Second Hand Guide to Tim Gunn’s 10 Essential Elements

First, I have to say that Tim Gunn is one of the best things to happen to American fashion in decades. He has impeccable taste to be sure, but coupled with his sincerity and genuine desire to see people looking their best, he’s a rara avis indeed.

Tim put together a list of “10 Essential Elements” for women, which is a beautifully handy guide. With these 10 pieces, you can put together a beautifully simple and polished wardrobe for any occasion.

However, not many folks these days can afford to pay retail. Instead of a) giving up; b) living in envy; or c) going into (more) debt, check out my tips below for advice on finding these items in your local thrift store!

1. Basic Black Dress – The basic black dress has been around for a long time. It is often called the “Little Black Dress”, and it’s true that shorter skirts on the basic black dress, when they hit you in the right place, can be more flattering than a long black dress.

TSC TIPS: Pull out a few dresses in your size. Weed out the ones that are poorly made. Don’t let little things like broken zippers, fallen hems, or unflattering lengths dissuade you. These are easy and inexpensive fixes. Does the dress fit? Does it hug your curves elegantly? Can you reach, bend over, and sit while wearing it? Is the fabric of good quality? If so, you might have a winner! If not, keep looking. If you don’t find anything, move onto the next item on the list!

2. Trench Coat – The trench coat is one of the pieces that is both classic and currently a hot fashion item. Most any store sells this piece now. It is great for fall and you can pick it up in a wide range of lengths.

TSC TIPS: No, you cannot wear trench coat three sizes too big for you! I don’t care if it’s a classic Burberry; if you’re a 10 and it’s a 14, it’s not for you. (Though it might be an easy eBay sale!) For women, look for trenches that fall just past the knee. The shoulders should hit at your natural shoulder, the cuffs just below your wrist. Rips and tears at the seams are easy fixes; rips and tears on the body of the fabric are not. Is the lining in good condition? Linings can be expensive to replace, but it’s not impossible if it’s the coat of your dreams. Don’t be afraid of bright colors or vintage pieces – if the cut is sharp and looks good on you, it can be a kicky, lovely addition to your spring wardrobe!

3. Dress Pants – Although it doesn’t say black, this is probably what you want to look for. Black is flattering on all figures and goes with everything.

TSC TIPS: Dress pants are kind of fun to shop for; pull out a few pairs, in black, in your size. Check the fabric for rips, stains or threadbare areas. Ideally, you’ll find a pair of lightweight wool pants that flatter your figure. If you have to do the suck in dance to button them, leave them alone. If they fit in your hips and thighs but are too large in the waist, it’s an easy fix! If they’re just too long, this is also not a problem for your local tailor. If they’re too short, check to see how much fabric is under the hem – many times they can be let down!

4. Classic Shirt – The white shirt is a definite classic. But it can also come in many different styles to make it look trendy and not dated or like a man’s piece of clothing. Find one that accentuates your best attributes and minimizes trouble spots. For example, if you have wide shoulders, stay away from large collars.

TSC TIPS: For a classic shirt, again pull a few options in your size. Shirts right now are fairly fitted, so it may be wise to look for shirts that have a bit of stretch. Weed out the items that have set-in stains at the color or underarms (although a good soak in a solution of Clorox and Biz bleach will do wonders for white cotton!) If it’s a beautiful shirt but just missing a couple of buttons, that’s no problem. Make sure it fits across the bust and shoulders!

5. Jeans – Everyone has a pair of jeans, but does everyone have a pair of jeans that make them look great? The wider leg, low-rise jean style has been popular (and still is) but a narrower leg is coming back along with a higher waist, which eliminates the unflattering “muffin top” look.

TSC TIPS: Jeans can be tricky, but not impossible. Look for either white, black or darker rinses, as faded jeans can look awfully faded by the time the shop gets them! Again, find a few pairs in your size, check for rips, tears and stains, then try them on. Tiny back pockets look terrible on everyone, but gaps in the waist and excess length can be easily fixed.

6. Any Occasion Top – Find something you look great in that can look respectable under a jacket but bring on the fun after hours.

TSC TIPS: Here’s where it’s fun to look at vintage pieces – they’re often made extremely well with durable natural fabrics, and, when paired with classic pieces, make a kicky and modern statement. Again, check for size, fit, color, rips, stains and anything else not easily remedied by your local cleaner or tailor.

7. Skirt – If you need dress pants then you also need a skirt. A skirt is womanly and can be flirty or businesslike. Nowadays women do not wear many skirts or dresses, which makes a lot of them fall into a rut of dressing sloppily or like men. See number 8.

TSC TIP: For the sake of our adventure, look at pencil or A-line skirts, which are flattering on most figures. Skirts should hit at just above or just below the knee, and should fall nicely across your curves, rather than choking them or falling like sad drapery. Fastenings like zippers and buttons are easy fixes, as are hems. As always, check for fit and quality of fabric.

8. Day Dress – Women also are not wearing as many dresses anymore. It was certainly liberating to go from the ’50s when women wore dresses every day to wearing more practical pants for gardening, exercising, and so forth. But the dress does not have to be abandoned altogether. They can be very flattering, and there is nothing wrong with “dressing up” for daytime.

TSC TIP: A belted shirt dress is often a fine option here, as are vintage dresses. A vintage dress is often well made, well tailored, and, when paired with modern accessories, absolutely stunning. Have an open mind and pull out a few options, again checking for fabric condition and quality. Hem length, pulled seams and fastenings (zippers, buttons, clasps) are easy and inexpensive fixes.

9. Jacket – A jacket does not have to be masculine. Find one with a proper, fitted shape. Women’s jackets should follow the silhouette of a woman’s body and accent the hourglass curve at her waist. It is also a perfect piece to put with the skirt or dress pants, and white shirt. Or make it casual with a pair of jeans.

TSC TIP: Take a look at my post on “JACKETS AND BLAZERS” for in-depth advice on these pieces!

10. Sweatsuit Alternative – As mentioned before, women wear fewer skirts and dresses these days. But some women have taken casual to the extreme and spend days on end in sweatsuits. It is possible to be casual and comfortable without looking like a slob. Find a comfortable material (that’s why this doesn’t say jeans again – denim is not as comfortable as a nice soft cotton) that you would want to wear every day. It could be khakis, cords, a cotton dress, or much more.

TSC TIP: Here, the sky is the limit. Check for khakis, using the “dress pants” tips above, or cotton/jersey dresses that can be belted and worn with flats or heels. Use your imagination, and your good judgment!

Most importantly, HAVE FUN, keep an open mind, and realize that by perusing these second hand racks, you’re doing yourself, and your community, an incredibly good service!

All the best,

One Response to “Second Hand Guide to Tim Gunn’s 10 Essential Elements”
  1. JimmyBean says:

    I don’t know If I said it already but …Great site…keep up the good work. 🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

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  • Any fool can spend money. It takes intelligence, creativity and bravery to get what you want at the price you can reasonably afford.
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