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THE WHITE SHIRT
The white shirt may very well be the best fashion leveling device ever. This simple neutral welcomes a pairing with just about any color or pattern, making an outfit refreshingly clean to the eye of onlookers.
While most women instinctually run to their black garments for any evening affair, it is the one woman who goes off script and chooses a white blouse who gets noticed. Not blaringly so, as if she’s wearing head-to-toe sequins, but in a pleasing way because she cleanses the visual palette of a dark room. She stands as a style sorbet, if you will, amid a sea of dark colors, textures, and embellishments.
Many think of white as a subliminal representation of purity and light—like a deep inhale of fresh spring air.
A quintessential icon of style, the white shirt takes on many faces, from the crisp button-down with French cuffs that welcome artful cuff links that sparkle, to loose, organic kimono-inspired styles that effortlessly shroud to flatter and forgive. There are virtually no rules or limits, save keeping them as bright as they were upon purchase. So whether crisp bright white, slightly off-white, or classic eggshell, the goal is to keep them true to their original color by dry-cleaning or hand-washing with care. If you choose to hand-wash, with cotton especially, the best combination is a few gallons of warm water with one-quarter of a cup of liquid bleach and a small amount of dry detergent—both fully dissolved. Finish with a double rinse, first hot, then cold, which will provide a thorough cleaning.
THE NAVY BLUE BLAZER
Call it prep school. Call it nautical. Call it security guard, even. The navy blue blazer stands alone as an icon of classic American style—both for her and him. Its stately shape, strong color, and visual messaging speak to instant acceptability for almost any room you enter the world over.
Where some may find this message stuffy, others realize it can be style power that is harnessed to your individual liking. For instance, one woman may choose to wear her classic navy blue blazer traditionally, paired with her best tan trousers, a silky white blouse, black patent leather pumps, and a strand of milky pearls, whereas another woman will create a look that thumbs its nose at convention while using the instant-recognition factor of the jacket in a slightly coded manner. She’ll wear it like a careless-looking, last-minute addition to her denim skirt/lace top combination. Maybe she’ll add a metallic belt on top of it all, scrunch up the sleeves, pop the collar, and complete the look with biker boots and navy opaque tights. She’s the girl who may have gotten expelled from prep school but still knows the power of all of its wares and pillars.
When you add a navy blue blazer to your wardrobe, there are two things to keep in mind.
NAVY ENCOURAGES BREAKUPS Your navy blazer could very well be half of a navy blue suit you already own. Don’t be afraid to break up a suit, using the jacket as a stand-alone. Jackets with few details always pass for blazers with ease. Look for a single-button closure for more of a chance to effectively take it from casual to elegant. A slightly shorter length, single or double vents, and monochromatic buttons make it appear more independent. These attributes make for a more generic garment that can slip in and out of coupled or single ensembles.
NAVY ISN’T FOND OF GOLD Unless you are heading to a cocktail sip on a yacht, gold buttons on your navy blazer may make you look more like Mr. Howell—as in the character on Gilligan’s Island—than you would like. Gilded hardware on your jacket can be a fun, tongue-in-cheek take on classic nautical-meets-preppy style, but be careful, for its potentially costumey overtones can add years to your look. This choice can also rob you of the many modern possibilities that a simpler version of the jacket welcomes. This is one instance where gold isn’t necessarily golden. Start with matching buttons first.
Sweet, sophisticated, iconically American, and conservative, the classic twinset may fool you into thinking that it’s a relic of the past. It is a signature garment of the 1950s “sweater girl”—you know, the girl who never revealed too much but always let you know what she had to offer through a snugly fitted silhouette.
The best twinsets are versatile enough to allow the wearer to separate them in an instant or conjoin them as designed without hesitation. The outer layer is usually referred to as a cardigan, for its traditional button-front design, whereas the under-layer can be anything from a cap-sleeve T-shirt silhouette to a tank top.
Dressier versions in cashmere are style staples that can take you from sporty days, topping off shapely dark denim, to chic evenings when worn monochromatically atop a silk taffeta ball-gown skirt. Both of these looks say luxe without appearing like you tried too hard.
Twinsets are seasonless and versatile and can benefit from strong embellishments, such as bugle beading, sequins, embroidered details, and artful buttons—the list goes on and on. But be forewarned: Busy details may add years to your look unless you make a conscious effort to either break up more ornate twinsets or add youth to your choice of bottom—for example, sexy dark jeans or stretch satin pants.
This is not to say that all embellished twinsets are old-lady-like. But make sure that you invest in a basic sweater set first, then add more creative versions if you choose. This is how you shop smart and build a great wardrobe. Break the embellished set to use the cardigan as a jacket replacement, and use the tank or T-shirt—a cool alternative to a stuffy blouse—beneath your more tailored suits.
And like most real twins, they usually hate to be mistaken for each other, so to get the most style mileage, look for “fraternal” twinsets, where each piece has its own distinct attributes. The cardigan may be slightly longer; its partner may have a grosgrain ribbon trim at the neck. This will give you the ability to see them as both separates and a dynamic wardrobe duo.
