One of the most common fashion shopping tips for building a great wardrobe is to base it on timeless foundation pieces, and then add trendier clothes each season. Unfortunately, while that advice represents a great place to start, it’s not always clear what those “foundation” pieces actually are. Investing in your wardrobe is great, but it’s crucial to know exactly what to buy.
Of course, owning the right foundation pieces isn’t just about looking great – it’s also about saving money. By putting your fashion dollars toward good-quality pieces that never go out of style, you waste less on poorly made clothing that only lasts a year or two in both style and wear. Plus, you always look current because you can simply pepper in colors, shapes, and fabrics that change with the seasons – and with your tastes.
Timeless Pieces for Any Woman’s Wardrobe
Every woman – regardless of age, body shape, or overall style – should own the following pieces. Dressed up or down, they always look classic and on-trend. By knowing what you should spend on each one, you can start to build a timeless wardrobe that can save you money and have you feeling amazing.
1. Black Pumps
Flip-flops, sneakers, and loafers all have their place, but you get the most bang for your buck with a pair of basic black pumps. Dressing up everything from jeans on date night to appropriate office-wear, well-made black pumps extend your wardrobe and they last forever – so focus on quality, and remember that you can always repair your shoes if necessary.
When looking for a timeless pair, go for a closed, almond-shape toe. While both round-toe and pointy-toe pumps have had their moments in the spotlight, the almond-shape is always fashionable. Go for a matte leather, which transitions through seasons better than patent or suede.
What to Spend: You can expect to spend about $100 to $150 for a quality pair. Try them on in-store with the hosiery you plan to wear them with. My favorites are Michael Kors, but Clarks, J.Crew, and Sam Edelman also make comfortable, timeless mid-heel pumps that last.
Bonus Item: A pair of peep-toe pumps, which are less formal than closed-toe shoes. A fun non-neutral color like red can help dress up otherwise bland outfits. Don’t spend more than $30 to $40 on a fun pump.
2. Trench Coat
There’s a reason trench coats have been en vogue since the late 1800s. Functional, flattering, and super-classic, it’s a jacket that looks great on virtually every body type, thanks to its waist-defining properties. Easy to wear with a dress or pants, it’s perfect for drizzly days in the fall and spring, and always helps present a professional image.
Trench coats should invariably be neutral, especially if you’re going for a foundation piece. Opt for classic detailing, such as medium lapels, a double-breasted bodice, and a tie at the waist. The best-quality trenches are typically made with lined cotton gabardine, but leather and poplin are common as well.
What to Spend: While you can definitely find cheaper trenches, the best run anywhere from $100 to $300. If you’re using it for utilitarian purposes – commuting to work in inclement weather, for example – you can expect to spend toward the higher end. Burberry, of course, is the standard brand, but you can find lower-cost jackets from Banana Republic and London Fog.
Bonus Item: Trenches are pretty serious, so grabbing a fun leather jacket can help lighten up your wardrobe in return. A neutral leather jacket with moto details (such as buckles and zippers) is the perfect weekend companion to a weekday trench. I try to keep my faux leather jackets under the $50 mark, since they’re finishing pieces rather than utilitarian.
3. Dark Wash Jeans
Jeans are a staple for just about any woman’s wardrobe, and the bulk of your denim budget should be invested in a dark wash. You can wear dark jeans with flats to a lunch with friends, or add a sparkly top and heels for a holiday party. Of course, the shape you choose depends on your body type: Higher-rise straight jeans are ideal for apple shapes, pears look great in boot-cut, and ruler shapes can really rock skinny jeans.
Look for a dark color with minimal whiskering or fading – qualities that tend to look less classic and more trendy. When you wash them, be sure to turn them inside out and use cold water to maintain that rich color.
What to Spend: Anywhere from $50 to $100. I love Mavi; not only is the Tess super skinny in mid blue recycled denim perfectly on point, it’s an exemplar of Mavi’s uncommon commitment to sustainable sourcing and production. In 2019, Mavi reduced its annual water consumption by 62% and its energy consumption by 28%, and the company has long pledged to use recycled cotton, organic cotton, and upcycled components whenever possible.
Bonus Item: A pair of cheap colored jeans – think red or yellow – can be a great way to brighten up your wardrobe. Wear them with neutral colors for a fun weekend outfit. Since they’re trendy, cap your colored skinnies at around $30 so you’re not stuck with an expensive pair when the trend dies down.
