15 Must-Have Items for a Classic and Timeless Wardrobe (Plus 45+ Outfit Ideas!)
We’re listing the fashion essentials every girl should have in her closet for a classic, timeless wardrobe.
A while back, we covered 15 boho chic pieces you ought to have in your closet to help build a bohemian wardrobe. However, after reading all of your responses I realized the need for another, more fundamental and basic list–so here it is!
In this post, I will cover the most timeless and basic pieces you need to create an awesome, classic wardrobe. These are the basic building blocks of a well-rounded closet. You’ll notice that many of these are also on our college wardrobe essentials list, but this list is shorter and less college-specific, and includes career staples for your post-college life.
These are definitely investment pieces, so don’t be afraid to splurge on certain ones if the time is right. They’re classics and (if you take care of them) can last for years or even decades. They’ll carry you through work weeks at a big girl job, dinners with significant other’s parents, networking soirees, and so much more.
And without further ado, let’s jump right in!
1. A Little Black Dress
Every magazine, fashion blog, CF writer, and even your mother was right — having a trusty LBD in your closet is a crucial arrow in your fashion quiver. Look for classic knee-length sleeveless sheath styles, similar to something you could picture Jackie O or Audrey Hepburn wearing. Make sure it’s not too short and doesn’t show cleavage for the ultimate versatile piece.
Here’s a few ways to wear an LBD:
- A little black dress plus pumps, pearls, and a (#2) cardigan or (#8) blazer equals an instant and perfect business casual look.
- For a sassy date night ensemble, wear your LBD with a sexy pair of stilettos, a top knot, and a backwards necklace a la our favorite girl Jennifer Lawrence.
- Layer your LBD over a (#3) white button down shirt to give your dress an entirely new look!
2. Basic Cardigans
From thin cashmere to durable cotton to heavy wool knits, there’s a cardigan out there that will perfectly fit your needs no matter the occasion or season. I love cardigans because they can be styled to look any way your want them to. Be sure to pick up several different cuts, fabrics, and styles so you’ll have plenty to choose from.
Here are a few ideas on how to wear them:
- A thick knit oversized “grandpa” cardigan will give you a really interesting, almost hipster-esque vibe worn with a (#14) skinny jeans and a (#12) simple v-neck shirt. Finish with an interesting pair of shoes and a hippie headband.
- For a sophisticated Hamptons kind of look, drape or tie a cardigan around your shoulders with your favorite (#1) LBD or sundress and a chic pair of wedges.
- This might not be conventional, but I actually prefer cardigans rather than hoodies or jackets when I go to concerts and football games because they’re thinner and therefore easier to stuff in a purse or tie around the strap of a cross-body bag if it gets too hot.
3. A White Dress Shirt
If you will be working, going to interviews, or even just looking polished for a nice dinner anytime soon, a white dress shirt should be your new BFF.
This is not an item that you want to go cheap on — you want your white dress shirt to hold its shape through many washings, and not even be the slightest bit translucent. It’s also a good idea to buy one a size larger than you normally wear – when it comes to awkward pulling and gaps around your chest, it’s much better to be safe than sorry!
I splurged on a white slim-cut dress shirt from Ralph Lauren Polo, which was still about $ 50 at an outlet shop, but it was entirely worth it. I love the thick cotton material that it’s made of. These shirts are thick enough to absorb icky armpit sweat that always seems to form in work situations, but is still cool enough to stay comfortable all day. Also, I love how it somehow looks fantastic in the most rigid professional dress code, but still looks amazing and feels comfortable in casual, everyday functions as well. I highly recommend it!
- White dress shirts are the ultimate work attire building block. Pair your white dress shirt with a pencil skirt, with a (#8) blazer, with (#11) khaki trousers, with (#13) black dress pants, or even wear one over a (#1) LBD to turn it into a skirt and shirt look. Finish with a statement necklace and simple (#10) pumps or (#4) ballet flats. The combinations are endless!
- For a fast and casual look, wear a white button-down shirt with a pair of denim shorts and Converse All-Stars or Vans.
- Throw one under a sweater or (#2) cardigan for a geek-chic ensemble!
4. Ballet Flats
The fantastic thing about ballet flats is that they’re a totally classic staple item that you don’t need to spend a bunch of money on. From my experience, all ballet flats (even the expensive Tory Burch kind) will wear out after a year or two. Rather than spending a ton of money on one fancy leather pair, I prefer to pick up several different colors and styles from Target or Gap and replace them frequently!
Here are a few fun ways to wear them:
- Evoke your inner pin-up girl and wear a pair of ballet flats with black opaque leggings, and a (#3) white dress shirt. For bonus points, add cat-eye sunglasses, red lipstick, or a fancy French twist updo!
