Thursday 8 December 2011

The Capsule Wardobe

Whether you are a sewer, shopper or both, I think most women living in developed countries would admit to feeling overwhelmed at times by the choice of clothing and accessories to buy or make. You could be wandering down the high street, or surfing Burdastyle in search for inspiration; there is just so much on offer that we are almost drowning in options of ways to clothe ourselves. But it is fashion magazines that provide the arena in which this clothing claustrophobia reaches fever pitch. Their pages are flooded with ‘key trends’ and ‘current looks’ which intend to throw us into wardrobe-turmoil by insinuating that without them, our appearance (and therefore how we will be perceived) is not up-to-date or relevant.

The magazines then act like a trusted friend, promising to aid us in figuring out how we can adopt these looks with helpful articles like ‘How to Wear This Season’s Colour/Boots/Trousers/Prints/Whatever’ whilst coincidentally both pedalling the wares of their advertisers AND the idea that fashion magazines themselves harbour ‘fashion insider’ knowledge that make them indispensible to us uninformed mortals. There are, as you may have guessed by now, not enough words in the English language, for me to fully express my dislike for this process.

Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that clothing and style can be fun and are great tools for self-expression. And fashion trends can be fascinating windows through which to view shifts in wider social cadence. But the fashion press and clothing brands work together with one primary aim: to make money. Nothing more noble than that. And they achieve this largely by trying to make women feel irrelevant, lacking and rubbish about our appearance. They offer ‘solutions’ in the form of products to buy, but the speed of the turnover of these ‘must-haves’ means that us consumers will never feel satisfied and relevant for long unless we pump some more of our wages into the machine.

Therefore, it is fascinating, is it not, that even fashion magazines’ writers and editors apparently aspire to ‘evolving’ beyond the frivolity of the never-ending cycle of new looks and trends they adopt, season after season, in order to stay on top of their game. It is as if they are acknowledging that the money-making merry-go-round their roles perpetuate is not sustainable, and they are looking towards the future when they will have been exhausted by their professions like race-horses being put out to pasture. I am talking, of course, about The Capsule Wardrobe.

The research conducted by Courtney Carver, author of Project 333, leads her to define The Capsule Wardrobe in these terms:

1. collection of clothes and accessories that includes only items considered essential
2. a person’s basic collection of coordinating clothes that can be used to form the basis of outfits for all occasions
3. a set of clothing, normally around 24 items, which can be mixed and matched to create a wide variety of outfits.

The Capsule Wardrobe is a something, paradoxically, that fashion magazines (and now increasingly fashion blogs) have devoted a lot of column inches to over the years. It is treated with the same tone of the rest of the standard fashion press copy: that it is the ‘fashion insiders’, rather than the general public, who are most qualified to determine what such a precisely crafted, carefully edited selection of garments should comprise of. The extent of the dichotomy that fashion magazines are also permitted to state what a basic, trend-less selection of clothes should look like, is frankly alarming to me. The definite article (The) in The Capsule Wardrobe, as these things are always discussed, would also suggest that it really is a singular entity that all women must yearn for. Such articles are never titled ‘A Capsule Wardrobe’, are they? Yet the magazine articles and blog posts on ‘The Capsule Wardrobe’ never managed to agree on what that should consist of. Anyways, there is a lot to take issue with here, regarding both the assumptions of what a capsule wardrobe is, and who gets to shape it.

The first is the idea of ‘essential’. That is an incredibly subjective term, both in terms of what society you live in, and within your own society. In fact, I doubt that even my best friend and I could agree on what garments we consider ‘essential’. Ditto with the term ‘basic’. Why do so many of them always contain a basic white buttoned shirt?! What good is that to a woman with a toddler, or who works with animals?! I haven’t worn, or had use for, a white shirt since I was a waitress in a pizza restaurant some eight years ago! Why is so much of it black, white and grey anyhow? Isn't the colour and the print, for many people, the fun bit about getting dressed each day? Also, from a fashion writer’s perspective, what a capsule wardrobe would consist of changes with the seasons, years and decades anyhow, so why all this time spent trying to define the indefinable?

