Every woman needs a firm foundation to her wardrobe.
The very idea of a capsule wardrobe might make some women cringe because shopping and clothes buying are such great pleasures that being resolutely practical about everything takes all the shine off it. But I’m a firm believer that clothes, like your home, are only a setting for the life you live – not the be-all and end-all. A girl needs a wardrobe that functions above all else – a kind of uniform that allows you to just get dressed and get on with your life.
The way a capsule wardrobe works is this: you work out a key number of items without which you really can’t manage, and which all go together. This is like the trunk of a tree, and the rest of your wardrobe is then like branches, large or small, coming off in all directions. It’s that simple.
Another analogy is to think of it like a family. Your core wardrobe is your nuclear family and your other clothes are your extended family – all related to one another, in varying degrees, and with some of them forming different relationships along the way. But the key fact is just that – everyone is related to everyone else. Within reason, all of your garments should go together with several other things in your wardrobe (the near-exception is dresses, which only need to go with shoes).
Creating a core wardrobe needn’t be boring, but what it does require is a realistic understanding of who you are and how you live your life.
One quick way to get a grip on this is to imagine that you’ve been burgled, or that your house has burned down and you’ve lost every stitch of clothing you own. In real life, this would be very bad news, but the good bit, since this is imaginary, is that you can now imagine that you now have X amount of insurance money to spend on replacing everything.
The thing that happens at this point is that you quickly realise that you have to focus on the stuff you need (rather than the stuff you want), and that this is very basic: enough knickers to get through a week and that don’t show through your clothes; a bra that goes with all your tops; tights or socks; boots or shoes with an everyday heel; a pair of trousers or a skirt; some t-shirts and/or blouses; a knit that goes with everything; a coat that keeps the wind and rain out; a hat/scarf/gloves if you wear them. That’s a basic kit. During the Second World War, incidentally, that was all the coupons you got annually – enough to buy one whole outfit per year.
In our imaginary scenario, only once you’d built up your basic capsule wardrobe would you then ring the changes, and the extent to which you could do so would depend on the size of your insurance payout.
The first thing you’d probably want, once you got the money, would be multiples of the same, especially things that get soiled easily, and more skirts and trousers, because after all, one lower-half garment isn’t going to last you for very long. You’d need to focus on clothes that gave you the maximum amount of wear; that would be smart enough for work but casual enough for private life; would layer without creating bulk; would cover more than one season; and above all, which would all go with one another to form cohesive outfits.
Only after this, and if your payment was big enough, would you really start to branch out, buying the clothes that don’t layer, that only suit one season, that don’t go with anything else, or that only go with one other thing. That’s the fun stuff – the pretty clothes, the party clothes, the dresses, the sexy shoes.
The problem for most of us is that’s where we’re starting out from – with a wardrobe full of items that we bought because they were lovely and gorgeous, and we liked them, and maybe even because they suited us, but which just don’t fit with everything else we own. The result, for many women, is an overcrowded unorganised mess of clothes, 80 per cent of which (according to wardrobe organisers) we don’t wear, and only 20 per cent of which actually get used.
So, in all seriousness, if you had to build this capsule wardrobe from scratch, what items would you choose? Remember, you have to imagine that you’ll be wearing these clothes and no others for at least the next few weeks.
My guess would be that at this point, the colour would drain right out of most women’s wardrobes and the average girl would end up in black or navy or dark brown. Something like 72 per cent of the women’s clothes sold in the UK annually are black, and with very good reason. The average girl would also probably end up in clothing with some stretch, so that it would go both under and over other items. She’d need things that would do double-duty for home and work and leisure, so no outrageous styles. She’d need to be comfortable in changeable weather, so fabrics would need to be medium-weight – things like merino or cotton knitwear, brushed cotton and cotton jersey would suddenly become worth their weight in gold. Long sleeves would be more useful than short.
This, in reality, is how we should all approach our wardrobes all of the time – with some sense of purpose, some understanding of functionality, but we so often fail to do so.
As it happens, I live a pretty casual life, for which I need comfortable, hard-wearing clothing that is also reasonable attractive. I have no need to be smart, though I do like to look ‘nice’, and there’s no point in buying expensive things when I’m surrounded by animals, woodburners and mud. So my choice would be:
* flesh-coloured t-shirt bra by Spiedel with padded straps and slings in the cups. It goes with everything and is incredibly comfortable. My Ahh bras don’t quite cut it because they don’t give me enough uplift in public, though I’m happy to let the girls find their own level when I’m at home.
* half a dozen pairs of knickers in white or nude cotton from M&S.
* white linen, fitted Austin Reed shirt – crisp and clean for under or over other items.
* black wool shift dress from M&S – totally dateless and can be dressed up or down with cardis, sweaters, blouses and belts. This is my smart frock.
* navy leather and suede loafers from Lands’ End – flat, easy to walk in, they go with jeans and all my trousers and are just about passable with a casual skirt.
* navy canvas and leather ballet pumps from Lands’ End.
* navy cotton jersey pull-on pants from Lands’ End – so comfortable I can even do my yoga in them. My favourite used to be my dark brown moleskin bootcut trousers from Boden (which could have been designed on me, they fitted so well) but dammit, they discontinued them.
* navy cotton chinos from Boden. Love the floral inside to the waistband, the roomy pockets and the fact that they always look smart. If I get another choice, I’ll take a grey pair too.
* navy and black Kiwi trousers from Craghoppers – the best-designed, most practical trouser ever invented. In fact, if I had to choose one pair of trews, these would be the ones: waterproof peachskin polyester, practically indestructible, reinforced heels and knees, elasticated waist, and eight pockets, including security pockets. My DH now wears virtually nothing else because nothing else cuts the mustard.
* v-neck and crewneck long-sleeve t-shirts in black, white and stripes. I have a range of makes, from H&M (before I boycotted them) but my best one is from Armorlux, which makes the thickest, softest tees known to humankind.
* black and white organic cotton vests from Lidl.
* grey cashmere boyfriend cardigan from La Redoute (cardis are more flexible than sweaters). I bought this in 2008 and have worn it TO DEATH. The elusive perfect cardigan, I have bought near-misses over and again ever since. I only wish I had another couple in – say – black and navy.
* grey crewneck cashmere sweater and v-neck grey cashmere sweater (from Lands’ End and M&S respectively). Good weights for under and over other layers and the soft colour goes with everything.
* grey cashmere scarf from Harrods, which I’ve had since I was at college.
* navy Burberry polocoat with zip-out lining (covers all four seasons).
* hand-knitted greige cable wool beanie made by a local lady and dark brown fur-lined leather gloves from Liberty.
* pale blue pashmina and alpaca cream/red and blue paisley pashmina, both gifts from my sister.
* black pull-on suedette stiletto-heeled boots.
Other women would doubtless have different lists – perhaps a smart suit for work, or good tights. But making a short list of – say, 20 items, will tell you a lot about yourself and your life, and a lot about how much useless crap you still have in your wardrobe.