A Guide to Buying Wardrobe Essentials

When to save and when to spend.

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Photo by Ellen Silverman

T-Shirt

Save or spend? Save.
Experts say: Save on tees because "you wear them close to your skin, so you wash them more, and they don't have that long of a shelf life," says Mary Lou Andre, a Boston-based wardrobe consultant and the author of Ready to Wear: An Expert's Guide to Choosing and Using Your Wardrobe ($20, amazon.com). Plus, white ones usually lose the fight with underarm-perspiration marks. "Go for a good fit first and for fabric that doesn't look flimsy," says Kendall Farr, a stylist and the author of The Pocket Stylist: Behind-the-Scenes Expertise from a Fashion Pro on Creating Your Own Look ($21, amazon.com). "Both of these criteria can be accomplished at good prices."

Jeans

Save or spend? Spend.
Experts say: Jeans might have been created for miners and manual laborers, but today you can wear them everywhere―in the backyard when you rake leaves, to work, and to dinner with friends. Splurge on one or two good pairs, suggests Farr. Premium denim has an attractive dark wash and the right amount of stretch and should fit better than a cheaper pair. Consider hemming one pair for flat shoes and another for heels, says Farr.

Hosiery

Save or spend? Save.
Experts say: Hosiery will run. That $40 pair may take a little longer to ladder, but in winter especially, you're usually better off buying multiple pairs of cheaper tights than one or two pairs of expensive ones, says New York-based image consultant Annie Brumbaugh. If you can afford it, expensive hosiery does "fit great, feel great, and hold up well," says Brumbaugh. But if you're looking for a place to save, skip the deluxe version and buy a few cheap pairs.

Bra

Save or spend? Spend.
Experts say: Bras are a good investment item because they can affect your overall look, says fashion mentor Tim Gunn. Focus on the fit. "A great bra can make a 5- to 10-pound difference in your appearance," says Amanda Sanders, a New York-based image consultant. "The bigger your bust, the more important the fit is. If you have a smaller chest, a quality bra can make the most of what you have."

Gym Clothes

Save or spend? Spend.
Experts say: The great thing about gym clothes: Even if you choose to buy the best (instead of sweating in a ratty old T-shirt), you won't necessarily burn a hole in your wallet. You can find quality gym clothes at reasonable prices, and the pieces will most likely last for years to come. "Invest in something functional," advises Brumbaugh. Be sure that the outfit feels flattering. "When you look good in your workout clothes," says Brumbaugh, "you're more inclined to work out." But don't overdo it: A great pair of pants and a couple of tops will do the trick.

Trendy Items

Save or spend? Save.
Experts say: With all the discount retailers out there, you can avoid overspending on fashions that will feel passé after one season. These stores offer trendy items at fair prices, says Los Angeles-based celebrity stylist and designer Phillip Bloch. But remember: Some trends, like nautical-inspired clothing and tunics, will come around again and again, so go ahead and splurge on an item you feel has staying power.

Black Pants

Save or spend? Spend.
Experts say: A high-quality pair of black pants can last for years. "Black pants are timeless," says Andre. "And investing in a good pair is smart, as the wear and tear on them is typically greater than on most wardrobe items." Farr agrees: "Spend more on at least one pair of well-tailored tropical-wool black pants." Better fit and craftsmanship and higher-quality materials cost a bit more, but you'll save in the long run, as you won't be spending twice as much buying a new, cheaper pair every year.

Jacket

Save or spend? Spend.
Experts say: "A very good jacket can do a lot for your overall look," says Brumbaugh. "You could wear just a T-shirt and jeans, but an expensive, fabulous jacket upgrades your outfit." Look for a jacket to fit the widest part of your body. If you have a large bust and a small waist, buy a jacket in a size that will close over your bust. Then go to a reputable tailor to have it taken in to fit elsewhere.

Dress

Save or spend? Spend.
Experts say: A go-to dress works as a default outfit for any occasion, so you want one or two top-quality ones that will last for years. In particular, "a dark dress, in black or some deep shade of brown or a jewel tone, is something to spend a bit more on," says Farr. And "make sure the dress isn't too short," says Brumbaugh. "That can kill its longevity." Choose a knee-length style that won't risk looking outdated next year. An exception to the splurge rule? Casual sundresses, which rarely last more than a few seasons.

Black Suit

Save or spend? Spend.
Experts say: "A black suit should be a staple of any woman's wardrobe," says Gunn. You can reach for it for interviews, cocktail parties, dinners, and important meetings. A high-quality suit will last through many seasons and won't be ruined by multiple wearings or trips to the dry cleaner. Look for a superior fabric and cut. A classic style, in tropical wool with both a skirt and a matching pair of pants, will prove most versatile, says Sanders.

Work Shoes

Save or spend? Spend.
Experts say: "If you can afford it, I would absolutely encourage buying one pair of really good shoes per season," says Brumbaugh. Work shoes suffer wear and tear, and a good-quality pair will withstand daily use. Again, with shoes, higher prices mean higher-quality elements, like soft leathers that breathe, extra cushioning, and top craftsmanship. Choose comfortable heel heights and classic styles. And protect your investment from the start by taking the shoes to a repair shop to have them weatherproofed and the soles reinforced with rubber.

Evening Shoes

Save or spend? Save.
Experts say: "You're probably not going to wear them very much," says Brumbaugh. "And chances are high that they'll get trashed." Buy a pair that you don't mind people stepping on. And if a splash of wine ruins your satin-covered pumps, it won't break your heart to throw them out.

Evening Dress

Save or spend? Save.
Experts say: "Head for the sales rack," says Gunn. "Don't pay full price. How much wear will you really get out of it?" Evening events last a few hours and don't occur very often. Attractive options abound at national chain stores, where prices won't leave you wondering how you'll pay for shoes to match.

Evening Bag

Save or spend? Save.
Experts say: "It's not worth it to go out and buy an expensive clutch you're not going to use every day," says Bloch. "Go to a thrift store and buy a vintage bag for the evening," or look for one at a discount retailer. Like an evening dress, this bag won't be used very often. So even if it's a cheaper version, choose classic black or a metallic color, which will work with different outfits.

Raincoat

Save or spend? Save.
Experts say: A lot of high-performance brands make quality rain jackets at affordable prices. "Some of the newer microfiber coats work really well and are reasonably priced," says Andre. But when it comes to a dressier trench coat, a high-end choice in a timeless style―"something classic," suggests Gunn―is a sound investment piece. It elevates an outfit and won't ever go out of fashion.

Winter Coat

Save or spend? Spend.
Experts say: If you live in the frost belt, a quality coat is a no-brainer. "A good coat is an essential wrapper for all your wardrobe choices," says Farr. "It must really fit, and the fabric must be of a caliber that will withstand heavy wear and won't wrinkle." You want to be able to cross your arms in front of you and reach up comfortably. "This is the mark of a coat that fits well," says Farr. Another wearability test: Grab a handful of fabric and squeeze it hard for 20 seconds. Says Farr, "If it looks like a crumpled lunch bag, so will you."