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How to build a classic wardrobe from scratch and long term

Developing a classic wardrobe provides so many benefits to you and the environment. Not least of all the longevity of a classic wardrobe in terms of style and quality means that your outfits will be stylish even years from now and you are buying less fast fashion trends that fall out of style after one season. I’ve spent a lot of time researching and wardrobe to reflect a more classic and timeless style.

A classic wardrobe contains outfits that incorporate a lot of polished silhouettes, quality materials, tailored fits, neat and precise hemlines, neutral colors, simple prints and minimal detailing. Outfits are often accompanied with quality accessories and simple fine-jewelry. 

Maintaining a classic wardrobe is also a crucial step that should not be ignored because one of the signature characteristics of classic style is good quality and clean, pressed pieces of clothing. Let’s look at what steps you can take to start building your own classic wardrobe, the essential items you’ll need and then how to continue your classic wardrobe for the long run and maintain quality for years to come.

How to start building a classic wardrobe

Step 1 – Get familiar with the classics

This is all about getting a better idea of what makes outfits classic and put together. There are many elements that are often used in classic style like garment proportions, necklines, silhouettes, colors etc. However, if you’re just starting out it’s important to not get overwhelmed by all of this detail (which is pretty easy to do) and just try to get a sense of the garments that are used the most often in different outfits and therefore the most versatile. I like to create a specific pinterest board where I pin inspiring outfits regularly so that I can use it as a visual database when I am looking for something new in my wardrobe.

Step 2 – Assess your wardrobe

This is an important step so don’t skip it, let me explain why. The idea here is not to throw out everything you own and go buy a whole new wardrobe. It is actually an exercise for you to start honing your taste for classic pieces. Clearing your closet is not only about making space both mentally and physically but it is also a process for you to start paying close attention to the quality, detail and design of the items you already own and assess whether you should keep them or let them go. If you are hesitant to relinquish certain pieces, that’s okay too, just place them inside a vacuum bag or a plastic container to keep them fresh and store them somewhere for safe keeping.

Step 3 – Let the lux go

You’d be forgiven for thinking that having style is synonymous with wearing luxury accessories and designer clothing from head to toe these days. However while the classic wardrobe is affectionate towards beautiful luxury accessories, it is by no means essential to own them for you to develop your style or build a classic wardrobe. You can however create a wishlist to keep track of any new luxury items that you’d like to add to your wardrobe in future but for the beginning stages, try to focus on creating a solid base of stylish outfits first. Even if you have some luxury items already, I suggest that you prioritise building your wardrobe with versatile quality pieces and refining your personal style first, so that you can feel stylish no matter what brand you’re wearing.

Step 4 – Fifty shades of beige

While it’s important to express yourself with colors that best suited to your skin tone, hair and eye color,, a classic wardrobe is undeniably linked to neutral and natural colors. The neutral colors that you need to focus on are white, black, grey, beige, cream, ivory, nude and tan etc. but more natural colors like khaki green, brown, navy and light blue are also acceptable. This is because one of the characteristics of a classic wardrobe is its ability to adapt seamlessly between casual, work and formal wear which is why a good solid set of neutral basics are fundamental to a classic wardrobe. So instead of having a mix of various colors try to purchase the majority of your basics in a neutral color that also is well suited to your coloring.

Related: What colors are classy, elegant and stylish?

Step 5 – Choose your silhouettes

While silhouettes seem like a more advanced topic to talk about at this stage, it’s important to develop a sense of how important they are to the classic wardrobe. They can also help you understand what kind of outfits flatter your body shape the most and therefore the ones you should be focusing on when you go shopping. In my article on classic silhouettes, I explain eighteen different classic silhouettes in detail that can still be worn stylishly today. For example, if you choose to focus on two basic silhouettes like the H-line and the Tulip, you’ll be able to have a much clearer idea of what to look for when shopping for your classic wardrobe.

