Saturday, September 05, 2015

How to Create Your Capsule Wardrobe - a Vivienne Files Bookshelf Excerpt

Taken from one of my very favorite reference books for The Vivienne Files: Ma To-Do List by Jeanne-Aurore Colleuille and Laure Gontier. I'm going to quote directly from their book in grey type, and my comments will be in this color...

The 3 Secrets for Creating your “Capsule Wardrobe”

“My style is the result of distillation. I have accepted my grey hair. I only wear black and white. Each year, I buy three or four dresses which I wear in rotation. I own a pair of jeans.” – Jamie Lee Curtis

This barbaric Anglo-Saxon concept, adored by fashion magazines and women of style across the Atlantic, doesn’t have a real French equivalent.

The word that they use to describe this concept is barbarisme... is doesn't translate with quite the harshness of the word in English. 
Nonetheless, the idea of a “capsule wardrobe” can be universal. The product of the art of distillation, just to the essence, your style and your wardrobe can hold the best and the most versatile items, just like those impeccable globe-trotters who tour the world with a miniscule suitcase and manage to be elegant in all circumstances. (my dream...) Not so easy? Let’s go, shall we give it a try?

1.    Dictate your rules

Limits, paradoxically, free your creativity. Without rules, there is no personal style. So make a list of your personal style rules. Favorite colors? Sleeve lengths? Skirt preferences? Type of collar that you prefer? Note everything that you love, all the things that make a garment something that makes you feel like you. Then, cast a glance into your closet and eliminate everything that doesn’t meet your draconian standards. (whoa!) And don’t buy anything more that doesn’t obey your rules. (okay, this is only reasonable)

Let's think about how many rules you might have. Given that there are literally millions of pieces of clothing available to purchase, and you're only going to buy a handful - literally a half dozen or so - of items this season, you need a strict policy for why you don't buy everything else. There are unwritten rules (for most of us!) about things that cost a month's rent, or that don't begin to fit, but the potential number of rules you have in your mind, or on your list, should be REALLY long... My list is just getting started!
2.    Work on your coordination

A variety of colors, tops and bottoms that are impossible to coordinate, shapes and materials without a common ground: these are the enemies of the ideal wardrobe. At the base of the “capsule wardrobe” is a simple idea (and yet we apply it rarely!): everything should go with everything else, so that you can get dressed with your eyes closed. (sounds like a "Whatever's Clean Wardrobe to me!) For colors, you’re looking for harmony and versatility, without necessarily choosing to wear all black or navy. If you love red, why not make that color the “common thread” through your capsule wardrobe? 

Another must: hold onto the essential simple, classic pieces (black tank top, pencil skirt, classic trousers) which can, with the addition of simple accessories, serve as both casual and dressy.

I break their rules right from the beginning, because I include two accent colors that only work together in a few instances. But I think the idea of having an entire wardrobe with EVERYTHING that coordinates is pretty ambitious; having a wardrobe that reflects a consistent personal preference and aesthetic concept is more realistic for most of us.
3.    Choose your Signature Piece

It’s this which gives your wardrobe its theme and tempo. Reflect on “the” piece (single piece? How about a family of pieces? can we start gradually???) without which you couldn’t live (a favorite unique jacket, for example) and decide to make it the reference point for your wardrobe: all the other pieces must be able to work with it, help it be used fully. If things don’t work with your signature piece, they should be eliminated.
I have three ideas of what my signature might be. 

  • Pearls? 
Pearl with gold or silver settings, and some Maltese cross motifs are my very favorite jewelry.
Narrow gold bracelet – Kenneth Jay Lane; wide gold bracelet –
 Kenneth Jay Lane; brooch – Chanel Vintage; silver pendant – Konstantino;
 mother of pearl in gold stud earrings – Marco Bicego; stud earrings in 
silver – Balenciaga; chain and pearl necklace – Lanvin;
 gold chain and pearl necklace – Miriam Haskell

