Friday, April 14, 2017

How to Choose Neutral Building Blocks for a Capsule Wardrobe

So I've been using Neutral Building Blocks for a few weeks as a basis upon which I've built all kinds of interesting capsule wardrobes, but I've neglected to truly address HOW you get those Building Blocks in place. Today, I'll try to fill in this omission!

First up, I settled on the idea of 9 pieces just on instinct, because it seemed like a good number - more than half of a 4 by 4 Wardrobe, enough bottoms that you could include shorts, a skirt AND a pair of pants, four different tops so you could go from sleeveless to short-sleeved, to 3/4 sleeve to long, and then toss in a couple of 2nd layers - a jacket and a sweater.

The more I played around with the 9 pieces, the more I was pretty happy with it, but there's certainly no rule or law around this. If you want to fill in a full 16 or 20 pieces in neutral colors when you're preparing for an upcoming season, do it! I can't as heartily recommend much of a reduction; I think part of what makes getting dressed so very difficult for many of us is having lots of eye-catching and memorable accent pieces, and not enough of the basics upon which these accent pieces need to rest.

So I picture it kind of like this:

a template for Neutral Building Blocks

It's a wee bit awkward because I stuck one of the tops up in the middle of the top row... maybe that would be a shirt that can be worn over a tee shirt? or a sweater that can layer over things?

Please note 2 things:

1. I'm working with beige and black, and the colors of beige don't match worth a hoot! But most of these pieces are from the same place, and are probably much closer in color to each other than the photographs indicate.

2. I tried to find as many of these images at one retailer as possible, just so that I didn't spend hours combing through the internet for garments. These pieces are for illustrative purposes, although this would make a perfectly nice wardrobe for the right person!

First up - I think it makes sense to build up from the bottom(s)! These can be the hardest pieces to find in a flattering and comfortable fit, so to me it seems reasonable to begin here. You have lots of options about how you want to go about choosing these:

different ways to choose 3 bottoms to build your 9 Neutral Wardrobe Building Blocks
Khaki shorts – L.L.Bean; khaki skirt – L.L.Bean; khaki pants – L.L.Bean; Black, dark cement and khaki pants – L.L.Bean; Khaki shorts – L.L.Bean; skirt – L.L.Bean; pants – L.L.Bean

One thing that I didn't show here was that you can buy six pairs of the exact same pants or shorts or capris or WHATEVER, and wear them every day, if you want to. This might be the smartest possible way to get dressed... Look at photographs of great geniuses - many of them wore what is essentially a uniform. If it works for them...

But the bottom line here is that you need at least 3 "bottoms" (that word just seems odd to me, but I've never encountered anything that makes better sense in this context), and these bottoms should be in neutral colors that look good together. Beyond that, the sky's pretty much the limit, although I'd strongly advise that you stick with neutral solid colors....

Next up, I would add a couple of pieces that can function as 2nd layers. In the hottest of hot weather, these will serve only as air-conditioning shields, but in those "shoulder" seasons, these are the garments that help you navigate warm days with cool evenings, or chilly early mornings that become scorchers by mid-afternoon. With the right 2nd layers, your clothes can become essential 12-month garments, which is terribly efficient...

three different options for choosing 2nd layers in your Neutral Building Blocks
Beige cardigan- L.L.Bean; black cardigan – L.L.Bean; zipped cardigan – L.L.Bean; Black quarter zip – L.L.Bean; beige - H Beauty&Youth; merino hooded – L.L.Bean; Field jacket – L.L.Bean; jersey blazer – Uniqlo; beige jacket - Uniqlo

I virtually never use a jacket as a 2nd layer, and I'm not quite sure why! That field jacket is especially appealing... Most of us might think of a cardigan as the most obvious choice, but I encourage you to look around at the world of sweatshirts - some of them are really pretty - or a jacket...

The last step is where things get even MORE interesting; you've got four tops to choose! And the world is your oyster...

