Top 10 occasion wear items you need in your wardrobe or Why I am against buying outfits for a specific occasion

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(Hint, it engenders panic that you don’t have a thing to wear, and leads to a bad relationship with your clothes)

I stopped making myself dresses for particular occasions a few years ago.  Up until that point I would make a dress for each occasion that I felt merited a new outfit.  This was highly enjoyable for me, but highly stressful for my loved ones who were obliged to live with me during the period of time when I was glued 24/7 to my sewing machine, in a burst of energy that I’m not sure I could muster any more.  On one occasion when I was making a dress and coat in the most beautiful soft pink jersey for a friend’s wedding in the Netherlands, the sewing machine came on the walking holiday that my mother and I had planned in Cornwall.  She took it very well really.  Having thought that she was going to have valuable bonding time with her daughter, she had to put up with the whir of the sewing machine, putting the kettle on, making endless cups of tea, and remaining patient while I drowned out the noise of the television.

So that all stopped. It wasn’t fair on them, and it was exhausting for me, even if it did satisfy that desire to create, and make, and hit deadlines.

The downsides to buying an outfit for a particular occasion

In a similar, albeit less extreme way, buying outfits for a particular occasion is also tiring and draining both on you, as you devote precious free time and money to “the outfit quest”, and on those around you who probably have to sit through weeks of “have you got the outfit yet” conversations, when you could both be having a laugh about something else entirely.

Shopkeepers rub their hands with glee at the fact that we feel that we haven’t “got a thing to wear”, their cash tills ringing with the sound of panic purchases bought, worn once and hidden, guiltily at the back of the cupboard.

The Solution

There is a solution to this madness, which will calm your frenzied heart, put your nearest and dearest at ease, ensure that you are calm, prepared and well dressed, and it is this: planning.

G.A. Dariaux, writing in 1964 had this to say about wardrobe planning:

At the beginning of the season, you should already have acquired your basic ensembles for the major occasions in your life: career or daytime clothes, evening, and sportswear.  Try to think ahead also of any special trips you may be planning, as well as special events like weddings or balls that may be on your social calendar.  If you have chosen your major items such as a winter coat and a spring suit with care and not in a desperate last-minute frenzy, you can succumb later on to a spur-of-the-moment purchase with no risk of unbalancing your entire wardrobe or spending your entire budget on an extra tailored suit when it is a dinner dress you really need!1

While a little old fashioned Mme Dariaux’s advice stands the test of time and I agree and heartily recommend that you plan your wardrobe out twice a year, in September and in early spring, February or March.  In fact even if you only do this once a year you can potentially save yourself a lot of money by simply being engaged with your wardrobe and au-fait with all the different options within.

Here then is my list of need to have outfits in your wardrobe that will stop unplanned event outfit buying in its tracks, give you peace of mind that you really do have something to wear, and help you enjoy wearing what you do have.

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Top 10 list of occasion wear musts

This list is a basic starting point, which you can personalise and make your own – and this will vary from season to season.  The first 6 are essentials, the next 4 are good to have and can be added to your wardrobe when budget/time allow.

  1. A best/wedding outfit – I favour a dress and jacket or dress and coat.  With the right accessories it can be perfect for either day or evening or both.  This is essentially your “best outfit”.  It should/could last you a few seasons and you should expect to get a reasonable amount of wear out of it before demoting it to second, then third best outfit.  This outfit can also be worn to a smart lunch/day at the races/christening/family celebration (50th birthday, 21st birthday, wedding anniversaries etc). If you can afford it you will have more than one of these, but for now, let’s keep things simple and say one smart best outfit.
  2. A hat or fascinator for the above outfit.  Buy something gorgeous in the sales that you really look forward to wearing an is a beautiful unique piece and not run of the mill.
  3. A  little black dress.  For any party variation, dinner out on date night, and evening at the ballet if you don’t own another evening dress.
  4. A glamourous silk top, to wear with jeans and high heels to a fun but informal night out with friends, or on date night with your spouse.  Try and find something unusual ie not from any of the usual high street stores.  The idea is to wear something fun and a bit creative with a piece of fun statement jewellery.
  5. 1 pair of jeans that are your go-to evening pair (could be sparkly) ie not worn for the school run, in the garden, or all the time.
  6. 1 smart day dress in a luxury fabric (silk dupion or shantung, silk chiffon, very fine wool, silk crepe).  In an ideal world this would match your seasonal coat, but it’s not 1964, and it would go equally well with a) a leather jacket, b) a cropped cardigan c) a pashmina d) even on its own.  This dress is perfect for lunch out with good friends somewhere smart, lunch at the golf club, prize giving, matinee performances of anything, other social occasions that require dressing up but not over the top, music concerts, Henley, a function at school where you want to dress up and make an effort but don’t want to embarrass your children.
  7. Luxury pashmina kept for best.  They are SO useful.
  8. A full length evening dress in a colour other than black: for black tie dos, business award ceremonies, charity evenings. So much better to have something ready than the panic of I’ve got nothing.  Evening wear is fairly classic and underlying fashions don’t change much from year to year so this could be a great investment that you get a good amount of wear out of.  Choose a favourite colour which suits you well., maybe something beaded.  I’ll say it again, not black.
  9. An evening coat, long or short (a stole in a heavy silk with a beaded or fur trim is a good substitute if you don’t have a coat).
  10. Something “arty”.  This could be a full length dress with pleated skirt and roses embroidered on the fabric, it could be a skirt or blouse with heavy embellishment, it could be a day dress that is cut in an unusual way, it could be a coat cut in the most luxurious fabric.  Whatever it is, it’s unusual but you love it.  And it’s the garment that you go to when everything else seems to bore you a little and you long to wear something fun and playful and frivolous.

What do you think?  What have I left off?  What would you put on that list either as indispensable or as good to have?  What occasion wear outfit in your wardrobe gives you the most pleasure? Please post your comments in the box below or join the conversation on facebook at Working Frocks.

1. A Guide to Elegance, Genevieve Antoine Dariaux, Doubleday and Company, 1964

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