hope that this post will get people thinking about their wardrobes and how to keep clutter out of it.

  12. posted by Lisa on

    But … this post doesn’t really do that. For example, you have this laundry list of items, but you don’t explain why a woman needs to have one suit with several different skirt/trouser styles.

    Uncluttering is good, but only if it’s done in a mindful way. A “big picture” post about wardrobe clutter could have examined the factors that lead to wardrobe bloat — mercurial weather, several different social/professional requirements, a shopping habit, an inability to declutter, a poorly set-up clothing storage space — and talked about how addressing those factors will determine how and what you keep/acquire. Your list of items doesn’t really explain how a woman on the East Coast has to handle having several separate outfits for temperatures ranging from 0 degrees to 99 degrees. It doesn’t talk about how to assess what percentage of your wardrobe goes to each activity. It doesn’t really explain how to balance the craving for variety and stylishness against space and budget constraints.

    A shopping list is well and good, but it doesn’t address the underlying issues that lead to overlarge wardrobes that don’t work. Pin down the problems, proffer solutions … and then you can find guidelines that people will deem useful.

    I realize I’m coming across as harsh here, but I’m merely frustrated: you have a real opportunity here to provide insightful, useful tips on how to manage one’s closet. A lot of the commenters have given feedback explaining what does and doesn’t work about the list. That expands the opportunity you have.

  13. posted by angorian on

    I found the following two wardrobe planning articles much more useful because they are easier to tailor to individual preference for colour and style and formality:

  14. posted by greer on

    this is my nightmare.

  15. posted by BB on

    What is a solid color shell??

  16. posted by Akari on

    Why only one pair of pyjamas? Don’t they ever need to be washed?

  17. posted by Jake on

    Good gravy ladies, use the brains you have been given. If the list is not to your liking, don’t whine, change it.

  18. posted by Geneva on

    Oh my. An ankle length suit skirt and a tea length khaki skirt? With all due respect, neither of those silhouettes are going to work on most women, unless the look you’re going for is dowdy.

    My basic list (and I work in a fairly creative profession, but I think there’s more latitude in these things across the board than there used to be)is:
    1) a cocktail dress you love (people don’t wear formal-length gowns much anymore — if you need one randomly, you can buy it, or borrow one, but having one in your closet just takes up space)
    2) really flattering black pants
    3) a neutral cardigan (black/blue/brown, even red can be surprisingly neutral. All the white on this list gives me hives)
    4) a cashmere v-neck in a flattering color, a white button down, a black turtleneck (or vice versa) and tees or tanks in a variety of colors
    5) a pair of really flattering darker wash jeans
    6) a really, really good quality bag (you use it every day; a good bag elevates every outfit), as well as good quality shoes (heels, flats, casual kicks, boots)
    7) A light peacoat or trench
    8) a casual blazer or jacket
    9) a wrap dress you can wear to work or dress down on the weekends
    10) If you work in a job that requires it, a beautifully made classic black, grey or navy suit. I think you really only need the blazer, pants and a slim-fitting knee-length skirt. I honestly don’t know where you could find a chic ankle-length skirt suit, and I hate to dwell on that, but it troubles me that people might actually be wearing those.

    I am kind of a clotheshorse and I work in fashion, but I really believe that you will get more wear out of well-chosen, high quality pieces that you LOVE than khakis you buy because they seem practical.

  19. posted by Anonymous on

    Great answer, Geneva, thanks!

  20. posted by shelli on

    I don’t wear dresses or skirts. But I DO like the idea of creating a more modest “uniform,” so to speak. But perhaps we should each choose for OURSELVES what that list should be – because otherwise, it seems as if you are trying to define what a woman should wear, which I’m sure isn’t the case.

  21. posted by deborah on

    Oh dear. This is a very severe list. All that black and white would make me feel like a giant peguin ready to take your order. Great site otherwise.


  22. posted by jaime on

    Seven bras? I have three. Does that make me a super-minimalist or just dirty?

  23. posted by Beth on

    It’s not necessarily a uniform. Ten women can own a black suit, and have ten different styles–different cuts of the jacket, skirt/pants, etc.

  24. posted by Julie on

    My solution: Own one armoire. When it’s full, don’t buy any more clothes.


    I really like it when people LIKE what they wear. So do that, and you really can’t go wrong. When I purge, the only question I ask myself is, “How do I feel when I wear this?”

  25. posted by Brigid on

    Wow. That is WAY more clothing than I own.

  26. posted by Tuppenz on

    I think a person’s wardrobe is as unique as her/his personality. Look through your closet and discard what you have not worn in the past year. When I worked as a professional I wore lots of dark colors, but now that I am retired I want to wear bright pastels. You know what your favorites are – give them room to hang in your closet and rid yourself of the rest.

  27. posted by 14 Ways To Be A Greener Student (And Save Money Doing It) | The Productive Student on

    […] 2. Do more efficient laundry. Simplify your closet, don’t use a dryer, wash at appropriate temperatures, use greener detergent and don’t iron things you don’t have to iron. See a slew of green laundry tips. I think for us students we don’t need to be told twice not to do our laundry. But simplifying your clothing might be something to think about (tips for guys, gals). […]

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