Building a Classic Accessory Wardrobe

classic accessories

My stylistic evolution began with clothes, moved on to shoes, and eventually began to encompass accessories. It took me a while to recognize the true power of jewelry, belts, scarves, and other embellishments to add personality, flair, and interest to an outfit.

But now that I’ve seen the light, I worship at the Accessory Altar. I know now that creative accessorization can save a drab outfit from hopelessness, and elevate a good outfit to greatness. I know that accessories can add texture to the bland, sparkle to the dull, and definition to the formless. I know that accessories MAKE an outfit.

So I’m going to make you folks a list of must-have accessories. But first, I’m going to lay some serious caveats on you:

Caveat 1: Put a punk, a prep, and a princess are each wearing a black sleeveless sheath dress. Punk adds motorcycle boots, a chain belt, leather jacket, and skull earrings. Prep adds a pearl choker, patent pumps, a cashmere cardi, and a charm bracelet. Princess adds diamond danglers, a tennis bracelet, and sky-high stilettos. Your accessories are how you express your stylistic personality. Don’t let me or anyone else tell you which ones to buy and try.

Caveat 2: These items are what I consider “essential” to a modern working girl’s wardrobe. Generally speaking, these are the classic basics: A smallish group that many women employ regularly. These babies are more likely to add polish than personality, and should be the foundation upon which you lay your accessory wardrobe. This is only the beginning …

Caveat 3: Since you are not made of money and unlikely to be able to amass all this stuff in one go, I’ll give it to you in tiers. Tier 1 is accessories I believe to be extremely useful. Tier 2 is accessories that will be helpful regularly, and enhance your overall fashionability. Tier 3 is accessories that you should get whenever you can afford them.

OK, here we go!

Tier 1

Diamond, Moissanite, or CZ studs: These will work for almost everyone regardless of personal style preferences.

Heather gray tights: They go with black, brown, red, blue … shall I go on? Heather grey is the ultimate neutral in tights. Hue, Spanx, and DKNY all make fabulous versions.

Unadorned gold or silver chain: Ideally something relatively delicate, but not so thin it’s invisible against your skin.

Black pumps and/or flats: If you go for heels, select something you can walk at least six blocks in and something with relatively few bells and whistles. With flats, pick something comfy and pared down for versatility.

Thin but oversized printed scarf: In my opinion thin, large scarves are the most useful year-round. Pick a print that includes colors from your wardrobe palette.

Sandals with a small wedge: Even folks who shun heels can generally deal with wedges, so this style is a good bet. Steer clear of espadrilles, as they have limited application. Stick to a classic color and style.

Watch: If you – like many people – use your phone as a watch and are happy to check the time that way, skip this. If you rely on or love the look of a watch, pick a classic style. I favor bracelet watches over leather bands myself as I think they age better.

Ankle boots: My perfect ankle boot is neutral, has a 2″ block heel, and hits right at the ankle bone.

Tier 2

Silk scarf: Scarves can totally transform an outfit, adding color and sass to an otherwise dull ensemble. A silk or silk-like square is a very versatile shape, but rectangles are great, too. You can typically find fab vintage versions at your local thrift emporium.

Knee-high boots: Riding boots or heels, slouchy or smooth, this style is versatile and classic.

Stack of bangles or stretch bracelets: If your wrists are exposed, you’ll look more polished with bracelets. And a stack always looks chic.

Waist belt: Wide or skinny, pick your poison. This belt is NOT a trouser belt, so don’t pick up a two-inch brown leather jobber from the Gap. This belt is for polish, personality … and accenting your waist.

Strappy sandals: Something sultry that shows a lot of skin. Color and material of your choice.

Long necklace: Be it chain, beads, pendant, pearls, wood, or any combination thereof, just make sure it hits an inch above your bellybutton. That’s about 32″ on me. This is a very fun piece, and can jazz up everything from a sheath dress to jeans and a tee.

Statement shoes: Whether they’re bright yellow patent, encrusted with studs, toweringly tall, or full of live goldfish, just make sure you’ve got a pair of shoes that attract attention. In a good way, that is.

Tier 3

Cuff bracelet: Even if you’re too timid for a statement necklace, you can utilize a cuff to add edge to your look.

Colorful tights: If blood red and electric blue scare you, try olive green or burgundy. Anything that’s not black, gray, or brown will qualify.

Chunky mid-length necklace: Since you’ve got delicate/short, and interesting/long covered, pick out something heavy or colorful or bold that sits just a wee bit above your bustline.

Image courtesy J.Crew

Originally posted 2008-11-28 07:26:00.

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21 Responses to “Building a Classic Accessory Wardrobe”

  1. K.Line

    I LOVE every choice. What a great instructional guide to the accessory – every woman’s secret style weapon! And I love your bit about the sheath dress / different stylings. So true.

