A veteran fashion editor shares her tips for feeling well-dressed, no matter the occasion.

By Kate Betts
Updated September 02, 2009
Shoe platform
A slanted plywood platform lets you take in your shoe collection at a glance.
| Credit: Bob Hiemstra

On the eve of every new season, staring at my racks of clothes, I ask myself why, after all these years of reporting on the fashion business, do I still feel clueless when it comes to my own closet? I can tell you exactly when Christian Lacroix debuted the pouf skirt and why Yves Saint Laurent decided to call it quits. But I can’t explain why I bought that perfect black cocktail dress two sizes too small. Or what I was thinking when I paid a fortune for a gold-encrusted coat. And yet, every now and then, lightning strikes and I make a purchase that is really inspired. And so amid all my mistakes are reliable pieces that I depend on for dress-code requirements that run the gamut from mundane (Sunday in the park with kids) to magical (Valentino’s 45th anniversary gala in Rome). With those stalwarts in mind, here’s a list of the most useful fashion items for any closet.

1. Steal a trick from men: Always have a tuxedo on hand. Or at least a tuxedo jacket. My worst moments of panic come when I’m faced with a last-minute black-tie event for work. Since I’m not quite equipped to slip into a sample-size ball gown and waltz out the door, I often rely on a 10-year-old tuxedo jacket that fits perfectly and can be worn over cropped velvet pants and great evening shoes. This makes even more sense if you attend formal affairs only once in a while: Rather than buying a dress you’ll never wear again, you can reach for your timeless tux. In between, you can use the jacket to dress up jeans for weekend dinners out.

2. Stash a strapless bra in the dresser drawer. Even if you’re the type who can slip into an evening dress, make sure you have the proper undergarments. I remember spending a lot of time and money to refit a strapless gown for a special occasion only to find at the last minute that I didn’t have the right bra. It was quite a letdown indeed.

3. Ditto Spanx―in moderation. I love Spanx, and any kind of body shaper always makes an outfit look sleeker. But there is such a thing as too sleek. Hollywood stylists have a trick: They layer two pairs of Spanx under a celebrity’s dress and stitch them to her bra. It may work on the red carpet, but don’t try this at home. Limit yourself to one pair at a time to avoid looking like a sausage stuffed in a tight casing.

4. Invest in a suit (preferably one that fits well).
You never know when you’ll need to impress in a job interview or just boost your own morale. When I’m stressed at work or frazzled by my kids’ school schedules, putting on the fashion armor always seems to bring a little order to my life and lift my spirits. And let’s be honest―a jacket is like the body’s version of concealer: It can hide all kinds of flaws.

5. Stock up on underpinnings. That’s the inside-baseball term for what goes under the suit. Please don’t let it be a once-was-white cotton T-shirt or a tank top that has taken too many turns in the dryer. Fashion has evolved to the point that sleeveless silk shells can be found in every color at every price point, and every woman should have a few in her closet. They brighten up a business suit, and they’re a key ingredient of the pulled-together pencil-skirt-and-cardigan look.

6. Make a simple dress your all-occasion staple. There’s a reason women like Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, and Babe Paley became our country’s style icons: They all relied on the little sleeveless shift dress―and no list of wardrobe essentials would be complete without it. You can wear it to work, dress it down with sandals or flats, add a shawl for evenings, and throw on a cardigan anytime if you don’t relish revealing your arms. Not only is it a classic but it’s pretty much seasonless, too.

7. Pay a lot for one pair of evening shoes in a glorious color. A few years ago, I bought a pair of expensive Manolo Blahnik sandals in turquoise satin. They were daring and sexy and whimsical and, as it turned out, entirely practical. Although I suffered buyer’s remorse when I got home that day, those shoes have since become the most reliable pair in my closet. They give even basic outfits a fashion edge (think little black dress or even dressy jeans with that tuxedo jacket). And let’s not forget that great shoes fit every size.

8. When it comes to flats, stick with chic.
When Crocs came onto the market a few summers ago, I thought they were so clever. I bought them in every color…and never wore them. Nothing is less attractive than big, clunky flat shoes. Opt for a great pair of ballet slippers or sandals instead.

9. Get some cool exercise gear―you might actually work out. A few weeks ago, I ran into the model Veronica Webb in the park and she was wearing bright purple Nike leggings, a pink tank top, and a neon yellow fitted sweatshirt. She looked fantastic, and it made me want to work out, too―which is nothing short of miraculous. I’m no gym rat, but I’ve definitely increased my metabolism on the treadmill since investing in some sleeker running clothes.

10. Put together a weekend uniform. Women often make the mistake of letting themselves go on the weekend and schlepping around in old jeans and grubby T-shirts. But if the whole idea is that you don’t want to think about what to wear, then having a great weekend uniform is the ultimate no-brainer. Try cropped Capri pants and a fitted T-shirt in the summer; a pair of cords and a button-down shirt in winter. Remember―clothes can be comfortable and stylish.