What is a Capsule Wardrobe?

posted in: Designing, SWAP | 22

On Saturday, when I announced my SWAP plans, Saturday Night Stitch blogger Hila asked for advice on a “capsule” wardrobe. Other commentators and I suggested some resources for her to consider.

But I said I didn’t always agree with some of the well known advisors on this topic.

There seem to be two schools of thought. The first is often found on Bloglovin – Fashionistas and stylist-girls who say things like “Everyone must have a LBD. A pair of deep, skinny jeans. A white shirt. A navy blazer…etc.” And the other school of thought which is “choose a basic colour scheme eg black, white and teal,  include a bit of pattern and texture and produce lots of separates”. Anyway there are several formulae out there, and if they work for you then do go for it.

The Bloglovin imaginary capsule wardrobe
The Bloglovin imaginary capsule wardrobe

I dislike the first – the classic list – because it is predictable and assumes everyone suits an LBD or skinny jeans – which is evidently not the case. I dislike the second as it is usually so formulaic that it looks like you have gone to one high street shop eg. Debenhams and bought a whole set of clothes from one rack. Unimaginative and dated.

So, having had a bit of a go at conventional answers to this question, I will stick my neck out and try to answer Hila’s question.

I have entered the SWAP. I don’t know what I am doing as I have never made a capsule wardrobe before. That’s not going to stop me though?. I gather the first thing I need to do is decide on my colours. I can’t seem to settle on anything so far. Still there are 6 weeks to go yet. Can you recommend resources on how to create a capsule wardrobe? Thanks.

I am going to make a few assumptions here.

  1. Hila needs to comply with the SWAP rules
  2. She maybe thinking of a work based set or an off duty set, or a combination – whatever decision she makes will affect the capsule. Hila has a part time job, but she is also a young mum with five kids so a capsule has to work for her lifestyle.
  3. Choosing colours can be helpful and you do need colours which work well together
  4. I know something about Hila as I follow her blog. I haven’t met her in real life and ideally a capsule is designed for a real person, according to their wardrobe personality, body shape, colouring etc. I have shown how I do this with Gus.
  5. I will therefore provide a tentative or illustrative plan. Hila is a gorgeous, a competent seamstress with lots of drive and ambition who will certainly be able to run with this if I get her started.
  6. Please add your two penn’orth.

The best way to think about a capsule is to imagine you are packing a small suitcase to live your life as you live it now. In other words if you only had 11 items (plus underwear, gym clothes, shoes and accessories) what would you pack?

Bearing in mind the SWAP rules I would choose:

4 bottoms, 5 tops and 2 overs (or variations on this such as 4 bottoms, 6 tops and 1 over, etc).

This first decision on garment types is affected by the SWAP rules and how you like to dress. I am a jackets person, and I know Hila likes a nice jacket. But some people prefer cardigans. I generally plump for layers as I feel the cold, but others prefer to a more streamlined look. So Hila – think this through in terms of your personal style and preferences. Hila writes:

“I want to make it a spring /early summer capsule. A couple of pieces that can be worn for meetings. I can wear smart casual for work in general. I work part time and am involved in quite a few committees (PTA, school governor). I also have to take kids to their classes (swimming, music, sport, etc). Around that time of year there are school productions to attend and I like to wear something (extra) nice to those.”

Now the SWAP rules allow the tops to be a dress, or the bottoms to be a jumpsuit. I would probably choose one dress because there are occasions when a dress is nice and provides a pulled together look. Ideal for those productions etc, but the problem with a dress is that you can’t keep turning up in the same one. With different accessories, a jacket or cardigan it can look different. But generally I would not have more than one dress in a capsule as it is less flexible than a top and skirt. You could even make a top and skirt/trousers in the same or matching fabric so they can be worn together to appear as if they are a dress/jump suit.

By sticking mainly to separates you get the maximum number of dressing and style options.

The SWAP rules specify that a certain number of items need to go with certain other items. Of course this is the core of a capsule. My “cheat” on this is to ensure that everything can be worn with everything else, but to define that fairly widely. It means, for me, that your clothes all have a coherence, and that you have or can develop a personal style. Hila more or less knows what she likes to wear and what suits her, adopting a classic style, but with a twist. But note that Hila is also natural – her hair is greying slightly and is not straightened, she wears flat shoes and avoids make up. So this gives her room to amp up the outfits and colour a bit.

