Mid-Century May Baby Step 5: Vintage Capsule Wardrobe

Thank you for sharing us with your friends!

This post contains affiliate links. If you click a link and make a purchase, I may receive, at no additional cost to you, a small commission. Find out more on my Disclosures page, and thank you so much for your support!

I see a lot of people who wonder how to build a vintage capsule wardrobe. Here, I am showing how to design a ’50s housewife capsule wardrobe. This is going to be a slightly different capsule than, say, a 50s college girl would have had. But it does show what was considered an adequate basic wardrobe to cover all a woman’s fashion needs.

Foundations of the Vintage Capsule Wardrobe

The foundations of the vintage capsule wardrobe are underpinnings (slips, panties, etc.), corsetry (shapewear), and housedresses.

Underpinnings

The standard underpinnings are brassieres, tap pants (or “big panties”), garter belts, slips, and teddies or rompers. Everyone knows the bullet-bra-and-corset “sweater girl look of the ’50s; the ’40 had a more natural silhouette.

The usual recommendation is to have 4 pairs of panties, 4 slips, 1 black and 2 half slips, and 3-4 pairs of stockings. If your bras and garter belts aren’t shapewear, then you should have 4 bras, 1 black, and 2 garter belts. Everything should be washed by hand after you wear, usually in the evening before bed so it can dry overnight.

Corsetry

There is also corsetry. Girdles, waist cinchers, panty girdles for sports, and all-in-ones were common.

I actually prefer a corset, because after 8 children it really helps with back support while I do housework! (I don’t lace it particularly tightly though.) Also, I wear what used to be called a pregnancy corset, and is now a therapeutic pregnancy girdle, when I’m pregnant. It helps with my tendency to premature labor.

Since I have a fuller figure, when I am dressed to go out, I wear a longline bra and high-waist girdle or an all-in-one corslet with extra waist shaping (all affiliate links).

The recommendations for shapewear were 4 bras, 1 black, 2-3 girdles, and 1-2 corslets. Shapewear was also washed by hand, and special laundering instructions were included in every housekeeping manual.

The way to wear shapewear is to dust yourself with baby powder or body powder, add bra and garter belt (or girdle), put on any other shapewear, and then put on your slip and panties to smooth out the bumps. Stockings go on last.

Housedresses

Finally, there are housedresses. There are a couple of types of housedresses, and NONE of them were meant for the public. (Although visitors could see them, occasionally!)

First, there were work dresses. These were usually a button-front shirtwaist style (better for nursing a baby!) and had a belt or waist ties attached (to cinch them in when you weren’t pregnant or let them out if you were). They were about knee-length or calf-length, and they had an a-line or wider skirt to make it easy to hurry about and get things done.

There were also brunch coats or hostess gowns, which were longer, usually floor-length, and were meant for wearing at home for dinner with the family, or entertaining intimate friends at home. Women were taught to change for dinner in most families, and the practice began by bathing and changing little girls into clean, pretty nightgowns before nursery supper when they were babies.

And of course, aprons were also part of a housewife’s foundation wardrobe. She had kitchen aprons, cleaning and laundry aprons, and hostess aprons. Hostess aprons are the cute, frilly, flashy kind. Other aprons tend to be pretty but practical and meant for work. Kitchen aprons and cleaning aprons were kept separate, just like kitchen linens and cleaning rags — they weren’t even washed together by conscientious housewives.

Amy Vanderbilt specifies that a housewife with class ALWAYS wears a clean house dress and underthings. Even poor farmwives had at least 2-3 house dresses so that they could wash them out by hand in between wearing. 3-5 is the usual recommended amount.

The Core of the Vintage Capsule Wardrobe

The vintage capsule wardrobe from Secrets of Charm by John Robert Powers revolves around having a basic coat, basic suit, a day dress, an after-five dress, a sporty-casual dress or separates, and a basic hat, and 3 sets of basic accessories.

The key to the vintage capsule was that all the different parts were color-coordinated in your personal neutrals and fitted to your figure. The accessory sets consisted of hat trimmings, blouse, sweater, gloves, shoes, and bag. 1 set dresses up your daytime basics, 1 set created a more casual, sporty look for your daytime basics, and 1 set dressed up your after-five dress and your suit for a glamourous evening look.

