Shopping for Basics

How to shop for basics

In my experience, there are two main philosophies of shopping for basics:

  1. Buy new basics gradually as the old ones wear out.
  2. Buy new basics in a big batch, typically every 2-3 years.

Just as every woman has a different set of personal wardrobe “basics,” every woman will have a different set of needs when it comes to procuring those basics. But in my experience, neither of these two commonly-implemented basics-buying methods is ideal. Both prompt the occasional conniption fit, complete with hair-tearing and eye-rolling. Why? Because quality, affordable, well-made, perfectly-fitting basics are a lot like fairies: We’re told they exist, we catch occasional glimpses, but they are nearly impossible to FIND. Especially when we’re actively looking for them.

If you wait until your best black slacks are threadbare and saggy, the chances of finding an equally perfect pair begin to approach zero. If you keep a running list of basics that need replacing and schedule a marathon run on the outlet mall, you can bet your sweet bippy that all you’ll find will be froof and frills. And then, ya know, the hair-tearing and eye-rolling. And the subsequent joining of a nudist colony.

It won’t work for everyone, I realize, but I’m still gonna propose a third philosophy of shopping for basics:

Keep your eyes peeled for amazing basics AT ALL TIMES and when they appear, buy ’em.

Simple. Elegant. Effective. Works best if you actually enjoy shopping, but works moderately well if you are an infrequent but vigilant shopper. Remain open to new, better basics whenever you look at clothing, shoes, or accessories for yourself or for others. Much like fairies, they will appear in your path when you’re just casually considering them and not hunting them intently, elephant gun in hand. Yes, this may result in temporary doubles, but how marvelous to have a backup pair of perfectly-fitting jeans? And so long as you restrict this type of shopping to quality, personally-tested wardrobe basics, you won’t shop yourself out of house and home.

Image courtesy J.Crew.

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details. Sustainable options are either used, handmade, made in the U.S., artisan made in non-sweatshop conditions, or made using sustainable/fair trade practices.

Originally posted 2011-04-05 06:12:11.

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49 Responses to “Shopping for Basics”

  1. Cynthia

    I buy basics in large batches whenever Target has good ones. Like right now, they’ve got a bunch of really great little elbow-sleeve cotton cardigans. Of which I got four, and if I wasn’t trying to GAAD I would be over there buying about four more, because they are the perfect little sweaters for most of the year in this climate.

    • AJM

      I know exactly which cardigans you’re talking about a Target. They ARE fabulous and I like the weight of them, too.

  2. poet

    I apply this strategy for all of my clothes shopping that happens despite my shopping ban: In principle I’m not allowed to shop at all, but I remain vigilant, and if there’s something that a) replaces a previously owned or currently worn-down item, the more basic the better, or b) falls into the category of underwear and hosiery, AND c) is heavily discounted or even for free but still in good condition, I’ll snatch it. I’m getting by with this and a lot of refashioning.

  3. Amy

    Yes!! I learned this lesson the hard way when my favorite a-line black skirt got too faded and worn-out to wear anymore. I still have not found a suitable replacement!

  4. Amber

    I usually end up taking my basics for granted until they fall apart and then panicking when I don’t have the white tank to wear. I need to be more proactive about getting out there and buying them when I see them and/or when they are on sale.

  5. meli22

    Hmmm. This really is a great idea. I am like option #2- buy basics in a batch, usually when my basics have gone beyond typical failure. I SHOULD keep an eye out for basics all the time, like you suggest. Except it is SO much more fun to shop for fun items rather than basics! But, I think I will honestly employ this strategy next time I go shopping. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Loren

    So timely for me because, I am in currently in the middle of eye-rolling/hair tearing.
    Shoes are the ones that always get me. I am going without right now because I wore my simple black pumps AND my brown riding boots to death. The only thing really left in my closet are ‘statement’ shoes. And now I can’t seem to find anything I like in my size (5) that are in my price rang. Where do people buy small shoes?
    So I guess my answer to this question is that I usually ‘wait it out’.

  7. Bubu

    I generally follow the “get them when you see them” -for the reasons you state. I have been on the lookout for a little black shrug/cardigan to wear over dresses and sleeveless blouses but couldn’t find one in all my hunting. Then in a thrift store last week, while hunting for skirts, I came across a perfect one in my size – J. Jill, perfect condition, for $14. You better believe I snapped that up – wearing it now! I also find for T’s – long and short, finding ones that fit my proportions (short and curvy) is tricky, so if I find ones that don’t plunge too much and fit the waist AND hips, I grab them in multiple colors immediately.

