What are the most versatile tops/shirts to add to my wardrobe?
September 8, 2012 8:53 AM   Subscribe

What are the most versatile tops/shirts to add to my wardrobe? Please help me dress like an adult.

I'm an academic who is trying to start dressing more professionally, and trying to look more polished in general. In order to play with separates, I've started buying pants, skirts and cardigans in different styles but I haven't yet felt comfortable debuting these new clothes because I have no idea what to do about tops/shirts/blouses. I have a closet full of graphic tees and a couple of tank tops and long-sleeved jersey tops, but I simply don't know what I'm looking for when I shop for tops. What are the most versatile pieces I should get? Which tops can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion? I prefer a more classic, timeless look rather than trendy.
posted by anonymous to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
The site has since "shut down" ie. no longer been updated since late 2011, but the academichic archives are full of styling ideas for an academic setting.
posted by kitkatcathy at 9:07 AM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

A cardigan or structured jacket can dress up any of your current tops. I have a wide array of cropped cardigans, loose cocoon type shells, and jackets to throw over T-shirt and jeans to make it look just a little more pulled together. I'd suggest taking your new cardigans and bottoms and trying out different combinations with your existing tops.

As for new tops, polos and button-downs are always a good staple.

Old Navy's Pique Polo in particular is a classic look for an affordable price.
posted by RainyJay at 9:09 AM on September 8, 2012

I LOVE the no iron, 3/4 sleeve button ups from Lands End. Classic, feminine and easy to care for. They cost a tad more than some stores but will last for years and are flattering to most body shapes. Click on the clearance tab on the website. You can usually find great deals.
posted by pearlybob at 9:10 AM on September 8, 2012

My friend uses tops and button downs from Talbots (expensive but they have periodic good sales). I like pima cotton tops like this one from J.Jill or this one. Silk shirts like this one are also good.
posted by gudrun at 9:40 AM on September 8, 2012

I think wrap knit tops, also known as surplice tops, are flattering on most body types and bridge the gap between "casual" and "professional." Drape neck, cowl neck, and shawl collar knit tops can be good, too. I'm not sure if these links will work, but here's an example of a drape neck and a surplice top from Jones New York.
posted by Orinda at 10:42 AM on September 8, 2012

Specific advice on types and styles will depend on your body type (for instance, I'm busty and generally can't wear button-front shirts because they gap) but as a broad thing, look for natural fabrics. A bit of spandex/elastane in a jersey top is one thing, but a lot of inexpensive polyester looks cheap, and that's not a grown-up look.

As a busty woman, I dress in v-neck/faux wrap tops with a cami underneath. If I went back to a casual office, I would top these with blazers or cardigans on top of trousers or skirts. When I was a tech writer and bridging between the suits in marketing and the polo-shirts-and-jeans programmer crowd, I wore shaped vests/waistcoats that covered my bust and hid any gapping in the shirt underneath as an alternative to a jacket.
posted by immlass at 10:45 AM on September 8, 2012

Oops, my last link was messed up. Here's the correct one for the silk blouse.
posted by gudrun at 11:04 AM on September 8, 2012

What I wear with cardigans and pants/skirts are (non-jersey, non-stretchy) short-sleeved or sleeveless blouses that have feminine patterns or cute detailing (pintucks, ruffles, drapey neck, loose bow). Here are some examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
posted by unknowncommand at 11:24 AM on September 8, 2012 [7 favorites]

I wear exactly what unknowncommand does. I buy them at all department stores, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, J. Crew, etc.
posted by amaire at 11:37 AM on September 8, 2012

FWIW, I also wear almost all solid colors (occasionally small classic patterns) - if you are nervous about colors/styling, that can be a good way to keep things simple at first.
posted by amaire at 11:39 AM on September 8, 2012

I'm an academic too, and I did a wardrobe makeover last year that worked out really well for me. Here's what I ended up with:

This sweater in different colors (blue, purple, green, black, grey.). I like the 3/4 length sleeve because it's easier to write on a whiteboard/chalkboard in class, and they're lightweight enough that I don't get too hot in them.
Slacks: black, grey, greyish prince of wales, brown-black plaid.
This skirt in black and grey.
Dresses: Black sleeveless, black 3/4 sleeve.
Shoes: One pair of knee-high black boots, and a variety of pumps/ankle boots (black, purple, red patent leather, and my latest acquisition: animal print).

