Saturday, January 09, 2016

How to Build a Capsule Wardrobe Starting With Art: A Porcelain Figurine

Part of this request was rather standard - someone returning to the workforce, and wanting a 4 by 4 capsule wardrobe based on a navy suit, with grey accents. Very sensible, and something that many of us can find useful, or at least fun to admire.

But the real zinger: She drew her inspiration for the colors from a figurine in her bedroom! This clearly means something very special to her, eh?

a porcelain figuring of a geisha

I stuck with the color scheme she suggested - a lot of navy, accents of the deep red/burgundy, and gray, shading to soft blue:

a porcelain figurine of a woman and a decorated fan, along with a color scheme drawn from the figurine

While many jobs no longer require a suit, it's worth remember that there are still places that REQUIRE them. In order to get the most mileage possible from purchases, I found (after quite a bit of searching) a suit that included both pants and a skirt, as well as a dress that will shop up in Step 4.

The First Core of Four

The 3-piece suit, with a sweater (also from the same store, in the hope that the navy tones will match or at least blend well). Even if you never wore these in a serious or formal way, there are a LOT of possibilities with neutral pieces like this.

a Core of Four pieces of clothing in navy: blazer, trousers, sweater and skirt
Blazer – J. Crew;  pants – J. Crew;
 sweater – J. Crew; skirt – J. Crew

The Second Core of Four

 I took the formality down a notch, but kept things covered, with a cashmere twinset, a nice soft skirt, and classic pants. With these eight pieces, your options are already clear; lots of things already in one's closet would play nicely in a mix with these classic wardrobe staples.

A Core of Four garments in grey: a cashmere twinset of cardigan and shell, a skirt and trousers
Cashmere cardigan – Lands’ End;  skirt – Co
cashmere sweater – Lands’ End; pants – J. Crew

The Mileage Four

This is the step in which you find enough blouses, shirts and sweaters to get some real mileage out of the neutral items you chose in the first two steps. Unless specifically asked to avoid white, I would always include some sort of classic which shirt or blouse here. This is also the place where accent colors begin to show up, as well as prints. Although a great many people could start with the same first 8 garments, NOBODY will have the same wardrobe once these four tops have been chosen!

The Mileage Four of four tops - blouses, sweaters or shirts. These are in white, accent burgundy, floral and dots.
White shirt – J. Crew; floral shirt – Lands’ End
burgundy cashmere sweater – N. Peal; dotted sweater – Dorothy Perkins

The Expansion Four

Now, you fill in what you think you most need. I felt like another accent top was a good idea, as well as a change from the navy sweater. Another cardigan helps with air-conditioned offices, as well as that desire to have two layers above the waist - a look that lends a sort of authority. And it would be a big mistake to miss the chance to buy a dress that matches your blazer - even if you only wear it that way occasionally, it's a great back-up dressy outfit.

The Expansion Four of two tops, a cardigan and a dress, in navy, grey and burgundy.
Burgundy blouse – Lands’ End; navy top – Uniqlo
striped cardigan – Uniqlo; dress – J. Crew

Just to refresh everyone's memory, this is what the 4 by 4 Wardrobe template looks like:

The 4 by 4 Wardrobe Template, for planning a travel or capsule wardrobe with 16 pieces.

And this is how it looks with the clothes!

A 4 by 4 Wardrobe Template, with business clothes in navy, grey and burgundy.

Okay, there are no accessories yet! I took a different approach to accessorizing this capsule wardrobe, in that I put together 20 outfits (enough, obviously, for 4 weeks of work), and then I went back to the outfits and chose just enough accessories to make things look complete.

Four business outfits based on a grey pleated skirt, from a capsule wardrobe of navy, grey and burgundy.

Four business outfits based on navy trousers, from a capsule wardrobe of navy, grey and burgundy.

Four business outfits based on a navy pleated skirt, from a capsule wardrobe of navy, grey and burgundy.

Four business outfits based on grey trousers, from a capsule wardrobe of navy, grey and burgundy.

Four business outfits based on a navy dress, from a capsule wardrobe of navy, grey and burgundy.

The Integration Four+

I tried to really hold back from piling on TONS of accessories. Most women embarking on this kind of life change will probably have at least a few things in their existing wardrobe that will work well with their new work attire, so this should be the easiest step.

The Integration Four+ of scarves, jewelry, shoes and bags, which finish the capsule wardrobe in navy, grey and burgundy.
Navy & white scarf – Valentino; rose scarf – Echo; square scarf – Hermes  
Dans un Jardin Anglais; briefcase – Uri Minkoff; pearl brooch – Lord & Taylor;
 grey pearl earrings – Majorica; flower brooch – Chloe; round earrings – Kendra 
Scott; navy necklace – Lucky Brand; burgundy necklace – Pilgrim; slingbacks
 Calvin Klein; pumps – L.K.Bennett; penny loafers – David Tate; booties
 – Blondon; crossbody bag – Vince Camuto

This is what it all looks like piled together - you can see lots of options that I didn't show! While you probably wouldn't go more than a couple of months with a wardrobe this small, there's really no pressing need to add much of anything in a hurry! That feeling of having "just enough" can be very liberating...

A travel wardrobe or capsule wardrobe in navy, grey and burgundy, for cold-weather business wear.

