How to Build A Wardrobe


How To Build a Wardrobe was one of my most popular posts last January so I thought this might be a good time to update and republish.

A reader emailed me, sharing that she has just fought and won a long, hard battle against cancer and she’s ready to start getting out of the yoga pant rut she’s found herself in. The problem? She doesn’t know where to start and she wanted to know how to build a wardrobe.

I could relate to her predicament — not the cancer, thankfully, but after I had each of my kids, I remember floundering a bit when it came to rebuilding my wardrobe. Once you miss a year or more of wearing stylish clothes, when you go shopping and look around, suddenly styles have changed and everything seems overwhelming.

Or maybe you’ve aged a bit and realize it’s time to reassess what is age appropriate.

Or you may have never really cared much about fashion and suddenly realized, hey, I’m 40 and it’s time to get in the game!

What goes together? What is in style and what isn’t? And when you’re rebuilding your wardrobe on a budget, where do you start?? How do you prioritize what to buy first?

Whichever situation you relate to most, if you find yourself asking any of those questions, this post is for you! Here are some tips that might help you rebuild your wardrobe if you find yourself in any of these situations.

How To Build A Wardrobe

1. Identify your needs.

When building or rebuilding a wardrobe, be strategic. You’ll want to make some sort of plan so you’re not just buying stuff willy nilly that doesn’t work together. What is your lifestyle? Do you need a career wardrobe or a stay-at-home mom wardrobe? Do you live in the city where fashion is cutting-edge or in the suburbs where we have a slower pace and fashion standards are more forgiving? Think about the types of pieces you need.

Do you wear a lot of jeans? Then update your jeans and casual tops first. Do you wear suits to work? Then update your business wardrobe first and when you get around to it, you can update your weekend wear.

2. Define your style.

Thanks to Pinterest, it’s a whole new fashion world out there! Do some poking around to find looks that might interest you and to get a feel for what’s in style right now. Are you classic? Trendy? Bohemian? Hippy dippy trippy? What types of looks appeal to you? Make a list.

3. Make a plan.

Start by taking a closet inventory. What still fits? If it doesn’t fit or make you feel good, put it in a discard pile. Put everything else back in your closet and make a list of what you have so you don’t duplicate when you go shopping.

Then make a list of key pieces to purchase. Here is a basic list that will get you started. You may not need everything on this list, or you might not need it all right now.


You don’t know how badly it is sending my OCD into overdrive not to remake that list to match my new blog colors. But I will NOT cave. This one will do just fine, yes? (Say yes.) Thank you for humoring me.

JEANS. Every woman needs one pair of jeans that makes her feel fabulous. I have 10, but that’s beside the point. HA! If you’re a career woman who works in an office every day, these may not be your first priority. If you’re a stay-at-home or work-at-home mama or woman, then check out my popular post on how to find the perfect pair of jeans.

If you’re shopping right now in 2014 2015, I would advise getting a pair of skinny jeans. I truly believe that almost everyone can wear skinny jeans. They’ve become the norm again. I have friends of all shapes and sizes who look good in their skinny jeans when they pair them with the right top and shoes. Whatever you do, DO NOT try to stuff non-skinny jeans into your boots. JUST DON’T. You will look like a pirate.

If you have no desire to tuck your jeans into your boots, then go for a nice flattering straight-leg style. Bootcut jeans aren’t really “out” but they are definitely not going to do anything to update your look, if that’s what you’re trying to do. If you can only afford one pair, get a darker wash. It’s more versatile and can be dressed up for an evening look.


PANTS. A pair of black “cigarette pants” is a fabulous wardrobe staple. They’re so flattering and can be dressed up or down. If you work in an office environment, you may need more than one pair of pants. The nice thing about “cigarette” pants is that you can wear them with flats or heels. If you get a more traditional trouser, it’s crucial that the are hemmed correctly for the shoes you are wearing.

basic trousers

SKIRTS. A basic pencil skirt in a neutral color will go with everything from a blazer and heels for the office to a t-shirt and sandals on the weekend, and the style is universally flattering. The key with a pencil skirt is to get the right fit. Make sure the length hits right at the knee or an inch above the knee. If it hits below the knee, it can make your legs look stumpy. For winter, a tweed pencil skirt is nice. And if you want a fun, casual look, a striped maxi skirt can be highly versatile.


