The Essential Guide to Look Like a 1950s Housewife: Summer Edition | Vintage Capsule Wardrobe

Some days it feels like capsule wardrobes are everywhere, but they’re truly nothing new. Nearly every midcentury fashion guidebook boasts a selection of essential pieces. Yet, at times, having these items laid out in a simple list can be a great help, especially if you’re looking to craft a timeless summer capsule wardrobe. So, here’s a guide to creating an elegant yet straightforward vintage-inspired collection for the warmer months.

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Why You Need a Vintage Style Capsule Wardrobe

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Why should you consider a capsule wardrobe with a vintage flair?

Back in the 1950s, the quintessential housewife was the epitome of minimalism when it came to her wardrobe. Managing a budget while ensuring the family appeared polished in society was no small feat. There was a standard to uphold. Thus, the 1950s housewife was adept at discerning the essentials and seamlessly mixing and matching them.

The concept of the capsule wardrobe isn’t as modern as one might think; its roots trace back to the 1920s.

These early capsule wardrobes for housewives were truly minimalist—far fewer garments than what we might see in today’s closets. Picture a slim wardrobe consisting of 2 suits, 2 evening dresses, and a coat-and-dress ensemble featuring a hostess skirt—all in interchangeable shades of black, white, and emerald green. Naturally, these collections included not just clothes and aprons for household duties, but also foundation garments and accessories.

In this era of fast fashion and excessive consumption, turning to a vintage-inspired minimalist capsule wardrobe is the ideal solution. Crafted from natural fiber fabrics, curated with care over time, and designed to last at least two years, it’s not just a good choice—it’s THE best solution for a stylish and sustainable summer wardrobe.

Capsule Wardrobes in Vintage Books

There are a lot of great vintage clothing and dress books out there. 

One of the books I recommend to get an amazing understanding of the importance that proper clothing and dress had in the mid-20th century and before is The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski. This book tells the story of the “Dress Doctors,” home economists who worked through the Depression, World Wars, and social upheaval to help women dress attractively, appropriately, and economically.

Some of my favorite vintage “Dress Doctors” books are:

Best Colors for a Vintage Capsule Wardrobe

The first thing to plan is what colors and silhouettes you want for your capsule wardrobe, which I talked more about here.

Basically, when choosing colors, you want to start with neutrals like black, white or cream, beige, gray, or navy. Then you want to add an accent color that complements your hair, skin, and eyes. For the basic capsule, you want 2-3 neutrals and 1 accent.

The main reason for limiting colors in a vintage capsule wardrobe is to limit the accessories you need to get.

For summer, you want to focus on lighter and brighter colors than your winter wardrobe. Navy blue and white, brightened with lemon yellow or grass green or rose pink are classic.

If you know what colors look good on you, then you can sub in the colors that work best with your type. Here’s one of my vintage charts showing color choices for different skin, hair, and eye colors:

Essential Pieces for a Summer Vintage Capsule Wardrobe

Establishing a clear budget and crafting a long-term seasonal plan for your wardrobe is the best way to maintain a 1950s housewife look.

With coordination, a discerning eye for style, and a touch of self-restraint, even a modest budget can yield a remarkably well-rounded wardrobe (especially if you can sew!). These outlines for a foundational summer capsule wardrobe begin as a minimal wardrobe, ripe for expansion in stages.

When selecting fabrics and weights, take into account the climate where you reside and how cool or hot things tend to get.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 1 & 2: Midi Skirt Suit

This suit should be gray or navy, and a tropical-weight wool. 

A full skirt rather than a pencil skirt on this suit will work best for the sporty activities of summer.

A full navy pleated skirt will provide an immense variety of attractive summer looks.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 3 & 4: Dark Print Silk Blouse and Matching Skirt

These two items can be worn together and look like a dress. 

Or the blouse can be worn with the skirt from the suit above. The silk skirt can be combined with the sweaters from your winter wardrobe on a cold day, as well. Or the blouse below can be changed in for a new look.

Try to select a color scheme and print for this that goes with your style as well as your other capsule wardrobe pieces – personally, I love a nice navy blue with white polka dots.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 5 & 6: Bright Linen Blouse and Matching Skirt

This should be a solid color, but a clear, bright one.

My favorite here is a rose pink. Some people prefer a lemon yellow, which looks especially good with navy and white. Turquoise is a very retro choice.

This set should look like a one-piece dress when worn together, and be interchangeable with the items above.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 7: Bright Colored Slacks

If you are not particularly svelte, you may want to choose these in your navy or gray color, rather than in your bright solid color to match your silk blouse.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 8: Navy Blue Flared High-Waisted Shorts

These shorts are a versatile addition, offering both style and comfort for your summer ensembles.

