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Capsule wardrobe

Every woman needs a firm foundation to her wardrobe.

The very idea of a capsule wardrobe might make some women cringe because shopping and clothes buying are such great pleasures that being resolutely practical about everything takes all the shine off it. But I'm a firm believer that clothes, like your home, are only a setting for the life you live - not the be-all and end-all. A girl needs a wardrobe that functions above all else - a kind of uniform that allows you to just get dressed and get on with your life.

The way a capsule wardrobe works is this: you work out a key number of items without which you really can't manage, and which all go together. This is like the trunk of a tree, and the rest of your wardrobe is then like branches, large or small, coming off in all directions. It's that simple.

Another analogy is to think of it like a family. Your core wardrobe is your nuclear family and your other clothes are your extended family - all related to one another, in varying degrees, and with some of them forming different relationships along the way. But the key fact is just that - everyone is related to everyone else. Within reason, all of your garments should go together with several other things in your wardrobe (the near-exception is dresses, which only need to go with shoes). 

Creating a core wardrobe needn't be boring, but what it does require is a realistic understanding of who you are and how you live your life.

One quick way to get a grip on this is to imagine that you've been burgled, or that your house has burned down and you've lost every stitch of clothing you own. In real life, this would be very bad news, but the good bit, since this is imaginary, is that you can now imagine that you now have X amount of insurance money to spend on replacing everything.

The thing that happens at this point is that you quickly realise that you have to focus on the stuff you need (rather than the stuff you want), and that this is very basic: enough knickers to get through a week and that don't show through your clothes; a bra that goes with all your tops; tights or socks; boots or shoes with an everyday heel; a pair of trousers or a skirt; some t-shirts and/or blouses; a knit that goes with everything; a coat that keeps the wind and rain out; a hat/scarf/gloves if you wear them. That's a basic kit. During the Second World War, incidentally, that was all the coupons you got annually - enough to buy one whole outfit per year.

In our imaginary scenario, only once you'd built up your basic capsule wardrobe would you then ring the changes, and the extent to which you could do so would depend on the size of your insurance payout.

The first thing you'd probably want, once you got the money, would be multiples of the same, especially things that get soiled easily, and more skirts and trousers, because after all, one lower-half garment isn't going to last you for very long. You'd need to focus on clothes that gave you the maximum amount of wear; that would be smart enough for work but casual enough for private life; would layer without creating bulk; would cover more than one season; and above all, which would all go with one another to form cohesive outfits.

Only after this, and if your payment was big enough, would you really start to branch out, buying the clothes that don't layer, that only suit one season, that don't go with anything else, or that only go with one other thing. That's the fun stuff - the pretty clothes, the party clothes, the dresses, the sexy shoes.

The problem for most of us is that's where we're starting out from - with a wardrobe full of items that we bought because they were lovely and gorgeous, and we liked them, and maybe even because they suited us, but which just don't fit with everything else we own. The result, for many women, is an overcrowded unorganised mess of clothes, 80 per cent of which (according to wardrobe organisers) we don't wear, and only 20 per cent of which actually get used.

So, in all seriousness, if you had to build this capsule wardrobe from scratch, what items would you choose? Remember, you have to imagine that you'll be wearing these clothes and no others for at least the next few weeks.

My guess would be that at this point, the colour would drain right out of most women's wardrobes and the average girl would end up in black or navy or dark brown. Something like 72 per cent of the women's clothes sold in the UK annually are black, and with very good reason. The average girl would also probably end up in clothing with some stretch, so that it would go both under and over other items. She'd need things that would do double-duty for home and work and leisure, so no outrageous styles. She'd need to be comfortable in changeable weather, so fabrics would need to be medium-weight - things like merino or cotton knitwear, brushed cotton and cotton jersey would suddenly become worth their weight in gold. Long sleeves would be more useful than short.

This, in reality, is how we should all approach our wardrobes all of the time - with some sense of purpose, some understanding of functionality, but we so often fail to do so.

As it happens, I live a pretty casual life, for which I need comfortable, hard-wearing clothing that is also reasonable attractive. I have no need to be smart, though I do like to look 'nice', and there's no point in buying expensive things when I'm surrounded by animals, woodburners and mud. So my choice would be:

* flesh-coloured t-shirt bra by Spiedel with padded straps and slings in the cups. It goes with everything and is incredibly comfortable. My Ahh bras don't quite cut it because they don't give me enough uplift in public, though I'm happy to let the girls find their own level when I'm at home. 

* half a dozen pairs of knickers in white or nude cotton from M&S. 

* white linen, fitted Austin Reed shirt - crisp and clean for under or over other items.

* black wool shift dress from M&S - totally dateless and can be dressed up or down with cardis, sweaters, blouses and belts. This is my smart frock. 

* navy leather and suede loafers from Lands' End - flat, easy to walk in, they go with jeans and all my trousers and are just about passable with a casual skirt. 

* navy canvas and leather ballet pumps from Lands' End.  

* navy cotton jersey pull-on pants from Lands' End - so comfortable I can even do my yoga in them. My favourite used to be my dark brown moleskin bootcut trousers from Boden (which could have been designed on me, they fitted so well) but dammit, they discontinued them. 

* navy cotton chinos from Boden. Love the floral inside to the waistband, the roomy pockets and the fact that they always look smart. If I get another choice, I'll take a grey pair too. 