THE BLACK SKIRT
The black skirt not only is a benchmark of tasteful, tailored dressing and timeless elegance, it is also one of the key ingredients of a successful business style—ever appropriate.
What makes it register as a style icon that “grows you up” is the simple fact that the black skirt isn’t always the instinctive choice of younger women, who more often opt for something colorful, sweet, and frilly. But when you have turned that proverbial corner in life, going from “new girl in town” to “woman destined to run this town,” the black skirt can go with you. Sweet can only get you but so far.
The perfect black skirt for you is the one that hugs your lower half just right. The fit on your hips is the first and most important factor.
In cooler months, this skirt calls for matching black opaque tights and black patent pumps that make other girls swoon in silence. Choose a year-round-weight fabric, such as wool gabardine, and combine it with a pale or pastel, tissuelike top and flesh-toned shoes to keep it breezy in warm weather. Here are some pointers for choosing the best silhouette for you.
bold shoulderspleated, A-line, circleaccentuates hips, balances shouldersslim, pear shapedtrumpet, wrap, soft A-linebalances hipsboyish, straightpleated, A-line, mini, wrapadds curves to lower halfhourglasspencil, A-linepunctuates your curves
THE BUSINESS HANDBAG
Invest in the best bag that you can afford. The return on your investment will be worth it because your handbag says a lot about you, whether it’s hanging from your shoulder or elbow, or resting on top of a table or on the back of your chair.
By selecting a strong, quality handbag, you will announce to the world, “I have arrived”—as opposed to “Can you help me get to where I am going?” So choose hand-stitched leather or top-quality suede, in eye-popping colors and without brazen designer logos. If you choose an exotic skin, like ostrich, it doesn’t matter whether it’s real or faux. Everyone has become more green and sensitive to the treatment of animals, including the designers and manufacturers who are producing higher-quality and better-looking products from synthetic materials.
Even if your clothing is of a slightly lesser quality, your handbag can elevate your image, adding shine and value to your overall look.
“WORKING IT” AT WORK A woman’s work ethic is often assessed by her choice of handbag, especially for business. The organized executive knows how to get the most out of one bag versus carrying a jumble of several bags. If you must carry more than one, stash the others (laptop bag, gym tote, etc.) whenever headed to group meetings. The bag that remains should convey the message of complete control, a touch of aspiration, and as little wear and tear as possible. In doing so you transmit a hint of your professional skill sets—even before you have a chance to display them.
THE BLACK PANTSUIT
Sharp. Mysterious. Beyond timeless. His. Hers. Yours. The black pantsuit stands alone confidently as a beacon of stealth style, making the wearer ready for any occasion. The smart, stylish woman wears it complete or as separates with the same security and self-assurance. This makes her modern and gives her limitless style returns.
Invest as much as you can and ask a tailor to fit the jacket and pants to within an inch of your life—while allowing you a little room for the gaining and losing of a few pounds.
Choose a fabric like a year-round tropical-weight wool or wool gabardine. A single-button closure will look the smartest, taking you from casual and business straight into any last-minute evening event where a dress feels like too much.
And like we’ve seen with every single-name style icon, from Halle and Oprah to Cher and Angelina, who’s dipped herself in a black pantsuit, it knows no age or body type—when you know how to rock it right. Here’s exactly how at any age.
TWENTYSOMETHING Choose a slimmer cut and a slightly cropped jacket, and instruct a tailor to add two-inch cuffs to the pants and replace cheaper buttons with top-quality horn buttons. You should also remove all the inside pockets for a smoother line. You will look like you spent a fortune.
THIRTYSOMETHING Wear it to work with flouncy tops, to play against its “mensy” tailoring. Or just feature the lean, sharp pants with your favorite denim jacket, a colorful tank, and an exotic-skin clutch for wine tastings where Mr. Right might be sipping next to you.
FORTYSOMETHING Break it up! The jacket can make your dark denim ready for dinner—just by adding a sleeveless black turtleneck, frisky clutch bag, and lip gloss. The pants can do double duty if you add your highest heels and a shimmy of a metallic top to the mix as you head for any city’s hippest new lounge.
FIFTYSOMETHING AND BEYOND Choose a white ruffled top and snakeskin heels with your black suit for, let’s say, volunteering at a fund-raiser. Heading to the theater? Put on a silky, sleeveless camisole—for that barely there look—then spice it up with a chunky necklace. Now, that’ll give new meaning to the term “hot flash”!
THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT
One hundred percent wool flannel is a loosely woven fabric with a napped surface, traditionally used to conceal the weave. Historically, suits created in this classic material were mainly men’s pantsuits. But those days have long been over.
The gray flannel pantsuit is a great style statement for both men and women. You can play it casual and sporty with a flat black sandal, petal pink T-shirt, and a canvas tote. Or make it perfect for a nighttime event with a black satin ankle-strap stiletto and a satin ruffled blouse, finished off by a bold red lip, chandelier earrings, and a sparkly minaudière clutch bag.
The most important factor is the fit. This comes before worrying about the designer or price. Look for the following.
