Winter Fashion 101

04/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The other day I met a girlfriend for lunch in Washington, DC. Beneath a black J. Crew peacoat (sorry Mrs. Obama, my turn to plug the preppie chain), I wore layers of dove grey: a simple tank, a merino wool V-neck and boot-cut velvet pants, all very monochromatic. Michael Kors would have approved.

But something was missing. As I had arrived a bit early, I popped into a second-hand clothing store. Within minutes, my outfit was complete. For $18 plus tax, I knotted a green and grey Fendi-logo silk scarf around my neck before waltzing into the restaurant.

"How do you do it?" asked my girlfriend. "You always look so put together," she continued, a mother of five who looks fantastic all the time, today, in a North Face jogging outfit. (If I had five kids, I would be in a velour dressing gown all day, with yesterday's rollers dangling in my hair.)

"I guess I just buy classic stuff," I replied, "Keepers, then I add fun pieces each season."

"I need you to get me a starter list of your 10 must-have items," she said, half-joking.

This got me thinking. The way I dress is nothing special. I love fashion, though I am not a victim, tending to buy the traditional version of what's in style. I am thrifty (I mostly shop sales, Target or upscale resale) and I mix high and low. It is also true that I pull clothing from my wardrobe year after year, and there is a certain economy in that, which in today's financial market is not altogether unappealing.

I credit my cosmopolitan background for how I dress. My heritage is Iranian -- my mother's generation never leaves the house underdressed. I definitely get my dressy vibe from Iran. Think Chanel clip-on earrings and designer handbags. From England, where I was born and educated, I retain smart basics, like riding boots and a string of pearls. I then immigrated to America and fell head over heels for the casual look, penny loafers and loose-fit khakis.

So for my girlfriend -- and for anyone else who cares -- below are my 10 must-have items. Despite the onslaught of spring collections, I stick with winter fashion 101, which is pretty much where I am right now, the aftermath of a historic blizzard piled up outside my home office.

Think of the list as a starter kit, an interchangeable wardrobe with a myriad of outfits. Shop your closet first. I suggest you pick one neutral base for most of the items, like black or chocolate. Then for the rest of them, add one complimentary accent color (I love bright hues).

I recently styled a woman for a Better Homes & Gardens shoot. It was surprisingly easy to see what hues and cuts suited her best. Shop with a trusted friend, if you do not have a stylist, or rely on the sales staff, as the Parisians do.

One more thing, I am leaving footwear out of the mix. I recently reorganized my closet, adding shoe-shelves. Let us just say my husband suggested rehab. For the purposes of the list, all you need are one pair of loafers or flats, one pair of tall boots, and one pair of heels.

So here it is, winter fashion 101 (in my specific outfit suggestions I pull items from the full list):

1. A great white shirt. The key is collared and crisp. I am afraid it has to be ironed after each wash. Buy a fit you can wear under the shift-dress or the twinset shell for a twist on the obvious.

2. A pair of blue jeans. Whatever the de jour trend, the classic is boot-cut and navy denim is best. Go to a store that specializes in jeans, get fitted by a pro and spend the dough. The investment is worth it.

3. A twinset, preferably cashmere. The cardigan knotted over the shell looks chic and tied over outerwear doubles as a cozy scarf.

4. A fitted turtleneck. This can be layered under the shift-dress on a cold day paired with thick tights and tall boots.

5. A sleeveless shift-dress. The hemline should be just above the knee. Dress it up with pearls and heels.

6. A pantsuit. I prefer trousers to skirts, wide-legged and cuffed. (Go for a suit with a skirt if you prefer.) The pantsuit can be worn as a suit, which is formal, or as casual separates -- I love jeans with a blazer.

7. A wool coat. Classic styling is important. The coat should be fitted, but loose enough to accommodate layers.

8. A fabulous handbag. I consider a bag an investment. Splurge on a colorful one to offset neutrals.

9. A beautiful silk scarf. Go for a pattern for this item. Scarves can elevate any outfit, whether tucked into a top's neckline or looped around a handbag's handle.

10. A pretty silk shirt. Try something more fashionable, with detailing, to bring a certain je ne sais quoi to the blue jeans or the pantsuit. Party time.

Now you tell me, what would go on your list?