Thursday, August 06, 2015

My Wardrobe: Revisiting The Common Wardrobe

Among the most popular, and among the most misunderstood, posts that I've ever written for The Vivienne Files have to be the ones about A Common Wardrobe.

I used to work in advertising. I used to travel a lot, and I used to be privileged to meet some of the most intelligent, creative, eccentric and downright weird people you could imagine. But one thing that I noticed, time and time again, was that no matter how unusual their appearance might have seemed, their clothes would invariably include at least one or two elements that were pretty normal. In fact, when I looked over large rooms full of these people, you could see a common theme of a lot of jeans, khakis, and black trousers, a lot of white shirts, a lot of black tee shirts etc. Note that only on rare occasions was someone wearing ENTIRELY clothes from this list - there was a lot of bizarre jacket stuff happening, some really outrageous and/or gorgeous blouses and shirts, some skirts that were... hard to describe, and enough leather jeans to give a vegetarian heartburn...

As much as I'm not part of that crowd anymore, I still believe in the useful efficacy of having a core of a dozen garments, around which you can weave your own personal stylistic magic.

Thus, for the upcoming cold weather, I have determined that I'm probably going to be seeing quite a lot of the following items:

black cardigan - J. Crew; black v-neck sweater -  J. Crew; black cashmere
turtleneck - Saks Fifth Avenue, white cotton turtleneck - L.L.Bean; black
long-sleeved tee - Three Dots; grey long-sleeved tee - L.L.Bean; white shirt –
J. Crew; black slouch pants - Eileen Fisher; black trousers - Eddie Bauer;
black jeans - Eileen Fisher; black skirted leggings - Eileen Fisher;
black pleated skirt - Eileen Fisher

( Please note that in some cases, the garment that I'm wearing is long out of production, and I have taken the liberty of linking to something similar. Yes, I get commissions. I'm very grateful; it keeps the lights turned on here at The Vivienne Files!)

There's not much really to be said about plain cardigans, sweater and shirts - I try to get good quality and a classic cut. Yes, cotton turtlenecks are inherently pretty casual, but in bitter cold weather I find that I wear them frequently.

For me, picking pants and skirts took a bit more time, but I'm finally happy with my choices; my slouch pants are soft and comfortable, but somewhat less casual than sweats. My trousers from Eddie Bauer have only a side zip and button, otherwise completely flat front and back and a bit of stretch. These pants travel really REALLY well. Jeans are jeans, skirted leggings are like wearing a skirt and then putting leggings under them (really, these are just a fast way to put on 2 garments at once), and my pleated skirt speaks to the little kid in me...

Here's a template of what I did. You should be able to "right click" on this baby and print it. If not, send me a note at, and I'll send you a PDF.

Of course, the only way a wardrobe like this will work is to include some (maybe a LOT!) of accessories. 

While this is far from the entirety of my insane scarf collection, it's a good representative sample. And I do have a few more pairs of shoes than this, but I think for 5 "bottoms," 5 pairs of shoes give us a good sense of how this will come together.

pearl stud earrings - Majorica, silver knot earrings - Nancy B., grey pearl bracelet
 - Majorica, 3-strand necklace - Majorica, black and pearl bracelet - Majorica; black
 and white scarf - Julie Egli; Maltese Cross brooch - Kenneth Jay Lane; pearls –
Majorica; pearl and chain necklace - Majorica; grey pearl studs - Majorica; gold
knot earrings - The Black Bow; pyramid earrings - Judith Jack; silver cross brooch
 - vintage; silver star earrings - Adriana de Gadea; bracelet - Kenneth Jay Lane;
silver and black multi-strand necklace - Silpada; patchwork scarf –
Metropolitan Museum of Art; puffy silver star brooch - Tiffany, silver hoop
earrings - Vintage; silver chain necklace - Wayan Asman; black and white
wristlet - Tumi; black and white scarf - Hermes Cliquitis; black and red scarf
 - Hermes Les Clefs; floral scarf - Gucci; black bag - Agnes B.; athletic shoes
- Munro; boots - Eddie Bauer; short boots - Munro; loafers - French Connection;
 grey scarf - Hermes Les Jardins des Metamorphoses; ballet flats - Thierry Rabotin