  • Scarves?  
I wear them every day in the cold weather, and as often as I can manage on warmer days. My core would have to include black with flowers, a black and white graphic, something black and gold, as well as 1 or 2 red scarves, and a pink one...
Floral with black border – Gucci; stars – Beck Sondergaard; black and gold
 – Hermes vintage; red scarf – Hermes vintage; pink scarf – Hermes vintage

  • Or, most likely, a core of solid black garments, over which I wear a variety of accessories, snazzy jackets or fun cardigans... 
Black linen tank – Eileen Fisher; black slouch pants – Eileen Fisher; black
 tank dress – Eileen Fisher; black silk tee – Eileen Fisher; black skirted leggings
 – Eileen Fisher; black turtleneck – Donna Karan; black waxed 
cotton jeans – Eileen Fisher

While I can't wholeheartedly recommend that we all whittle our wardrobes down to a core of items that all go together, I think that this is a grand concept for travel; it feels a lot like the sort of travel capsule wardrobes that I build all the time.

But I DO agree with them that there needs to be a unifying thread in our wardrobes and our purchases that helps us visually define ourselves to others, and which helps us discipline and focus our purchases. As with so many of these cool French fashion books, there's something interesting to be learned...




  1. The problem I have with the 'capsule idea' - except for packing, where it works really well - is that it's a bit static. Real wardrobes are work in progress, items arrive and leave as our ideas and needs change. But rules and formulas are great fun to play with, and help guide future purchases. I especially like the idea of 'distilling'. Eg I'm a blazer + trousers+ flat shoes person, but am slowly refining the details of cut, fabric, colours etc. The idea of a signature is also really interesting, please post any further thoughts you have on yours!

    1. I agree - I've always collected capsules for work/travel, but I don't want everything to match. I like collections of different colours to suit my moods (and the weather). Sometimes I like to start with my denim jeans and build outfits that work, or in winter start with brown/gold/greens and go from there. In summer I might begin with coral or olive/khaki. (I'm a redhead with freckles, so tend to avoid Janice's favourite, black and red, but I love rust.) So I like collections that work together and have rules of what suits and feels right, but I've never believed EVERYTHING had to go together.

  2. As always your insights are brilliant. After years of working in a nurses uniform I found myself in the business end of the profession. Until that time my personal wardrobe was nothing but individual pieces without coordination. As a result I had a gigantic wardrobe with little versatility in function. Over the years I whittled the monster to some basics and coordinates and found that dressing lost its enjoyment! What to wear? I now had a plan. With your insights I have learned how to dress and not look like I am wearing a uniform again. Again, thank you.

  3. I find myself thinking more and more about two things, and both of them are affected by the season: silhouette and pattern v. solid. In warm weather, I like flow-y -- think broomstick -- or A-line skirts that allow plenty of air movement in patterns. I like the patterns because the most I can stand on my neck in hot weather is a light necklace, so I won't be wanting a scarf. The patterned skirt jazzes up my solid tops. In cold weather, I prefer mostly straight or pencil skirts with tights and flats or boots. I like blazers or cardigans or a jeans-style jacket, too, and I often wear a patterned scarf. My winter style is much more structured but still fairly casual on most days.

    A rule I am getting more and more firm about -- and I hate it because it is so limiting -- is that dresses and bottoms MUST HAVE POCKETS. I just don't understand where people put their mobile phones! I especially wish Eileen Fisher would embrace the reality of the need for pockets. I love her stuff, but that phone!

    1. I'm with you on the pockets. Difficult to find, unfortunately. Since I'm plus sized, I have to take whatever I can find that fits!

    2. My most recent Eileen Fisher dress has pockets in it, and one that I have from J. Jill also has pockets. I do NOT understand why pockets are such a challenge for designers!

    3. Yes, totally agree on the importance of pockets! Reading glasses in the left pocket, iPhone in the right.

    4. Janice, would you post a link to the pocketed EF dress?

    5. Here's a link to a pocketed EF skirt I got mid-summer. I really love it -- so comfortable and ticks all my boxes!

    6. This isn't the dress that I bought (which appears to be long gone), but it's a summer dress with pockets that I would buy in a heartbeat:

    7. Pockets cost money - not so much for cloth, although that adds up if 10,000 dresses are being cut, but in labor costs. Same thing with sleeves, which is why, I believe, you see so many sleeveless dresses. Also, many women think pockets at the hips make them look fatter. This isn't a problem if the dress or skirt is correctly fitted, but how many women have their clothes tailored?

