10 Jun 2008
How to use colour to create a capsule wardrobe
One of the easiest ways to create a capsule wardrobe is to settle on one or two base colours and make sure everything else fits around them. This takes some discipline, but once you crack it, you end up with a wardrobe where everything works with everything else and where you can simply reach in, pull out three things and get on with your life.
This is how discerning men edit their wardrobes, and I have to confess that my DH got the hang of it long before I did, for all that I had three or four times as many clothes as him.
Opening his closet, you're met by a symphony of soft blue and green, leavened with sandy beige. Everything goes with everything else, periodically updated with new twill pants or a cotton knit in a toning colour. What he buys is often stylish, but it is almost impervious to 'fashion' - some of his clothes have been in the wardrobe 15 years.
I was more of a magpie until I began splitting my time between our two properties when we were making the move to France. Half the time I didn't know what was in each wardrobe, so I came up with the idea of dividing it into two: neutrals in the city, colours in the country. Pretty swiftly I realised how much easier this made my life and it took me about a quarter of the time to get dressed. Eventually I pretty much settled on the neutrals as being more flattering and practical.
You will probably need two base colours for a capsule wardrobe - one for each season - as you'll want a darker colour for winter and a paler one for summer - not many of us want to go around in black, brown or grey all summer long, after all.
For winter, and for work, many women default to black as their base colour, but black can be a draining, drab colour, especially in matt fabrics and is also curiously impractical if you have a messy life (kids, cats, mud etc). You may find you get more mileage choosing a dark or mid-toned neutral such as chocolate brown, beige, grey or taupe. As an alternative to neutrals, you could pick a dark 'personality' colour such as navy, burgundy, royal purple or olive green, but though bear in mind that the latter are slightly harder to match with other colours than neutrals are.
All of these dark base colours can be found in varying shades, and although most look good in solid-colour matt fabrics, they also take pattern well: greys and some browns look particularly good in a marled or tweed-type finish. For the most part, all of the base colours go together with all of the others, and you can mix combinations like grey with beige, brown with olive and burgundy with navy virtually to your heart's content.
Once you've determined your base colours, you have to be disciplined and buy your major separates only in different shades of those two colours, along with backup neutrals such as black, white, cream, taupe, beige or grey. Save other colours for tops (blouses and tees) and accessories only.
Ringing the changes
Using the base-colour method, you might think you'd end up with everything looking the same, but you don't - instead of varying your outfits by colour, you vary them by pattern, texture and style, as you can see in this purple tee and purple patterned blouse. They are the same colour, but are very different in feel. To vary your trousers, for instance, you might have a variety of waists from high to mid-low and a variety of leg widths from straight-leg to bootcut to flare. Jackets might have different collars or a variety of lengths. With skirts you can really go mad but I confess here that being short, I find skirts far trickier than trousers and jeans - I favour knit pencils and knee-length kicky skirts with interesting hems, to go with matching long boots.
As for pattern and texture, there is a world of different between a grey flannel skirt and a pewter satin one, between a navy suit and a denim jean, or between an olive-green tee and a crisp white shirt with an olive stripe. Concentrate on pattern and texture and you'll be surprised what you can find.
After your base colours come your accent colours, and these vary for every woman. Here's where you need to experiment a bit, as they should be colours that make you look happy and healthy, and this changes year-on-year as your hair and skin colour change, especially if you're greying. Update these colours every year, keeping them for things like blouses and tees, where the cost is lower. What the trade calls 'cosmetic pastels' (peach, blush, rose pink), or colours that match your eye or hair colour are generally foolproof.
You may be fond of bright colours, but in my personal opinion, once you hit 40 you need to be more careful about these. I favour wearing them as part of a print; for accessories such as scarves, bags or shoes; for items such as camisoles (to wear just peeking out from a top layer); or for coloured linings - rather than as separates, in order to get the most mileage out of them. However, a bright colour for an entire dress or outfit can look really stunning and in this role it isn't required to fit into the rest of your wardrobe as such. Brights are also good for lingerie, where they give an unexpected flash of colour.
The dividing line
Obviously, the idea of a colour-based capsule wardrobe involves co-ordination, and one area where many women fall down is that if your accent colours and your base colours are radically different (for instance black and white) you can end up cutting yourself in half visually at the waist or hip where the two meet. Women who wear a suit to work and then remove the jacket are particularly guilty of this. Cutting yourself visually in half like this is fine if you're tall and slim, but for most of us, a monochrome or tonal line from head to toe is much more flattering and slimming. To avoid the problem, try these ideas:
1 reserve your accent or bright colours for a vest top or cami which just peeks out under a fitted top that matches your lower half. Two-in-one t shirts and blouses can be very useful for this effect, as seen in this white-collared black jumper (right).
2 wear your accent or bright colours in a pattern containing your base colour (say, a black blouse with a white polka dot, or vice-versa, worn with a black skirt).
3 buy a long thin scarf or long necklace in your base colour, or a shoulderbag in either colour: this unites the two disparate halves and locks everything together.
Theory and practice
This colour business is all very theoretical, so if you have trouble visualising it, here's what I do. This is only me, and you'd probably have your own methods.
My base colour is brown, so this is the colour I look for first when I need a new capsule item such as trousers, a skirt or a jacket. Shades vary from milk chocolate to bitter, almost-black chocolate, so I can usually get something. Failing that, or for duplicates of major items, I'll go for black or grey. I never buy trousers, skirts or jackets in any other colours.
For summer, instead of brown, I go for dark denim and failing that, beige or taupe (rather than black or grey for instance). All my summer trousers, skirts and jackets are in these colours. I have a few white things, but I don't lead a white kind of life, so these are mostly for 'going out'.
For practicality's sake, many of my t-shirts and blouses are also in dark neutrals - chocolate, khaki, black and taupe - in order to create a long, monochrome line. However, up by the face, I wear my accent colours to draw the eye up (never on my lower half because I'm short, and the last thing I need is for anyone's eye to be drawn downwards). My accent colours also occasionally make it into a dress, for a top-to-toe look but never trousers or I'd look like Andy Pandy on his day off.
Only rarely these days do I look at really bright colours, and even then they must meet the criteria that they tone with the above. I use them only for things like vest tops and linings, where only a peek of them is seen, or scarves. And I find that as my skin gets paler, there are some colours that I just can't wear any more - orange, saffron, bright yellow or lime green, magenta, shocking pink or electric blue. There is also very little red in my wardrobe. These are colours for younger skins and, as with lipstick, I now go for softer, more flattering options instead.
If you plan your capsule wardrobe by colour in this way, whatever your colour choices may be, the result should be a closet full of endlessly wearable clothing that will make your life much easier.