How to Have Awesome Personal Style Without Buying Tons of New Stuff

Image Credit: Lily Min

Every time I go back home, I sift through the clothes I chose not to take with me to college. Sometimes, it's obvious that the problem was the fit: I bought something too big or too small and never bothered to examine it further. Sometimes, it's a matter of taste: A lot of my high school purchases were from Hot Topic, but as I let go of my emo style, out went the pinstripes, applique patches, and black-and-red color schemes.

But the biggest shift in thinking I've undergone in the past few years is that I no longer buy from fast fashion stores, places that range from Forever 21 to H&M to Zara. Their lower price points and trendy styles were what first opened my eyes to the possibilities of personal dress, but being able to buy on trend all the time didn't end up paying off; instead, I've spent a lot of money on things that I've only worn twice, or that have only lasted two wears, or that I've actually never worn because t-shirts with glittery epaulettes or pairs of suspender shorts aren't actually things that are, for me, comfortable or practical to wear.

While I still probably spend "too much" money on clothes, I've winnowed down my clothes into a few basic categories: Strange dresses, really basic basics, and eye-catching "overwear" (jackets, sweaters, coats). I'm a fan of bright colors and patterns and strange shapes, but fast fashion made it possible to get too much of that with no sense of a practical wardrobe — like overloading on cheap snacks when you go to the grocery store. (You'll technically be able to feed/clothe yourself, but at what cost?) Nowadays, I shop mostly at thrift stores or online from trusted brands. With that in mind, here are five things I will always invest in, and even mend, over the years:

Athleisure to office
Image Credit: Lilian Min

Black, fitted pants: Flares and extreme clinginess go in and out of style, but getting a pair of black pants that will fit and flatter you is life-changing. If you work in a less formal office, black jeans fulfill this role just as well. Sure, other colors can be cool to try out too, but black rarely clashes with anything and will hide small stains and discolorations that happen through the stuff of living. This category may include slacks, but keep in mind your own proportions, and of course, make sure these pants even have a little give for full utilization.

My sassy and professional go-to dress
Image Credit: Lilian Min

A workhorse dress: I always read fashion roundups that are like, "Not your average LBD," or roundups that try to give you a reason why your practical go-to dress both should and shouldn't be black. For myself, I wear dresses most when I need to I throw on something when I run errands, go out and about in the day, and "formalize" my outfit for a special event, e.g. a graduation ceremony. In all of those cases, fit is more important than color — a longer hem length and comfortable material go a much longer way than just black itself. So unless you're going to cocktail parties every other night, and even if you are, just get a good workhorse dress. I have two: One has an asymmetrical hem, has buttons all the way up and down, and is covered with a blue tropical-ish print; just because it's a workhorse doesn't mean it has to be boring.

Comfortable t-shirts: Again, color is less important than how it feels. While single-colors are perhaps the most versatile, one of my favorite go-to tees is white with a faded print on it, and that tends to work well too. I'm also a fan of the extra-large t-shirt that you can wear down over leggings or, if you're short enough or the shirt is big enough, as a dress; or, tie up with a skirt or shorts.

No camisole or blazer needed
Image Credit: Lilian Min

A standalone top: I really hate button-up shirts, and over the years, I've given away most of these structured, see-through (they're almost always see-through) pieces in exchange for thin sweaters, turtlenecks, and other above-the-waist wear that don't need an extra layer either below (like a camisole) or above (like a thin cardigan). Get a top that can stand on its own.

A covering for all seasons: I live in Los Angeles, which means that most of the time, I don't need to be schlepping around a thick coat. But what I, and people who actually live in seasons, need is a good in-between top cover. I truly, truly hate thin "office" cardigans because most of them straddle the line between flimsy and dowdy. Light jackets and flannels (even if you're not "outdoorsy") serve the same purpose, and tend to come in a larger variety of patterns and colors to boot. The best ones slip just as easily into a bag, and the very best ones can tie around the waist without making it look like you're wearing a bustle.

With a few well-made and well-maintained versions of each of these in my clothing arsenal, I am ready for whatever life throws at me. Getting ready isn't a chore because everything actually fits my body and I like how I look. What a revelation!