- Go back to your high school days and rock a pair of ballet flats with (#14) skinny jeans, a graphic t-shirt, and a solid-colored, fitted zip-up hoodie.
- Save your feet from the aches and pains of wearing heels all night by throwing a spare pair of ballet flats in your purse if you’re going to be at a long event.
5. A Long Trench Coat
I’ll be honest, it took me a while to finally bite the bullet and splurge on a classic, timeless tan trench coat. You can find cheap versions at Forever 21 and Charlotte Russe, but I’d recommend saving your money for a quality trench coat from Gap, Banana Republic, Express, or, if it’s not out of reach, Burberry. They’ll be cut more conservatively, and will last for years or even decades.
Look for styles that hit below your knee and are cut loose through the sleeves and shoulders, so you’ll be able to layer pieces underneath.
- Is there anything more gorgeous, chic, and demure than a trench coat worn with red lipstick, a trusty (#1) LBD, (#10) pumps, and a simple bun or ponytail? This look is perfect for dates, dinners, work, or even just adding a bit of mystique to mundane tasks like grocery shopping or going to the bank!
- On the next rainy day, leave that boxy sorority-issued anorak at home. Instead, rock a pair of dark skinny jeans and any top with a trench coat and an eye-catching pair of rainboots. Tie a (#9) lightweight scarf around your neck for bonus points.
- Trench coats look awesome buttoned up and tied, but they also look fantastic left open and loose. Try wearing one with a sweater, (#14) skinny jeans, and (#6) knee-high boots.
6. Brown, Tan, or Camel Knee-High Boots
The number of ways you can wear a simple pair of brown riding boots is virtually endless.
You want these shoes to complement and blend with any outfit, so look for a pair with few to no embellishments. It’s also a wise idea to not go any taller than a 2″ heel, so they’ll be comfortable to walk in all day long. Steve Madden and Jessica Simpson make awesome pairs, but TJMaxx, Ross, and DSW are all great places to look if you want to snag a great deal.
- Pairing a solid-colored dress, denim jacket, and tan boots is an easy and stylish look for class.
- Knee-high boots immediately add polish to any leggings, oversized (#12) v-neck and (#2) cardigan combo.
- Skinny jeans were practically made for knee-high boots.
7. Dark-Wash Boot-Cut Jeans
Although skinny, boyfriend, and trouser-style jeans are more modern, it’s still important to have an oh-so-classic pair of dark-wash, boot-cut jeans in your closet. These jeans always come back into style and are great for nice dinners, casual days at work, or even just pairing with a t-shirt.
Look for styles with no fading or embellishments, and have them hemmed to perfectly hit the bottom of your heel. If you want to splurge on a pair of designer jeans, a boot-cut pair is definitely the most timeless option.
- Wear these jeans with (#10) black pumps and a (#3) white dress shirt for a classic, sophisticated look that’s perfect for meeting the parents or going to a smart-casual work function.
- Nice boot-cut jeans will look fantastic with a (#8) black blazer and a thin, brightly-colored (#9) scarf around your neck.
- This style of denim got its name because of the flare around the calves — they’re perfect for wearing over any pair of boots.
8. A Perfect Black Blazer
Blazers are awesome pieces because there are so many varieties to choose from. Both shrunken and oversized styles are hot right now, but before you purchase either of those, be sure of have that perfect-fitting classic one in your closet. Make sure the sleeves hit right at your wrists, and the shoulders have enough room to layer underneath. The front should be fitted, but not pull out around your chest.
A trip to the tailor might be pricey, but is SO worth it when it comes to a timeless piece like this. My favorite blazers and business pants in the world come from Express — they’re very simple and classic, but are cut in very feminine ways. A win-win for sure!
Here’s a few ways I like to style them:
- Blazers look fantastic over almost any dress in your closet! Finish the look with a statement necklace and ankle boots.
- One of my favorite night-on-the-town looks is a pair of (#14) skinny jeans, super high stiletto heels, a chic clutch purse, and a sequined blouse or sheer tank top layered underneath a blazer.
- For a fast and easy outfit, wear a black blazer over one of your favorite graphic tees, a pair of colored jeans, and some Vans or Converse. Totally comic-book chic!
9. A Lightweight, Brightly-Colored Scarf
Scarves are one of those things that most people don’t specifically set out to buy, but always end up with anyway. My mind is blown by how much more stylish, intentional, and complete an outfit can look with just the simple addition of a scarf!