    8. Great point, Sewing! And I'd add dolman sleeves (not even set in), which make even small-busted women look like they are shot with a wide-angle lens- but much cheaper to produce.

    9. I don't like pockets in most dresses and pants because they usually keep the garment from lying smoothly I am more concerned with fit than with having a place to put my phone. My handbag can handle my phone.

    10. Relegating objects to a purse assumes that the carrier carries a purse. That's not true for so many situations. I've always cared more about convenience than the smooth thing, so I'm a big fan of pockets, too, but not those little wimpy ones so often seen on women's pants. I want pockets with space to actually put something in them.

  4. We're kind of twins on the colors/base--except you have way nicer accessories! Still, even a less exalted scarf can look very nice. And--for most of us in the middle middle class--a few KJ Lane pieces and even a few Hermes scarves are well within the lifetime clothing allowance. Thanks as always.

  5. This is so hard! On one hand, I've always been a kind of simple dresser, so it's not that big a deal. On the other hand, I'm just now waking up to the world of fashion/style, so it's hard to think about refining - it's like picking your three favorite candies when you've literally just learned that candy exists!

    I know that I like simple silhouettes that are fairly fitted - nothing drapey.
    I know that pants are more comfortable, but skirts/dresses are so pretty that I want a mix of both.
    I'm only just starting to think about shoes outside of sandals, hiking boots, sneakers, and flats. I recently discovered that wedges are comfortable for me.
    I'm pretty new to jewelry and am only beginning to think about scarves and belts.
    I love colors. I'm moderately specific about what shades I like, but blue, green, purple, pink, red, brown, and gray are all on the table, along with black and white - and I don't like the idea of giving up any of them. And I sometimes like doing the monochomatic grayscale thing.
    I very much like patterns and accessories that have an organic feel to them - floral, leafy, paisley, lacey. Not clunky or geometric for the most part. But I also like stripes.

    How to pick a signature out of that? Flowers? Rainbows? The best I seem to be able to manage at the moment is simple and nature-inspired.


  6. Janice,
    I think a signature piece as #3 suggests, is fine, once the core simple pieces have been covered, because a unique piece worn over and over can become very tiresome to my eye and lacks the versatility of simpler pieces. However, a signature style makes sense, to express my individual preferences and personality, like the varied scarves, as Janice wears. In my family, I am known as the scarf lady, at least in the cold seasons. While I love formula dressing, I need variety within it. I used to make the mistake of wearing all the same silhouettes, and wondered why I was bored --too many necklines all the same style, all knits and no shirts or blouses, no variety in belts or shoes --booooring ! Janice and Judith Rasband have taught me to make each individual item within a capsule each have something different from the other. I am bottom heavy, so I don't wear skirts, but it is a goal once the weight comes down, to add even more variety.

  7. Oh, my oh my, do I ever love a few rules, particularly when I get to make them up!

    #1 - the biggest thing is no black. After I moved from NYC (over a decade ago), I decided that black was too stark for me. I have been SLOWLY shifting away from it. I don't shop much, and tend to mend my clothes, so I still have a few black pieces that I'm getting use out of, but I've completely stopped BUYING any black.
    The rest of my rules are mostly about fit. I'm happy to say I've finally (by my early 40s) worked my head around to the notion that if a garment doesn't fit my body, it's the garment that's not right for ME, not anything wrong with my bod. For example, I used to think I couldn't wear straight skirts, thanks to the shape of my body. Then I discovered that a straight skirt THAT FIT was quite sexy. But... they don't work for me! They don't have swish and swing, they don't respond to my movements the way I like skirts to do. So one of my rules is full skirts. I have similar particularities about the fit and feel of almost every type of clothing, but I won't bore you all with a complete inventory.
    Oh! Another rule - no futzing! This is why I generally don't wear cardigans - because I spend my entire time opening, closing, yanking at them in one way or another. I think this is also why I've never gotten into scarves much - though I try, sometimes. My idea of the ideal outfit is a nice pair of ankle-length trousers, a v-neck cashmere sweater (sleeves scrunched up), and ballet flats. Earrings, and MAYBE a bracelet.

