Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Building a Capsule Wardrobe by Starting with Art: Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse

If I ever catch any of you pining away like this, I'll give you a very stern talking-to, and then a hug...

Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse

But it's so beautiful, in that lush, opulently colored way that the Pre-Raphaelites made so appealing. I have, in fact, another color scheme in mind for this same painting, so don't wander away in the next week or two...

Recently, I've been asked about the nuts and bolts of putting together a Whatever's Clean Wardrobe - where to start, and how to choose what to include. I'll try to explain my thought process through this one, in the hope that I can clarify how you can easily do this yourself when you're packing, or just when you want to build a small collection of clothes that will see you through your life without a lot of stress and clutter!

Big important note - I'm assuming that you've chosen a color scheme! In this case, your scheme includes two neutrals and two accents, but those numbers can easily be adjusted...


Using your first neutral, find a 3-piece outfit. This doesn't necessarily have to be a suit, nor does it have to include a cardigan, as I so often do. For this particular wardrobe, I'm going to include two pieces of legitimate outerwear - the kind of thing that you need to pull on to run to the store, the school, the office, the gym, etc etc...

Jacket – Damir Doma; jeans – Austin Reed; turtleneck – L.L.Bean

Oh heavens, I want that turtleneck...

If this is all you can do for a few weeks (if you're shopping for all of these pieces, for example), that's fine. At least you have a great outfit that you can wear to a lot of places, and you have some new and important building blocks that probably will look great with things you already own. 

It's important to remember that NOBODY, EVER has the "Perfect Wardrobe." I don't - I've got some gaps where I've lost weight, and some serious "overages" of things that don't fit. The only thing that matters is that you have confidence that you can get dressed without making a big deal about it. There are more important things to freak out about...


Same thing, with your other neutral color. 

Here, you want to remember to refer back to your first 3 pieces and make certain that your necklines, lengths etc. are all compatible. Another short jacket might not be best choice, for example, because some days you're going to want a jacket long enough to come down past your waist and keep drafts from whooshing up your back. A little variety is good.

That said, if there are cuts or styles that are distinctively you, run with it! Here I grabbed 2 turtlenecks first thing, because I'm a big fan of turtlenecks... Your get to make these kinds of signature choices within the guidelines of this wardrobe plan - it's easy to personalize this to make it uniquely your own. 

Jacket – Uniqlo; turtleneck – L.L.Bean; twill pants – L.L.Bean

As before, if you have to stop shopping for a while, that's not a problem. This is a process that can be very gradual.

And some of this shopping can be done in your closet! I'd strongly suggest looking for a few accessories at this point...


Let's include a scarf that goes with both neutrals (and makes it possible to combine the 2 neutrals in 1 outfit with a unifying element), a piece of jewelry, and a pair of shoes or boots in the darker of your 2 neutrals. You can now combine your six pieces of clothing into 8 ensembles. (I love the number elements of these exercises!)

Scarf – Mosaique; loafers – Munro; earrings – Jantana


Here's another step in which you should start at home, before you break out a credit card! Both of your accent colors are represented by a shirt, sweater or blouse. This is where I always consider either a light neutral top, or a printed/textured top that combines some of the colors of the overall scheme.

This is also the point where it makes a lot of sense to look for things that tie your accent colors into your neutrals - the best example humanly possible might be this necklace, which includes EVERY color in the original color scheme, without fading into nothingness. I looked for HOURS for this one... (and it turns out that there are a couple of necklaces, bracelets, and a pair of earrings in these stones...)

Apricot sweater – Ann Taylor; sky blue tee – Alexander Wang; ivory shirt – 
Karen Millen; scarf – Modena; necklace – Kenneth Jay Lane


After stocking up on tops in the last step, it's time to fill in the "bottoms" part of our scheme. You certainly don't have to ever include a skirt, but I grabbed a longer one; in cooler weather, with tall boots, this is dressy enough for almost anything happening in most of our lives!

There's a spot for 1 last shirt or sweater in the Whatever's Clean, and it's a good time to consider a print or pattern, if you haven't included one yet. I particularly liked this because it picked up the very leafy outdoor feeling of our original painting.

This is a good time for us all to remember that we don't want to lose sight of the mood and sensibility of our original painting - very outdoors, very soft, very organic. I don't think anything chosen so far has gone awry, but it's always good to keep checking.

tee shirt – Sonia Rykiel; skirt – P.A.R.O.S.H.
green pants – Dorothy Perkins


The Whatever's Clean 13 require one last pair of pants, and since the brown pants we chose are technically jeans, I'm grabbing a pair of corduroy pants to finish things off. I'm really pretty smitten with corduroy - it's a ton dressier than denim, it's soft, and it's available in gorgeous colors!

And somewhere in this step I would make sure that you have a second footwear choice - since I got us a skirt in Step 5, I'd look for tall boots to wear with it, as well as any of the trousers. And let's finish up with a gorgeous but not outrageous handbag, eh?

Corduroy pants – L.L.Bean; boots – Louise et Cie
shoulder bag – Frye

This is what the collective whole looks like - you can see how versatile this would be, can't you?