What's worked for me with this is that I have 2 'zones' of color possible - either my top's a color or my shoes are a color. Black slacks, green sweater, black shoes. Black dress, black boots, purple tights. (I also have some tights, by the way). Black sleeveless dress, purple shoes. Or red patent leather shoes. Purple sweater, brown-black plaid pants, black shoes. Blue sweater, grey slacks, black shoes. Grey sweater, black slacks, red shoes. Purple sweater, black skirt, black boots. You get the idea.

Some things to consider: do you teach in the same building your office is in, or do you need shoes that you can walk outside in? In rain and/or wintery weather? Also, high heels don't bother me, but I tend to break heels that I have to walk a lot in, which is where you might think about wedge-style shoes instead.

(Note: I didn't do this all at once - I started with the basic, neutral slacks and a couple of those sweaters and worked from there. No one's ever commented on the fact that I have a bunch of the same sweater, but lots of people notice - in a good way - when you're wearing a grey/black outfit with bright purple shoes. The other thing is that I go to the dry cleaners far more than I used to, or buy Dryel to freshen stuff up at home, but to me it's worth it because I look so much more put together than I used to, and because it's so much easier to find a combination of things that will work.)

I got my stuff from J. Crew, Banana Republic, Talbots, Ann Taylor, and shoes from Zappos.

I hope this helps!
posted by amy lecteur at 1:13 PM on September 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Came back to specify that I do, in fact, own other tops in addition to the sweaters. Those are just the ones that worked well wardrobe-coordination-wise. I have a couple of dressy-ish sleeveless blouses (one cream, one teal) and a few tailored-fit turtlenecks in different colors. I do not, in fact, wear the same five tops all the time.

But those sweaters are really handy. Just saying.
posted by amy lecteur at 1:23 PM on September 8, 2012

Your size, shape and preference makes a big difference. Go to JCrew, BananaRepublic, gap, Landsend, LLBean.
A cardigan sweater can be a jacket, or a top, with pants or a skirt. I have a bunch of fine gauge cotton cardigans or long-sleeved v-necks to wear alone, or over a fine gauge cotton crewneck or a nice tee. Mostly solid, coordinating colors, because I don't want to have to fuss over what's clean; I want most of my clothes to go together. Wear some of your new cardigans and pants to the shops, and try on different tops. When you figure out what looks good on you, Internet shopping gets easier.
posted by theora55 at 3:19 PM on September 8, 2012

If it is within your budget at all, might I suggest going to a store like Nordstrom for a personal shopper? I think you would find it very useful when starting a wardrobe.
posted by Silvertree at 6:51 PM on September 8, 2012

Ann Taylor has some great tops that are professional...and usually din't need to be ironed :)

What you need to remember is that sheer to semi-sheer tops are really in vogue right now. And sometimes shirts seem ok but then look more low-cut depending on your bra. So get some camisoles to wear under, and figure out which cami/bra combos work with which tops.

And I'll echo an idea Amy brought up: if you like something, buy a few in different colors!
posted by manicure12 at 11:01 PM on September 8, 2012

I have a stack (a huge stack) of this microrib tank top from Target in tons of colors as well as white & black. They are perfect. They go under cardigans, with pencil skirts and heels. They go under t-shirts, with jeans and sneakers. They go over pajama pants. They go under wrap dresses. I wear one to work, then wear the same tank to the gym later. They wash and dry very well, don't wrinkle, and cover up most of my cleavage without being unflattering. If it's cold, I will add a long-sleeved plain shirt between the cardigan and the tank top, but I wear the tanks all year round.

You can upgrade to a couple of blouses that might work with your cardigans, and branch out to get a jacket or blazer or two. However, I'm always annoyed when I spend money on blouses that need to be ironed to be worn, or that are too airy for air conditioning/winter, or have too much frippery, and they generally don't make it out of my closet much at all.
posted by aabbbiee at 2:43 PM on September 12, 2012

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