Basics for a fun and functional wardrobe

We walk dogs. We work. We run kids to various places. We show up late to book club. We attend important meetings. We attend unimportant meetings. We zip outside to grab herbs from the garden for the meal we’re making. We need wardrobe basics that work for this, real life.

I have read every fashion guru’s ‘must have’ list and they always include items that would never, ever work for my daily life. Animal print pumps? Black wool pants? A suit?! All these lists and lists of wardrobe essentials won’t do anyone any good at all if you can’t wear half the pieces listed.

I don’t know what dress code limitations you have on your particular beautiful life, but I do know that there are certain pieces that work well for most women’s waking hours. Here are the Mud and Grace recommendations:

An easy dress

On the first day of school, my friend Ann and I showed up to greet our students in nearly identical dresses. Mine was a little more casual, and I wore it with boots and tights. Ann looked classier, in a more structured version of the dress and walkable heels. But the sentiment was the same, we both wanted to look professional, be comfortable, and get through the blast of energy that is the first day of school.

An easy dress can be dressed up or down and layers well. I’ll wear mine to work, church, the grocery store, out to dinner, and anywhere else life takes me.

So. Easy. Velvet Heart, new.

Plaid flannel or substantial stripes

Both are cozy and comfortable to wear around the home, and neat enough to wear out. Flannel is having a moment, so seize the chance to get something you really like. Nicely weighted striped tops can always be found at classic retailers. Like a denim jacket, plaid and stripes are not going out of style. Always appropriate for running down to deal with an escaped goat, comfy plaids and stripes also look good enough to pop into town, or up to the neighbor’s.

Cloth and Stone, new one year ago

This flannel has plaid and stripes, making it the world’s best shirt.

Fun tops

For fancier days, or days you just feel a little fancy, a soft, floating top in an easy-to-wash fabric can dress up your jeans or a skirt. Buy a couple that are really pretty, and you’ll wear them to work, to dinner, to the school fiesta, anywhere. Just make sure you love the pattern and are prepared to wear them over and over. If you enjoy caring for silk, by all means, choose silk. This is one area where I really appreciate the ease of a human-made fabric.

Lucky Brand, new.
Brand unknown, this was a hand-me-down from Ann. So technically that makes it an Ann-me-down.

Layering t-shirts

These days, t-shirt shopping has become akin to jeans shopping in the frustration it produces. Sheer, sloppy, too tight, too long… all for something that’s supposed to be simple and comfortable? Keep shopping. Find the t-shirt that works for you. Talbots makes a nice ribbed t-shirt that is fitted without being too tight. I like LL Bean’s classic waffle Henley.

Waffle henleys are really hard to photograph, but man are they classic.

Stepped up t-shirts

These fun pieces look elegant, but can also come off as casual. If you’re unsure about the dress code in a particular situation, they can be a life saver. Plus they’re comfy and great looking.

Calvin Klein, 2nd hand

Fryes or other mid-height, flat boots

Wear them everywhere, with everything. Kick-start your wardrobe with one investment piece

Anywhere, any time
Anywhere, any time

Driving shoes

A nice alternative to flats, these classic kicks can take you most places. More elegant than your Fryes, but still comfortable enough to get on with your life.

Ralph Lauren, new one year ago

Clean, good quality tennis shoes

Vans and Converse have nice options. Josef Seibel makes lovely leather sneakers, but any simple pair will do. Keep them clean, wear with anything.

My Vans, with odd mushroom growing on the deck outside my bedroom. Is that a bad thing?

Utility boots

If you live in a rainy climate, get mud boots. If you live in a cold climate, get snow boots.

Mud boots are essential for kid’s outdoor sporting contests, mucking around in the garden and letting the chickens out. Hunter boots really are comfortable and hold up well. I often find last year’s colors and styles at a local resale shop. My chickens are fine with last year’s boots.

True, these boots have seen better days. But I can guarantee you they’re going to see worse days than this. 2nd hand, 3 or 4 years ago.

Nice snow boots can be a cozy, stylish addition to your wardrobe. Enormous yeti-like boots are (thankfully) passé. Try a sleek pair with just a hint of shearling or knit. Northface makes some elegant, functional boots.

My snow boots are in even worse shape than my mud boots, thus I found us a lovely internet picture.

Your denim Jacket or a cargo jacket


Read more here: Friends for Life; You and Your Denim Jacket



Fine knit wool or cashmere sweaters

Sweaters should be soft, and made of 100% natural fiber. They must be pill-free and in good shape. Nothing says frumpy like a sweater gone bad. Lighter gauge sweaters work well for fall and spring, and can be layered with long-sleeved silk underwear for more warmth in the winter.

This Talbot’s cashmere sweater can layer or stand on it’s own. New, one year ago.

A chunky fisherman’s sweater

Just google image search Marilyn Monroe, or Grace Kelly fisherman’s sweater. Enough said.

Aran Sweater, 2nd hand. What a find!

Perfectly fitted, fine wale corduroy or a soft cotton/ stretch pants.

Corduroy or cotton/stretch pants take the place of wool (too much lint and dog hair) and chinos (too many wrinkles) for situations where pants are acceptable, but jeans are not. Or for days you’re just tired of your jeans. Both have an old school, collegiate feel that works perfectly with sweaters and/or a denim jacket. A good pair can last for years, and the more broken in and fitted to your body, the better.

Old Navy, new
Ann Taylor Loft, 2nd Hand

Casual, fluid leg pants

These are a stylish alternative to jeans for weekends, road trips, or watching a cross-country meet. A wide leg or fitted ankle are both nice. My tall neighbor looks elegant in wide-leg versions. At 5’6” I find a fitted ankle contains the look. Just be careful to buy pants in a fabric that won’t wrinkle, and whatever you do, don’t size up. You want to look free and breezy, not like you’re channeling MC Hammer. (Unless you want to, I’m not judging.)