  8. coffeeaddict

    Yes, the elusive high quality basics that fit like second skin. I could write volumes on the topic. First of all:
    Basic is subject to time and what is considered a wardrobe statement can quickly become obsolete just by changing your job, place of residence,etc. So buying in bulk can be tricky, ending up with a pile of clothes you no longer have a need for.
    On the other hand, being on the constant lookout for new basics can be tedious because it implies you’ll be spending a lot of time shopping, something I no longer care for much. It can also be dangerous, when people unexpectedly invite you to a cocktail/black-tie/wedding and you haven’t got anything to wear.
    My solution is online shopping. I’ve been blessed with a great sense of perception of what looks good on me and will fit well. I also have a fey tried and trusted sites that offer superb merchandise (Yoox, Asos).
    I also have a few favourite brands that carry high quality pieces at affordable prices.

  9. anotherjen

    I try and buy basics during ‘shoulder season’ when they might be on sale and I don’t desperately need them. For example at the end of winter I always look for discounted wool tights and knee high socks, then I stash them away for next fall. I recently bought 6 pairs of knee high socks for half price, huzzah no need for full-price sock shopping next fall!

    Sometimes this strategy leads to a redefinition of what ‘basic’ means, and this is often an improvement on buying really basic basics. This often revolves around colour, so for example instead of buying white/black tank tops as basics one year I bought blue, green and pink because the white/black ones were sold out. Then I had to stretch my sartorial muscles a bit to combine them with other pieces, and this is good for me because I tend to get stuck in outfit ruts and wear too much black and grey.

  10. Katharine

    My strategy has always been a mix of 2 and 3, but the trouble is, sometimes there JUST AREN’T the right basics available. For a long time. Which is why, if I DO find that perfect item, I’ll buy several.

    I mean, I’ve spent years — YEARS — looking for just the right long-sleeved black layering tee. They don’t fit right. They aren’t the right kind of knit (I like smooth knits, don’t like the fine rib). The neckline is funny or too low or crew (crew necks look terrible on me). Or I find one that does pass all the tests, and maybe there’s something about the fabric, even though the label alleges it’s a perfectly ordinary cotton-with-a-hint-of-spandex, that makes my armpits DRIP sweat when I wear it. (Seriously. Am I the only person this happens to? Just some of my clothes, very often knits, and I can’t figure out why.) Or I find a LOVELY one in a silk blend on deep discount, buy three, and then when I wash the little suckers (by hand, as the label tells me to) all the seams twist and suddenly the sleeves go round my arms in spirals and one side of the hem is two inches longer than the other!

    Another thing — I wish clothing manufacturers would always offer a selection of really basic basics year round, instead of tweaking them or adding silly useless bits of ornament or lace or wee buttons or whatever. You know, sometimes you need tank tops, and NOBODY has just. a. plain. tank top, not too low in the front with straps wide enough to hide a bra. They’re all twiddly or have gathers in the front or draping or some kind of screened print or something, no matter where you go looking. I realise that in order to keep people buying buying buying there needs to always be a hot new thing to buy, but man is it annoying.

    • Frankincensy

      I wish clothing manufacturers would always offer a selection of really basic basics year round, instead of tweaking them or adding silly useless bits of ornament or lace or wee buttons or whatever. You know, sometimes you need tank tops, and NOBODY has just. a. plain. tank top, not too low in the front with straps wide enough to hide a bra. Theyโ€™re all twiddly or have gathers in the front or draping or some kind of screened print or something, no matter where you go looking. I realise that in order to keep people buying buying buying there needs to always be a hot new thing to buy, but man is it annoying.

      Oh, a thousand times this.

  11. Stacy

    I keep my eyes peeled for them when shopping. It seems like I never have enough basic black and white layering pieces and when I do have them they are constantly in the wash.

    Why is it that even though I have probably 4 pairs of black pumps/sandals I seem to have a hard time finding the “perfect” pair to wear for work?? That is one basic that is still a bit elusive for me.

  12. Ms. M

    I think I might try your method, of buying them when you see them; because the other two methods definitely haven’t worked for me.

    I’m guilty of letting things wear out until they’re almost unwearable, and then continuing to wear them because I can’t find replacements. It’s a really awful situation which leads to many very grumpy shopping trips!