Related: What are classic silhouettes and how to use them

Step 6 – Prioritise presentation

Unless you are lucky enough to have someone do your laundry and iron all your clothes for you, this is another essential step that shouldn’t be skipped. There is no point in investing in high quality clothing if they look like a crumpled paper bag so try to become particular about any creases or stains in your clothing as this can detract from the outfit very quickly. Steaming your clothes is a great way to make sure that you eliminate those unwanted wrinkles but ironing is also essential if you want to maintain the definition of tailored trousers or blazer for example. This is especially important for if you are inclined to do a lot of travelling, if this is the case there are also handy travel steamers that can fit in your luggage if you find yourself caught in a pinch.

Step 7 – Snap your go-tos

Below is a shopping list for anyone who wants to start building their own classic wardrobe. If you have any of these items already you can cross them off the list. It can also be adapted to match your favorite neutral colors but usual white and black are a safe bet to add to every classic wardrobe. Once you have collected enough of the essentials (listed below) for your new classic wardrobe, take the time to curate and snap a quick pic of some go-to outfits for different situations like casual get togethers with friends, running errands or professional attire so that they are easier to remember and will help you be prepared even when the deadlines are tight.

Essential items to build a classic wardrobe

  1. Loose 100% cotton shirt (white and blue striped)
  2. Silk blouse (white and black)
  3. White cotton dress
  4. Quality denim blue jeans (preferably straight leg not skinny jeans)
  5. Midi light weight chiffon dress or skirt
  6. Breton stripe sweater
  7. Black turtleneck cashmere sweater
  8. Matching pants suit (Black and cream or beige)
  9. Little black dress (suitable for formal wear)
  10. Brown greek/roman sandals
  11. Chanel style flat dolly shoes OR black and brown style leather loafers
  12. Stiletto pumps in black and nude (Or block heels if you prefer)
  13. Knee high block heel boots (black or brown depending on your preference)
  14. Merino wool camel or black coat
  15. Lined trench coat
  16. All black quality sunglasses
  17. Leather belt (Black and tan brown with gold hardware)
  18. Everyday jewelry (2-4 gold/silver rings, pearl earrings, simple gold chain pendant, bracelet is optional)
  19. Black work handbag
  20. Small crossbody day bag
  21. Leather pencil skirt (black or brown)

How to continue your classic wardrobe long-term

Assess what clothes fit your lifestyle and location best.

Now that you’ve had some initial experience in building a classic wardrobe, styling your new clothes and taking care of them, let’s look at how you can build on your classic wardrobe for the long term so that you’ll have a great selection of stylish outfits at hand for years to come. At this point you should have a better understanding of how you can use a classic wardrobe for your individual lifestyle. It’s vital that you analyse your lifestyle needs so that your new style can be consistent across all the different aspects of your daily life like your gym workouts, your beach holidays, the school runs, day trips or social events with colleagues for example. The more aware and honest you are about your lifestyle needs the easier it will be to plan going forward and keep your new classic wardrobe on point.

Assess what classic silhouettes you like best.

Hopefully you have already mastered one or two classic silhouettes already, now it’s time to experiment some more and even start paying more attention to the finer details like different necklines, sleeve options, hemlines and proportions etc. The more silhouettes you experiment with the more diversified your classic wardrobe will become so that you can make your outfits look unique and different from one another. Silhouettes help you to look at your outfits as a whole no matter how many different items of clothing you’re wearing so that you’re constantly finding ways to optimise your outfits for your body like creating my definition in the waist, elongating your figure and accentuating feminine curves.

Curate more color

The first part of building a classic wardrobe is all about neutral colors so if you feel that you have a solid foundation of neutrals to work with and you want to branch out a little more the best place to start is with jewel toned colors. These colors like ruby red, sapphire blue and emerald green are really complementary with neutral colors so they are the perfect next step to adding more color into your wardrobe. If you want to start adding even brighter colors, I would advise you to keep it simple at first and choose monochromatic outfits and then start to experiment with colors that work well together when you feel more confident. If you want to know how to match bright colours intentionally then check out this article that explains different color patterns for stylish outfits based on color theory. I would recommend to add color sparingly however as the classic wardrobe is so strongly linked with neutral and natural color palettes.