Athleta, 2nd hand

Your jeans

We are living in a marvelous age for jeans, as there is no reigning shape or wash we need to stuff ourselves into. Skinny, slouchy, boot cut, it’s your call. Inexpensive, used Levis are getting as much play time on fashion blogs as uber-expensive designer jeans.

Skinny jeans work best on my frame. You might rock a pair of slouchies. Take your time and find the right jeans for you, then wear them with confidence. If they look good, the price, style and design truly don’t matter. Need a place to start? It’s hard to beat well-fitting dark wash jeans for versatility and flattery.

Some days I wear AG, some days I wear Levis. Both of these were bought new several years ago.

The right undergarments

No one wants to spend money and time finding good foundation pieces, but honey, if you want dressing to be effortless and fun, you need to start here. It’s the foundation, like Mesopotamia; brutal, but we’d be nowhere without them.

Go get the well fitting bras and unders you know you need, and no, that’s not gonna be cheap.

I love silk camisoles, rather than the stretchy, fitted ones. I have one from Lands End that I got nearly 10 years ago and I still wear. On cold days, I slip on silk undershirt on for luxurious warmth.


Tiny picture of Land’s End silk undershirt.

Mud and Grace does not go in for shapewear on a daily basis. I’m not into stuffing myself into sausage casing. According to Hollywood costumer Alison Freer, it doesn’t make anyone look thinner, and I have to agree. You are still you, and it’s better to get comfortable with that fact, rather than uncomfortable in spandex. Love and Appreciate Your Body In fact, seeing the outline of someone’s spanx under a dress can really kill a look. Shapewear is good for reducing lumpage in a body conscious dress, but other than that purpose, I’m not a fan.

Family fan wear

An area of special consideration: If you have athletes in your family, read on. If you have artists, skip to the next section.

Buy a well-made, stylish top showing enthusiasm for the team you are expected to support. How many times a week do you wear clothing supporting your child’s school, soccer club, the local football team, your own co-ed softball team? I spend a good portion of my waking hours watching my children’s teams and my husband’s high school runners. This is my social life.

Old. Hand-me-up

My son got this sweatshirt at the end of his first season playing football. He wore it nearly everyday for the next year. He’s too big for it now, but it still fits me. (And it doesn’t smell) I look supportive, I’m really comfortable, and I remember how little he used to be.

You can buy from the fan shop or school front office, but if you don’t find something that makes you feel fabulous, be open to other ideas. A few years ago, tired of looking frumpy in stiff, blocky t-shirts at cross country meets, I had a sweatshirt made for myself in the team’s color and used their logo. It cost me $50. I wore it to tatters. My friend Ann has a vintage U of O Ducks jacket that looks awesome. My friend Lynette wore a simple purple puffer jacket to support the high school soccer team. Whatever you choose it doesn’t, and really shouldn’t be fancy, it just needs to give a nod of support to the athletes.

Lululemon, new

I wear red and black to my daughter’s climbing competitions. For some reason there are a ton of fancy moms at climbing comps. It’s counterintuitive. Still, they stress me out. I always wear a sweatshirt.

Artists in the family?

Roped into volunteering behind the scenes at your children’s plays? Buy a good set of blacks. Do not go rummaging in your closet at the last minute and come out with faded black jeans and your husband’s old Access Fund t-shirt turned inside out. (Not that I ever wore that behind the scenes at the Wildish Theater…) Find yourself constantly attending recitals? A couple comfy, knit dresses can look elegant as you sit through 16 other children’s piano pieces while you wait for your child to play. Supporting the artists in your life is a place where your fun tops can hook up with your corduroy pants or jeans for an easy, artsy look.


I have a dress very similar to this Banana Republic piece. Add a nice necklace and you’re fancy. Put a puffer vest over it and you’re casual.

Just last night I had to run from a cross-country picnic to a gallery opening where a student had several pieces on display. I wore the floaty peach top, jeans and ankle boots while running from the north to south sides of town to make it all happen. I felt great.

Questions to consider when choosing these pieces:

Is it perfect?

The trick with essentials is that they have to be perfect. Far more energy should go into finding the right layering t-shirt than into finding a dress to wear to the high school Hall of Fame dinner. You will need to wear “almost right” pieces until you find perfect pieces because you cannot go out without pants on. Take your time with these. When they are right, you’ll know.

What can roll over from summer?

Check your summer wardrobe to see if any of the pieces from summer can layer with your cooler weather wardrobe. (Mud and Grace Summer Essentials) Are there tank tops that can slip under a plaid shirt? The chambray top you wore on cooler evenings can certainly find a spot in your winter wardrobe. In general, it’s best to get anything you won’t wear out of the way, so the process of getting dressed is simplified. But if you have clothes that can work year round, keep them within easy reach.

2nd Hand: American Eagle
2nd Hand: American Eagle

How much is enough?

Ideally, you should have two weeks of outfits, with mixing and matching. I like to wear neutral pieces once a week, and standout pieces every two weeks. I may have more sweaters than are strictly necessary.

Are two baskets of sweaters too many, or just enough?

These 16 pieces can be the foundation of your wardrobe, with you adding in fun extras and trendy pieces to suit your style. As mentioned in the last post, a wardrobe functions like a car, all pieces need to work together. Most fashion writing centers on women whose wardrobes are more akin to a sleek BMW in which no one ever snacks in the back seat. My wardrobe is more like a Volkswagen Westphalia, fun, versatile, and largely second hand.

Use these pieces to tune up your closet where it needs help, then enjoy the cozy, busy days ahead without a second thought about what to wear.

My gargoyle isn’t speaking to me.


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