    At one point, I decided I’d go on a big shopping spree to replace everything at once. That resulted in a closet full of mistakes.

    So yeah, I think I’ll stock up when I see good basics (as my budget allows– I refuse to buy things on credit!) . Stores sell items out so quickly these days, I can’t count on a particular piece to be available next month.

  13. Relatable Style

    I do that exactly! When I go shopping, I always look for everything I like. I rarely go out with something specific in mind, and when I do, I rarely find it. I do drag home some other items that are great then ๐Ÿ˜‰ I don’t even shop with the whole “make 3 outfits with it or leave it” rule, because clothing items sometimes sit in my closet for years, and then I suddenly have all the items for a plethora of outfits and BAM! it’s my favorite piece. Needless to say, I don’t obey the “things go if you haven’t worn them for a year” rule either!
    But I have to admit, this only works since I know my colors (by nuances!) and shapes so well. So I walk into a shop, glance over and can identify the racks worth perusing instantly. Plus, I’m a very picky shopper. I only buy things I LOVE (ok – except they are dirt cheap and “80% love” or I need them really really desperately).

    So my basic rule is: If you really love something, it’s in your color, shape and budget – by all means, buy it ๐Ÿ™‚ [This might not apply if your enthusiasm is easily provoked – it only works if you don’t exactly love *everything*, LOL!]

  14. Emily Joyce

    Basics are always hard for me! When I go shopping, I’m drawn to statement pieces and tend to ignore the boring basics. As a result, I’m really lacking in that area! I do tend to buy a bunch at one time if I find a good sale. I like your philosophy of keeping an eye out for them, because it’s so true that once you start looking for a specific item, they all magically disappear!

  15. Sheila

    Heh, one woman’s basic is another woman’s not-so-basic, too! I buy when I see – whether that’s a gorgeous pencil skirt or fitted blazer or a wildly patterned classic blouse. Of course, when you mostly thrift or shop second-hand, you get pretty good at doing that.

  16. danielle

    i tend to buy basics as a trickle, whenever i happen to see something that fits my idea of “basic.” then again, i love shopping, and knowing something is a wardrobe staple is the perfect justification to buy it! i buy a lot of stuff from target so i tend to check their clearance racks every time i’m in to see if they’ve discounted any tees/tanks/tights/etc.

  17. Velma

    Well, there are basics, and then there are basics . . .

    I buy things like layering tanks, long- and short-sleeved tees, plain sweaters, basic bras and underwear, and socks in multiples–usually once a year or at the beginning of a season (unless I manage to get them on sale at the end of the previous season). Then I donate or toss a roughly equivalent number of the worn out ones.

    I do a lot of secondhand shopping, so I am constantly on the lookout for “better” basics, like jeans, good shoes and boots, and solid-colored skirts and blazers. I start looking for good equivalents well before a loved piece shows its age, as it can take a while for my thrifting kismet to work. I am trying more and more these days not to settle for “good enough” with secondhand pieces, so if the right thing does not show up, then I have to start the retail hunt–a kind of shopping I don’t enjoy very much.

  18. candice

    This is a shopping weakness for me. I always find myself out hunting for basics when my most comfortabe black tank top or favorite pair of jeans becomes unwearable. And you are so right in saying that once you look, theme items are almost impossible to find!

    I like your suggestion and I think I will employ it more regularly. The only recent improvement I’ve seen in my own shopping has been with the advent of thrifting: it’s easier to pull off frequent basics shopping when everything costs $2.00 or less.

    • Sal

      So true! And thrift stores are FABULOUS places to look for basics. Especially more durable goods like blazers, coats, dress pants, and lined skirts.

  19. Diana

    I buy them in a trickle and I do keep my eyes open for them at all times. Mostly this has to do with the fact that I hate paying full price for anything, so I’ll snap up basics when I find them at a good sale price.

  20. Anat

    I definitely agree. It’s always good to keep your eyes open for clothes which you know will be useful and serve you well.

  21. MrsDragon

    This is how I shop for everything except very specific needs (generally, formal wear). Every so often I go shopping. And I look at everything even if I’m really hoping for a certain item. And I try on about half the store. Sometimes I get lucky enough to actually find something.

    I hate wasting money so when I buy clothes I want quality, comfort, and a good fit. Amazing how hard that is to find.