    2 - This part's easy (and fun)! Core: navy/indigo/cobalt. Accents: bright white, pale pink, pale (shirting) blue, hot pink, red, cognac leather. I do still have a few pieces in grey/purple/black that don't really clash with my colors, but once they wear out, I'll replace from within my palette. Oh, and I tend to think of skirts as an "accessory" - I love me a bright pink skirt!

    3 - I am not a scarf girl, unless I'm cold, and then usually the scarf comes off with the coat. Also, my instinct is usually NOT to wear a necklace, though my husband often suggests them. If I have a signature, it's probably flora. If it has a leaf, vine, or - best of all - FLOWERS on it, I'll probably love it. I have three - 3! - pairs of shoes with leather flowers on the toes. My favorite bag has a reproduction of a Van Gogh painting of flowers, and a majority of my patterned garments are floral patterns. One of my favorite pairs of earrings are real gingko leaves that have been electroplated with gold.

    Thanks for the prompt to think this all through -it's been fun!

  8. Is an English translation version of the book avail?

    1. No, I've never seen one. It's too bad, because I think the book has a lot of good advice in it!

    2. Do you know that these 2 authors have a blog ?

  9. Goodness how I love working through these technical "how to's" - I guess I just love a system to play in. Of course I also blued the boundaries just a touch. My rules seemed to go on, once I started writing them out! If anyone is interested I have them and a visual approximation over at polyvore: (not my actual clothes or jewelry, I hasten to add, but similar things).

    I agree with the above comments about potential monotony. However, if I were still working in publishing I'd probably be happy in a set uniform & only break from it on weekends. Only so much visual input and decision making one wants to make in a day.

    Also, pockets! I have no problem carrying a tote when I'm shopping or working, but if I want to go for a walk down the block to the theatre or bike to the lake I'd really rather have both hands free.


  10. Love and want all the pieces you show in My Signature? above. Black is my national color; add a couple of my scarves; maybe a funky fun quilted jacket and I could go for weeks in these clothes. Trip anyone?

  11. I have learned so much from reading your blog. Thank you for your faithfulness in posting frequently and creatively. I know it takes a lot of energy and time.

  12. I'm surprised at how hard it often to find basic t-shirts/ tops that aren't see-through- that would be one of my "rules"

    1. Heavens, yes! I don't wear a bra, so that's crucial for me!
      - Kaci

  13. Yes, thank you very much Janice. I've learned so much in the 9 months since I discovered your blog. My big trip was four days down to Melbourne for a work conference. Melbourne is known as the city with four seasons in one day, but I managed to look co-ordinated and layered for a winter trip with just nine items of clothing. I feel so put together and at the same time had a fresh look every day.

  14. I am enjoying working on my clothes so much! I do liked the Project 333 larger wardrobe much better, because I love color and it allows a lot of different coordinating colors. A small wardrobe with just a few colors, all of which go together, would be wonderful for some people and some situations, but I find it too limiting. So I have a big, 33-piece wardrobe in various color combinations for winter, which also means late fall and early spring. BUT for spring, summer, and fall -- which tend to be short seasons here, and vary in length from year to year (some years spring is, literally, ONE WEEK long and then the heat anvil comes down) -- I have adopted the capsule wardrobe "plus." I like a variety of neutral colors -- black, gray, white tops, and some navy. They all look good together. As I'm still working this out, I have alternates for some of them... turns out I wear skirts and dresses a lot less than I thought I did. So I have alternate pants and skirts in the same color.
    Then, for work clothes only, I add eight other garments in two colors. At first I did six in one color, which worked really well but had me feeling a bit too matchy. It was turquoise... I love turquoise but after a while it was too much: gray and black, gray and turquoise, black and white and turquoise, white and turqoise, white and black, white black and gray, turquoise black and gray... etc.
    For my casual clothes the other garments are all different colors that look fine together. Most of my casual clothes for the warm months are either shorts, capris, or jeans... so the other pieces are tops that look good alone in combinations that make them look very different -- a red button-down shirt worn over a white top looks different from the same shirt worn over a navy top. Etc. I really enjoy knowing that nearly all my clothes (except the patterned ones, they are more limited) can be combined in ways that look good together! It makes me happy and takes stress out of my life. So I guess my rules would include:
    1) Variety of colors
    2) Colors for each season look good together
    3) Neutrals for Spring, Summer, Fall always black, gray, and denim-ish blue (including navy)
    4) Neutrals for Winter are black, gray, brown, navy, burgundy
    5) Don't buy anything iffy -- there are always more clothes!