  2. Couture Allure Vintage Fashion

    As my style has evolved over the years, I have left behind most of the basics in your tier 1. I now wear jewelry that makes more of a statement, most of it vintage. My basic pumps are greyish purple snakeskin, and my wedge sandals are bright coral. But there was a time (dare I say about 20 years ago?) when I did own everything from tier 1, and those items worked for me at that point in my life.

  3. Deja Pseu

    Great suggestions! I’ve found that keeping my primary pieces of clothing simple and using jackets and accessories to create the overall look is a great way to get value from a basic (but well-fitting and well-made) core wardrobe.

  4. Sharon Rose

    Hi sal-really love this post, very inspiring and I need to get out my accessories more, they do really transform an outfit successfully!! have a lovely weekend!

  5. K.L.R. (aka Kayleigh)

    This if fabulous! So often there are wardrobe guides to essentials — which is good, and I’ve learned alot from them, but this is really taking it to the next level.

    On another note…I’ve given you a blog award! It’s the pretty butterfly at my blog 🙂 I have to say, yours is one of the first style related blogs I came across and the concept of “already being pretty” really spoke to me. I admire your writing and your ideas.


  6. kass

    LOVE the list! I know what you mean; I used to only think about the clothes, and forget the accessories except for stud earrings. I’m learning, and I’m definitely going to take these tips!

  7. lopi

    I love it that you always put so much effort into your writing!
    Personally, I’m more about choosing some accessories and making them your statement pieces. For example, I’m all about big jersey scarves, long chunky necklaces and ballet flats. I can’t live without them, but I’m sure there are people out there who don’t have a single one of these items in their wardrobe and their basics are totally different.

  8. Michelle

    Great post Sal! I would love to hear suggestions of cinching belts, if you have any. I’ve been trying to find a good one but all I can find are cheapie elastic ones online. I don’t know if the trend is over or what, but dammit, I want a black one!

  9. pretty face

    Are you me? Selfishly, I usually hate these rules because they are so inapplicable to myself but I found myself manically nodding along, particularly to: heather gray tights, pearl necklace, pearl studs, silk scarf, cinching belt, strappy sandals, statement shoes, colored tights.

    OK, I’ve basically just repeated your list! xx

  10. Skye

    Well, you know how I feel about rules – but this is a really good primer. If anyone’s needing a bit of guidance about getting into accessories (and they can be pretty daunting) then this is a really great guide.

  11. kittyscreations

    Ah, you are an enabler! This gives me another excuse to look at things on Etsy. This is another list I will be printing out and taking with me when I shop.
    I am a bit curious why you didn’t include any types of bags on here. I think that the right clutch, hobo bag, messenger, etc, can really do amazing things for outfits as well.

  12. Londyn

    What a great list! I completely agree with the necessity of great accessories.

  13. enc

    Hooray for me, I have most of this stuff, and I’m surprised. I don’t use much of it since I don’t work in an office anymore, but I’m prepared.

    Thanks for this comprehensive list, Sal.

    I hope you’re having a great weekend in Chicagoland.

  14. The Seeker

    A great post so helpfull.
    I also think that accessories are a must-have to lift some outfits.
    Well… sometimes I think my style is in accessories.
    Hope you’re having a wonderful time, dear.


  15. Songy

    I was reading this post and went into a dream sequence. Very pleasant dream that was. Made me feel really good.

    I don’t have all of it but I’m slowly building up. I do like quirky stuff so I do miss out on essentials.

  16. Keeg's Mom

    This is great! I’m sure it was hard to keep it fairly short and manageable, but one thing I would add for my own “necessary” list — any tier, but gotta have ’em — is ONE pair of big, playful, “statement” earrings… I’m not a pearl or bling person, more an arty earring type, but i do agree with the necessity of hoops and simple necklace … but i have a few pair of big earrings that pull me out of a funk and can MAKE an outfit in no time. My faves are ’60s-styled, plastic blue translucent wire, 1/6″ wide, shaped like diamonds, about 2″ across, with the same wire diamond shape, but smaller, sitting inside… they interlock and twirl around. Colorful and major fun.

  17. La Belette Rouge

    I LOVE this post. I have all of tier one, most of tear two and half of tier three. I do need the coloured and the grey tights. Thanks for reminding me. Something else to add to my Christmas list!!

  18. Emily McDonald

    I totally agree with you in everything. The same for me, i started out with clothes and shoes and now I have moved onto accesories and it looks just like the image you've shown. I have the exact owl necklace and pearls. I recently purchases a bunch of scarfs and belts, and now I'm doing earrings. The tiniest detail or accesory makes the entire outfit different. I bought the fall military jacket and wasn't too pleased until i paired it with the owl necklace from forever 21, then it was my favorite outfit in my wardrobe. Accesories are the trends that you can wear the longest.