  22. WendyB

    I’ve definitely found that if I wait till I’m desperately in need of something, it is nowhere to be found.

  23. lisa

    I tend to employ your third strategy: buy basics when I see them. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking when you find the perfect basic at a store, and return months later only to discover that they’re making that same basic with a slightly cheaper fabric or a slightly different cut. Ugh.

    When I do find a basic I like (black tights, leggings, white tank tops, a well-fitting tee), I tend to buy 2. It seems like the number that works best for me. You won’t run the risk of having tons of duplicates in your closet that you’ll get sick of later on, you won’t wear out an item too quickly because there’s an alternate you can also wear, and you won’t go broke buying your basics in one big expensive batch.

  24. Elizabeth

    They ARE like fairies! Yesterday I went to Bloomingdales to try and find a new pair of nice jeans. All of them were over $170 and didn’t even look good. I wandered over to Anthropologie, just to browse and found designer jeans in my size for – get this- $10. They were Joe’s – the same brand I’d tried at Bloomingdales but in a better, high-waisted cut. I couldn’t believe my luck. I thought the tag must be an error. I took it up to the front prepared to argue with them if they rang up differently – but they rang up for $10. I couldn’t believe it. Sometimes magical things do happen when you’re shopping!

  25. Cynthia @ Go Chic or Go Home

    I am definitely a “buy it when you see it” girl. Shopping for clothes in bulk involves far too many decisions and would exceed my attention span. I get to the “can-not-compute” phase pretty fast when I’m at a mall or browsing online. The one challenge with buying on the fly is I don’t always remember what I need. Over the last couple of years I started using a wishlist and that has really helped. Whenever I see something online that I need or want it gets flagged and then I can reference the list while I’m out and about.

  26. Leigh

    Oy. I tend to buy as I need. Though, I JUST replenished a bunch of basics during a J. Crew final FINAL sale (love that), and have just realized that a few more pieces are faded, something ripped, something stained so bad I have to toss after repeated attempts to fix. I find that buying quality helps. A lot. I also tend to find basics from brands like Patagonia or Horny Toad. Companies that make performance wear tend to make great basics.

  27. Cel

    I usually only go out looking for them when I need them. I’m not very good at planning ahead when it comes to the basics. I should learn to keep an eye out more often!

  28. Laura

    Thanks for reminding me that I really should be keeping an eye out for a new pair of jeans. ๐Ÿ™ Always fun times…

  29. Dee

    I tend to buy basics when I see them, on sale and if they fit, I buy. I love to clothes shop so its not a problem. Especially love a new pair of black pants. I have recently had the buying of basics somewhat backfire – you see I would buy black turtlenecks and other colors as basics at the end of the season, on sale, only to find that now that I get hot flashes pretty regularly I hardly wear turtlenecks any more. I also dont really like my black pants that are more of a wide leg or flare leg now since skinny and straight pants are in style. Better to not buy too many basics for these reasons…but you gals at the thrift store may benefit LOL!

  30. Ana

    Your suggestion is exactly how I buy my basics. I am an opportunistic sort of shopper, and since I mostly thrift, I’ve learned to swoop down on stuff as I find it.

  31. The Waves

    I am really bad at buying basics. I never want to spend the money on something that I need because I’d rather buy something (there is always something) I want. ๐Ÿ™‚ I have become better at this recently as I have begun to understand that there is nothing wrong with needing basics, or with getting excited about a really well-fitting t-shirt. A lot of times my favourite outfits actually arise from mixing basics.

  32. Rachel HB

    Definitely thrifting. Like many of you mentioned, I rarely want to spend $$ on “boring” basics when I’m out shopping and my attention goes to the newest/shiniest/ sparkliest. But when I come across good quality items at the thrift/consignment shops, I snap them up. I have cardigans, tees, and blazers is so many colors and styles thanks to this.
    The only thing this approach doesn’t work for is pants. I have a 35″ inseam and a thick waist, so if I do find a pair I like I buy them in every color. This year I bought 3 pair of Levi straight-leg jeans this way!

  33. K-Line

    A) I love that top.
    B) I’m very out of practice shopping for basics. I think that waiting for Gap sales is a very sound premise though.

  34. Corinne

    Because I sew, I tend to make many of my basics. There are a couple retailers who offer seasonal basics at reasonable prices and I tend to stock up. Now, my favorite black pants are no longer made so the search is on. I guess I combine all three methods you list. I am not particularly fond of shopping per se so I frequently catalog and on-line shop. What ever works.