4. Pencil Skirt
If you only purchase one skirt for the rest of your life, make it a pencil shape. Why? Because it’s the most universally flattering and classic. The higher rise and knee-skimming length make pencil skirts look great on just about everyone, and they’re appropriate for a number of events and situations. From work to church, a pencil skirt is a wardrobe powerhouse, playing nicely with blouses, sweaters, and jackets.
Here’s a quick hint: Check the fabric tag and grab one that has between 2% and 5% spandex. It gives you a little extra shape and ensures that the skirt doesn’t loosen up during the day, which can definitely happen with 100% cotton or polyester. Purchase yours in a neutral color and you can wear it with just about anything.
What to Spend: Aim between $50 and $75, remembering that you definitely get what you pay for when it comes to a great-fitting pencil skirt. My favorite brands include Calvin Klein and Vince Camuto. If you’re on a tighter budget, H&M has great options under $50.
Bonus Item: Put the emphasis on your waist by purchasing an A-line skirt, and wear it with a tucked-in blouse and belt. Spend less than $30 and you can grab a darker one for colder seasons and a lighter fabric for the summer.
5. Riding Boots
Ankle booties, heeled boots, rugged boots – the seasons go by, and so do the styles. While it’s totally fine to buy a cheap, trendy pair, some of your budget should be allocated to a good-quality pair of sleek leather riding boots. These classic knee-length, no-heel boots originated with the equestrian crowd, and they can see you through season after season. They look amazing with dresses, skirts, and pants, and because they lack a heel, they’re actually very sensible.
Quality depends on price, only because the higher the price, the better the leather and materials. My favorite riding boots are made by the Frye Company, since they’re actually made for riding and have the requisite quality. In fact, a good pair should actually get better over time.
If you’d rather have a heel, look for a riding boot with a thick, stacked heel under two inches. It can give you a longer leg-line and a little height, without sacrificing functionality. Ralph Lauren and Cole Haan both make good-quality boots with a heel.
What to Spend: Anywhere from $200 to $400, depending on the brand and materials. Look for genuine leather (which can be polished and repaired so it lasts much longer than synthetic materials), and keep an eye on the shaft circumference. Measure your calf at its widest point and use that as a guide for choosing boots that fit well and can last forever.
Bonus Item: You can find cheap boots during the fall, but they’re going to be for looks only. Still, a fun pair of booties or a heeled boot is a great little splurge if you’re not actually looking for functionality. I try to keep my booties under $50, and frequently find them on sale for $30 or less.
6. A Tailored Button-Up
Button-up shirts can be tricky, especially if you’re busty. However, when they’re well-tailored, almost nothing looks as classic when paired with jeans or a skirt. It also makes for a great layering piece under sweaters, increasing your wardrobe options. Still, a button-up can look sloppy if it doesn’t fit, so make sure yours fits securely without any gaping between buttonholes. If you have a larger bust, specialty stores are your best bet for a perfect fit.
While a white button-up is the most classic, don’t be afraid to experiment with patterns and colors. I like neutral patterns, such as dots or a subtle animal print, because they offer personality and versatility. Other features to look for include a curved hem, which is the most flattering cut, and full-length sleeves that can be worn as-is or cuffed at the elbow.
What to Spend: You can find great button-up shirts for about $50. I love Express Essential Shirts.
Bonus Item: A chiffon popover shirt is a nice addition to any closet. With less structure than a traditional button-up, popovers (which got their name because they don’t unbutton all the way and are “popped over” your head) are ideal for more casual events, but still look polished.
As an added bonus, you can get them on the cheap – $20 to $30 – in a variety of colors and patterns. I tend to find my popover tops in various boutiques.
Ask me what item of clothing I’d keep if I had to give everything else away, and I’d definitely say my blazer. Its versatility is unrivaled. I wear it with jeans and heels while out with friends, and I also use it to tone down a cocktail dress. Plus, thanks to a classic cut, blazers are super flattering for any figure. A basic, black blazer is simply a must-have for any closet, whether you work in an office or you’re home with the kids. It’s the fastest way to look put-together and polished – something every woman needs.
Pay attention to length when buying a blazer: It should hit you just at the hip. A longer blazer might be trendier, but it can also shorten your legs. And, while shorter blazers are fun, they aren’t as universally flattering as a hip-length style. Make sure the tailoring is right for you as well – you should notice a clear shape at your waist.
