Buy It Once, Buy It for Life: Five Essential Wardrobe Staples for Women

A few years ago I picked up a book, Gossip, by Beth Gutcheon. She’s a favorite writer of mine and sadly not well-known. A particular line has stuck with me:

“In Europe, […]  you buy the very best you can afford and then you wear it over and over again. I went all the way through college with one very good wool skirt and three cashmere sweaters.”

Over the past several years, I’ve made a conscious effort to break from the cultural impetus I grew up with, with its focus on newer, trendier, and always more. We are overwhelmed with choices in our country–and often by our own closets.

I feel very strongly about investing in a few exceptional things—which is why my blog is called “Fewer & Better.” What almost all of my recommendations have in common is that they are “buy once, buy for life.” My mantra: buy the classics. Buy the best you can afford and repair when needed.

While every woman is, of course, different, I think there are five “buy once, buy for life” pieces that have a place in every wardrobe.

Everyday Shoes You Love

Too many of us spend hundreds on shoes we wear only a handful of times per year. I think you should invest just as much, if not more, in your everyday shoes–after all, you’ll be wearing them every day! Narrow down your favorite style (I have an upcoming column on mine–loafers), figure out which color(s) will go with the majority of your wardrobe, and pull the trigger. My top three everyday shoe labels are Belgian ShoesStubbs & Wootton, and House of Zalo*. All of these shoes are handmade, incredibly comfortable, and timeless. As long as you regularly resole them, you should have no problems wearing them for years to come. My collection of Stubbs & Woottons and House of Zalo shoes were built up by my mother and grandmother and all are a minimum of 30+ years old. It is a true testament to the value of good craftsmanship.

Two pairs of the author’s Stubbs & Wootton smoking slippers, inherited from her grandmother

The Perfect Cashmere Sweater

Every woman needs a good cashmere sweater, preferably one formal and one more casual. I have noticed that people are overly precious with cashmere, which seems a shame. Your nice things are to be used! Wear your sweater for the purpose for which it was intended—to keep you warm, whether you are sitting in an office or out on a walk.

Most of my sweaters are vintage, but my favorite modern-day purveyor of cashmere is absolutely By Merryn. Her knitwear is all made at a family-owned knitwear-only factory in England (you can see the process here) and are all hand-finished, both reducing waste and preserving traditional craft. It is wonderful that By Merryn’s knitwear not only preserves a degree of traditional craftsmanship, but also helps ensure the continuation of a family-owned knitwear factory, one of the few remaining in England.

CAPTION: The Erica sweater from the new British knitwear brand By Merryn

You can read my review of her Erica sweater (my favorite, worn a minimum of twice a week) here on my blog. She’s also been generous enough to offer a discount code for my readers, which you can also find at that post.

A Really Good Cocktail Dress

I’ve noticed a significant uptick in cocktail attire events (a dress code that seems to be replacing black tie for a majority of parties.) Having one good, perfectly tailored cocktail dress is a game changer for me. I don’t have to struggle with what to wear when I receive an invitation, and I can change the look with my accessories. Molly Moorkamp* makes fantastic dresses. I recommend getting one of her solid dresses (or skirts), which will lend itself more easily to a new look with a silk scarf or a necklace. My go-to cocktail dress is no longer produced by Molly, but her Brynn dress is a similar silhouette with long sleeves.

Pearl Earrings

There is absolutely no earring more classic yet practical than simple pearl studs. They have taken me everywhere, from the tennis court to cocktail parties. Buying your pearls from a well-known purveyor means that your earrings can be mended or polished by the store (in the case of my earrings*, Mikimoto, though many other jewelers offer this service as well.) My pearl earrings were given to me by my mother. You can read my in-depth review of my pearl earrings here.

A Classic Trench Coat

One column in and my trench coat has already made a number of appearances, as it should! A trench is such a timeless three-season piece, and if you have the lining, it’s easily warm enough to wear year-round. My trench coat is more than forty years old and it is worn frequently throughout the year, first by my mother and now by me. This piece is especially meaningful to me because my mother gave it to me when I started my first real job out of college. I had thought it was too long for me in my early 20s and considered shortening it, but I am so glad I did not–it would have ruined the drape. I love its mid-calf length and I’m glad to have it exactly as it was when my mother bought it. As a commenter mentioned in my first column, Burberry will undertake any necessary repairs for you—another reason to buy quality products and hang onto them. You’ll always be able to get them repaired. The modern style most similar to mine is the Burberry Waterloo Heritage trench, which you can find here*.

Are there any must-have pieces that I’ve missed? Please let me know in the comments section below!

Please note that links marked with an asterisk are affiliate links, which means that I may receive a commission if an item is purchased at no cost to you. I only link to items I personally own and love!

28 Comments on "Buy It Once, Buy It for Life: Five Essential Wardrobe Staples for Women"

  1. Sarah,

    Is Donald Trump in your family? One has to have deep pockets to afford $600 Belgian loafers.

    I love Belgians, but they raised their prices, and they have a thin sole that doesn’t last long on concrete sidewalks. Plus, dogs love to chew on the little bow on the vamp.

    • Hi Mitchell,

      My Belgians are my current go-to shoe, so I generally wear them about four times a week. I specifically chose colors that go with most of my wardrobe. It’s definitely an investment, but as I’m sure they’ll last my lifetime, it’s a sensible purchase for me. I have mine resoled about once a year. We don’t currently have a dog, so I can’t speak to their taste for the bow!

      • Sarah,

        You have a lot of class, courage, and panache. I mention courage because I don’t see very many people wearing Belgian loafers outside of the Upper East Side.