My first thought is for those who like to wear a column of one color, with a contrasting 2nd layer piece:

a solid column of color with a constrasting 2nd layer in Neutral Building Blocks
Seersucker shirt – L.L.Bean; tank sweater - Dex; striped top – Stephan Schneider; ribbed tank – Petit Bateau

Another choice, for those who are self-conscious about their upper-body, or for those who just really like to wear a particular neutral near their face, is to dress in "suits" (a matching 2nd layer and bottom) with a contrast top. This, for me, would be the best possible way to wear beige...

wearing a suit composed of a matching 2nd layer and bottom, with a contrasting top, in Neutral Building Blocks
tee shirt – L.L.Bean; eyelet trimmed top – L.L.Bean; polo – L.L.Bean; sleeveless sweater – L.L.Bean

Maybe you've left a job and you've got a stack of matching shirts.... (I left a bakery position and still am wearing the plain white shirts that were my uniform there!) or maybe you just really like a particular blouse or shirt. There's nothing in the world wrong with that; you can use the other pieces around those shirts to bring variety to your wardrobe!

choosing Neutral Building Blocks with just one style of top
tee shirts – L.L.Bean

What I think is the most likely avenue of approach for most of us will be a mix of colors and style - one 2nd layer in each of the 2 neutrals, a mix of tops in the 2 colors, and a mix of styles and colors in bottoms. These colors can be in whatever proportion you find most flattering - if you want all black bottoms, for example, that would be perfect here!

a mix of styles and colors in Neutral Building Blocks
tank sweater - Dex; eyelet trimmed top – L.L.Bean; striped top – Stephan Schneider; sleeveless sweater – L.L.Bean

I think when it's all said and done, there aren't a ton of rules around the choices of these pieces! Primarily, you need to make sure that you have enough neutral pieces in your wardrobe, in styles that you like and will comfortably wear on a pretty frequent basis through the upcoming season. Look at what you currently reach for the minute it's back out of the laundry, and you'll have a pretty good starting point.

And yes, owning every piece that I've shown today wouldn't be wrong! It's a little bit "2nd layer heavy," but you could go a long way with these:

a large warm-weather wardrobe in black and beige

Does this help? Make sense? Would you like to see it in more colors?

love,
Janice

How to Choose Neutral Building Blocks for a Capsule Wardrobe
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44 comments:

  1. Yes, very helpful. I'd love to see it in Navy and Grey, with only trousers for bottoms.

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    1. Agreed! I *heart* navy and gray.

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    2. I agree with navy and gray, and I would also love to see denim as a neutral, maybe with gray or navy. I wear denim almost all the time!

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    3. Oh yes, navy and grey please!

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  2. Good approach, and I second the navy and grey base as well.

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  3. Aaahhh Janice,
    You do deliver ! Thank you, thank you ! Yes, I always start with the bottoms, because I am hard to fit -- my pear shape always struggles with having to purchase pants to fit the hips, but with the accompanying waistband gap. Either belt loops or partial elastic in the waistband is a must -- or tailoring if they are dressy pants.
    Except in the hottest of weather, I always wear a topper of some sort, and I thought that your inclusion of a shirt in the top row served that potential function of use either as a top or topper.
    The tops are the easy part -- column of color for me for the most part, as I am vertically challenged, but if dressing monochromatically, I use three different values, light, medium,, and dark . I have found that when creating a column of color, it's the combined values that counts more than the color. For instance, a pastel colored shell worn above a light Khaki bottom, creates an inside column, without both the top and bottom both having to be Khaki.
    Once again, due to my pear shape and heavy calves and ankles , thanks to my ancestors, ( I'm painting a really grim picture here, aren't I ?) I tend to stick with pants, and avoid wearing skirts and dresses , so for variation, you have taught me that length of the garment is one way to create that look, no matter which neutral color. However, in the Winter, it's all about pants , so some variety has to come from fabric or color difference. I wear a lot of brown in Winter, so my challenge has been how to create a look of variety, and not look like I'm wearing the same pant day after day ! Since the top half is usually more memorable, I've been relying on " tabletop dressing " to create that variation.
    Again, many thanks for this clarifying and most helpful post ! It is getting bookmarked, like so many of your other offerings !

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    1. I appreciate your comment about using values rather than specific colors to create a column. It makes a lot of sense to me, definitely worth more consideration.

      Thanks,
      Roberta

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  4. This was very helpful. Another vote here for navy and grey.

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  5. I have been thinking about neutrals a lot lately, too. Maybe your influence? I have just come to realize that I love the browns, anything from chocolate to golden brown to camel to wheat but all with more of a golden undertone. But my closet only feels complete if I also have a capsule of olive green and denim blue. With those two neutral capsule wardrobes in place I think my life would be much easier. I would love to see these two since I still go to my closet and am missing the pieces to make this work. I think it is the cardigans, sweaters, jackets part that I need to fine tune the most. And then shoes!!! I am having such a hard time with ankle length pants, cold weather and what the heck to wear with them so my ankles don't freeze!

