Stradbroke Day 1935 at Ascot (Brisbane, Australia) race day fashion essentials. By Contributor(s): The Queenslander (6 June 1935) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In a large nutshell, this is my problem with “fashion essentials”. An essential is something that you just can’t do without; the air that you breathe for example. Fashion is a customary or conventional way of doing something; in this instance, a way of dressing. There are some ways of dressing that are essential, like putting on your space suit before you leave the space station for your space walk (so you can continue breathing), but for the most part, there is nothing essential about ways of dressing. “Fashion Essentials” is an oxymoron (a contradiction in terms). (And I just like the word oxymoron).
The premise of my book (Build Your Signature Wardrobe) is that you should only buy clothes that you will actually wear, that are appropriate for your lifestyle and distinctively represent who you are. Oh, and that you shouldn’t spend more than you can afford.
I developed the example of “Emily”, a single woman (no children). She lives in a big city, uses public transport, and works in an office and earns $50,000 per annum (before tax). She loves saturated colours, particularly red and blue, and is thinking about adding yellow to the mix. I did a quick analysis of her life and calculated a generous 15% clothing budget of $6,330 to cover clothes (summer and winter, everyday and “good”), makeup, jewellery, dry cleaning and alterations for the year. But for the purpose of this post, let’s say she wants an overseas vacation in 2017 and has decided to reduce her clothes budget to $4,220 so that she can sock away $2,110 for the next couple of years for a package holiday to Paris with her girlfriends.
The Glamour Magazine article describes 24 “essential items you need for a chic year ahead” . Be warned: this article is one of those tedious sideshows embedded in a massive page of advertising which can take a long time to download. I loathe them and generally click away almost instantly, so I hope you appreciate my dedication on your behalf.
Leaving aside its specificity, the list seems at first glance to offer a reasonable complete wardrobe. It consists of 2 pants, 4 skirts, 4 tops, 5 dresses, 1 jacket, 3 pairs of footwear, 3 coats, 1 bag and 1 necklace. Just the basics of bottoms, tops and dresses gives you a minimum of 29 outfits that you can expand with items from your existing wardrobe. However, the list doesn’t include new undergarments and hosiery and I think that of all possible wardrobe purchases these are the most essential. The total cost of the recommended items is $5,190 (plus undies), so Emily will need to remain very firm in her intention to go to Paris to stay within her revised budget.
The following discussion assumes that she buys the exact items recommended on the list, (though of course she won’t because they won’t be available when the time comes to purchase).
As I mentioned, Emily works in an office. While some offices have very relaxed dress codes, most remain semi-formal if not quite formal (i.e. suits). Some of the listed items might be appropriate for an informal office environment, but aside from two coats and one pair of shoes, the rest would not be appropriate for a formal office so in essence she could be spending 92% of the cost on clothes that she might only wear 22% of her time. And still be wearing the same old clothes to work thinking she has nothing to wear. Clearly these garments are not the most appropriate for her.
The overall split of the list is 56% everyday wear, 26% “good” and 18% dress up or down. Assuming she attends one “good” four-hour event each week Emily, is in fact, spending 26% of her money on clothes she will only wear 2% of her time. Again, not appropriate.
The list’s seasonality is 80% all season, 12% spring/summer, and 7% autumn/winter. Again this is superficially reasonable, but the all season items assume that appropriate warm layers already exist in Emily’s wardrobe. That’s fine if her existing layers are in good condition, but she is going to be quite cold if they aren’t. For example, the recommended camel coat is actually a cotton coat that looks like a winter coat – it will look too hot for cool summer days, and be too cool for winter days and therefore is only suitable for a short time during spring and autumn. Still not appropriate.
There is also some disproportionate spending. For example, the Tuxedo jacket (the only top layer on the list) is described as a jacket that will take you from morning to night, implying a garment that would be a staple worn to work, for casual nights out and to events. So Emily could be wearing it 26% of the time, but its place as the cheapest item on the list at $33, suggests it will be a low-quality garment that will show wear relatively quickly and won’t last the year. Conversely, the most expensive item at $617 is the denim dress, described as working “with sky-high heels for a night out or with moto boots [$595] for a Saturday morning” will be worn 4% of the time. These garments do not provide good value for money.
While the list provides some interesting shapes, the colour palette is quite bland and the colours will not make Emily happy. Nor will they represent Emily as the distinctive person she is. All in all, she would probably only wear 7 of these items on a regular basis and would, therefore, be wasting $3,951 (76% of the cost) – all up very poor clothing choices for her.
What do you think? Does any of this cross your mind when you see essentials lists?
Here’s the complete list (minus description):
- Striped shirt $90
- Evening pants $146
- Tuxedo Blazer $33
- White Jeans $95
- One Shoulder Dress $269
- Gingham Skirt $598
- Menswear Flats $178
- Sweaterdress $80
- Camel coat $119 (NOTE: A “proper” camel coat is a wool-like fabric made from a camel’s belly – it will cost in the region of a cashmere coat. This year’s trend is the colour of undyed camel wool, and despite what Glamour says, it does not suit everyone).
- Classic trench $100 (NOTE: often cheaper trench coats are fashion items with no actual water protective properties. If you want rain protection look for the terms waterproof, water repellent or water resistant).
- Denim dress $617
- Moto(rcycle) boots $595
- Statement Skirt $99
- Shearling coat $74 (NOTE: A “proper” shearling coat is a sheep skin that has been tanned with the clipped wool remaining – the sartorial equivalent of an ugg boot. It will cost in the region of a leather coat).
- Gladiator sandals. $45
- Boho tunic $95
- Retro polo $179
- Tailored shirtdress $425
- Pendant necklace $230
- Colourful suede skirt $129
- Chic carryall $199
- Utility skirt $195
- Modern lace dress $50
- Something ruffled $550.
 Disclaimer: I don’t know how fashion magazines work, but as a rational person who understands paid product placement in movies and on football uniforms, I assume that some if not all the items in Glamour’s list are paid sponsorship rather than carefully thought out and researched suggestions.
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