  15. What a great post. After pondering it all day, and after a week of trying to get dressed from my overstuffed closet and feeling like I have nothing to wear, I realize I only have one rule.

    1) Comfortable shoes

    Almost everything in my closet is completely random, but am slowly getting better with my shopping habits. I have toppers that don't go with any of my shirts. Most of my shirts go with jeans, but aren't nice enough to wear to work, etc. Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to go through my closet using the Starting from Scratch posts and see if I can cobble together a nice fall work wardrobe out of all the chaos.

  16. I have some very old rules like no high heels because I'm short and high heels are uncomfortable and only get me a bit taller and the reality is that I am still short. No reason to be uncomfortable. Then there are rules that are great then they might be not so important and perhaps become obsolete. I used to buy lots of coloured clothes now I am concentrating on neutrals. I used to buy many solid coloured clothes until I saw a photo of me in a yellow T-shirt - not a great look - the colour was ok . I'm plus size (read wide) and now I try and break up the tops with patterns of some sort. Flowers, paisley or just using cardigans to break up the look. And now I feel great because The Viv Files mentioned, when packing, that it is good to have patterns in just one 'row'. So for me it is tops and toppers. Liberating! So easy! Thanks Carol S

  17. Fining my wardrobe down to a very specific palette made it much easier to get dressed. As I learn more about clothes, I understand better what shapes and construction details I like so I'm replacing items. I heartily believe in having a set of core garments in a neutral. That's where I spend my money. Accessories, knit tops, and printed blouses I buy cheaply and can swap them out readily.
    A big (and costly) shift for me was replacing my black core with mid-grey. However I'm finding grey to be softer and more becoming as I get older. It also pairs less dramatically with other colours than black.

  18. When I view the exploding closets and crammed drawers of at least 88% of the women I know well enough to see those private spaces, I think all could benefit from being much stricter re "item creep". How many of these things does such a person really wear? I have distilled these "rules" to settle on a uniform which varies mostly by fabric weight for the seasons, with a few happy summer dresses to relieve the Mao-suit invariability.

    And I will venture that when a soignée French woman includes pearls as one of her rules they are genuine.

  19. So what does one do when she finds out from a stylist that the base colors she has chosen are all wrong for her? That was my recent experience. I had my "colors" done and found that I should embrace warm colors and gold jewelry. And I do agree that these colors were better for me. I have, however, built an entire wardrobe, especially the travel pieces, from grey, black, cream and camel. And all my jewelry is silver. Can't throw out the whole shebang and start over, plus I love grey, cream and camel.

    1. Remember the colors are guidelines. Do you feel great in your current wardrobe? Add in a few tops or jewelry with some of the warmer colors that were recommended and see how they make you feel. Lots of warm colors will go nicely with your chosen neutrals.

    2. Look carefully at the colors you have and try to identify the warmer versions. There are warm greys and I think cream can be warm if there is a bit of yellow. I actually think camel is mostly warm. Get some scarves that can bridge the gap, think of black or gray on the bottom with a warm color on top and a scarf that incorporates both. There is a lot of 2 tone jewelry so you can buy a couple of pieces that add in some gold. Just think about the new palette as you add items and let go of anything that you don't love (unless you really need it).

    3. Thanks. Great suggestions! A few tees are on my fall shopping list to replace ones that have seen better days (they happen to be black and navy.) A good time to try some of the new colors without making too much of an investment. And I will be in the market for a new winter coat. Thinking camel. It's a start.