DRESSES. A little black dress should be a part of everyone’s wardrobe. Ideally get a year-round fabric so you can maximize the wearability. You can put a blazer over it for work or a denim jacket with it for lunch with the girls and the possibilities for accessorizing are positively endless. Ideally you will have a go-to casual dress and a go-to dressy dress in your closet, but take your lifestyle and needs into account and prioritize accordingly. A printed wrap dress is a great basic to have in your wardrobe. And a sleeveless sheath can be worn year round — just throw on a blazer or cardigan and boots in the colder months.


STAND ALONE TOPS. By stand-alone tops, I mean tops that you can throw on with a pair of jeans and a necklace and call it a day. Sweaters, peasant blouses, embellished t-shirts . . . it depends on your personal style and what you like. You want at least one dressy stand-alone top and one casual one.

stand alone tops

LAYERING TOPS. T-shirts, tanks, basic button-downs. You will want a few of these in neutral colors.

layering basics

JACKETS/CARDIGANS. A fitted blazer or denim jacket is essential. You will wear it with your pencil skirt, with your jeans, with your pants and over your dress. Make sure you get one that fits you perfectly and allows enough room to wear a top or dress under it. A cardigan will work too, but most of us look better in the structure that a jacket provides. For a more casual weekend look, a drapey sweater is an excellent wardrobe essential to have in a neutral color.


SHOES. Depending on the time of year and the area of the country you live in, you will need to prioritize your shoe purchases differently. Right now, if you are revamping your wardrobe, you probably want a pair of basic brown or black boots. While ankle boots are trendy, a classic riding boot is still current and will be much more versatile while you’re building your wardrobe. A pair of ballet flats, and possibly a pair of heels? A pair of shoes you are comfortable walking in, and probably a pair of sneakers. When summer rolls around, a pair of wedge sandals will take you from day to night effortlessly, and of course a pair of flat sandals for everyday wear is essential.

See my Must-Have Winter Boots and Must-Have Boots for Fall for some ideas.

ACCESSORIES. This is where you can have fun, and you don’t want to spend a lot of money so check out places like Kohl’s and Target. A long pendant necklace is versatile and very now. Stacking bracelets is a hot trend. And of course scarves. Don’t get too bogged down in the accessories, though. Those can come later after you’ve built up your wardrobe basics. But if you do see something that catches your eye when you’re shopping for the essentials, pick it up! You will probably be surprised how much wear you get out of it.

4. Go shopping!

Take a good friend along, and make a fun day of it! Dress in clothes that are comfortable to take off and on, and make sure to style your hair and put on makeup so you feel good about yourself and enjoy seeing yourself in the clothes you’re trying on.

Pay attention to fit. Fit is KEY to looking stylish and you can find attractive clothes that fit well at any price point.

Buy pieces in the same general color palette to allow mixing and matching for more wardrobe options. If you’re blond, go for caramel and beige tones for your neutrals and build around that. If you’re darker like me, stick with grays and blacks and jewel tones. If you have a warmer complexion and tend to gravitate to earth tones, stick with browns as your basic color palette and build around that with warmer colors.

Stick to your list. Don’t get side tracked by all the things you don’t need. Be purposeful, and start with the items you need most and work your way down. Try to leave the mall with at least one outfit that you feel really good in. It might be a pair of jeans, a cute sweater and a pair of ballet flats. Or maybe you will want to start with a work outfit — a pencil skirt, button down blouse and cute fitted blazer.

5. Re-evaluate and make a new list.

When you get home, go through your existing wardrobe and see what new outfits you can make with the new pieces you purchased. Take pictures of the outfits you like and keep them in a folder on your computer, if that helps you get dressed quickly in the morning! Don’t be afraid to mix and match and try new combinations.

Go back to Pinterest and search for outfits using specific items you bought to get new ideas. I do this ALL the time. When I got my camo jeans, I went to Pinterest and searched camo pants and started pinning outfit ideas. I discovered I had several entirely new outfits waiting in my closet, simply by adding one new pair of pants to my wardrobe.

Make a new list, and next month or whenever the budget allows, go back out to pick up a few more pieces. Over time you will develop a workable wardrobe.

Meanwhile, here are some other posts I’ve written that might be helpful.