Embrace their versatility by dressing them up with one of the blouses and heels or keep it casual.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 9 & 10: Cotton Knit Tops

Two cotton knit tops in flattering shades, and one low-cut, should be part of your summer wardrobe.

A good choice for one is a breton striped top, especially if your main summer colors are navy and white.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 10: Straw Handbag

The full vintage set of accessories to go with each outfit consists of shoes, bag, gloves, and hat.

Your summer handbag should be a lovely natural straw bag.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 11: Straw Hat

This should be a light-colored, natural straw, broad-brimmed hat.

If you are young and svelte, you can wear a floppy brimmed portrait hat. If your face is not as firm as you’d like, then choose a stiff sailor style.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 12: White Gloves

In summer, white cotton wrist-length gloves, or “shorties” should be worn almost all the time.

I like to have an extra, lacy pair for dressing up an outfit.

You should have enough gloves to always be able to put on a clean pair. Nothing is yuckier than soiled gloves, except maybe a messy handkerchief.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 13: Linen Sandals

These sandals should be the same color as your pair of slacks, whether bright, gray, or navy.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 14: Strap Sandals

These should be white, beige or gold sandals.

I prefer cutwork leather slingbacks or Jack Rogers classic sandals.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 15: Optional Light Linen Skirt

This isn’t listed, but a lovely, white or cream, linen skirt, either tiered or pleated, has become a modern summer necessity, and is very vintage, although not necessary.

Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 16: Optional Patio Dress

This is also not a necessity – except in the Western US, where you may want more than one. But since there is a lot of entertaining outdoors at home in the summer, a patio dress or 2 makes a nice change from your formal winter hostess gown.

Underwear for the Vintage Capsule Wardrobe

And now, we must mention the unmentionables. Underthings and home wear for the vintage capsule wardrobe is really a whole different capsule wardrobe, squirreled away where no one can see it.

In summer, all fabrics are lighter. Summer girdles are cotton mesh fabric.

Minimum Vintage Underwear Checklist

There is a social media trend of showing the shapewear and underwear for your vintage outfit in your GWRM (Get Ready With Me) videos. This trend is a far cry from never letting your slip show, but it does help modern housewives understand what to wear under those gorgeous outfits. 

Always wear the underwear and shapewear that you intend for the outfit when you are fitting it, either in the store or sewing. 

Never go shopping underdressed, or your clothes won’t fit or look right when you try them on “with all the trimmings.” The proper underthings for a vintage outfit are girdle and bra or corset or merry widow (shapewear), then panties and slip (underwear), and stockings. All of these need to be changed every day, sometimes more than once for freshness.

All your underthings should be washed out daily and allowed to rest 24 hours before wearing again, so it helps to have more than 1 of each.

  • 2 light colored girdles
  • 1 dark colored girdles
  • 2 light colored bras
  • 1 dark colored bra
  • 2 light colored full slips
  • 1 dark colored full slip
  • 2 light colored half slips
  • 1 dark colored half slip
  • 6 pairs of panties
  • 6 pairs of stockings

Minimum Vintage Home Clothes

Part of your unmentionables is your “at-home” wear. 

It is a good idea to include at least one elegant hostess outfit. A black velvet maxi dress or full-length muumuu is most elegant. A pair of black satin high heels goes nicely with it.

Additionally, you’ll need housedresses, or other cute outfits to wear for doing the housework. Good options are shirt dresses, slim pants and cobbler’s tunics, jeans and sweaters, or simple skirts and cotton sweaters. Housework clothes should always be cotton and easily washable, and you should have enough to be able to change into fresh clothes at home every afternoon or evening after the housework is done.

Ballet flats are ideal for housework.

  • 5 housedresses or other cute home outfits
  • 1 pair of ballet flats
  • 4 wrap-around or overall aprons for housework, with matching hair scarves
  • 4 kitchen aprons with matching oven mitts
  • 3 at-home patio dresses (mentioned above)
  • 1 elegant velvet mumu or hostess gown
  • 1 pair of elegant mules

Minimum Vintage Sleepwear

Part of a proper vintage wardrobe is considering your sleepwear.

Boudoir caps are NOT to cover a porcupine-like halo of curlers. But it does work well to cover the new heatless curlers (which are really just old-fashioned rag curlers) and still look pretty for bedtime. Never go to bed looking like a fright.

Keep your dressing gown and slippers near your bed so that you can slip into them on your way to the dressing table or lavatory sink when you do your morning and evening beauty routines.

  • 3 nightgowns with matching bed jackets and boudoir caps
  • 1 dressing gown 
  • 1 pair of matching slippers

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