Classic clothes are the backbone of your wardrobe - here's what to look for in tops.
Tops are generally among the cheaper items in your wardrobe so they're actually a good way to ring the changes in fashion rather than sticking with the classics, but nevertheless there are designs for tops that recur again and again and it's useful to understand how these work. The fact is there are very few basic designs in tops - what designers do is change or add on to the basic shape with seams, ruffles, different cuffs etc each year, and that is what we call 'fashion'.
Like all other garments, tops are made from either stretch or woven fabrics. Stretch fabrics mould to the figure but designs in woven fabrics must be shaped to go over the bust and this is done by pouching and gathering, by inserting darts at the waist and/or bustline, or via vertical shaping such as the 'princess' seam. Pouching and gathering can make a heavy or busty figure look bigger, while princess seams create a slimming vertical line. Don't be surprised if your woven tops are a size bigger than your stretch tops - this is perfectly normal.
The classic designs are:
Shirt. The shirt is based on a male garment and the basic design has a yoke, collar, buttons to the neck and sleeves that are wrist-length and cuffed. From this basic layout, you can vary the look with subtle changes - collars that contrast in fabric and shape, shorter sleeves or no sleeves, French cuffs which fold back on themselves, collarless versions and different fabrics. Women's shirts often lack a back yoke and instead have a seam running along the top shoulderline. This pintuck version is from Grattan.
Even one basic white shirt in a good cotton (some stretch is useful) will find endless mileage in your wardrobe - it is always suitable for businesswear, crisps up jeans more than a t-shirt, and can be layered over a t-shirt or under a sweater in winter. The same style in a softer fabric with feminine detailing becomes a bona fide blouse, and may have ruffles, a wrap front, ties, trims and other attributes you don't see in male clothing, while still retaining its basic shirt shape.
Men's shirts traditionally have a slightly dropped shoulderline, but don't go too far with this - keep your sleeve head on or within an inch of your shoulder tip, and for maximum wearability team it with wrist-length sleeves and a skimming, hip-length body that you can wear outside or inside your skirts or trousers.
Open-necked blouse with revers (right). Currently a rarer beast than the standard shirt, this differs in that the revers are designed to be folded back at all times. A more flattering style for many women than the standard shirt design because it sits well on the bustline, this design also morphs easily into a blouse with a change of fabric or trimming, like this silk one from Orvis. In crisp cotton it's good businesswear while in silk it's a useful evening choice. If you prefer short sleeves, this style carries them better than the standard shirt.
Polo shirt (left). Based on a male sporting garment, the polo shirt is a stretch tee with short or long sleeves and a soft, open collar. A very useful garment for casual wear, it can be dressed up nicely with feminine details such as ruffles at the neckline, while the jersey fabric makes it practical and low maintenance. This one is from teeshirt specialist Performance Clothing.
Blouson. A shirt or blouse that pouches at the waist. It usually works better worn over trousers or a skirt than tucked in, and is often seen in jacket shapes such as the bomber jacket. A blouson done up to the neck can add pounds to the average woman - best worn by the slim or worn open.
T-shirt. Probably the most-worn top in the West, the t-shirt was originally a male undergarment and the standard tee still retains the hallmark crewneck and short sleeves. If you are small-breasted and have very toned arms this design works well, but if you don't, a safer bet is a scoop, 'Henley' button-front (called a 'Tunisien' in France) or v-neck. The most versatile has long or three-quarter sleeves in cotton or rayon jersey with a little added stretch. These necklines emphasise the bust without creating a monobosom, and the longer sleeves cover your bingo wings.
Tees are a cheap way to add colour to your wardrobe but if you wear white ones, pass them on once they lose their pristine newness. Tees with an all-over pattern such as this floral from La Redoute (right) are incredibly useful but more expensive than plain tees - worth getting if you can find ones that tone with your skirts and trousers: I've had endless wear out of a beige and black one in an abstract lace print. Also useful are tees with contrast trim at the neckline to lock together two halves of an outfit - Boden make a wide selection of the latter with trims in velvet, silk and patterned fabrics, including this multicoloured scoop-neck version.
Don't buy your tees too big or too small - they should skim or cling to the body neatly, not show every line of your underwear nor bag around your frame like a tent. In particular, fit the shoulder to your shoulder - don't wear sleeves that drop down the arms, especially if you carry weight here, as it looks very butch.