Of course, there have always been some writers and bloggers who deal with this topic with a more relaxed definition of ‘The Capsule Wardrobe’ means, taking into account the individuality of both style preference and lifestyle needs. Currently, there are whole blogs devoted to creating a 24-piece ‘mix and match-able’ collection of clothes which can, presumably, be altered to accommodate new trends as the owner desires. But isn’t that actually just ‘A Wardrobe’?

If you believe the statement that women in Western countries usually wear 20% of their wardrobes 80% of the time, and 80% of their wardrobes only 20% of the time, then aren’t we usually dealing with a limited section of our clothes at any one time anyway? Are they suggesting that we get rid of everything else we already own? What happens when you fall behind with your laundry and a proportion of those 24 things are dirty or hanging on radiator to dry? What happens when you don’t live in LA and actual weather systems kick in, and ‘The Dressy T-shirt’ and ‘The Basic Shirt’ just aren’t going to cut it and you’re wearing ‘The Cardigan’ and ‘The Sweater Vest’ together every single day for three months until Spring shows it’s face again? What happens when you get bored of staring at yourself in the mirror in your one basic cardigan? Are we meant to be operating on a one-in, one-out system here? If something new gets bought, does something else need to be discarded?

Obviously I’m being facetious here, I doubt anyone writing a magazine article or blog post about creating a Capsule Wardrobe is genuinely proposing there are strict guidelines to be adhered to, or that ‘24’ is some sort of numerological lucky number: the Holy Grail of wardrobe contents if you will.

I’m all for halting mindless and panic actions in favour of making well thought-out selections of what to add to our wardrobes (be that through shopping or sewing) in the attempt to reduce the quantity of landfill and amount of damage clothing and fabric production reaps on our environment. It makes sense to make selective decisions about what to consume and what to pass on to if we no longer wear an item and someone else could benefit from it. But forgive me for being suspicious when it’s fashion ‘experts’ who are dictating this process.

The basic crux of what I’m saying is this: normal women (who don’t make their money by having the contents of their wardrobes scrutinised) really don’t need fashion writers telling them what their wardrobes should contain. We already all have our own ‘Capsule Wardrobe’. It’s the stuff we wear most of the time anyway. What that consists of should be as personal and individual as you are (and it already is). For example, since I made it, I wear my leopard collar batwing top as often I can get away with because I love how it feels, it looks good with my black jeans and generally it reflects a casual version of my personal style as it stands today. To me, it is both ‘essential’ and ‘basic’. Yet I wouldn’t expect, and certainly wouldn’t want, to see someone else to rock a similar top several times a week. Your jeans that you wear pretty much every day because they are comfy and make your bum look good? They are ‘The Jean’. The boots you wear a lot because they don’t leak when it’s been raining? They’re ‘The Boot’. Your plain cardigan with the loose button that you haven’t had a chance to stitch on again because you’re wearing it most of the time? You guessed it, ‘The Cardigan’! See? You’ve already got a capsule wardrobe. Let’s spend more time enjoying getting dressed and being ourselves, and less time worrying whether it is all mixes and matches!

I believe the tone of many fashion magazines and fashion columns, that they possess superior knowledge of how everyone should present themselves, is insidious and damaging. As I say, clothing styles and trends are interesting: they can reflect certain social and personal moods, and they can be fun to dabble and play with. But anyone pretending to have any more of a handle than you do on deeply personal areas like what you wear, how much you weigh or what shape your pubic hair should take, is both mistaken and can piss off, IMO. Women have enough hoops to jump through and ways in which they are made to feel inferior and unworthy. Do you think men give a shit about how many garments they own, or should own? Or if they have the definitive basic peacoat?

It also interests me that The Capsule Wardrobe is, in many ways about restriction, self-imposed restriction. That in an era when we have so much on hand, we are implementing rules to help us negotiate all this choice, be it food or possessions, including clothing. But that’s an area I’d like to expand upon another day. Right now, I’ve got to go and count my pairs of trousers!


niddetissus said...

I love your analysis of their wording. Their use of the definite article! It makes my English teacher's heart sing! And I totally agree, they can piss off. :)

The Old Fashioned Way said...

