Some days it seems like capsule wardrobes are everywhere, but they are really nothing new. Almost every midcentury book on clothing and dress has a list of important pieces. But sometimes, it helps to have someone put those pieces into a list for you so that you can build a real vintage housewife wardrobe step by step. So here’s a list of essential pieces for an elegant but simple vintage capsule wardrobe.
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- Why You Need to Start a Vintage Style Capsule Wardrobe
- Capsule Wardrobes in Vintage Books
- Best Colors for a Vintage Capsule Wardrobe
- Essential Pieces for a Winter Vintage Capsule Wardrobe
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 1: Winter Coat
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Items 2 & 3: Matching Midi Skirt Suit
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 4: Light-ColoredCashmere Sweater
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Items 5 & 6: Accent Midi Skirt Suit
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 7: Matching Cashmere Sweater
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 8: Neutral Silk Sweater or Blouse
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 9: Optional Neutral Wide-Leg Trouser
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 10: Black High Heels
- Vintage Caspule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 11: Brown Country Oxfords
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 12: Black City Handbag
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 13: Large Brown Country Handbag
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 14: Black Kid Gloves
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 15: Brown Leather Gloves
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 16: Black Suit Hat
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 17: Brown Country Hat
- Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 18: Pearl Necklace
- Underwear for the Vintage Capsule Wardrobe
Why You Need to Start a Vintage Style Capsule Wardrobe
So why do you need a capsule wardrobe as a vintage housewife?
A 1950s housewife was the QUEEN of minimalist wardrobes. She had to stay on budget, and yet she also had to buy clothes for the family that made them successful in society. A standard had to be maintained. So a 1950s housewife had to know what the basics were and how to make them work together.
Enter the capsule wardrobe – much earlier than you may have guessed.
The first capsule wardrobes for housewives showed up as early as the 1920s.
They are truly minimalist – much less clothing than the modern housewife. One skeleton-thin wardrobe is simply 2 suits, 2 evening dresses, and a coat-and-dress ensemble with a hostess skirt – all interchangeable in black, white, and emerald green. And of course, they included things like clothes and aprons for housework, shapewear (foundation garments), and accessories.
In this age of fast fashion and wasteful consumption, turning to a vintage minimalist capsule wardrobe, composed of natural fiber fabrics, selected slowly and thoughtfully, and expected to last at least 2 years at a time, is THE best solution.
Capsule Wardrobes in Vintage Books
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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:
- Individually Yours by Celeste Carlyle
- Wife Dressing, by Anne Fogarty
- Secrets of Charm, by John Robert Powers
- Harmony in Dress, by Woman’s Institute
- How to Dress for Success, by Edith Head
Best Colors for a Vintage Capsule Wardrobe
The first thing to plan is what colors and silhouettes you want for your capsule wardrobe.
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.
So what kind of color combinations work best?
- For a dramatic old-Hollywood look, try black, white, and emerald green accents
- For an old-money effect, use white/cream, beige/camel, and navy or French blue accents (particularly effective in summer)
- For a traditional retro look, try red and white as neutrals, and black in small doses as an accent
- For Dark Academia, go with black and brown neutrals, and a red/gold plaid for an accent
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 Winter Vintage Capsule Wardrobe
It is essential to establish a definite budget and a long-range plan for your wardrobe.
With careful coordination, good taste, and self-restraint, even a tiny budget can permit you to be surprisingly well-dressed. For example, here is an outline of a complete but basic wardrobe. Like all capsule wardrobes, it starts as a minimum wardrobe, which can be added to in stages.
Choose fabric and weight based on how cold things get where you live.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 1: Winter Coat
This coat should be a long wool coat in either your dark neutral color (like black) or in your accent color.
A long black swing coat with a zip-in fur lining, if you are going for a dramatic look, is ideal. A red princess coat would be a good retro look. An Old Money coat would be a long slim cut in camel.
Choosing a high-quality winter coat is an investment in style and functionality, and it should be expected to last 2-3 winters.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Items 2 & 3: Matching Midi Skirt Suit
This will give you a 3-piece ensemble with coat, skirt, and blazer.
The skirt should be a wool skirt that matches the winter coat in a classic shape, like an a-line midi skirt. The jacket should also be well-cut, like a blazer or other suit jacket. Of course, a classic Lilli Ann suit or a vintage Dior style is perfect.