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    1. Anonymous,
      I heartily agree ! My eye needs a rest from all of the warm brown family, balanced with olive green or denim blue for color tones.

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    2. I wear booties with my ankle pants when it is too cool for flats.

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  6. Love it! I'm going to vote navy and grey too. I'd also like to see a version where all bottoms are darker and all tops are lighter. I am one of those women that does not look great in light bottoms and dark tops... no matter how much I try. It would also be great to see a business casual version of this - an office capsule is always fun to see.

    Thank you for your never ending inspiration!

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    1. I second Helen's requests for the colours and also for the dark bottoms with lighter tops. I suspect I'm not alone in preferring black or navy pants to minimise my lower half, but light tops and jackets to flatter my top half. A combination of shape (pear), age (61) and hair (newly grey) has brought me to this point. Some grey-haired women look stunning in a black or navy top, I just look ancient. Also, it's easier if you like patterns (Yessssss!!!) to find pretty tops that work with lots of bottoms than the other way round.
      Robyn in Tasmania

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  7. Ahh Sherbee, I'm glad to read that someone else is shaped exactly like me! I put partial elastic in all purchased casual pants and make my own dress pants with one simple side-zipped altered pattern! I also wear pants 95% of the time.
    Thank you,Janice, this is so helpful. I have a very decent core wardrobe in Navy and khaki,but I can see here that I need a couple things to really make it solid. Yes I would also vote for navy and grey as I'm adding a bit of grey to my wardrobe. Janice Collins, Washington DC

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  8. Super helpful post. I'd also like to see navy and gray, perhaps with shades of gray from light to charcoal for a business casual capsule.

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  9. This series has been so so so helpful. Thank you for all the effort you put into this. I am a style challenged woman, but I am learning. Your blog has taken my closet from a mess that I was constantly unhappy with to one that I am pretty much pleased with. Love the nine piece idea. ~Mary

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  10. I live in the South and I find khaki pants to be very comfortable in hot weather. However, I learned long ago not to buy any form of khaki top unless I want to look like death warmed over. So khaki doesn't exactly fit as one of my base neutrals or as an accent in my wardrobe thinking. How do you see the way to fit khaki bottoms into an organized vision?

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    1. I find myself in that situation with taupe, because I have great taupe shoes for my problem feet, but it's not the best near my face. So I have taupe slacks and I often adopt a "twinset" approach. - two pieces in a flattering neutral or an accent. They don't have to actually be a set, but the same color family. Or a three-color outfit, especially with a pattern - a top, topper, or scarf -with just enough khaki to pull everything together. - Nancy

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    2. Abigail, Did you see Shrebee's post from 7:01 AM? Looks like she uses colors of a similar value, like a pastel top with khaki bottoms, so she creates a column of similar valued colors rather than exact colors.

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  11. Brilliantly clear exposition here, Janice. Thank you so much for what is surely one of your most helpful posts ever.

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  12. Janice, This scarf has caught my eye. I've never considered turquoise and burgundy together, but looks good in this scarf. Madame De La Soir Silk Scarf
    http://www.santorus.com/shop/silk-scarf-santorus-madame-de-la-soir/
    This might inspire an unusual post.

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    1. Abigail,
      Thanks for bringing this color combo to our attention ! In addition to turquoise and burgundy, there is a fair amount of white in the scarf , along with some gray. What an intriguing central character in the scarf !

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    2. Beautiful scarf. It looks HUGE on the model.

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  13. This is a very thought provoking post. The items I reach for are, black tee (top) black leather jacket (second layer). So, even though with my coloring I am not "supposed" to wear black, I love black. 1st neutral is black. What's the second neutral? I buy and never wear khaki so that's out. Grey? Denim blue? More black? Three neutrals? Time to go study my closet!

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  14. Navy and beige/khaki/linen. And I'm another one who loves having khaki bottoms but can't wear that color near my face, except as a second layer if I'm careful.

    My problem with the capsule idea is that I love skirts and would wear them every day if I could, but I just don't like short skirts -- they make me feel awkward. Midi-length ones hit my calf at exactly the wrong spot, so my best look is a lower-calf or above-the-ankle skirt. But then that length never looks good with the same tops that look good with my pants. I need a longer top to go with pants, and a shorter one to go with my skirts, so I wind up with a few skirt outfits I love and a few pants outfits I love, but always feeling like I have too many garments and not enough outfits.

    Help?

