What is classic clothing?

The simplest explanation of classic clothing is:

Classic = understated, functional and well-made.

Identifying a classic item

You can identify a classic item, or an item that has the potential to be a new classic, by these guidelines:

  • Tends to have lean, simple lines, aren’t overly fussy or brightly-coloured, and are sedate.
  • Often neutral-toned, to go with a variety of other items worn with them.
  • Often they seem even a bit boring by themselves!
  • Designed well to be fit for purpose i.e. they do a good job at what they’re supposed to do.
  • Often (but not always) made of natural fibres that tend to look good and last longer, and breathe.
  • Don’t tend to date. Their lines and style are not overly representative of the era they were designed in.
  • Not offensive, gaudy or attention-seeking in any way.
  • Many classics derive from workwear and menswear and have been adapted, over time, to gender-specific forms.
  • Classics can come from high end fashion houses right through to low-cost budget stores. They may cost more, but don’t have to.
  • Classics tend to look good on a variety of human frames, weights and shapes.

Does classic have to mean expensive?

No. However, good quality tends to cost more because more effort has gone into its manufacture.

For example, a heavier weight, double-stitched white t-shirt (a classic) is going to cost more than a cheaper, light-weight t-shirt from a budget store.

If they’re cut well, both can look good, but the heavier weight item will hang better and wear better over time.

Does classic have to mean black?

No, although many classics tend to come in black, because black is serviceable and shows less wear and tear.

Black is currently favoured at all levels of fashion because darker fabrics tend to look more expensive than lighter coloured fabrics at the same price / quality point.

Black also tends to suit people of a Chinese background (“winter” colouring in the Colour Me Beautiful four season system).

Much of our current clothing is being designed and manufactured in China, so the browns, fawns, camels and russets that used to be more commonly found in Western fashion and which do not suit Chinese colouring are disappearing rapidly from mainstream fashion.

Does classic have to mean natural fibres, such as wool, silk, leather and suede?

No, but natural fibres tend to breathe better, meaning they need less washing and don’t get sweaty. Visualise how it feels to wear a leather jacket compared to a PVC jacket and you’ll get the idea!

Natural fibres also tend to look better, and an untrained eye can easily spot the difference in a lot of cases. Natural fibres tend to have status as well as being more comfortable and durable to wear, especially when it comes to shoes (leather), knitwear (merino and other wools) and evening wear and lingerie (silk). And most of the higher-end designers prefer to work with natural fibres.

Although we have developed a lot of incredible man-made fabrics, few of them have the appeal of naturally sourced fibres. Yet.

Is an item “classic” for me no matter what my age and weight?

No. Some things just don’t suit some people. Most things don’t suit all people. I live in jeans, but I have friends who never wear them. Neither of us is wrong, we’re just different.

Choose the items that work well, for you, in your body, here and now.

Likewise, your weight can make a huge difference in how classic items look. For example, larger women often need more volume in dresses below the waist to balance a larger bust and forearms, so sheath dresses (great on leaner women) are hard work for bigger gals to wear well, while swing dresses can look incredibly sexy.

Accept your body in all its uniqueness, and work with what you have.

What items are never going to be classic?

Anything with excess detail, lots of bling, large logos or brand names emblazoned on them, knock-out colours, or a skin-tight fit is a pretty safe bet for dating really quickly.

This suit manages to be both boring and obnoxious at the same time. Truly horrible.
This suit manages to be both boring and obnoxious at the same time. Truly horrible.

Why don’t classic clothes ever date?

They do. See my comments below about Levis 501’s, and business jackets from the 1980s.

However, classic items tend to span a few fashion seasons at least, and some span decades.

Plain black leather ballet flats, if good quality, are a good example. There’s nothing to date. I remember wearing flats in the 1980s, and I had friends wearing them in the 1970s, although they never reached the huge popularity they now have until recently. I’d say they’re a great investment – but time will tell! 🙂

What classic clothes are the best investments?

Classic items that you like, will wear and enjoy, and that suit you and your lifestyle are the best investment. That sounds obvious, but there’s no point in buying great suits if you are a stay-at-home mum who needs great casual wear!

I’ll talk about some of the best and worst “classic” clothing in a follow-up post.

What if I don’t suit a classic look?

Not everyone suits a “classic” look, especially those of us who look better in more relaxed, easy-going clothing, but I believe everyone needs staple items in their wardrobe that make up the backbone of their wardrobe and that they can turn to again and again.

In my case, my staples are jeans, shirts, jackets and boots. They’re classics and won’t date quickly, but my look is casual and easy-going.

“Classic” can mean anything you want to, in how you look overall, but it should always mean good quality, good value (cheap isn’t necessarily good value!), a good fit, and comfort.

Do classic clothes ever date?

Yes. More often with women’s clothing than with men’s. Women’s clothing, as a rule, dates more quickly and follows greater extremes of fashion.

A good example of this is the womens business jackets of the 1980s, which were sold at the time as “classic items” yet now look incredibly dated. Women’s jackets have since become far more tailored, shorter, and less boxy, and the shoulder pads have all but disappeared.

1980s fashion
A business suit from the 1980s, now very dated. Since then, women’s jackets have become shorter, far more fitted, and the shoulder pads have all but disappeared.

Do classics cycle in and out of fashion? Should I keep an old classic in case it comes back in again?

Yes – and no. Classics come in and out of fashion, it is true. But rarely exactly the same way. Saving “classics” from a previous cycle can risk you looking very dated, unless you’re clever with a sewing machine, or don’t care about looking “vintage”.

As an example: Levis 501s jeans are back in fashion again, yet they were incredibly “out” during the late 1990s and early 2000s, after being a “can’t live without” item in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The current 501’s have been altered in fit slightly around the bottom, and the legs are more tapered than the 501s from the 1980’s version.

So even though 501’s are meant to be a “classic”, they’re not exactly the same, and a pair of 1980s 501’s would look dated if worn today, and distinct from the modern version.

What about “fake classics” and “must-have” classics lists?

Magazines and clothing stores are full of ads for the next “must-have” classic that you absolutely must buy – from them of course! 😉

Don’t believe it!

Fake classics tend to include anything: overly tapered, fitted, brightly coloured, emblazoned with a logo / logos, from a trendy or up-and-coming fashion house or designer, anything very of-the-moment (including a particular colour or theme), anything that must be a particular brand (Rolex watches and Gucci handbags are often no better than similar-looking items or knock-offs).

Classics are workable, comfortable, good quality clothes you’ll get the best value from, that can mix and match with a wardrobe from any era. To build a wardrobe of classic items that work well takes time, and shouldn’t be a rushed project.

Above all, don’t ever feel like you must have any particular item simply because someone tells you so!

What classic items do you have in your wardrobe, and what items can you not live without?


    1. I think so! I think, in the end, a “classic” item is something you’ll wear again and again, is timeless, and makes you feel great. That’s what it’s all about 🙂


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