The 12 Essential Pieces Every Wardrobe Needs

Jul 18, 2012

Monday’s conversation about nude tanks got me thinking about wardrobe basics.  When this blog started (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), there was a short-lived column called “D.C. Essentials” that highlighted the foundation pieces of a professional wardrobe.  And since we’re preparing to enter a new season, I thought it might be a good time to highlight the essentials.

If you’re a professional, working woman, the first thing you need is a good suit.  I recommend black, some people prefer navy.  I also recommend buying the skirt and the pants, but if you can only choose one, buy the one you will wear most often.  I’m a skirt person, so for me that’s the pencil skirt. 

My favorite mid-priced suit brand is J.Crew’s Super 120s line. They’re well-made basics and I can replace the pieces if they wear out or get lost at the dry cleaner.

So a good suit is foundation piece number one, but a woman cannot live by suits alone. So here are the other 11 pieces that make up the Professional Dashing Dozen.


1. Astley Clarke Pendant ($95) // 2. The Icon Shirt ($145) // 3. Love Quotes Linen Scarf ($90) // 4. Madewell Leopard Skimmer ($135) // 5. Beltrami Fish Scale Skirt ($160) // 6. London Fog Trench ($99) // 7. Citizens Amber Bootcut ($189) // 8. Kevia Rococo Ring (sold out, similar here) // 9. 3.1 Philip Lim Pashli Satchel ($900) // 10. Colette Sleeveless Shell ($196) // 11. Vivienne Westwood Audrey Dress ($825)

Polyvore Set Here.

One. A delicate gold pendant is the perfect necklace. It adds a hint of lustre to your neckline without being overwhelming.  I love this pendant from Astley Clarke for its sweet and simple sensibilities.  Want something less expensive? Try this Gorjana Feather Pendant at $25.

Two. A classic white button up is an absolute necessity.  To keep this style from looking frumpy or overly masculine, choose a blouse with a feminine cut and have it tailored to fit like a glove. 

I love The Shirt from Rochelle Behrens because it has a button design that keeps it gaping at the bust.  But if $145 is more than you’re willing to pay, I like the Tailored Non-Iron Shirt from Banana Republic for $59.

Three. During the colder months, I wear my ivory and metallic scarf three to four times per week.  I also wear it on the airplane and in my chilly, air-conditioned office.  It’s a great basic that livens up an outfit and keeps you warm.  Need help styling a scarf, head over to my Pinterest page for 40 scarf-tying ideas.

Four. I love flats, but few things irritate me more than women who only own boring black flats. Ick.  Spice it up with leopard print, or a pattern, or a color, don’t settle for basic black.  Plus, the great thing about leopard is that it goes with everything.  If you’re looking to keep your shoe purchase under-$100, these Steve Madden’s leopard flats are $89.

Five.  Since my business suit came with a black pencil skirt, I don’t need to include a neutral pencil in this set.  So let’s jazz it up with a trendy colored pencil.  You can pair it with a simple blouse or a crewneck sweater (another great basic).  I just love the textured fish scales on this skirt.

Six.  Every woman needs a trench coat, especially if you live in a moderate climate.  This London Fog trench is a great piece for under-$100, but if you want to reach for the stars, Burberry is the gold standard. 

Seven. Dark, bootcut denim is a casual Friday essential.  The Amber from Citizens of Humanity has a dark rinse, a light bootcut and a mid-rise.  They’re the perfect year-round office jean.

Eight.  Every woman needs a statement ring, a substantial bauble to spruce up any outfit.  This Kevia ring is sadly sold out, but this pearl ring from Max & Chloe is also fantastic.

Nine. I want a 3.1 Philip Lim Pashli Satchel so bad.  I don’t think I’ve ever coveted an item of clothing like this in my life. But I just can.not.spend a week’s pay on a bag. It feels kind of wrong…but still, so right. Regardless, a structured satchel is a work-attire must-have.  This Urban Expressions satchel is a similar style and just $90.