    4. Agree with the others. Be careful with colour analysis. I've been diagnosed both cool and warm (within a few years), and have concluded that I hover between the two. I'm a blue eyed strawberry blond, but with a big dose of grey, and even my skin is cooler/lighter than it was. I'm sure that you chose many of your existing pieces carefully, and there probably are many garments that you really suit, so don't be too quick to throw them away (I made that mistake after one of the drapings). Just treat the analysis as an interesting new direction to explore.

      I've picked grey as my core as it is truly neutral - I can add either warm or cool elements. Your existing camel and ivory can be mixed with grey and some warm accessories very effectively. Black can be mixed with soft browns and rust colours. A few tee shirts are a great start to see if the new direction will really work for you, and a camel coat may be ok, as you already liked camel before the analysis. However I'd hold off on major investments in 'new' colours until you have tried this out for a while.

    5. Thank you, Alice. I never thought of soft brown and black, but that does sound appealing, especially with a scarf to tie it together. I have a lot of good grey pieces which I gravitate to. I think my confusion stems a bit from a change in my haircolor- from dark brown to warm blonde- bypassing the process of going grey. I never thought that the colors of my youth would work well with the new color and some don't. And I do love mixing grey and camel- have done it for many years.

  20. What a fascinating post! Rules: I haz them, but have never actually put them into words.
    1. no flats.
    2. no gold (I'll wear brass or bronze, but never gold)
    3. no "delicate" jewelry -- I wear big, bold rings (4 or 5 at a time), lots of bracelets, big earrings, chunky pendants
    4. no ruffles, flounces, frittery things
    5. nothing "Chanel", matchy-matchy or tweed -- no well-coiffed, structured, tailored, well-bred lady-about-town looks
    6. no flared pant legs -- not even boot-cut jeans: to my eye they do nothing for anyone under 5'8" regardless of how slim
    7. nothing complicated, uncomfortable or that requires constant checking, adjusting or vigilance about how you move or sit

    1. everything clean, well-pressed & flattering -- no slopping around home in stretched-out yoga pants
    2. at least the minimum of make-up & perfume
    3. jewelry -- always
    4. comfort reigns: good quality shoes & boots, well-fitted jeans, nothing that binds or rides up, nothing too tight or low-cut or high maintenance or "fussy" -- bra straps that stay put, for instance, necklines that don't gape.

    All that said, I have the luxury of being retired (& working a new career at home) & pretty much live in jeans, white tees & bare-feet. I've tossed out 75% of my entire wardrobe in the last 2 years but *still* have too much . . . it is definitely an on-going project.

  21. What a great post! I need to really define my rules. I am so much better since finding the Vivienne Files! Thank you for that! No high heels would be one for sure! Just can't wear them any more(lower back injury). I have gained a lot of weight during menopause and have more trouble dressing this body shape than I did before. The same shapes and proportions I used to love just don't work for me now. I have managed to get a pretty good set of core pieces started. I enjoy your blog so much Janice! Thank you!

  22. You spend way too much time thinking about YOUR self.

    Sigh. Your generation just can't help it, can you?

  23. Hermoine, what are you talking about?

  24. It's so interesting to me that I have that floral Gucci scarf, except the border is more indigo blue. I bought it for my mother about 30 years ago or more, why I don't know, since she rarely wore florals, and hardly ever wore blue! I discovered in amongst other scarves after she died, and I've been accumulating navy items with the intention of wearing it. Thanks for the ideas!

  25. I just discovered your site--what a wonderful resource! Thank you for all your work! I've looked all over and didn't see this, so I figured I'd ask (hope I'm not asking something that's been addressed previously): Can black and navy can be paired together?

    1. Yes, the definitely can. I don't ever do it, even on The Vivienne Files, because I have a hard time telling dark colors from each other, and I'm always afraid I'm going to botch things up! But if you read blogs like A Femme d'Un Certain Age, she often pairs the two colors really well. Also, look for photographs of Ines de la Fressange, a French model/author/muse/general gorgeous woman. She wears navy with black and looks great!