For the most flexibility, buy a variety of scarves that are both short and long, square-shaped and rectangular, sheer and opaque. Personally, I don’t like to spend a ton of money on scarves, but I know some girls (Rebecca Bloomwood from Confessions of a Shopaholic, anyone?) swear by fantastic designer scarves. Do what you feel comfortable with, and what is within your budget. You can’t go wrong either way!
- I really love the look of a chic scarf tied in one’s hair. There are just so many cool things you can do with it! Channel a pin-up girl by folding one into a triangle, wrapping it around an updo, and knotting it right where your hairline meets your forehead. Another cool variation on this is to leave your hair down and fold the scarf into a 2 to 3-inch band, channeling a sort of hippie-chic-meets-Rosie-the-Riveter vibe!
- A light scarf worn around your neck won’t look old lady-ish as long as you – well – don’t tie it like an old lady would! Ditch the sock-hop square knot and go for a loose wrap-around look, or twist before knotting for an easy yet fancy look.
- Try tying a scarf around a handle on your purse, around your waist as a belt, or artfully knotted as a halter. The possibilities are endless!
10. Black Pumps
No girl in the world should go without a pair of wearable, classic, and simple black heels in their closet. These babies will be here for you from weddings to sorority functions and from first dates to first jobs. Look for very basic styles — make sure the toe isn’t too pointy or too rounded, and look for a 2-3-inch thin to medium heel.
Personally, I’m not a fan of kitten heels, but if you have trouble walking in tall shoes, do what you need to do to stay comfortable. The key to looking classic and chic is staying poised, and believe me, I understand how impossible that is if your feet are killing you!
- Opaque black leggings will look fierce with a pair of killer black heels and a drapey tunic top.
- Have a hot date immediately following a professional club meeting or business function? Wear a tank top blouse with a pencil skirt and a pair of awesome black heels. Layer on a (#8) blazer for the meeting, and take it off for the date! Bonus points if you add a belt or a cool portfolio purse.
- Black heels do an amazing job complementing dressy shorts. Tweed, leather, and silk styles are my favorites. Finish with a sheer button-down blouse and cat-eye liner.
11. Khaki Trousers
I know, I know — you probably read that and groaned, thinking of awkward images of moms and camp counselors in baggy pleated khakis and clunky shoes. But hear me out — even if you can’t think of something to wear these to, you’ll always be thankful to have them in your closet. Khaki trousers are the sartorial version of a bowl of plain pasta — a blank canvas that you can dress up however you want! Moderately priced and high-quality versions can be found at J. Crew, Express, or Gap.
Here’s a few ways I’d wear them:
- Add a worn-in leather belt and cuff the hem a few inches above your ankle for a preppy, Dead Poets Society sort of vibe. Finish with boat shoes and a fitted long-sleeve tee or polo shirt.
- Wear khaki chinos with a (#12) v-neck t-shirt, (#4) ballet flats, and a (#9) scarf for a fast and easy outfit perfect for class.
- Embrace the clean-cut, preppy vibe of khaki pants and pair them with a striped boatneck shirt, a cable knit sweater, a (#3) crisp white button-down shirt, or a (#2) cashmere or wool cardigan. Finish with loafers, a D-ring belt, and pearl jewelry.
12. Simple V-Neck Shirts
If I had a dollar for every v-neck tee I had in my dresser, I’d be able to buy at least three more! V-necks are fantastic for layering under jackets, lounging around the dorms in, or using as base pieces to help tone down statement extras. I don’t like to spend a lot of money on v-necks because, at least in my humble opinion, a t-shirt is a t-shirt.
My favorite v-necks are the unisex ones from American Apparel. (They were gone for a while and now they’re back!) They’re cut long yet thin, and the “V” cuts down the perfect amount. These t-shirts are somewhat fitted, but don’t cling too much to your boobs or stomach. They look very casual, but not sloppy. You can actually wear these both the the gym or for everyday wear. $ 25 is kind of pricey for such a basic piece, but seriously girls, American Apparel v-necks are like magic. They’re so gosh-darn flattering and still look amazing even after five years worth of washes.
Here’s a few ways I like to wear basic v-neck tees:
- There’s no outfit easier or breezier than a v-neck paired with jeans or shorts, canvas shoes, sunglasses, and a hippie headband.
- Wear under a cardigan or a blazer and with a pair of (#14) skinny jeans and some (#4) ballet flats for a fast outfit that’s comfy but still nice enough for class.
- Layer a v-neck under a sweatshirt or an oversized knit jumper to – hear me out – absorb any residual armpit or back sweat-age that could happen, and keep you dry and comfortable all day.