Ten. A sleeveless silk shell is the perfect piece to layer under suit jackets and cardigans (another great basic) for work, or wear with a fun pencil skirt for dinner and drinks.  I love this nude blouse, but if you prefer to wear color, go for it.  A jewel-toned shell, like this $44 option from The Loft, would be lovely too.

Eleven. A simple, black sheath is the ultimate work/after-work dress.  It can be glitzed up or dressed down.  Sadly, this Vivienne Westwood is hostile to my budget, but this Ralph Lauren Asymmetric Sheath is much friendlier at $130.  And if you need sleeves, this gorgeous Les Copains sheath is $460.

P.S. Upon futher consideration, I should have included a basic pump.  Nude-to-you or black, dealer’s choice.  Make sure it’s comfortable and that the heel height is at or under 4″.  These d’orsay heels from Nine West are stylish and, with a Dr. Scholl’s insole, comfortable. They also come in a variety of colors.


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  1. Ms. B says:

    I especially like that you have added an animal print flat Belle. And yes, the basics with a spot of color are great pieces to begin investing in that professional wardrobe. Everyone has to start somewhere and investing in classic, well tailored tineless pieces are the place to begin. You must have had a good teacher.

  2. Lala says:

    Interesting to see what you consider basis! I have #11 (the same black sheath dress I wore in high school!) but not the others.

  3. Kat Z says:

    If anyone is interested in the Urban Expressions satchel, it's actually on sale for $64.99.

  4. Kat Z says:

    Belle, FYI – the Nine West link actually goes to Boutique 9 Women's Orra Pump.

  5. Belle says:

    Kay Z-Boutique 9 is Nine West's nicer label. That's the right shoe.

  6. That is a gorgeous set. I see that Philip Lim bag all over Manhattan now – three times today alone – and still, I crane my neck every time. Sigh.

  7. AW says:

    I always disagree when I see a crisp white button-down listed as an absolute necessity on many wardrobe lists. I'm 37 and the last time I remember having a white button-down was in junior high. I get that it looks nice on some people, but I have tried on many and they're just not me. I also may be the only professional woman in DC who doesn't own a suit.

  8. Ali says:

    I got the phillip lim for 20% off during his new website sale, but sometimes they have them on ebay for $500ish. I get a million compliments on mine, but I do wish it had a long strap for when I am carrying my laptop…

  9. puu says:

    I disagree with most of this.

    Not everyone looks good in black and/or white.

    Not everyone wears rings.

    I question the sanity of people who want to dress like a manual laborer or ranch hand.

    Trench coats add bulk so again, not everyone looks good in one.

    Etc. I would be far more amenable to this if you had phrased it as “most” not “every”. The ego of deciding you are the one person who knows best for the entire population is laughable as best, pitiable at worst.

  10. Belle says:

    puu: Yes, because no one else has ever suggested that a white button up, a trench and a good little black dress are basics. Good luck choosing which ever pieces you decide work for you, but you come to this site for my opinion, and these, in my opinion, are staples.

  11. Margaret says:

    Beautiful choices. I like how you suggested items in different price ranges. I'm trying to build my wardrobe so I will keep an eye out for these pieces.

  12. J says:

    I hit 10/11 so we must have similar tastes. (Can't do scaves.)

    On the topic of the perfect shirt: I tried The Shirt when it first came out but the fabric was not crisp enough for me (maybe mthere are more versions now, so don't want to dissuade anyone from trying) but loved the idea to deal with the gape issue. An alternative I use is It is not as easy as the makers say it is, but done right, it is the best solution I've encountered as of yet.

  13. J says:

    Wanted to add, Brooks Brother Non-Iron in Tailored fit is my go-to shirt. I have 2 each of white and blue. One of each color, I've cut off the cuffs with pinking shears so I can roll the sleeves above my elbows. I get the shirts at their outlet stores, but I think the retail store ones are a bit different: I have a friend who is 70 years old and always looks so fabulous. I couldn't take my eyes off her shirt last week when we were having lunch and they were BB from the retail store she said, and they looked different than mine.