So how do we make sure that everything goes with everything else?

  • Stick to one colour group – Hila in all these photographs is wearing bright-cool colours. It is fine to include as many colours as you like in a capsule wardrobe, so long as they harmonise with each other.  Less colours may work better for a tighter look and easier outfitting, but I would definately bring more pattern in if the colours are limited (eg navy and light pink). For Hila these palettes would work well
    • Red, yellow and navy
    • Black, white and turquoise
    • Emerald green, shocking pink, red and orange
    • All white with just brightly coloured accents and accessories
    • Several patterned fabrics with the same background colour eg black, navy or white
    • Colour options are almost unlimited – sticking with bright-cool colours (which most flatter Hila’s own colouring) I would include both deeper and light shades to get a good contrast
  • As she is slim and fairly small keep the patterns medium to small (as above)
  • Stick to one silhouette – Hila has a very good, semi-shaped, athletic figure and and looks best in closely fitted clothes, and flared skirts with some length in them
  • Use the planning time to put together patterns and fabrics and sketch or use photoshop etc to design your collection.
  • With 11 items I would consider at least  one standout statement piece. But you also need a few items that can play second fiddle eg jeans, white T shirt.
  • Use slightly unusual accessories to make your outfits come together eg colourful shoes, belts and hair styles

I don’t know if this is helpful Hila. To everyone else, please comment if you disagree or have other suggestions.

22 Responses

  1. Kim

    Good advice. I agree with the difficulty in just trying to follow a ‘fashionista’ without really considering your own tastes/lifestyle. I don’t think I will try SWAP this time but I will try a more coordinated group of garments for myself.

  2. Naomi

    OMG I was reading this and thinking “do me next!” Kate, you’re so considered and analytical – I love it!
    I’m considering SWAP still, and thinking I might just do it. I think I’ve narrowed it down to 3 outer, 4 bottom and 4 tops – although I will probably make more tops just because. I think my theme will be blues and greens (at this stage) and I’m looking to build a capsule that has elements of work and play in it.
    For me the hardest part will be using only 8 patterns!

    • Hila

      You should join in Naomi. I was on the fence too but once I joined I am relishing the process and learning so much. I think there is also an Alternative SWAP on the forum (I am new there so anybody correct me if I am wrong here).

    • fabrickated

      Naomi – first please join it – I agree with Steph that you will certainly enrich the contest with your thoughtful and beautiful makes. Second – I don’t think you need my advice on anything, but please feel free to ask anything you like about SWAP or style. I like “readers’ questions” as they usually open things out for everyone to give an opinion and share their views…

  3. Hila

    Thank you so much for your help with this Kate. You have made clear what I have been struggling to get. Its like what you said – a lot of the stuff out there on capsule wrdrobe was either too specific or too complicated. So far my take aways from this post are :
    1. I need to make everything work together which is easier than trying to meet the SWAP rule on this.
    2. I like what you say about dresses reducing options so I will be sticking to one dress.
    3. I do love a nice jacket and am thinking of a lightweight mac for one of my overs.
    4. Colour palette – I will try my best to use stash fabric so that will most likely determine the palette I will use. Though if I didn’t have my personal rule on using stash fabric – I’d have loved Emerald green, shocking pink, red and orange.
    Thank you again!

    No doubt I will be coming back and rereading this as I plan. I have my sketchbook at the ready.

    • fabrickated

      All sensible responses Hila. I respect you not wanting to buy new fabric – I have the same pledge myself but I know that some of my cloth isn’t suitable for a man and my colours are a bit too bright for him so I will have to acquire some. One of my very kind readers (Brenda) has offered to send me some muted shades as she is downsizing her fabric collection. I too love the Green-Red-Orange-Pink palette, and with your permission I will do a second post on that.

      What about trading your muted and warm fabrics for brighter cool colours? If you put it out there the fabric will come. In fact I have some emerald green I can send you. And then there is always Secret Santa who will be wondering what you want!!

  4. Stephanie

    Kate, Thorough, as usual! You’re the lady to give Hila advice in this. I have no advice other than to have fun and unleash the creativity. I also have the impression that Hila is ambitious and is a prolific seamstress, so hopefully she will enjoy pushing herself in this challenge. Personally, I learn something new each time I try this and I enjoy stretching my own limits to create things with personal resonance.