        What’s interesting to me is that the Belgian Shoe website has a photo of the king of Belgium, but he is never photographed wearing loafers, only oxfords.

        Like you, I am becoming more of a minimalist, and I’ve never been more content.

        • @mitchell, head to NE Harbor, ME, Middleburg, VA, or anywhere in between on the east coast and you’ll find people wearing Belgians if you know where to look.

    • Bluchermoc | March 15, 2023 at 3:59 pm |

      Trump can’t afford those!!!

  2. Hardbopper | March 15, 2023 at 2:03 pm |

    Not in this post, but I know you are into Fair Isle Sweaters. I’d never heard of them before, and then I noticed that there is a gazillion of them, well a hundred and six anyway available from O’Connell’s in Buffalo.

    These are obviously not my bailiwick, but we need more ladies on the Ivy team.

  3. I really like how almost all of these things can be dressed up or down. It’s quite a good universal list. Rather than trying to add to this one, I’m curious about what kinds of things you’d recommend to pack for a weeklong trip to a city, or to the countryside, or even to a more tropical locale. Undoubtedly there’s plenty in this list that might overlap.

    • Thank you, Nevada! And I love your idea of sharing a packing list. That’s something I’ve toyed with doing for a while, but it has been added to my list of upcoming column ideas 🙂

  4. Charlottesville | March 15, 2023 at 2:31 pm |

    Some lovely clothing and good advice, Sarah. As Mitchell notes, the prices are steep, but you have mentioned that some of your items are inherited and others were purchased at thrift shops, which takes a bit of the sting out of the high cost. For example, I purchased 2 pairs of Stubbs & Wootton velvet slippers on eBay a few years ago for roughly 10% of their retail price.

    I also second your observation that well-made clothing, if well cared for, lasts almost forever. I have suits, sport coats, shoes and other items that I bought decades ago, many during end-of-season sales, and they are still going strong. My Burberry is at least 25 years old, and my Barbour more than 30. The same can be said of some of my wife’s sweaters and other clothing. The cost, amortized over 30 years, does not seem too bad. And there is always eBay.

    My one quibble, if it can be called that, is that I find having a sufficient number of options in my closet avoids the need to wear the same things multiple times during the course a week, and thus prolongs their life. I also enjoy the variety. However, I know others are adamant about the need to edit down to a handful of items. Our former host Christian Chensvold, for one, was in the latter category. Still, I think we can all agree that one good blazer is better than a closet full of faddish dreck.

    I look forward to next Wednesday’s offering.

    • Thank you, Charlottesville! Yes, thrifting (and eBay) are great options. I also like TheRealReal and Vestiare Collective. And you are right that the up-front cost of good clothing does work out to almost nothing over the amount of time you’re (hopefully) enjoying them!

      I will note that I do own multiples of things–I’m not necessarily a minimalist in that I only have one pair of shoes per type! It does give me choice, which I agree is important!

  5. Those Belgian shoes are really sweet and feminine on women. On men, they also look very sweet and feminine.

    • NaturalShoulder | March 16, 2023 at 9:41 pm |

      I needed a good laugh after watching my Illini get bounced in the first round and your comment did it. I

  6. I have had very poor success with actually getting cashmere to last. I can never tell if I just buy the wrong cashmere or if I treat it poorly or what, but it always develops holes. I prefer sturdier wools at this point.

    • I do have a difficult time with thinner cashmere, but a thicker ply and a good purveyor works wonders!

    • I think that with cashmere, as with many things, you get what you pay for. The availability of cheap cashmere over the past 20 or so years has led us astray. It pills like crazy and is ultimately disposable. I remember an article at PutThisOn on the topic. If the cashmere sweater is rather pricey, like $200-ish and above, and comes from a good purveyor as Sarah says, you’ll have a terrific sweater for many years if not a lifetime. In short, fast fashion ruins everything, including cashmere.

  7. All good, but the vibe is decidedly urban chic. There’s some pizzaz and luxe to all this that speaks to a Carnegie Hill / Darien-Stamford-Greenwich vibe. Or ‘those parts of Long Island.”

    Contrast with I’m seeing a lot of these days– what a buddy called “Preppy Quaker.” I laugh but there is a decidedly Friends school vibe to it: most rustic. Tending toward the plain, the homespun. Voluminous shetland and wool ragg sweaters, full-fitting corduroy pants, plain loafers, field coat. Think LL Bean catalog circa 1975.

    • Admittedly, I am from the city and live in “that part of Long Island”—my family has been there for several generations. It’s always interesting to see what role place plays in developing style and preference!

  8. @KT: Cashmere is soft but not durable. Harley has developed a shetland-cashmere blend, which, like Magee’s ‘Donegal Mist’ (5% cashmere) is simultaneously sturdy and soft.

  9. @ Paul —
    so true about Belgian’s. laughing out loud at that one.
    Still opting for the old BB/Alden tassel mocs…

  10. Except for the Belgians, very much in line with what my late maternal grandmother, mother, and the other women in the extended family wore/advised. My sister follows their lead. The classics remain classics for a reason.

    Kind Regards,


  11. True enough. There are many, yet unwritten anthropologies and sociologies of clothing (as presentation of self to the world). I’m happily stuck in 1960s J. Press mode (I’m an old soul), thus not a fan of the latter-day preppy stuff. Oh well. Kudos and keep at the “trying for elegance.” Speaking of which, I think this is right up our alley:

  12. Is there room above for the little black dress? Smashing with those pearls!

  13. Vic Hamilton | March 18, 2023 at 1:30 am |

    In addition to your focus on women, it would be a pleasure to read your comments/suggestions specifically aimed at men.
    Thank you.

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