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    1. I'm just like you: my favorite skirt length is maxi, and that often looks better with shorter tops than long pants. I find that most of my long tops also work with my longest skirts- the ones that are more "top of foot" than ankle length (in other words, pretty same length as trousers would be). Also, this issue is luckily mostly limited to 2-piece outfits. You could choose longer silhouette for all your toppers. They work equally well with both long pants and long skirts. So wearing a 3-piece outfit would be a good option. I'm pretty happy with my wardrobe and accept that I have a handful of tops I prefer to wear with skirts or tucked in with a topper piece. If I wanted to simplify it more, I would look into my color palette and see if I could do reduce that.

      -Sara K-

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    2. Hi Kelly, like you I enjoy wearing skirts but have trouble with length. It's ok in winter when I can wear dark/black opaque tights and boots with a knee-length skirt. But summer lengths are challenging because I'm short, so longer skirts just look dowdy. Then I found a nice dressmaker who shortens longer skirts for me to just the right length, which for me is just between knee and calf. She also tapers the sides if necessary to keep the proportions right. Worth a thought?
      Robyn in Tasmania

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    3. Another vote for having skirts tailored. A half an inch can make a huge difference in how a skirt looks and a good tailor will made the hem even on you.

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  15. I'd love to see navy and natural/khaki as well as navy and grey, too. Thanks for taking us through this step-by-step. It is quite helpful for those of us that are, as someone said earlier, style-challenged.

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  16. Hello Janice, This is wonderful information. As I will be packing for some long travels - 6 weeks, this is perfect.I do need to go a bit lighter in color so taupe and a silver grey or sage green would be my color suggestions. Thank so much!

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    1. I second the lighter neutral idea! I also wear taupe, and I like white and stone/natural as neutrals also, with denim.

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  17. Yes, please continue this topic! I've been trying to get started collecting a beginning wardrobe of neutral basics. I'll probably have a couple of different ones in my closet, as I have trouble deciding, but would like to narrow it down somewhat. Therefore, some choices with those neutrals will be great to see...which combos you come up with for us!! Thanks!

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  18. I read an article about a woman who wore only a black suit and jewel colored blouses to work. Ever. She bought five of the exact same expensive black suit (jacket and pants) that fit her perfectly, and wore one each day (to cut down on wear on the pieces) with a different blouse. She was an exective at some corporation, if I recall, and said she wanted to look great every day but hated to shop. I thought that was actually a great idea, although I don't know that I would ever do it! If I recall, she said she had one work dress but almost never wore it.

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  19. Thank you Janice, this pulls together nicely the threads from recent posts. You illustrate so well and your ideas are so practical, but always with the goal of arriving at a wardrobe that's fun to wear as well as efficient. I find this visual approach, together with your excellent explanations, easier to follow than formulas. It really helps to have you at my side (on my tablet) when I'm staring into my wardrobe.
    Robyn in Tasmania

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  20. Janice,
    In addition to the above requests by others, how about two neutrals plus what I consider to be a base color, rather than a neutral ( my interpretation only ), like brown, tan , and olive green, or brown, tan , and denim blue, or brown, tan, and burgundy, or brown, tan, and rust, as Anonymous and I referenced in a post above this one ? These in a 3x3 format, like the ones above, very much like your slot machine posts. Any two neutrals plus one three items color. If I can wear a pair of pants in a very subtle color, I consider it to be a base color, or a neutral wannabe !

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    1. And then add 7 accents for a 4x4 ?

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  21. Or even a 12 piece grouping ?

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  22. You have used a 3 x 3 plan for packing in the past (Slot Machine Wardrobe). Actually, I loved the Slot Machine format; very flexible and easy to use. However, I always learn something new in each post. Keep up the good work!!!

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    1. Thank you for mentioning the Wardrobe Slot Machine posts. I have had a great time going back and reading those. The September 9, 2015 post "Mixing Black and Brights" was so interesting - showing the black column, suit, and twin set options with the accent colors. - nancyo

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  23. Yes for Navy and grey but chocolate brown is also very interesting!

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  24. As one who wears dresses almost exclusively, I wonder how the capsule wardrobe of neutrals applies to me, or if it does at all. I find your posts completely fascinating despite the fact that I can't think how they apply to me in any way given that my style involves a dress and never need to think about neutral bases etc! I would be interested to know what you would come up with as a year-round capsule wardrobe for dress-only wearers or those who wear dresses almost exclusively.

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  25. You must have been reading my mind! I was looking at a capsule last week and wished there was a black and beige/khaki capsule.

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  26. I love these down to the basics posts! Very informative! Thank you Janice!

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