    (I've found that Crewcut ties look very cute with my white shirts – but may be too cute for some offices.)

  14. Jen says:

    Spot on Belle! Would love to see a beyond the basics post…I feel like I just reached the point in my wardrobe that I have my basics (everything you mentioned here minus the purse) but I'm not sure where to go from here….like basic accessories that would go with my basics. For example, I ordered an ivory scarf last winter because you mentioned how much wear you got out of it. 🙂

    Maybe you should have titled this post Essentials for Normal Professional Women: Except the Puu the woman who must be naked.

  15. aesthetic intelligence says:

    Good post.

  16. Shannon says:

    Count me in among those who can't wear button-downs. I'm apple-shaped and not busty. So no matter how “feminine” the cut is, I always look like a lumpy schoolboy in a button-down.

    I also can't wear pendants – any sort of material at my throat (turtlenecks, necklaces, etc) make me itchy and miserable. It's a bummer, especially when I see tons of adorable statement necklaces that I can't wear.

    That said, these are Belle's ideas of mandatory, not some form of government-ordered fashion choice, so of course your mileage will vary.

  17. c says:

    I'm the opposite shape of Shannon and can't wear button-downs either. Trust me– I've tried. I'm relatively busty, with small shoulders and a small, short waist, and it's not possible to have a shirt that fits properly in those areas yet doesn't gap between the buttons on the chest. Maybe someday when I have more confidence in my tailoring skills I'll buy an oversized button-down and see what I can do with it… but I'm not sure it's physically possible. I also have trouble keeping button-downs tucked in– my hips are constantly pushing them up so they puff up. They're definitely tricky pieces of clothing. The collars always look weird too, although the Express ones that have a v-neckline going on are a lot better.

  18. KateW says:

    Belle I just discovered CapHillStyle, and I love it! Great picks on the basics – I am forever searching for a white button-down that wont gap at the bust. I think I just need to bite the bullet and pay for some good tailoring. And today at lunch I will be looking for those camis you posted!

  19. Jaimie says:

    KateW, I also always have gapping at the bust in button-downs, and am also considering following Belle's advice and getting one tailored. I find white very flattering on me, so if I had a great white shirt that fit properly I know I would wear it frequently.

    I don't know why people can't take this post as the jumping-off point that it is intended to be. If a trench coat is too bulky for you, look for a slimmer cut three-quarter-length coat (for example, I notice that London Fog has similar 'trench' styles that are not double-breasted with buttons). Black doesn't flatter me, so I would choose a 'little black dress' in grey instead. And so on.

    I work in a very casual office and virtually never have to be as dressed up as Belle is for work. But, I still find many of her tips applicable and inspirational.

  20. Belle says:

    KateW: You can also buy a bigger size and have it taken in.

  21. CynthiaW says:

    Great list – although I have to admit to having most of these (except that unbelievably awesome Philip Lim bag – sigh), so I'm probably biased.

    I am still trying to figure out which of these picks would make someone look like a ranch hand or manual laborer though (not that there's anything wrong with actually being either of those).

    I'm thinking that you would be the fanciest ranch hand ever though.

  22. XF says:

    “Fanciest Ranch Hand” sounds like an amazing chick-lit novel that gets turned into a movie with Kate Hudson.

    Love this list. I would add a classic navy schoolboy blazer, it makes even blah separates feel smart and sharp. The key to everything on this list really is fit and tailoring. Im so tempted to attack our interns with clothespins because their idea of DC wear was baggy suits from their moms' closets.

  23. Karen says:

    I picked up and put back down the Steve Madden leopard flats at least twice when I was flitting through Nordstrom last week. I guess this is a sign that I need to make that picking up part permanent. Thanks, Belle!

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