9 Must-Haves For The Renaissance Woman

by | Dec 26, 2021 | Personal Style

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“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” said Leonardo Davinci. 

Considering the source, the advice is counterintuitive. 

Here is one of history’s greatest eccentrics five hundred years ago, with his flying machines and complex revolving bridges, trying to capture the same elusive essential lifestyle philosophy we’re still seeking. 

It takes a determined hand to prune back life to elegant essentials, especially if you have renaissance interests. 

Even the term “essential” is misleading. What I’ve valued as essential has changed dynamically throughout each decade of life. One day I’ll wake up to a shelf full of books I no longer need, having satiated a burning interest. Or I’ll stumble on a pair of shoes in the back of my closet from that one season in ballet. 

As a renaissance woman does this sound familiar to you, too? 

It’s easy to “hang on” to these trophies or guilty reminders- the sunk cost of their price or our former connection taking up space in our storage units and minds. Clearing space and letting go of objects is another discussion all together, but it does beg the question:

What is essential?

Essentials For A Sophisticated Woman

What do you actually need as a woman with broad interests striving for elegance? 

The pursuit of elegance has less to do with acquiring things…and more to do with making an intentional choice towards simplicity. With every passing decade, I find myself more invested in pursuing rather than purchasing. 

The cutting and polishing of a person takes time and self honesty. Still, there are some objects and philosophies that have made every cut- and I imagine will stay with me as long as I live. 

If you are looking to cultivate a more sophisticated approach as a renaissance woman yourself, here are my own “must haves”- and why I’ve chosen them as important pillars of my life. 

#1 A Timeless LBD

Lifestyle Essential #1The little black dress.  

I bought my first “grown up” black dress when I was seventeen. It was a sleeveless black velvet purchased off the sales rack at Saks Fifth Avenue for a birthday ‘date’ with dad to the Met.

I wore that dress until I was 32. 

The little black dress is a powerful closet essential. When chosen to fit your body and personality, it can be worn for decades. For the best investment, look for two things:

Quality- This foundational closet essential is worth the extra spend. You want a dress which can be tailored (for weight fluctuation) and repaired if needed. 

Versatile – A great little black dress can be worn from date night to funeral. I recommend finding one that transitions from occasion to occasion with the addition of a vintage blazer, a cardigan, or left bare with long strands of pearls. 

Do you lean more towards menswear? I do now, too. My feet have rebelled against heels and I find myself more comfortable in smoking shoes. A classic all-black pantsuit or a well-draped jumpsuit are great LBD alternatives. 

#2 A Cause to Champion


Renaissance Woman: RBGPassion is a pillar to the renaissance lifestyle- and every interest has within it an opportunity to further a cause. 

In college, I used to think people “just didn’t care” about the world enough to get involved. Now, I realize the real barrier is twofold: 

…being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of need 

…and the paralyzing feeling that whatever we can do wouldn’t make a real difference. 

Inaction is not an option for a renaissance woman. 

But it’s helpful to remember how history’s greats didn’t try to solve it all. They all chose a cause (or two) to champion. Chavela Vargas disrupted the male ranchera music scene. Poly Styrene led the way in anti-fast fashion. Marsha P. Johnson’s dedicated activism in the gay liberation movement. 

You can’t fix the world but you can lighten the burden on those around you. Leading a rich life means choosing a cause to champion within the overflow of your existing passions.  

#3 A Style-Defining Watch

Lifestyle Essential #3‘You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.’ 

-From Patek’s iconic 1996 campaign (resurrected in 2016)

Why watches? Why not pearls or diamond earrings?

Again, it’s versatility. A watch is an investment piece that carries the potential of being your legacy- whether it’s passed down to a daughter, a son, or a museum. Jewelry styles go in-and-out of fashion too quickly. But a great watch has historical staying power. 

Not sure if your son will be thrilled to inherit your Cartier Tank? Cara Barett says it’s time to retire outdated gender norms and let all watch designs be for all people. And why not? I like wearing “mens” watches and the men’s market is showing a strong interest in highly decorated wristwear. 