And so here's how I could dress for the six months between October and March. Yes, it's not amazingly full of variety. But if someone were to come to me tomorrow and tell me that (pick your fantasy - your children's tuition will be paid, your mortgage will be paid...) I could live in Paris for those six winter months, if I would agree to wear ONLY these outfits, I'd be off like a shot the last day of September!

Optimal? Maybe not for everyone. But a very workable base upon which to build? Absolutely!

Tomorrow, I'm going to start thinking about my "5-Piece French Wardrobe" for fall and winter. Since I'm trying to buy only used things this year, this is a challenge, but I already have 2 pieces ready to roll!

Does anyone in the world love snow as much as I do? In addition to using a snowflake motif on my outfits, my computers all have snowflake or snow scene wallpaper, themes, desktops etc.  It's a bit nutty...




  1. After working with my wardrobe for the last 18 months or so, I'm beginning to realize that I like the common wardrobe most for fall/winter/early spring when it's comfortable to wear lots of scarves and necklaces and I want that second layer/topper of blazers/cardigans. For the hot months, I transition more to the "whatever's clean" idea and want one category of my clothing to have some prints for interest, because I just can't make myself wear scarves often (even though tied/knotted as necklaces) and I'm sure not wearing jackets. Even necklaces are too uncomfortable some days. You've helped me marry fashion sense/wardrobe planning with reality -- I appreciate!

    1. I was just thinking the same thing : I can do scarves outside of summer but what to do in summer? I guess your idea might be my answer!

  2. Yes! I like this wardrobe. I have the slouchy pants, but do find them extremely casual, so I mostly wear them at home. Perhaps I need to find more tops that go well with them to dress them up a bit.

  3. I like snow, if that counts? I pretty much enjoy all weather, as it comes in turn. If I say *love* about a season, it's most definitely Autumn. When the days are golden warm and the nights are chilly enough for a quilt on the bed. There's wood smoke in the air, and crisp apples on the kitchen counter. That's my seasonal love affair.

  4. Thank you so much for this post. I have recently bought a pair of the Eileen Fisher Skirted Leggings, and have been completely at a loss as to how to wear them!
    Thank you for giving me a place to start!

  5. Hmmmm, always thinking in packing mode , I see 5 bottoms, 5 tops, and 2 layers. Add 2 more tops, and perhaps one more layer, either a cardigan or jacket, and there's a perfect suitcase ! Depending on the time gone, one bottom could also be edited out. All of these would be in my warmer colors and include both neutrals and colors, but I realize that this is not the point of this post.

    1. I'm also always thinking in packing and travel mode, but I take much less. Two pairs of shoes, 3 pairs of pants and 8 tops and I'm out the door with my carry-on. Those tops are a mixture of long and short sleeves, blouses, tees, tanks, cardigans, depending on where I'm going and when. The duration is always 4+ weeks. The magic words are washable and laundry.

  6. I mentioned in a previous comment that I'm committing to wearing only a baker's dozen of warm-weather clothes and a handful of accessories through August. I rethought my original plan and decided to wear my favoritest things rather than my "extra" things.

    So now I'm living in: blue jeans, black cotton pants, gray cotton pants, blue jean skirt, dark brown skirt, black sleeveless dress with white pattern, black crew neck t shirt, brown sleeveless top, square neck top with blue flowers on black, green v neck t shirt, berry pink faux wrap sleeveless top, bright pastel rainbow tie dye t shirt, and lacy gray camisole with big purple flowers.

    Accessories are: silver tree of life pendant, short silver embellished chain necklace, wooden heart pendant, blue wire crochet flower necklace, heavy malachite necklace, rainbow bead necklace, gold heart earrings with pearls, silvery drop earrings with blue/purple glass spheres, opal studs, moonstone bracelet.