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35 Responses

  1. I lost about 100 pounds 5 years ago, and along the way I had to rebuild my wardrobe many times as the sizes dropped. I wish I had thought about it in such a logical way like your awesome post but I was just so excited to be in regular sized stores that I was kind of crazy and willy nilly. I definitely agree with Allison that the hardest part was defining my own style. Until you do, your pieces are just pieces and not a comprehensive, wearable wardrobe. This is a great post! Thank you!


  2. I have smaller sized hips and legs but I have a wider stomach and stomach. This makes me appear very top heavy. How can I wear skinny jeans and look “balanced” on the top and bottom?

    1. Good question! I wrote this post once. It is a bit dated, but a lot still applies.


      If you are top heavy, I think it’s better to go ahead and wear a looser top — something not too form fitting. A tunic or peasant type top — not too voluminous though, b/c you don’t want to add volume, just give yourself some breathing room. 🙂

      Or, you can also try wearing something very structured on top. Go with a longer top or lightweight sweater and then a blazer or jean jacket with a lot of shape and structure through the waist and bust, to give the illusion of a more streamlined middle. I tend to carry any extra weight in hips and tummy, so whenever I gain any weight, I refer to those rules. When I’m thinner, I can get away with tighter tops. Does that help?

  3. yay — great post and quite timely in the new year!! I am *really* wanting to do a thorough purge of my closet and would like to add some fun high quality pieces to my closet this year that I know I will get a lot of use out of. This post is very helpful. Thank you also for including the link to “You might also Like” because I actually somehow missed most of those posts and they are quite helpful as well!! Inspired to go home and spend some time in my closet 🙂
    Love the new layout of the blog and I appreciate the time you take to make such thoughtful posts.

  4. I love this post!

    I’m facing a wardrobe crisis of my own. In 2014, I lost 57.5 lbs and dropped 5 dress sizes. Having to re-buy my ENTIRE wardrobe is daunting and overwhelming, if not a little fun at times too.

  5. Such a great post, especially because you go into detail about the basics, instead of just being general. I love the checklist, and it blends in just fine with your new colors :)! Very helpful. Have a great weekend!

  6. Oh how I love a good skinny jean and I think they have truly become staples. The key is finding a good pair! Great post on the basics. I always say if you have the basics you will always look well put together.

  7. This is very helpful. I am starting almost from scratch and have determined that I am mostly casual. I have identified the first pair of nice jeans I need, but when it comes to boots, I am a little stumped. I need all types…booties and riding boots. I do have an old pair of brown riding boots that could make it through this winter (they will for sure need to be replaced next year). Do you find that riding boots or ankle boots are more versatile? I would be wearing them mostly with jeans and some dresses. Or is now the time to scrap winter and start planning for spring? I admit, I get overwhelmed. Thanks for all the great posts!
    PS. I did copy your cozy sweater dress outfit (the dress from the Loft) and got tons of compliments!

    1. I wouldn’t scrap winter yet unless spring comes soon where you live. I am still rounding out my winter wardrobe, and besides, this is a great time of year for sales! 🙂 I think ankle boots are trendier, but I feel like riding boots are more versatile and easier to wear. With ankle boots, you have to think more about the length and fit of your jeans, and if you wear them with dresses or skirts, they don’t always look right. I definitely think riding boots are more versatile, and they will never go out of style. Also, a pair of Converse or Superga kicks are great for casual wear when you don’t want boots.

  8. I love this post!!! <3 I have been researching for MONTHS how to purge and start a capsule wardrobe. This post has done an excellent and concrete explanation of breaking down the wardrobe building process. Today, I followed my husband's lead and purged my closet of clothing and shoes. I stumbled upon this website after frantically trying to figure out where to start when I go shopping today and tomorrow. Thank you for helping to rebuild my confidence for this interesting journey. 🙂

  9. I absolutely loved reading this post. I recently lost fifty pounds and have had a major life change (I was in hospice and living in leggings and sweaters for many years but I am doing better and want to consider the work force again!) and now my wardrobe is out of style and does not fit me, but I’m also looking at a career that would require dressier clothes with more creativity and I’m in my forties now and my cuts need to represent that. I find I want less trends and more classics that are tailored to fit my frame, but I also want less throw away pieces and invest in items that will last for years. I feel this post has given me a road map of sorts to start with but that it will also help my 20 year-old college graduate who is just starting her next degree. Thanks for sharing!

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