    To me how you plan a SWAP depends on (apart from the rules) 1) whether you have true wardrobe gaps to fill i.e. are starting from scratch after a major life change or with limited resources (maybe a situation in which a person wants one of the classic capsules you mention at the top); and 2) whether or not it’s important to you to have many combinations of clothing to wear. I am happy with few combinations but of things I really like, as I don’t mind wearing the same thing on multiple days, whereas the goal of wardrobe capsuling seems to be able to make dozens of outfits with a small number of pieces.

    I shall be interested to see what all of the participants come up with – the more creative the better and the more the merrier. I do hope Naomi will participate, too, as she has a lot of fun with her wardrobe.

    • fabrickated

      Ah yes! I missed the obvious point about the objective being lots of options, when not everyone wants that. I suppose I do like this aspect of the capsule as I like to look different everyday and I was projecting this on to Hila. In fact the SWAP coordinator this year seems to have her own preference – simplicity! TNTs! Easy to make items!! I can see this is driving Demented Fairy nuts….

      • Stephanie

        I think most people fall in the camp of wanting to look different every day. I suppose I do to some extent, too, as I enjoy finding new combinations with what I have, although I get stuck on old favourites and, well, I am a bit slow to change! Yes, the simplicity and TNTS aspect isn’t for everyone. 🙂

        I do think your advice about everything going with everything else is solid and I am finally starting to “get” that in terms of working within a colour palette that is suitable for me.

        • fabrickated

          I want to get creative with the clothes not worry about the maths or deciding what “goes with” something else. You can make most things work together if you add other items, but if you get your basic silhouette and colour direction right it is not that hard to make things work together. I always noticed this with your SWAP outfits S. Mainly because of your clear sense of style and focused colour palette your outfits always look like they are coherent.

  5. Annieloveslinen

    Interesting post. Jumping in here to say I’m with team easy, easy to make and easy to wear, mainly because my skills aren’t good enough and I’d likely end up with something I wouldn’t wear.

  6. Anne

    Interesting post.
    I read an article about methods of putting different patterned fabrics together in the current Threads magazine, which is not something I have done. Not sure I will plan to do this but it made a good read, anyway. Might be useful to others.
    I’m going to do SWAP, simple and uncomplicated version, as SWAP coordinator envisions, and hope to develop TNTs, a long term aim.
    I look forward to seeing everybody’s plans

  7. Lisa

    What an informative post! Though my bodyshape, age!, and lifestyle differ from Hila’s, the way you analyzed hers really help me to sort of look into ‘me’. I’m thinking about joining SWAP 2017, even though I bombed on SWAP 2016 and have never attempted a SWAP before, and find it seems I always get ‘stuck’ on the simple beginning as you have helped her here. Thanks Kate!

  8. karen

    Another thing that I find a bit hard to take about “capsule wardrobes” is the assumption that all women lead the same lifestyle and only require certain items. People’s lifestyles run the gamut. If you only have a few items of clothing, you have to launder/dry clean them more frequently, if you do more than sit at a desk eight hours a day.
    Think about mothers with toddlers, day care workers, kindergarten teachers, people who do not war uniforms, but can count on daily spills and messes on their clothes.
    Lifestyle determines what clothing is required.

    • fabrickated

      Good point Karen. I am not sure a capsule wardrobe is how I would describe what I wore when my kids were young – track suit bottoms, yesterdays T shirt, a baggy jumper/anorak and white trainers. I had rubbish hair too. No time, little money – I looked tired all the time.

  9. Sue

    I love looking at Hila’s makes on Instagram, she is so stylish, and I think you have been really generous in your thoughtful analysis of her personal style. I am quite intrigued by the concept of SWAP – I had thought it was about swapping things, which sometimes happens on other forums – duh! I am looking forward to watching the progress of both Hila and you.

  10. Wendy

    What a thoughtful analysis of capsule wardrobing, SWAP, and Hila’s request. I am glad she is joining, and encourage all those on the fence to jump in. I do most of my sewing for the year during SWAP, my skills are very basic: no zippers, buttons, french seams anywhere, at least not yet! This year the rules suit me perfectly with their simplicity, and the requirements on matching are keeping my magpie tendencies in check. I am going with a statement piece for starters this year and will build everything off that. Most of my other choices are filling specific gaps in my wardrobe as I think Stephanie mentioned in a comment above.

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