All 3 pieces, well-tailored, in camel or black wool, will give the greatest versatility to your look.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 4: Light-ColoredCashmere Sweater
A cashmere or merino fitted sweater is a great investment.
This first sweater should be white, cream, or whatever your light neutral color is. Make sure it is 3/4-sleeve or long-sleeve, and that the neckline is simple and flattering.
The cashmere sweaters are replacements for blouses under the suits, so a close-fitting cut is an asset.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Items 5 & 6: Accent Midi Skirt Suit
If you are going for the retro look, black is the accent color here, so that you have two suits: red and black.
For the dramatic look, you’ll want an emerald green suit here. For Dark Academia, go with plaid and pleated – and remember the jacket! If your vibe is Old-Money, this is the place for a navy blazer and a matching midi skirt.
No matter what vibe or color scheme you choose, always choose a length about 2 inches below your knee. This will maximize the versatility for both work and dates.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 7: Matching Cashmere Sweater
This sweater should be in your accent color – be it emerald green or navy blue (stripes!)
This particular sweater should look particularly striking under the first suit, or worn with just the skirt in the country.
Keep in mind that under a skirt and sweater or under a 2-piece dress, you should always wear a full slip over your shapewear.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 8: Neutral Silk Sweater or Blouse
This should be a silk jersey blouse (with a pussy bow!) or a silk sweater with a pretty neckline.
Pick either black or white for this one, depending on the rest of your color scheme. For example, for Old Moeny choose a white button down, and for a dramatic look, a black jersey blouse. For Dark academia, pick a high-neck white blouse with dramatic balloon sleeves, and for a retro look, choose polka dots!
Whatever you choose, the blouse should be able to be worn with both of the skirt suits.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 9: Optional Neutral Wide-Leg Trouser
As a rule, vintage capsule wardrobes do not include trousers, because there was no acceptable place for women to wear them regularly.
However, most modern women like to wear pants occasionally. So, you can add a pair of good-quality, high-waist, wide-leg wool pants. Pick one of your neutral colors, depending on your vibe.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 10: Black High Heels
The full vintage set of accessories to go with each outfit consists of shoes, bag, gloves, and hat.
These shoes should be black kid leather and have a medium heel. Or they should match your main neutral color, if your winter coat is not black. Regardless of color, real leather is much more environmentally friendly than faux leather.
This should be the basis for a full set of accessories all the same color to wear about town.
Vintage Caspule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 11: Brown Country Oxfords
These shoes should be a low heel or flat for wearing in the country.
In a pinch, they might also work for ice and snow conditions, but primarily, these are meant to wear with skirts and sweaters in the countryside, away from the city. If you’ve already selected black for your first set of accessories, then this set should be brown.
Again, definitely don’t go for faux leather.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 12: Black City Handbag
This, like your heels, should be kid leather.
A structured style, not too huge, is best, since this bag needs to be exceptionally versatile.
Make sure that the color and material match your whole set of neutral city accessories.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 13: Large Brown Country Handbag
This should really be almost a tote bag.
It should still be a firm, structured shape. It should also be able to hold a full day’s needs in the country – including a book, a couple of sandwiches and a drink flask, and a change of accessories.
The color and material should be the same as your country oxford shoes.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 14: Black Kid Gloves
These are kid leather or fabric gloves.
The length of vintage gloves really depended of the length of sleeve, the activity, etc. Nowadays, you can get away with wrist-length gloves for every daytime activity. You may also want a few pairs, so you always have a clean pair of gloves.
The color should match your other city accessories – preferably black.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 15: Brown Leather Gloves
These are brown leather gloves for the country.
They should be sturdy, simple, and match your oxfords and tote.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 16: Black Suit Hat
A black suit hat is a very valuable accessory.
A good hat should flatter you. It may need an accent color, or some decoration to make it really work for you. Always go hat shopping when you look put together, so you can really know how it will look on you.
Also make sure that the shape of the hat is flattering to your face shape.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 17: Brown Country Hat
My favorite type of country hat is a cloche or other close-fitting hat.
The country hat should be the same shade of brown as the other country accessories.
A little decoration is fine.
Vintage Capsule Wardrobe Checklist – Item 18: Pearl Necklace
A string of pearls is the only truly essential vintage accessory.
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.
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 mumuu 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 shirtdresses, 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
- 1 elegant velvet mumuu 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