A reader e-mailed me this question:

I'd like to hear more about how to use "the must have lists" of fashion as concepts instead of edicts. For example, I don't wear black or white, so the LBD and the ubiquitous white shirt are never going to be in my closet.

Nearly every style guide includes a list of wardrobe staples, items that every fashionable woman simply MUST own. These garments and accessories are generally conservative, classic, and a bit dull … yet they are meant to form the foundation of every modern woman's well-rounded wardrobe.

In my experience, these must-have lists are seldom helpful in generating productive shopping lists. Sure, they're great jumping-off points if you've just graduated from college and have no idea how to transition from ripped jeans to business casual. But even then, most of those lists do not address the following issues:

  • Pieces like button-down shirts and pencil skirts do not work for all body shapes
  • In this day and age, buying a quality suit isn't always a wise investment
  • Some of us just don't LIKE pearls, dammit

There is no one-list-fits-all set of classic items that will suit every possible body type, budget, and lifestyle. Plus, so many must-have lists overlook bodily diversity. They offer up items that flatter only a small segment of the womanly population, and tell the rest of us to just keep looking until we find a trench coats that don't make us feel like walking sacks of potatoes. And besides all that, few women could purchase a list of classic, must-have items and feel complete. These items may encompass a fashion icon's ideal style, but they seldom reflect the wants and needs of us regular gals.

I am happy to say, "Forget the sanctioned must-haves! Choose your own wardrobe workhorses!" But since this lovely reader is hoping to take something useful from these lists, here's what I'd recommend:

Analyze problematic items

If you don't wear black and an LBD is never going to worm its way into your closet, think about what that dress represents in the context of a must-have list. It's not the blackness so much as the versatility, classic styling, and subtle sexiness. Those characteristics can be found in a red dress, a navy dress, just about any dress that will work as a pivotal piece in your own wardrobe.

If an item on a wardrobe essentials list clashes with your own style, analyze that item and attempt to glean its essential traits.

Make substitutions

The next logical step is to swap in similar items. As mentioned in the example above, the LBD can be any color that suits you. If you're told to buy diamond studs, feel free to go for CZ, Moissanite, or even a colored gem like amethyst or garnet. Black pumps are certainly classic, but if you can't do heels go for a simple, versatile black flat.

If an item on a wardrobe essentials list just won't work for you, swap in something similar that will.

Consider the classics

Very few lists of wardrobe must-haves will include polka-dot leggings, tiaras, or chartreuse skirts. Why? Because these lists are assembled from classic, time-tested, versatile pieces. Now, some more recent iterations will throw statement necklaces, skinny jeans, and other fairly recent favorites onto the fire, but the general idea is still to collect a bunch of items that work fairly well across time, stylistic preferences, and body types. Nearly all lists fail to actually DO that, but they try. And knowing a bit about what is considered "classic" can help shape your idea of style and fashion. Even if there isn't a single item on Tim Gunn's list that calls to you, knowing what he deems classic, time-tested, and versatile is good knowledge to bank.

How do you feel about must-have lists? Are they bunk? Somewhat helpful? Essential to a complete understanding of the fashion world? What advice would you give this reader about using these lists without feeling bound by them?

Image courtesy Banana Republic

Sally McGraw is the author of Already Pretty, a daily blog about the intersection of style and body image.