13. Black Dress Pants
Much like the (#11) khaki trousers, you might not immediately see a use for black dress pants in your closet right now. But these pants are like having cans of tuna or tomato soup in your pantry — an absolute must-have for emergencies! Take them to the tailor’s and have them hem your pants to hit right at the edge of your foot, so you can wear them with both heels and flats.
Look for styles that fit loosely throughout the thigh, and flare out oh-so slightly around the calves. Once again, I’ve got to salute Express for making durable, stylish, and classic dress pants that are also very fairly priced. If you can swing it, buy your black dress pants and (#8) black blazer together as a suit so they’ll match perfectly.
Here’s how I wear mine:
- Even if you didn’t get them at the same time or from the same store, pairing black dress pants with a blouse and your classic (#8) black blazer will make for an instant business suit.
- These puppies will look awesome with a (#3) white dress shirt tucked in, and a (#9) bright scarf tied around your neck or even in your hair. For more fun twists, add bright lipstick or a statement necklace.
- Although the most practical places to wear black dress pants are business and work situations, you can bring them out for a night on the town too! Try pairing them with crazy high stilettos and a sequined top, or even with a black waistcoat for a chic play on a tuxedo.
14. Comfy Skinny Jeans
If black pants are the Campbell’s Tomato Soup of your wardrobe and khakis are the dry pasta, skinny jeans are the table salt because they go with absolutely everything.
It shocks me that just six or seven years ago, many of us regarded skinny jeans as a passing fad. I remember once thinking that you could only wear these with tunics and long shirts! Now, years have passed and we all know that the skinny jean is an item that’s here to stay.
You can find skinny jeans anywhere, but I like styles that allow a little circulation throughout the groin and hip area so that they stay comfortable all day. Skinny jeans have the staying power to warrant splurging on a designer pair, but I honestly prefer picking up several washes and bright colors from inexpensive places like Forever 21 and American Eagle instead.
A few stylish outfit ideas:
- Acid- and mineral-washed skinny jeans have a pretty cool ’90s wild child vibe to them. Pair with heavy-soled combat boots and any t-shirt you can find.
- Coated black skinny jeans are my current obsession. Wear them with a (#8) black blazer, (#10) pumps, and a black tank top for a secret agent-inspired nighttime look.
- This outfit probably seems obvious, but skinny jeans look insanely awesome with a loose-fitting top and (#6) knee-high boots. Try this combo with an oversized sweater, a sheer flowy blouse, or a longish (#12) v-neck tee shirt. Finish with a top knot and bright lipstick.
15. A Classic Pea Coat
Any of you girls who live in colder regions know that a pea coat is an absolute godsend during the winter. Coats are probably my favorite thing to shop for — I love how you could be wearing a raggedy t-shirt, a diamond-studded bra, or nothing at all underneath one, and no one would have any idea!
Although I prefer edgier and (faux) furrier coats for myself, I find myself turning to my classic, preppy pea coat at least once or twice a week during the winter. I got both my red and my black pea coats from Gap, and they still look brand new after almost six years!
Check out these cute outfit ideas:
- You’ll look East Coast preppy chic with a pea coat buttoned up over a striped scarf. Finish with winter boots, and a beanie or trapper hat if you feel bold!
- Finding coats long enough to cover dresses is tough. Because of how structured and classic a pea coat is, it will look just fine worn over a winter cocktail dress and tights if you’re in a pinch.
- Don’t feel boxed in by all the navy blue and black versions you see. I absolutely love my red pea coat, and I’ve seen girls on campus rock the heck out of lime green, cobalt blue, and even leopard print versions. Since it’s a coat, you don’t need to worry about being matchy-matchy with the colors in your outfit. In fact, a colored pea coat gives you the perfect piece to colorblock with!
Even More Style Guides:
Classic style not your thing? Check out our other style guides to find the must-have pieces for YOUR aesthetic.
- Wardrobe Essentials for Preppy, Girly, and Sophisticated Style
- Wardrobe Essentials for Street Chic Style
- Wardrobe Essentials for Boho Chic Style
- Wardrobe Essentials for Edgy, Rocker-Chic Style
- Wardrobe Essentials for Electro-Urban Style
- Wardrobe Essentials for Casual, Androgynous-Chic Style
Do you have all of these pieces? Some of them? Can you think of any basic fundamental pieces that we left out? Are these items just your style, or do you prefer edgier, trendier, more urban, or more boho looks? What other “building block” pieces do you have in your closet? What are some of your favorite ways to wear these pieces?
Leave a comment and tell us what you think about this guide. Also, be sure to check out our boho chic version of this post from a few weeks ago. Can’t wait to hear what you girls think!
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2013; it was completely revamped in 2017 (by Lisa) with updated items and tips.