* navy and black Kiwi trousers from Craghoppers - the best-designed, most practical trouser ever invented.  In fact, if I had to choose one pair of trews, these would be the ones: waterproof peachskin polyester, practically indestructible, reinforced heels and knees, elasticated waist, and eight pockets, including security pockets. My DH now wears virtually nothing else because nothing else cuts the mustard. 

* v-neck and crewneck long-sleeve t-shirts in black, white and stripes. I have a range of makes, from H&M (before I boycotted them) but my best one is from Armorlux, which makes the thickest, softest tees known to humankind. 

* black and white organic cotton vests from Lidl.  

blog image * grey cashmere boyfriend cardigan from La Redoute (cardis are more flexible than sweaters). I bought this in 2008 and have worn it TO DEATH. The elusive perfect cardigan, I have bought near-misses over and again ever since. I only wish I had another couple in - say - black and navy. 

* grey crewneck cashmere sweater and v-neck grey cashmere sweater (from Lands' End and M&S respectively). Good weights for under and over other layers and the soft colour goes with everything.  

* grey cashmere scarf from Harrods, which I've had since I was at college.  

* navy Burberry polocoat with zip-out lining (covers all four seasons).

* hand-knitted greige cable wool beanie made by a local lady and dark brown fur-lined leather gloves from Liberty.

* pale blue pashmina and alpaca cream/red and blue paisley pashmina, both gifts from my sister.  

* black pull-on suedette stiletto-heeled boots.  

Other women would doubtless have different lists - perhaps a smart suit for work, or good tights. But making a short list of - say, 20 items, will tell you a lot about yourself and your life, and a lot about how much useless crap you still have in your wardrobe. 

An Englishwoman in Paris

If you're planning a visit to the capital, wear comfortable shoes...

Trish in ParisWhen I was headed for Paris recently, for a business meeting, the one thing all of my friends kept asking me was: "What are you going to WEAR?"

It is interesting, and kind of amusing, that armouring oneself with the perfect outfit is something all women understand (I'm hoping they just all assumed I'd do my research, prep the vocab and come up with a decent question list...). And the truth is, I did arm myself with some options for outfits, including a shocking pink couture silk coat, a magenta satin 1960s dress suit, a 1960s silk and wool suit in blue and a magenta cotton vintage dress, none of which I wore.

Lemon linen suitEven my eventual choice of a 1960s lemon linen dress suit with hemstitching and a bow on the waist, I jettisoned at the last minute in favour of trousers, which for some reason make me feel more confident. I also didn't want to wear high heels, because of the heat (it was about 27 degrees in Paris) and I feel you can get away with low heels more easily with trousers. 

Grey Boden chinosIn the end, I wore grey flared chinos from Boden (my interview was conducted on a purgatorially uncomfortable Moroccan chair, only inches from the ground, so I was glad of the trousers which saved me waving my big fat knees at my interviewee), a plain white t-shirt and the jacket from the lemon linen suit, which has three-quarter sleeves and three big, covered buttons. It also has lovely hemstitching, which you can't see in these photos.  

pink pashminaI always wear a hat and took this raffia one (see top pic). Earrings were made by my jeweller friend Suzy, in silver fused with gold, and went with a pink pearl necklace; a cheap Hong Kong Cartier-tank-style watch from Ebay and some lemon leather vintage gloves with hemstitching, plus a screaming magenta pashmina tied to my bag handles.

I hate my hands, so I only ever wear a wedding ring (also made by Suzy), and I went for nail varnish for once, in iridescent pearl (as soon as I got home again, I clipped all my nails off, as I loathe long nails, which strike me as nasty and unhygienic).  

Mint bagtan laptop bagMy handbag was a big mint-green mock-croc leather tote with neon stitching from Di Cristina (I love this thing - it's like a giant sweet and it holds all my junk), and I had a beige mock-ostrich laptop bag for my computer and papers. Lucca notebookMy notebook was magenta hand-made Italian buffalo leather with hand-marbled cream paper (a present from the DH from The Online Pen Company) and my pen was a cream and black marbled Parker Duofold fountain pen he bought me nearly 20 years and which I was shocked to find recently is now worth a small fortune (something to do with the rareness of the acrylic). I did also, of course, record the interview, with a small and discreet recorder that I set going well in advance, but it's always useful to be able to make notes as well.

Shoes, as I've mentioned before on this blog, are something that drive me a bit crazy generally, and I ended up wearing a pair of 12-year-old almond-toed courts in pale blue and gold brocade, with silver leather 2in Louis heels. I've worn these to several events such as weddings and parties, and I know I can stand all day in them if need be. 

Interview over, elsewhere in Paris and for travelling, I felt very comfy in my pale blue linen Jasper Conran sundress (v-neck, v-back, fully lined and an asymmetric skirt), and a pale grey cotton cardi from H&M, teamed with navy Fly-Flots, or Boden chinos in navy, worn with Nike low-tops on which I've coloured in all the pale bits with a black marker pen.

With temperatures up in the high 20s, I didn't need my Burberry polocoat, other than to lie on it in the Tuileries. It is ancient now, and there are holes appearing everywhere, so when I got back, I splashed the cash on a vintage trench from Aquascutum. 

The French are marvelously stylish and I envied their nonchalance, but, I looked every inch the Englishwoman in Paris. Which is fine by me - because, believe me, the French find the English every bit as chic as we find them. 


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