SHOULDER FIT The jacket should rest squarely on your natural shoulders and not grip them. Any excess fabric or padding hanging off the edge of your body is a sign of a poor fit.
PANT LENGTH When wearing heels, the hem should fall just between the top and middle of your most common heel height. If it is in your budget, invest in a second pair of trousers to be worn solely with flats.
BUTTON CLOSURES Although two- and three-button suits are totally acceptable and timeless, opt for a single-button model. The solo closure easily passes for an elegant evening suit while still working as a sporty blazer if you choose to divorce the set. A two-button model is the next-best choice.
THE BLACK PUMP
From Minnie Mouse (formerly known as “Minerva”) and her clunky 1920s-inspired versions, to Oprah Winfrey’s modern-day slim, chic, red-bottomed Christian Louboutins rocked each afternoon on our TV screens, the pump, especially in black, may be the most definitive style punctuation in a well-dressed woman’s ensemble.
Contrasting heels, mesh sides, zippered toes—you name it, and it has probably been done or is about to be introduced. As a result of decades of redesign and inspired permutations, the black pump lives today as its own master accessory choice, allowing women the power to build an entire look around its mere presence.
For instance, a look featuring a black pencil or A-line skirt and a black pump will take on a new level of chic with the help of a bold, textured black tight or fishnet stocking in cooler months. And most stylists know that glossy black patent pumps almost scream out to be paired with your clothes in matte fabrics (not the shiny fabrics as you might assume).
There are some days where your black pumps will not only seal the deal but are the deal. Potentially soggy days when black or tan raincoats fill the sidewalks of busy city streets give a center-stage spotlight to your pumps. Complement them with a wide (or slim) matching black belt atop your tan trench, or by donning a pair of opaque tights in saturated crimson, Dijon, or amethyst to create a vertical visual thrust right down to your tootsies when rocking your black trench.
So, take your cue from the heel up and choose your black pumps wisely, invest the most you can afford, and never allow them to just exist on your foot. For when you step into a fabulous black pump, you are stepping into a very fashionable legacy of well-heeled women of style. Make your footprint count.
THE PIN-STRIPED SUIT
Whether it brings to mind the stately look of The Great Gatsby or that of a gritty Hollywood gangster, the classic pin-striped suit will always stand alone as an instant indicator of eye-catching style. The striking visual pull of the long, graphic lines of the fabric’s pattern works with the soft shape of a woman’s figure. The bold lines unite shoulder with toe, creating an arresting fluidity of movement.
Don a pin-striped suit properly and onlookers won’t be able to take their eyes off you. Thus it’s the perfect addition to a woman’s business wardrobe.
Keep in mind that sharp suits such as this crave softer underpinnings to create a visual balance of his-meets-hers. And this yin-yang styling approach is easier than you might think. Here’s this style expert’s top ten list of unanticipated alternatives for any season.
pin-striped jacketcrisp white shirtsatin blouse with rufflespin-striped skirtsharp blazerfeminine sweater setpin-striped pantsolid turtleneckoff-the-shoulder toppin-striped jackettailored trouserdenim trouserpin-striped skirtblouse and sweater vestT-shirt and leather jacket or T-shirt and men’s suit vestpin-striped jacketstraight skirtfuller skirt and belt for jacketpin-striped pantV-neck sweatertank and denim jacketpin-striped jacketsummer pantBermuda shortspin-striped pantsweater vest and blousemen’s suit vest and T-shirtpin-striped skirtshell and pumpssleeveless turtleneck and boots
THE BLACK TURTLENECK
Guess who’s coming to dinner, breakfast, and everything in between? It is black, but it’s not Sidney Poitier! Why, the black turtleneck, of course! Think of a black turtleneck as the Henry Clay of a fashionable wardrobe, the great compromiser, if you will. Here are twenty-five classic and foolproof outfit combinations including this most versatile item.
+ black trousers + black patent leather flats
+ white jeans + red kitten heels
+ gray wool skirt + black slingbacks + fishnets
+ jeans + red thin belt (atop turtleneck) + animal flats
+ chinos + black trench + white sneakers
+ black and white pin-striped trousers + nude pumps
+ camel wool shorts + black tights + knee boots
+ black satin ball gown skirt + metallic heels
+ pink twill pants + wide black patent belt and flats
+ cream cords + kelly green blazer + sandals
+ dark denim skirt + black patent riding boots
+ camel high-waist pants + wine pumps
+ jeans + camel blazer + bright rubber wellies
+ white cotton pants + silver cuff + nude flats
+ taxi yellow cords + black velvet “jean” jacket
+ black satin pants + gold metallic heels
+ black and white floral skirt + yam kitten heels
+ black and white polka-dot capris + grass green flats
+ crisp white shirt (open) + jeans + sandals
+ camel leather pants + gold cuff and hoops
+ black leather pants + black ankle boots
+ tan cords + red wool blazer + patent loafers
+ black yoga pants + pink ballet flats
+ red capri pants + black and white checked flats
+ black leather skirt + black boots + fishnets
© 2010 Lloyd Boston