Already have a family heirloom watch? Then you’ll know the feeling that comes with wearing your generational history. When my grandfather passed away, he left a WW2 era Rolex, acquired via Wilsdorf’s work toward the end of the war. It runs beautifully and is my go-to for business casual days. 

The connection to my family’s history makes this piece more valuable than a typical piece of jewelry. Patek, Cartier, Rolex, or an up-and-coming designer- new or vintage- a great watch lives at the intersection of science, art, and history. 

Find one with a story you love and design you’ll wear often.

#4 A Great Last-Minute Gift

Renaissance WomanThe height of elegance is generosity- and last minute birthday celebrations or dinners happen. 

Refined By History’s Editor covers a list of fantastic books to have on hand for gifting here. 

I have a small drawer in my dining buffet stocked with small gifts from museum gift shops. 

Stationery sets, handcrafted candles, and small books all make great universally appreciated gifts. This makes it easy to be an appreciative friend- or a perfect guest- without having to think. 

#5 A ‘Pointless’ Hobby


Lifestyle essential #5Death to side hustle culture! 

Throughout my late 20s, 30s, and even into my 40s I somehow felt like if I were spending time on anything “nonessential” I had to give it a purpose to make it acceptable. 

You do not need to justify your interest in anything by making money from it, saying you’ll use it for career advancement, etc. 

Approaching ongoing education or interests with this philosophy drains the joy of being curious. 

“Pointless” hobbies and interests are essential to being human. Learning is pleasurable. Being terrible at something is freeing. Putting yourself out there as an enthusiastic amatuer will keep you young. 

Please, go and indulge a pointless hobby.

Just in the last decade, I’ve

  • tried pottery and watercolor painting (both a ‘no’ for me)
  • took Portuguese lessons over lunch from a coworker 
  • picked up the pandemic hobbies of bread baking and embroidery 
  • and finally learned to be comfortable on the dance floor. 

Want more ideas?

Read August’s take on Writing Without Purpose 

Listen as Meredith Gernigin and Heather McConnell discuss writing poetry in For Your Soul: Poetry Crafting.

A hallmark of a renaissance woman is the consistent practice of and immersion in new challenges. Learning, failing, and testing your patience by doing something that engages you will lead to vibrancy in all corners of your life. 

#6 A Signature Scent


Renaissance Woman Black and WhiteA signature scent (or two) is an essential part of a renaissance lifestyle. 

Scent can create powerful alter egos to help you push through barriers, achieve great work, and become the best version of yourself. It can create an environment filled with energy, or peace, or welcome. It can identify you in a strange place and anchor you in unfamiliar environments.  

While we’ve written on historical women and their signature perfumes here, your signature scent doesn’t need to be a perfume. 

Soaps, lotions, and home scents- like candles or incense- are perfect ways to trigger the power of your olfactory structures. Plus, scent fits right into the minimalist mindset of elegance. It takes nothing to carry, whether at work or on the road.  

#7 An Informed Perspective

Essential #7One day you wake up startled to discover how many of your peers are out of touch. 

I was 46. And while it wasn’t everyone I knew, it was enough to be a little alarming. 

Why is that? And, more importantly, how do you yourself avoid the slide into the awkward category of “old people to avoid at family gatherings”?

“Why” is not so easy to pin down. It’s less about not using whatever social media app is hot right now. It’s not always tied to clothing or hairstyle. If a simple style change or an app could vaccinate a person against obsolescence, we’d all take the plunge. 

For some the cause is a failure to keep an active mind. For other’s? “Expert Syndrome”. Either way, it’s a disappointing way to live as a human being- and a terrible path to choose when you have decades ahead of you. 

Yet- it’s easy to see why someone would cruise into comfortable, if not disgruntled, obsolescence.

Thousands of years of history have passed with glacially slow change on the social, technological, economical, and environmental fronts. Only in the last 200 years have we seen sweeping changes in all of these categories happening within a single lifetime. Maybe we, as humans, haven’t adapted to adapting fast enough. 