I've got another give-away coming up, and I'm going to show you the smallest possible travel wardrobe, too!




  1. Did someone say smallest possible travel wardrobe??

    I'm flying to England for 13 days this coming March, with side trips to Scotland and Paris. And I'm dressing for cold and/or rain. Or snow. In a very small carry on empty enough to shove my crossbody in there, too. So I am all ears for this one!!!

    (If you want to play with that, I'm thinking 9-12 pieces total in black, with a kiss of jade, lilac and blush....)

  2. From Margie in Toronto - absolutely love today's post! This would be me set for the rest of the winter for my office wear. These capsule wardrobes are really helping me o see where I have gaps and help me to stay focussed when I do make purchases - thanks so much.
    PS - looking forward to that small travel wardrobe - my fiends always think I do amazingly well with the amount that I currently travel with but I'm always looking for ways to cut back even more!

  3. From Sandy in Calgary -- Janice, once again you've nailed it. My office circumstance is very casual, and based on your good advice, I have come up with a "uniform". Although I'm still fine tuning it, getting dressed in the morning is a whole lot easier: black pants or jeans, t-shirt, cardigan sweater some sort of scarf to tie it all together. Thank you.

    I am looking forward to seeing your travel wardrobe suggestion! I used to travel a lot and a friend used to joke that I could "pack in my wallet". I wasn't THAT good, but I must say I got pretty good at keeping it light. One really loses that talent when you don't travel as much.

    Keep up the great work. I look forward to your posts every single day! HAPPY NEW YEAR!

  4. Classic and classy wardrobe here--I love the colors--but I wonder what would happen with a little more Orientalism and with more insouciant accessories (I'm thinking of that breezy porcelain).

  5. That figurine is beautiful--what a wonderful idea to use it as inspiration for a wardrobe. I enjoy seeing your process for selecting the clothes. My lifestyle doesn't call for a suit but the ideas are sound. I would also like to see a bit more Asian influence in this wardrobe, maybe in the accessories.

  6. My favorites in this grouping are the pleated skirt and dotted sweater from Dorothy Perkins. I, too, would like to see this reinterpreted for an artsy type job, working in management in a museum, and playing on the aesthetic of the figurine.
    Deb from Vancouver

    1. Just to echo Deb - I work in an artsy environment, although in a management role, so some wardrobes that are modern/inventive but not too bizarre would be much appreciated!

  7. Another brilliant wardrobe. Some days I'd like to just throw out everything in my closet and start afresh, with everything coordinating. Slowly, though, I'm getting there.
    Small travel wardrobe - magic words as we plan a 3 week trip to Europe this summer.

  8. This was tremendously useful post for someone going from casual-at-home clothing to dressier office wear. With these basics it would be easy to add a new accent blouse or sweater or scarf as finances permit, and always look put together. This was a terrific guide to those of us putting together a new color grouping, in my case, navy (after years of black). Thank you for your careful and thoughtful approach to building a wardrobe.

  9. I like these colours a lot. But yay for the travel wardrobe coming up! 12 days to London end of April and am aiming for carry on only.

  10. I bought a navy pant suit this year, but wish I would have found one with a skirt. But still a most useful item to have. Love the combinations you show.

  11. love these colors. Would you consider putting together a wardrobe for someone who is a painter and author and is making four how to videos with her publisher? I've no idea what to wear on camera and my style is fairly basic with the exception of a piece of interesting jewelry. I'm happy to provide more info if you decide to indulge me. Love the blog btw! Been following ms vivienne for sometime now.

  12. hi all.......please can you define a common wardrobe for me. My understanding is....'a collection of 12 casual garments that you carry through season to season'. Is this right or wrong. Do you pick a colour way to suit you, or would it be the grey, black, white and chambray? Then add accessory groups of colour?

    1. A Common Wardrobe is the dozen pieces, more or less, that you wear all the time. For me, it's black and white, but for other people it could be any 2 or 3 neutral colors; most of us should at least consider including a chambray shirt. If you look on the right side of The Vivienne Files, below my photograph, you'll see a long list of "keywords." If you click on Common Wardrobe, it will take you through a TON of posts where I've explored a variety of color schemes and levels of formality, as well as a range of different accent colors.

      If you know what colors you'd prefer, send me an email at, and I'll incorporate your "Common Wardrobe" into an upcoming post!

      big hug,

  13. Very beautiful combinations! So classic.

  14. This wardrobe is very cool, and I am considering adding one or two of the pieces you feature to my own closet! Looking at the figurine, I was thinking a little accent of something in the straw -> gold continuum might be nice, and also some light -> medium blues. But that probably doesn't fit the template/goal!

  15. Smallest travel wardrobe: yes please!

  16. A great post. BTW, I just came back from a 9-day trip (the longest I've taken in AGES) and used your posts to plan what I packed. Because I knew the house where I'd be staying was cold, I packed four cardigans, four pairs of pants (one of them jeans) and six shirts. I modified the 4 x 4 idea with blue and black basics, and added red and gray. It was GREAT! I stil ended up with too much (I brought a set of workout clothes I never wore and found out the hard way that the two pairs of black pants did not look as good as I thought they did with tall brown boots). But on the whole it was the best-packed trip ever. The clothes always looked either good or great, I had outfits to choose from, and nothing sat around unworn.