  35. Lydia

    I buy basics as I see them, and when they are on sale, I try and buy two of something in different colours.

    Waiting it out for the perfect ‘basic’ to appear can be daunting and at times, has led me to desperation. A few years ago, I was so desperate to replace a thin gage black cardigan, that I broke down and bought one, just for sake of ending the search. It wasn’t what I really wanted, and didn’t look all that good (I just needed one so badly, because I was cold, and my old one had too many tears to fix). Now, I am stuck with this, until a better think gage cardi turns up. Sigh!

  36. Rachel W

    I tend to go by the strategy you recommend… if I find something I know will get a lot of use, I get it. If I really REALLY like it and wear the crap out of it, I buy more (assuming that they are available).

    Right now my basics obsession is the tri-blend T from American Apparel. Yes, they are pricey for just a plain T-shirt, but they are super soft, durable, and don’t shrink much in the dryer. They’re comfy enough to work out in, but look nice enough to throw a cardigan over on a shlumpy tired day. Only problem is that AA runs notoriously small… more well-endowed ladies might be out of luck : /

    I have also been trying to thrift more lately, like some of the above ladies suggested. You know… trying to reduce the ol’ carbon footprint and whatnot.

  37. Eliza

    I’ll buy basics whenever I come across them at thrift stores. Actually, I’ll buy pretty much anything I can stand at a thrift store (I’m notoriously picky, and have a difficult body to fit, particularly from limited thrift store sizing). I thrift shop constantly, but only look through retail stores/sites about twice a year to supplement thrifted basics with things like stockings, and the occaisional t-shirt (which are hard to thrift as they are often worn out/discoloured).

  38. Kitty

    I recently had an epiphany that the reason I hated shopping for clothes so much was that I was always desperately in need of whatever item I was looking for (which has also frequently led me to “settle” for less than fabulous items as a result). Even more interestingly I realised that in part it was a learned response from the many evil trips with my mother looking for her basics, shoes and other clothing items and always at the last minute when there were no work pants to be had and hers had just worn through.

    In the past as a result I have mostly bought 2-5 of any item in a selection of colours (if possible) and have ended up always wearing the same things day after day. Plus being doomed to another less than successful trip next time when they all wear out at the same time (leaving you even more desperate) and if they turn out not to wash well or something you are stuck with them. Cash flow wise this can also hurt because you end up needing to replace many things at the same time instead of smaller outlays spread through the year.

    My new philosophy is to buy no more than 2 of any given item to ensure more variety in my wardrobe but also to keep my eyes open more often and to sometimes just shop “to see what is out there”. But I do feel the frustration of “basics” often just not being available especially if you are a “non-standard” size or shape.

  39. SarahN

    I definitely buy ’em when I see ’em. I used this method recently for a black pencil skirt, and found a beautiful one at Banana from their suiting collection that fit perfectly AND was marked down, and then marked down again! I did not hesitate. Did I already own a black pencil skirt? Yes, but it was of a cheaper quality and never really did fit properly. Off to consignment it went. This method of “trading up” allows me to wait until the perfect basic comes along, and then pounce.

  40. Sarah N.

    I absolutely do a combination of all these methods. I buy tank tops and tee shirts in bulk from Old Navy (cheap, fit great, and I don’t feel bad destroying them over the course of a summer). I usually buy multiples– if I love something and it’s a Basic, I get it in a couple colors (see: my LL Bean cotton cable sweaters and J.Crew cardigans). But I try to keep an eye out for great basics whenever I’m out shopping.

    I’ll echo the other SarahN, too– I recently “traded up” and I’m so pleased. I have a black jersey tank dress from Old Navy that I’ve worn for two summers, but requires a tank top underneath and doesn’t quite fit right. I found an AMAZING jersey dress this past week that costs a little more, but fits PERFECTLY (my mom was pretty amazed) and feels comfier than pajamas. I bought one in black (trading up for that Old Navy dress!) and one in deep blue. I can’t wait until it’s warm enough to wear them.

  41. Mander

    I’m picky about my clothes, especially fabrics; very plus sized, and as a grad student very impoverished, so I do a lot of “grazing” looking for basics on clearance sale or in thrift stores. If I had to try to replace all of my basic items at once it would be a serious exercise in frustration.