Classic clothes – how to wear them

Classic clothes are the backbone of your wardrobe – here’s how to wear them.

I am a big fan of classic clothes, as you may have noticed if you’ve eyeballed this blog, especially for those of us who are over 40. But a wardrobe, or even an outfit, made up entirely of classic clothes would be as boring as whale shit. When I say classics should be the backbone of your wardrobe, that’s exactly what I mean – the backbone, not the whole thing.

A good steak may be the backbone of your meal but without the salt and the herbs and the salad and the vegetables, it would be bland. The same applies to classic clothes – you need sweetness and spices and variety to make a wardrobe work, not just unchanging basics. So buy your expensive basics in classic shapes and colours, then ring the fashion changes in less-expensive pieces and accessories.

Classics change

Even classics do not remain entirely unchanged, so you need to keep your classics themselves up to date – the idea of buying something and then wearing it for the rest of your life works with very few items. Take the Burberry trench for instance. In the 1980s, when I first coveted one, the Burberry trench had all the trimmings – epaulettes, storm flaps, back vent with buckle etc. You wore it slightly oversized, so it stuck out at the shoulders, and either belted it or tied the belt at the back. This baggy, crumpled style was how stars like Robert Mitchum wore it back in the 1940s.

Today’s Burberry trench is a very different animal. Shorter, tighter to the body, neater on the shoulder and lacking most of its trimmings, it’s still unmistakably a trenchcoat, and fulfills the same function in a wardrobe, but now it has a trim, hip 1960s feel that suits Kate Moss more than Robert Mitchum. It makes the old-style trench look old-fashioned.

Your classic clothes need to be subtly updated versions on a classic theme, not clothes that are still hanging in your wardrobe after 20 years. In any case, although it may be nice to have the occasional golden oldie to trot out, you lose enthusiasm for all garments after a time (like art on the wall), and when you’ve worn the same coat or jacket a thousand times, it bores the hell out of you to wear it yet again.

How to manage classics

The way to use classics effectively is to recognise the shapes and colours that suit you and stick to them, looking out for this shape every year or season and gradually, discriminatingly, updating your look. Replace the old with the new and don’t just keep accumulating pieces – the more stuff you have, the less you get to wear each item – and besides, things quietly date without your being aware of it. Over time, you will probably notice that even your favourite, classic jacket style broadens or narrows its shoulders and becomes more or less fitted in the body according to fashion. Go with the flow and don’t expect to keep items forever.

Let’s take the motorcycle jacket as an example of a classic. If this basic shape flatters your body, then look for a new version of it each year. It’s always around, with the details changed and the cut of the waist slightly altered. One year, perhaps, you might buy it in chocolate leather with a collar, then the next in collarless burgundy suede with saddlestitched seams. Another year you might prefer it in denim with a bright lining to go with your jeans, and the next you might choose an evening style in gold brocade. Believe me, no-one will notice that the shape is the same, provided the colour, details and fabrics are different. What they will notice instead is that you look great and that your clothes suit you. Bear in mind, incidentally, that if the style works for you in a jacket, it will work in a coat, which is only, after all, a jacket with longer tails.

There is no quicker way to develop a personal style than to stick with shapes that flatter you and ring the changes with fabric, colour and detail.

The same rule works in skirts. If a pencil skirt is your best shape, look for it in different fabrics and textures, and above all, lengths. A black wool pencil mini cut to just above the knee is a very different animal from a peacock-blue ankle-length sequinned pencil with a split. Although the shape itself remains unchanged, a skilled dressmaker would use the exact same pattern for both. Look too for clever variations on your basic skirt shape – for instance, Boden’s flippy back skirt looks like a pencil from the front but has a kick at the back that elevates it a little out of the ordinary.

Using classics in this flexible, trend-aware fashion, will give you a wardrobe of clothes that are endlessly wearable

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