With this method, you’d have a capsule wardrobe for each season of about 15-20 pieces, but you’d be able to create dozens of different looks. Of course, you also needed to plan your color scheme carefully, so that you could acquire and replace pieces without disrupting the overall look. Also, you had a separate summer and winter wardrobe, and your lighter summer basic coat needed to be able to be used with your warmer winter things during the transitional spring and fall seasons.

The method for planning was to decide on the color of your next winter’s coat, based on your personal best colors, and build your winter wardrobe around that. Then, choose the color of the summer coat so it matched, and plan the summer wardrobe around that.

Adding to the Capsule wardrobe

Of course, you may need to adapt your wardrobe further to suit your particularly wifely role. Different situations in life call for different additions to the core capsule wardrobe.

Country/Suburban Housewife

  • Classic runabout wool dress or separates
  • 3 all-purpose summer dresses
  • Storm gear
  • Work clothes to suit your preference — think colorful denim
  • Lounging clothes — pretty for your family
  • Hostess after-five — soft and colorful
  • Active sports/play clothes, as required
  • Evening wear, as required

City Housewife

  • Work clothes — the kind that can answer the door with no apology
  • Lounging clothes — high fashion
  • Hostess after-five — sleek
  • Active sports/play clothes, as required
  • Evening wear, as required

Career Woman

  • Tailored wool dress
  • 2 tailored summer dresses
  • Storm wear — a costume, not a hodge-podge
  • Lounging clothes — sufficiently impersonal for entertaining
  • Active sports/play clothes, as required
  • Evening wear, as required

Career-Homemaker

  • Tailored wool dress
  • 2 tailored summer dresses
  • Storm wear — coordinated costume
  • Homework clothes — bright dusters are wonderful
  • Lounging — casual separates
  • Hostess after-five — feminine
  • Active sports/play clothes, as required
  • Evening wear, as required

Socialite

  • Formal daytime costume — a dressy suit
  • At-home clothes — hostess and lounging costumes
  • Country tweeds
  • Sport and play clothes
  • Dinner suit
  • Evening dress and wraps

And there you have the vintage capsule wardrobe, with some appropriate embellishments for your housewife life!

What kind of housewife Do You Want to Be?

Want a printable version of our 1950s Mom Daily Routine? Sign up here to get it in your in-box! You’ll also receive access to our FREE resource library!

* indicates required

Please select all the ways you would like to hear from Mid-Century Modern Mommy:

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please visit our website.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp’s privacy practices here.

5 thoughts on “Mid-Century May Baby Step 5: Vintage Capsule Wardrobe”

  1. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for! In the last year I’ve finally embraced the fact that I love the feminine style and practicality of the housewife’s wardrobe in the 30’s-40’s. I’ve been working on figuring out how many pieces I really need to have a well-rounded wardrobe without the bursting-at-the-seams closet. This is a fantastic help! I’m going to copy this down and start working on making my pieces right away!

  2. I love reading your blog, thank you for taking the time from your very busy life to do it. My question is, where do you find vintage underpinnings? Do you see them? Buy them on Amazon? Are they expensive?
    Thanks

    1. Hi! I’m glad you enjoy the blog!

      So, vintage underpinnings. Since I am more full-figured after 8 kids, I wear a longline bra and a high-waist girdle that overlap at the waistline. Both come from Rago Shapewear, which is available on Amazon, or from American Shapewear. Rago Shapewear has been making shapewear for decades, and although it isn’t technically reproduction, their stuff is very much the same as it would have been then.

      For actual reproduction underthings, What Katie Did has the best! I am slowly collecting the CC09 collection, which is based on WWII British underthings. They are expensive but worth it! The expense is part of why I am collecting them so slowly!

      I also sew my own, based on patterns like the ones provided by The Ugly Dame over on her blog. (If you like to sew, she has an AMAZING collection of vintage patterns that she shares. She is a reenactor who does WWII civilian German hausfrau mostly. She also wears vintage every day and is my FAVORITE vintage style blogger!)

      As far as waist training goes, especially for my more ’50s-style wardrobe, I wear a corset. Because What Katie Did is so expensive, my everyday corsets come from Orchard Corset. They aren’t reproduction, but they are excellent.

      Hope this helps! I will add some Amazon links for the Rago shapewear in the blog post.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *