Building Your Wardrobe: the Black Suit System

We’ve all seen the ‘instant makeover’ shows on television and heard the advice of the stylists.  Most of us will not have thousands of dollars and a vacation to NYC simply to shop.  Even the select few women who get this frequently hate the experience.  Sure, they walk away with great clothes, but the ‘rules’ just don’t translate back to our everyday lives.

The reality of shopping is more like a minefield than a visit to the spa.  Today’s stores are jammed with merchandise, run by staff who are trained to read a script instead of actually help you, and the whole frenetic milieu is set to blaring music pumping from the store speakers.  Basically, the entire store is meant to drive you to make impulse purchases.  Just like the aisle of the supermarket with cards, magazines, gum, and chocolate tempting you while you wait, a modern retail store is designed to grab your attention any time you pause to look at something, make a decision, or just re-orient yourself amongst the racks and racks of clothes.  Taking a moment to pause and really look at items, however, is one of the keys to finding what you want.

I believe that with a few tips and tricks, owning a stylish wardrobe is more achievable than ever for all women.  Incredible deals are lurking in that three ring circus they dare call “the mall” and with something to focus on you can find them without killing someone in the process.  Which brings me to the fundamental starting place for the ‘black suit’ shopping system.  This is a way to block out distractions, find what you actually want and will wear, and avoid coming home with a bag full of DOA clothes.

Every stylish wardrobe is built on two items:  a black blazer and a black dress skirt.

In order to build a wardrobe from the ground up, you must own a basic black suit.  The pieces do not need to be purchased as a matching suit.  Both items simply need to be basic black, the correct size and fit, and in a contemporary cut.

The Blazer:  A modern cut blazer is less power-suit and more flexible.  Look for a fitted, single-breasted  jacket with a little stretch, no major shoulder padding (if you can grab a handful of shoulder pad while wearing, its too much), and no embellishments (aka puffed sleeves, fancy buttons, ruffles, etc).  Purchase either a snug fit or your true size.  In either case, when you button the jacket, there should be no extra fabric around your waist.  A shrunken jacket may pull a little when buttoned, as long as the shoulders allow you to put your arms down without popping the seams.  If you are under forty and ANY size, my advice is to err on the side of slightly too small vs. too large.  If you are over forty you can pull off either style so the choice is yours.

The Skirt:  This is an easy one.  There are only three rules to buying the perfect skirt:  it must fit comfortably (sitting and standing), fall about to the knee, and be black.  This is a skirt that can be worn with practically anything.  The cut is not important as long as the skirt isn’t embellished.  A-line or straight both work wonderfully.  Make sure it is in a dress fabric and not knit.  Get the plainest, most flattering skirt you can find that is long enough to wear to a wedding but not so long that you can’t wear it outside of a cemetery.

It is fundamental to this system that you don’t call a ‘mulligan’ on these two items.  Both must be items you can and would wear today.  If you own a black suit that fits but looks like it just came out of a 1983 time capsule, that doesn’t count.  If you own a black suit in the wrong size for your body today, that does not count.  You may have either the skirt or the blazer and simply need to purchase the other.  The blacks do not need to match and these two items don’t need to function as a traditional suit.  Each piece must separately look great on you.

As you make your first purchases using this system always ask yourself,  “Can I wear this with my black blazer or skirt?”  If the answer is yes, buy it.  If the answer is no, put it back for now.  Not everything you own has to match these two pieces forever;  this is a simple prompt to use when in doubt.  As you expand your personal style, items will enter that have nothing to do with the blazer or the skirt,  but you can always deflect to this method in times of shopping stress.

Note:  Some people prefer brown to black.  I do understand this, but I simply think the standard of fashion is built on black.  It is easier to buy a wardrobe of varying colors if you work around black as a basic vs.  brown.  Bottom line: ask yourself if you would honestly feel stylish wearing head-to-toe brown.   An all back outfit, on the other hand, does pass as stylish, assuming the items were not purchased at Hot Topic.  Trust me, regardless of what you were told back in the day, everyone CAN wear black.  Does the person who advised in your formative years that you “shouldn’t wear black” now sport campy ‘blue’ hair which she has set at the salon every Tuesday?  You wouldn’t be caught at your own funeral sporting that look, and you would be DEAD.  Times have changed.