And just to prove that we had a plan all along, here's the "Whatever's Clean 13" template, showing the items that we chose.  You'd have options from the very soft blue top with a skirt, boots and jewelry to a very bundly warm sweater with jeans and a jacket. This would make a great packing template...

In a few days I want to revisit this idea, and this painting, with different accent colors that I see in the painting. Are you interested?


House of Fraser Party Shop
Artisan Jewelry Designs


  1. Greetings,
    The light blue top is to cool of a color for me to wear with this set. You would definitely need a scarf or the amzonite beads to tie it together. Also, eBay and Amazon have amzonite beads at a much lower price point. I love the colors and can't wait to see what else you do with this. Karen

    1. I respectively disagree, i love light blue and olivey greens! especially if the outerwear or layering piece creates a column of the darker colors. :) cheers,

    2. I suspect it depends on personal colouring - I'm a typical 'warm' with cool elements, e.g. my red-blonde is now greying, and find mixtures suit me really well. My favourite is grey/camel, but I also love olive/light blue, denim/blush pink, brown/lavender, etc, and am more comfortable with these blends than with all warm or all cool. Now all I need to do is sort my clothes as per the 'whatever's clean' template!

    3. Disagreeing is Ok. It was a very personal comment unique to my coloring. I wear that combination in the summer, light blue and brown but somehow I can't pull it off in the fall. Alice, I need to sort my clothes too. Don't you wish we had a sorting stick ala Harry Potter!

  2. very interested!!

  3. Beautiful set of colors and clothes, love that soft dark green and brown. Orange will never be in my wardrobe, but I can see a very soft darker red mixing wonderfully instead. The pale blue shirt would not go with the red, but it would go with everything else in my closet. Great job.

  4. I *love* the light blue with the browns and olives - it's pretty much the only way I can get away with wearing brown :) I have a mini-set of those three colors and am frustrated with a search for a scarf that works with all three (and that I can afford!). Thanks for the ideas, Janice!!

  5. I adore the work of John WIlliam Waterhouse.

    This is no exception.

    The Lady of Shalott is my personal fav (the basis of part of my wardrobe) and uses many of these same colors. One of those scarves just may need to come live with me.

  6. Please do a second color scheme! These aren't my colors but I love the painting, the wardrobe, and seeing the process. One thing I love about this wardrobe is that you use color to create outfits that are quiet and elegant. I have tended to avoid color for fear of being overwhelmed by my own outfit.

  7. I enjoyed reading through your process and love the colors. It will be interesting to see the accent colors change and how it affects the wardrobe.

  8. I agree with everyone else. These are the colours that suit me and I am bringing in a lot more greens. Please bring this painting back with a different colour scheme. I am off to find the Lady of Shalott.

    Deb from Vancouver

  9. Janice,
    Yes, yes, yes, additional color schemes from this one please, even though this one is perfect for me as it is ! I really appreciate how you have used a 3x3 here instead of a 4x4, because of the sometimes limited availabilities in a given neutral such as olive green. What I really appreciate the most about your posts, coupled with the templates, is your thought process of your selections. I hope that you make this one a heading at the top of the column like your "Starting From Scratch" series. With regard to the blue color that reflects the sky color in the painting, while it is inspired by the painting, I think that a standard light blue, as seen on a classic blue button down shirt would work just fine with the olive and brown neutrals. This post is definitely being bookmarked, thanks again !

    1. On my monitor, the blue from the painting appears to be a greenish blue, more of a summery color for me. The blue that I think would work better here is more of a cool blue, like a slate blue, or the blue you think of in an oxford shirt. Yes, the numerical possibilities of outfits fascinates me as well !

  10. Awesome post! Not my colors, but it doesn't really matter. The thought process is the huge value-add here for me. Again and again, please! Carter

    1. Here, here! I love the way you explain the process. When you revisit with other colors, please feel free to repeat all of the reasoning -- the reviews are very helpful for this brain!

    2. Adding my agreement. I love seeing the process with different colors and styles. It helps me to refine my own decisions.

    3. Adding my agreement. I love seeing the process with different colors and styles. It helps me to refine my own decisions.

  11. i wpils love a second color scheme! I am working on building a grouping of camel, brown, and olive. This matches my eyes and coloring but I have always worn black and gray. These new colors work with my old ones, but add a little zest to life!

  12. Thanks for sharing the thought process behind this. Brilliant as always.

  13. Fantastic explanation of your thought process! I've used your templates a few times to pack for trips and they are wonderful, I always feel like I have just the right things with me. I'm also glad to know that you don't consider your own wardrobe perfect. I know I have plenty of gaps in mine! As I study this wardrobe I know I would miss having a cardigan. Currently I am wearing brown cords, ivory long sleeved tee and apricot cardigan. But not everyone is a cardigan fan like myself.

  14. This exercise and your explanations really help me 'think' about what's already hanging in my closet. I think I should print out a few of your collections to use as a ready reference. DH just surprised me with an early Christmas gift - the news that we're going to London on vacation for 10 days in early spring. And I'm a notorious over-packer.

    1. At least you have sufficient time to plan your wardrobe. What a wonderful gift!

  15. I totally enjoy being in on your thought process! More is better! :) I agree that this is a great packing wardrobe tool!

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