    I'm living proof that a curated wardrobe in rainbow can be done ;-) So far, I'm loving the more limited clothing selection - it's a great feeling to wear something I love every single day. A few example outfits: black t shirt, jeans, rainbow necklace, glass drop earrings; green top, brown skirt, wooden heart; berry top, brown skirt, gold/pearl hearts; camisole, jean skirt, wire crochet necklace.


  7. Thankyou for the post. While reading out on the net I have noticed some bloggers doing their own kind of Common Wardrobe thing. They seem to have a grid of neutralish clothes. For example Whites: singlet top, t-shirt short sleeve, t-shirt long sleeved, turtle neck, buttoned short, cardigan etc. Then onto Grey: the same again...singlet top, t-shirt short sleeve, t-shirt long sleeved, turtle neck, buttoned short, cardigan etc. Then move onto sky blue or black or charcoal. In the end there might be 5 singlets in a range of neutral colours, 5 t-shirts in the same neutral colours and 5 buttoned shirts in the same neutral colours. All the basics mixed and matched. Like a little spread sheet of clothes in columns and rows. Colours by type. I found the system easy to understand and easy to see what you have in your wardrobe and what you need to buy to fill in the gaps. Hope this wasn't too garbled! Carol S

    1. Carol, you might want to check out The Starting From Scratch series of posts on this site. It's where I started when I first reading it.

    2. Thanks Anon, I have read The Starting From Scratch series when they were posted and thought they were wonderful. I was just putting forward a way of getting a nice range of basics. I recently carried out my own wardrobe audit and found I had lots of white singlets (that I wasn't wearing) 3 greys and a black. I now know I need to wear my white singlets more (and wear them out). I have recently found that I like quantifying things and spread sheets are my friend! Carol S

  8. I love posts like this! Looking forward to this series.

  9. The Common Wardrobe series was the point at which TVF went from a pleasant blog to something that would change the way I look at my clothing. It was sheer coincidence that the actual pieces you called out were pieces I had in my closet. From there I started thinking seriously about the concept of having a neutral (meaning not trendy in style or color) core of clothes to serve as a base for more creative, colorful, or trendy items. I played around with this idea for a few months, then one day I wasn't feeling well. Not sick enough to stay at home, but not at my best. Still, there were meetings to be had, deadlines to be met. So I threw on my white button shirt and my khaki pants -- no thought needed. Then I reached for a pretty pink scarf, just to lift my spirits and slipped my feet into some fun shoes, which also happened to be quite comfortable. Total thought time: 5 minutes. Even though I didn't feel well physically, I got some compliments on my outfit and I at least felt pulled together enough to make it though the work day.

    Since then, I've been carefully curating my wardrobe. Accent colors come and go, but I always make sure I have that solid core. Thanks.

  10. Always a good reminder to be self disciplined and have a core wardrobe. I also think these should be as good a quality as possible. I have the slouchy EF pants and I find they are best for long distance flying. I pair them with a black loosest T shirt and its just like wearing PJs.
    Deb from Vancouver

  11. Ack no snow; we just got summer. But this is my favorite.line.ever. "there was a lot of bizarre jacket stuff happening, some really outrageous and/or gorgeous blouses and shirts, some skirts that were... hard to describe, and enough leather jeans to give a vegetarian heartburn..."

  12. Tired of the super hot temps here but NOT ready for snow!! Winter is not my favorite season. I guess Fall is my favorite but Spring is also so nice! I could get by with these 12 items to live in Paris for 6 months!! In a heartbeat! I do like all types of decorative "snow" items. My maiden name was Snow! :) I do use a lot of snow themed Christmas decorations.

  13. I know this is a bit much to ask but could you kindly do a common wardrobe and five piece french wardrobe for us in the other hemisphere going into spring and summer soon? Or just give me links to revisit. tx a mil A-M from South Africa