How Do You Adapt? 

As a renaissance woman, you need agility in your perspective- to stay informed and open to societal shifts. 

And this means…

  • Learning How To Listen – and relearning throughout your life
  • Cultivating Close Relationships with people who are not in the same decade of life as you are, and who are different in skin color, religion, gender, economic status, etc.
  • Tuning Into Media that makes you uncomfortable so you can hear how other people are talking 
  • Reading Books published this year in addition to the classics

  • And Doing Real Research on important topics (i.e. read books by reputable authors from opposing perspectives before taking a stance- don’t blindly follow Facebook or Dr. Google)

In the last two years I’ve changed my own perspectives on modesty, plastic use, and Elon Musk. In the next two years? I look forward to discovering new vantage points that have me saying “I didn’t know that. Let’s talk about it.”

Not sure where to start?

Browse the Refined By History Bookshop for our staff picks. Our shop curates more than classic favorites. We have a selection of great provocative reads for the thinking woman, too.

#8. A Physical Goal

Woman BoxingStudies show mental agility and physical agility go hand in hand. 

And, even more surprising, different types of exercises have different benefits. 

If your goal is to live a long and healthy life as a renaissance woman vivacious beyond her 90s, the work starts with intentional physical challenges you enjoy. And, believe it or not- enjoyment is key. The study linked above shows your brain releases more BDNF (a protein responsible for mood regulation, brain cell repair and survival, learning pace and memory) when you’re engaging in a physically challenging activity you like. 

That’s good news for any of us who’ve been taught exercise is a punishment for carrying around an extra 20 lbs. 

My advice? Stop worrying about your weight and set a short term (6-12mths) physical goal instead. Do it with the purpose of revitalizing and preserving your cognitive prowess. 

Find a goal that fits your interests and challenges you physically at a steadily increasing pace. This could be:

  • Swing dance lessons
  • Hiking 150 miles in 6 months on the weekends
  • Pickleball 
  • Weight lifting
  • Boxing class
  • Etc. 

Whatever it is, set a goal and be intentional. Once you finish your intended timeframe, look back at what did and didn’t work. Then set a new goal. This isn’t just a brilliant way to keep mental cobwebs at bay, it can be a brilliant way to step outside your social circle to discover new people. 

#9 A Five-Minute Confidence Routine

The unexpected drop-in. 

The early morning zoom meeting.

The 5am flight. 

The last minute date. 

Or even- that one time I was asked to present before city council an hour before a meeting when our organization’s leader came down with food poisoning.

No matter how much I like my months-in-advance schedules and evenly-paced mornings, “last minute” just happens.

Having a quick go-to routine to trigger a positive, confident mindset in minutes is an advantage you’ll never regret. No matter how high (or low) maintenance you are, it’s worth it to map out an emergency plan and keep what you need to make it fly on hand. 

While I’d rather have days to prepare for a board meeting and at least 45 minutes before a date, my 5 minute confidence routine includes:

If I’m not dressed yet or I’m not sure what I’m walking into- my go-to fit is comfortable jeans, a black mock turtleneck, smoking shoes, and a blazer. Toss the blazer if needed…otherwise, you’re good to go in 90% of whatever life has to throw at you.

The key? Find what makes you feel good, and distill it down to the most simplified form of elegance. 

Getting to “Essential” – And Finding Your Elegance 

Sophistication, like style, is self-defined. 

It’s a “know it when you see it” that feels right when you slip into it- no matter the circumstance. 

As every history loving woman knows, it doesn’t take large sums of money to make it happen. (It would be easier if it did!) Instead, finding those perfect essentials to get you to elegance takes time, self-reflection, intentionality, and research. It takes knowing your body to find the classic pieces you’ll feel good in and cherish for decades. Taking your physical and mental health off cruise-control and making a life-time plan to create relationships and goals to keep you current and active. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this round up of my own philosophies. There’s so many great pieces on Refined By History to get you started- but feel free to reach out if you’d like to start a conversation!