Finally, choose a blazer with a stance (the location of the highest button) that suits your body type. Bustier women require a higher stance, while women with more athletic figures can choose a lower one. When trying it on, give yourself a hug to ensure the shoulders fit well and aren’t too restrictive.
Bonus Item: A draped cardigan can tone down any look you’d normally wear with a blazer. These are usually longer and looser than traditional cardigans, and they also lack a closure to differentiate them. Throw it on to transition your day look to a casual evening style. I grab cardigans on the cheap from Forever 21 and Macy’s.
8. Neutral Satchel
When shopping for a new handbag, you can expect to find everything from slouchy hobos to structured clutches. If you’re only going to own one bag though, choose a neutral satchel. With a more rectangular shape and tons of pockets for maximum storage – usually including a flap pocket – the structured shape goes with work clothes, but is also appropriate for casual shopping trips. The neutral color easily transitions from summer to colder weather and back again.
I always look for a satchel with a top-carry handle in addition to a shoulder strap for maximum versatility. Cream, brown, and black are all classic colors that continue to look timeless, season after season.
What to Spend: You’re going to carry a handbag everyday, so you might as well invest in one that lasts – I’ve had my current Coach model for two years. Plan to spend anywhere from $200 to $500 for a genuine leather bag with plenty of pockets. Kate Spade makes excellent satchels as well, but you don’t always have to spend a ton for a good one. Merona (a Target brand) has some great options, as does Anne Klein, which can be found at Macy’s for around $75.
Bonus Item: Supplement your handbag wardrobe with a few cheap clutches. They’re ideal for formal events like parties and weddings, and can be slipped into a larger bag for a quick change-up. Plan to spend about $25 on a fun clutch to accessorize your outfit (and hold your cards and a lipstick).
9. A Little Black Dress
Every woman should have a little black dress – they can be worn to work, dressed up for a date, and dressed down for casual wear. Some of the most iconic dresses of all time have been LBDs: Holly Golightly’s in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Princess Diana’s perfect off-the-shoulder number. It’s one of those ideal “when in doubt” items, since an LBD always looks classic, sharp, and fashionable – no matter what.
What makes an LBD an LBD? Well, first, its length. Go for knee-length or shorter, which can be worn with a pair of party heels for a wedding, or with a cardigan and flats for work. A classic shape also helps, since LBDs are usually sheaths, which means they fit closely all the way down the body. A little black dress also offers minimal embellishment. Instead, you add the personality with shoes and accessories.
What to Spend: My favorite LBD cost me around $120, but a close second was only $50. However, fit is much more important than price in this case, so just go with whichever dress makes you feel like a million bucks. Adrianna Papell and Calvin Klein both make quality LBDs that are always sure to be in style.
Bonus Item: After an LBD is in your closet, you can go for something a little more fun and casual, like a maxi dress. These usually run about $30 to $50, so stock up on a few different colors and styles.
10. A Perfect White T-Shirt
Finally, round out your timeless closet with the perfect white T. What makes a T-shirt perfect, in addition to a great fit? The neckline. A V-neck is the most flattering to all body types, by far. I find that the best-fitting T-shirts have a fine knit (a looser-knit ribbed T-shirt loses its shape over time). I also like a little spandex in mine, since it helps create the best shape throughout the day.
A white T can do no wrong. Wear yours with a scarf and sunglasses while perusing the farmers’ market, or dress it up with a statement necklace and blazer for work.
Luckily, you can find T-shirts almost anywhere, so buying one shouldn’t be an issue. Just be sure to try it before you buy it. It’s tempting to just grab one and go, but if you take the time and try on a few different fits and materials, you can come away with a shirt you find yourself reaching for again and again. Gap has a great selection of T-shirts, so start there.
What to Spend: $20. However, if you do find a basic white T-shirt you love, it makes sense to grab a few of them. White can stain and discolor over time, so having some backups ready to go can be handy when it comes time to retire your old favorites.
Bonus Item: A patterned T can add some interest to your outfit. You can also experiment with necklines and find that you’re totally obsessed with a crew neck or prefer a round neck instead of the classic V.
Think about all the shopping you do in a year, and how much of it is the result of poor-quality clothes or items that have gone out of style and need to be replaced. While buying quality clothes might require more of an investment, they also last much longer – both in time and in taste – meaning you’re going to get your money’s worth. By creating a basic wardrobe on foundation pieces that always look en vogue and classic, you help your cheaper, trendier clothes look better – giving you the absolute most from your closet.
Which clothes are your must-have foundation pieces?