Learn to speak label

One of the best ways to make sure that you are buying good quality garments for your wardrobe is to check the label or the detailed description online. I do this whether it’s from a fast fashion shop or a premium brand. I like to know what I’m getting in terms of material as it’s somewhat of a good indicator how much it costs to produce. I like to look for natural fiber garments as these are usually the most breathable and tend to be well fabricated. However, synthetics are not all bad. They do have some advantages in certain situations and can be well made as well. As a general rule I like to avoid trendy pieces as these are usually made very cheaply as fabrication quality tends to be quite low. Another useful method is to actually look at the seams and hemlines, if there are any loose threads, if the buttons are well attached and whether it’s lined or not. These are also good ways to assess the quality of a garment.

Comfort rules 

Going forward it’s really important to understand the priorities of a classic wardrobe as this will help you navigate the best clothing for you. Ultimately the goal of a classic wardrobe is to help you look clean, fresh and polished in a variety of situations, not just on the weekend or on your nights out for example. An important part of looking polished and put-together is being well prepared and comfortable for the environment you are in. This is why cotton an linen fabrics are used heavily in the summer because they are so breathable and perfect for hot sunny days. Merino wool coats are not only great quality but they make sure that you’re shielded from the elements. So therefore as you continue to build your classic wardrobe, remember that comfort should play an important role in what you add to your cart.

Care Repair Rewear

Hopefully by now you are not only developing an eye for quality but a passion for it. Personally, as soon as I experienced the benefits of wearing better quality clothes I found I was less tempted and a lot more selective about what I bought from fast fashion stores. So as you build a classic wardrobe that contains more quality you’ll start to realise the importance of keeping your clothes in tip top condition and looking their best every time you wear them. Make it your business to protect your clothes as much as you can and wash them properly with good quality products and even protective washing bags if needed for more delicate items made with silk or lace. Ironing is a nice way to press a defined shape into your clothing but it can be harsh on more delicate items so make sure to equip your classic wardrobe with a fabric steamer to make your clothes look great and last much longer.

Stock up on signature pieces 

Now that you’ve developed a strong sense of classic style without luxury accessories or loudly branded items, it’s the perfect time to start refining your taste for high quality luxury goods. You don’t have to only focus on top designers however, there are many beautiful specialised brands out there that are creating super high quality and exceptionally designed accessories at more affordable price points. It’s the perfect moment to also start diversifying the materials in your wardrobe and introducing more signature pieces like genuine leather skirts and quality knitwear that will last for years and help to make your wardrobe more unique to you.

Related: What are considered luxury handbags – The luxury hierarchy

Advanced items for a classic wardrobe

  1. Genuine leather skirt
  2. Palazzo linen trousers
  3. Linen shorts and top
  4. High-waisted tailored trousers (black, camel/tan and ivory)
  5. Jewel coloured merino-wool statement coats
  6. Open toe heels (block heels are okay too)
  7. Silk scarf
  8. Mohair or cashmere sweaters
  9. Lace blouse
  10. Silk camisoles
  11. Large soft clutch handbag
  12. Small hard case formal clutch purse
  13. Chiffon blouse (Nude, cream or ivory)
  14. Straw summer beach bag
  15. Cashmere long knit dress
  16. Matching loungewear set
  17. Tweed pencil skirt
  18. Wool pants suit
  19. Dotted tights
  20. Denim shirt
  21. A-line skirts
  22. Chunky cable knit sweater

Where to shop

I’m not going to finish this article without giving you a few ideas on where to find quality items as that would be a bit cruel, so I have developed a little list below on some brands and their specific strengths that make them a good choice for a particular garment. Note that I’ve included some fast fashion stores as well because sometimes we just need that convenience but I encourage you to be really selective what you buy in order to hone your own sense of quality fashion if nothing else.

I hope you found this helpful. I would love to see how you use the tips in this article to enhance your style so please please tag me on InstagramTiktok or Pinterest or you can or send me a message because I would love to see! 

About the author 

Mish has a Masters in Fine Art and she has an interest in classical design, history and culture. She loves to analyze fashion and style through this lens to help people develop authentic personal style.