Avoid centralised motifs if you have large breasts but if you're small-breasted, a bit of interest here is not generally too much for daytime and will take you through to a casual evening at the pub without having to change. However, I'd suggest avoiding large logos or tees with messages across the bust area altogether - this is a student look that doesn't suit grown-up women.
Likewise, under your tees wear a proper t-shirt bra or a vest covering your standard bra, or buy a tee with the bra built in - show-through of lace, seams or nipples may be sexy on a teenager but it's just naff on a mature woman.
Tunic. A tunic is basically a long, fitted tee or shirt, which may go on over the head or have a button-front. Designs with long sleeves, a v-neck and an empire line (ie, a seamline under the bust) can be very flattering if you have a bit of a tummy, but don't wear that bust seam too high or it serves up your breasts on a plate. Be wary of the current 'butterfly wing' or 'kimono' sleeve if you have heavy arms, as this only draws attention to them - a long, fitted sleeve works better. Tunics are very useful for 'fat' days if you're normally a t-shirt wearer.
Hoodie. I'd make a claim now for the hoodie to be a classic garment. Derived from sportswear, a hoodie is any top that has a hood (doh), and is usually made from stretch fabric, though occasionally from wovens. It often has two front hand-warmer pockets or a 'muff' front section. Hoodies that pull on over the head are less flattering if you have a full bust as the front opening tends to come up too high - stick to zip-front hoodies instead. Generally speaking, pockets are more useful than the 'muff' design. Hoodies are very definitely a casual garment and are usually worn by young people, so if you're going for this look, choose a quality fabric and a hood that isn't over-large. This version by Laura Clement for La Redoute is in a silk knit.
Vest. A vest is a sleeveless garment with a scoop neck and is made from stretch fabric - usually cotton jersey. Invaluable for layering, adding a shot of colour at the neckline or filling in between a short tee and a low-waist jean, vests really earn their keep in a wardrobe. Buy them in every colour that suits you, and long enough to reach to your low hip for coverage under a short top. For summer, look for vests with a built-in bra for a clean line - these come in 'shelf', underwired and moulded designs.
Shell (right). A shell isn't a word you hear much outside dressmaking circles, but denotes a vest or short-sleeved top made from woven fabric, which has bust darts to fit it to the body (it looks something like the top half of a shift dress). The basic starting point of every dress or shirt pattern, a shell is more formal than a vest and doesn't work as an underlayer but is a garment in its own right. Best on small-breasted women with toned arms. In a padded fabric or fleece, it becomes a gilet
Halterneck top. A very definitely feminine design that is never worn by men, halternecks draw attention to the bust and reveal the shoulders, arms and back. Works on almost all figure types, but if you're over a C cup, opt for one with wide straps that you can get a halterneck bra under, or buy one with a built-in bra. Obviously, make sure your skin is spotless and your body toned if you're going to wear a halterneck, as everything will be on display, and keep the rest of your body covered for maximum impact.
Basque. Basques, bustiers and corsets, based on female underwear, are stiffened garments, with or without straps, that push up the bustline and constrict the waist. Unbeatable for sex appeal if you've got the front to carry them off, they work best in classic black, boudoir colours such as pink or brothel colours such as scarlet. If your taste runs to basques but your body doesn't, save them for the bedroom, where they're generally appreciated by the male of the species whatever your size or shape. If you have small breasts but want the curvaceous look, make use of 'chicken fillets' in the cups for added uplift. This full-coverage version is by Lejaby and works either under clothing or as an outer layer.
Camisole. Truly entering lingerie territory, a camisole is a delicate undergarment sometimes worn as a top layer and is distinguished by its fine straps and low neckline, which may be straight or a v, like this one from Figleaves. Camis are as useful as vests, if not more so, for filling in a neckline or creating a shot of colour under a blouse or jacket and in thicker fabrics can be worn in their own right, especially in summer. Wear them as they are if you have small breasts but if you're on the big size, look out for wider straps and wear a bra underneath that has transparent silicone straps and echoes the shape of the cami (a balconnet bra works well under a straight-edged cami). For summer, camis with built-in bras are very useful. As with halternecks, only wear a camisole as outer garment if your body is toned - don't draw attention to sagging, wrinkled, sun-spotted flesh.