Vintage Capsule Wardrobes

May 1940. Marie Claire.

Though the term “capsule wardrobe” wasn’t coined until the
1970s, the idea stretches much further back. The general purpose of such a
collection is to have a wardrobe that is made up of only a few interchangeable
pieces. It may be for economic needs, the environment, or simplifying the dressing
process. For many, it comes down to quality over quantity. The idea has popularized
so much in modern fashion as a response to the concepts of “fast fashion”. For
those of us who want to adopt a vintage wardrobe, it can be a great way to
start the process, or simply to have a full range of outfits for a weekend
event or vacation. In my case, I’m feeling overwhelmed by how much clothing I
have that I don’t use, while at the same time never having “the right thing” to

The ideas behind capsule wardrobes were essential in the 1930s and 1940s. With the depression,
war, and rationing, creating a wardrobe that stretched its utility as far as
possible was a constant topic in magazines. Even Vogue, amidst its high fashion
spreads, published articles on economic wardrobes. So how did vintage magazines
approach this concept?

One popular method was that of the multi-use garment. A
simple dress, often a slip style, with seemingly infinite possible coordinated
outfits. Jackets, blouses, belts, wraps, and other accessories change up the
style just enough that it would be unrecognizable. This seems like the perfect
way to start out a vintage wardrobe, or create a travel-friendly style!

July 1, 1938. Vogue. 
January 21, 1939: Australian Women’s Weekly.

The interchangeable wardrobe was another way to stretch a
small number of garments further. This in particular resembles the modern capsule
wardrobe. Some gave specific numbers for an entire wardrobe, such as Vogue’s “$100
Campus Wardrobe” from 1940. They recommended 16 parts: 4 skirts, 3 blouses, 2
jackets, 2 sweaters, 2 hats, and 1 coat in addition to a pair of shoes, gloves,
and other basic accessories.

August 15, 1941. Vogue.

Others were less numerically inclined, with visuals of how
to take a few coordinated basics to make a range of ensembles. This Australian
Women’s Weekly from 1941 shows just a few outfits made from 2 blouses, 1
jacket, 1 dress, 1 evening gown, 1 pair of trousers, 1 pair of shorts, and 1
skirt. It’s meant to represent a wardrobe that can adapt to any social circumstance.

October 4, 1941: Australian Women’s Weekly.
Some overlapped these two ideas with a few ensembles that
mixed and matched entirely. Each bottom has three different options for tops
that vary the look. 3 blouses and one jacket can carry you through a lot of options!

December 2, 1939: Australian Women’s Weekly.
A central theme throughout these articles was the use of
color and pattern to keep things harmonious. One 1939 article shows how a fun
and colorful stripe can be made into 4 different pieces, then matched with a
skirt and jacket in a solid color. Another from 1942 shows a striped fabric in
3 colorways with 2 solids to match. How to use color as a method of wardrobe
styling extends far beyond the economic “capsule” concept as well. But that’s a
topic broad enough for another post!

October 21, 1939: Australian Women’s Weekly.

November 7, 1942: Australian Women’s Weekly.

An economic wardrobe starts with the best
basics. Investment pieces that won’t go out of style and won’t fall apart
quickly. Vogue recommended starting with a best dress, suit, and coat in a 1933
article on smart economics. A few accessories (hats, blouses, scarves, etc)
would then be the less expensive accents which could be renewed and replaced to
keep up with fashion. The same idea was touted as the “French Way” to be
thrifty circa a 1930 Vogue article. Regardless of why you might want to start
your own vintage capsule wardrobe, these articles provide a great set of

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