It’s a familiar scene: A harried woman stands in front of her closet, surveying the clothes, wailing to herself, “What do I wear?” While such behavior may seem a bit extreme when you’re getting dressed to run a few errands, the absence of appropriate attire is a legitimate lament when an invitation to a black-tie wedding arrives or you get a call from a headhunter. With these wardrobe essentials on hand, though, you’ll always know what to reach for.
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A sleek pair of black trousers with a flattering fit not only transcends trends, it is a master of multitasking. Without question, black pants are one of the few wardrobe staples that you can wear with just about anything else in your closet (including many of the other pieces shown here).
Nothing elevates a pair of trousers, a skirt, or a suit like a classic French-cuff dress shirt. The simple upgrade of the cuffs adds elegance to an otherwise ordinary shirt and helps create a look that will feel as appropriate for pitching a new client as it does for hosting a casual Sunday brunch.
To buy: Jones New York no-iron cotton French-cuff shirt, $74, jny.com.
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Sorry, Prince Charming, but if Cinderella were around today, her footwear of choice would undoubtedly be a black leather pump. This perennial fashion favorite has withstood the test of time because it is the go-to shoe for day or night, jeans or trousers or skirts, dressy occasions or more casual events. Whether perfectly plain or adorned with a subtle pattern, a pair of black pumps adds polish to any outfit.
Since pants are now an acceptable form of dress for myriad daytime celebrations, the day dress doesn’t get as much play as it used to. But a sophisticated shift is often the easiest and most appropriate choice for such semiformal festivities as luncheons, recitals, and afternoon bridal showers. And when you (re)discover how little effort it takes to zip into a dress, you’ll find it a pleasure to give your pants a well-deserved rest.
In the business world, a perfectly tailored black suit is a fail-safe gold standard. But it has appeal beyond the workplace: When you show up anywhere dressed in a well-fitted jacket and skirt, you look proper, polished, and modern. That’s why it is important to invest in the best-constructed suit you can afford, even if it means spending more than usual. Not only will you rely on this fashion overachiever as an ensemble but you can also really get your money’s worth by wearing the skirt and the jacket as separates.
Whether it’s a ball gown or a little cocktail number, a black dress is synonymous with chic, sophisticated style. And one that boasts beautiful yet simple design elements, like a V neckline, a fitted waist, and a floaty skirt, will come out of the closet time and time again. The right accessory, whether it’s a string of pearls or patent-leather flats, will make the dress appropriate for black tie or something slightly less formal.
To buy: J. Crew silk chiffon dress, $250, jcrew.com.
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Wearing a dressy jacket is an effortless way to upgrade almost anything in your closet. The bouclé fabric and open design make it not only timeless but also cross-generational, so get ready to share it with the other women in your family. You can swap it with your suit jacket for a cocktail party, your twenty-something sister might pair it with jeans, and your mother can throw it over a skirt and a shell.
To buy: Mango cotton-blend jacket; see other styles at shop.mango.com.
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While a daytime bag feels a bit cumbersome during evening festivities, you still need an option for nighttime that’s big enough to hold your essentials. This one has room for your cell phone, cash, keys, and lipstick (yes, an essential). And it features a stowaway chain strap for those times when you’d prefer to have your purse hanging from your wrist or shoulder—making it much easier to hang on to your cocktail.
There’s nothing that complements an evening dress as well as an understated, equally sophisticated wrap. And while a silk-and-cashmere shawl is no substitute for a parka, it will keep you warm when your exposure to the elements is limited to quick jaunts to and from the car—and it will go just as capably with more casual attire, like jeans.
To buy: J. Crew silk-and-cashmere wrap, $75, jcrew.com.
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Metallic Strappy Sandals
Think of silver (or gold) as your nighttime neutral—subtle enough to go with everything from black to red to a plethora of patterns. A slight platform adds comfort to these 4¼-inch heels, so you can dance all night in them.
To buy: Aldo leather sandals; see similar styles at zappos.com.