1. Steal a trick from men: Always have a tuxedo on hand. Or at least a tuxedo jacket. My worst moments of panic come when I’m faced with a last-minute black-tie event for work. Since I’m not quite equipped to slip into a sample-size ball gown and waltz out the door, I often rely on a 10-year-old tuxedo jacket that fits perfectly and can be worn over cropped velvet pants and great evening shoes. This makes even more sense if you attend formal affairs only once in a while: Rather than buying a dress you’ll never wear again, you can reach for your timeless tux. In between, you can use the jacket to dress up jeans for weekend dinners out.
2. Stash a strapless bra in the dresser drawer. Even if you’re the type who can slip into an evening dress, make sure you have the proper undergarments. I remember spending a lot of time and money to refit a strapless gown for a special occasion only to find at the last minute that I didn’t have the right bra. It was quite a letdown indeed.
3. Ditto Spanx―in moderation. I love Spanx, and any kind of body shaper always makes an outfit look sleeker. But there is such a thing as too sleek. Hollywood stylists have a trick: They layer two pairs of Spanx under a celebrity’s dress and stitch them to her bra. It may work on the red carpet, but don’t try this at home. Limit yourself to one pair at a time to avoid looking like a sausage stuffed in a tight casing.
4. Invest in a suit (preferably one that fits well). You never know when you’ll need to impress in a job interview or just boost your own morale. When I’m stressed at work or frazzled by my kids’ school schedules, putting on the fashion armor always seems to bring a little order to my life and lift my spirits. And let’s be honest―a jacket is like the body’s version of concealer: It can hide all kinds of flaws.
5. Stock up on underpinnings. That’s the inside-baseball term for what goes under the suit. Please don’t let it be a once-was-white cotton T-shirt or a tank top that has taken too many turns in the dryer. Fashion has evolved to the point that sleeveless silk shells can be found in every color at every price point, and every woman should have a few in her closet. They brighten up a business suit, and they’re a key ingredient of the pulled-together pencil-skirt-and-cardigan look.
6. Make a simple dress your all-occasion staple. There’s a reason women like Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, and Babe Paley became our country’s style icons: They all relied on the little sleeveless shift dress―and no list of wardrobe essentials would be complete without it. You can wear it to work, dress it down with sandals or flats, add a shawl for evenings, and throw on a cardigan anytime if you don’t relish revealing your arms. Not only is it a classic but it’s pretty much seasonless, too.