Zoe, I love all your last few blog posts, you write exactly the way i feel about these ridiculous "rules" that all media around us try to impose on us. And Donna is right, they can piss right off! It's been years since i wasted my money on looking at thin women in shit clothes.

Anonymous said...

With articles like "The Capsule Wardrobe", fashion magazines appeal to women who feel they are constantly in need of the "ideal" garment. Isn't it so that many of us are constantly adding things to their wardrobe, hoping that this will be the essential element that will give the final touch to everything else? This translates into the never-ending search for the Holy Grail a.k.a. the perfect system for dressing. I'm afraid it doesn't exist on a general basis, it's rather everybody needs to find their own.

What really aggravates me, though, is the fashion mags' approach to celebrity clothing. If Duchess Kate wears tights, we are finaly allowed to also do it again (I never realized we weren't in the meantime). If some Hollywood star wears impossibly short dresses, they don't point out how they make her legs look stumpy, they cheer and try to make you believe that you can wear those dresses, too.

I still look at them because the give me a lot of ideas for my own sewing and DIY, but I can't take the seriously any more. What I need is to make my own decisions concerning my style and the items I add to my wardrobe.

Jo Campbell said...

Great post. I can't be bothered with fashion magazines. The models don't look anything like me (or most of the people I know) and I dislike at least 99% of the clothing. We should trust our own instincts on what is right for us as individuals.

Katha said...

Zoe, you are fantastic.
I love how you write and more importantly, what you write about.
I have always wondered why I never fitted in with the fashion magazines. Lately, through my own sewing and by reading inspiring blogs like yours, I have realised that it was because I already found my style. It just never fitted in with fashion worlds view. And thats just fine by me now.
Thanks for inspiring so many of us and for talking sense :)

Anonymous said...

Hear Hear! As always Zoe you've articulated brilliantly the unformed ideas rattling around in my head. I haven't looked at one of these magazines in years as they just depress and wind me up in equal measure. Still haven't worked out what my style is, but I definitely have some go to's in my wardrobe!

Dibs said...

Zoe thank you so much for writing such a beautiful post. I stopped buying fashion magazines earlier this year because not only did I realise I was filling my house with crap, I was also wasting precious time reading stupid articles about what I should be wearing, irrespective of whether they would suit my body type. Now, I take my knitting or crocheting projects with me on train rides, and make stuff I am passionate about, as opposed to reading stuff other people are trying to badger me into loving.

superheidi said...

Thanks for your thoughts, they're priceless. :) You pointed out one of the may reasons why I haven't bought fashion magazines for ages. And why I skip many blogs as they're similar. No need for more nonsense, I am really enjoying your posts instead.

Unknown said...

Fabulous post! It definitely mimics my sentiments. I've been trying to figure out how some fashion writer in New York can even begin to give wardrobe advice to me in Florida. It's so stupid. Don't get me started with the articles and blog posts for that matter, that put together a ridiculously short skirt with a blazer and then say it's office appropriate. Really? What sort of office? Certainly not the kind where I work. I could go on and on and on, but I'll spare you. One of the things that really cracks me up about fashion mags is this: the contradictions. They list something as "out" on their list and then you find a nice photo of said item a few pages later. Hilarious!

Tanit-Isis said...

Posts like this make me so happy I've spent so much of my life in a mainstream-media-free bubble. I don't know that I've ever bought a fashion magazine, and I don't find them satisfying on the odd occasions when I have read them. Although they do inspire a bit of an urge to shop.

I feel like the "capsule wardrobe" to me (gleaned via blogs etc.) is more like creating a segment of wardrobe that mixes and matches well---consciously avoiding wardrobe orphans that you never wear because, nice and flattering as they are, they don't go with anything else.

I don't have much use for a white, button-up shirt, either. And no way one cardigan is going to get me through the winter... ;)

Anonymous said...

Agreed! I haven't bought fashion magazines for years because they make me feel "want-y", for lack of a better word. They have an incredible knack for tapping into women's insecurities in an effort to whip us into a frenzy of materialism. Blech. Although I love perusing blogs and sewing my own garments, I am so much more than my clothes or even my style, and I feel like those magazines view women as little more than walking credit cards and clothes hangers. I don't need to derive my self-worth or even my style from purchased items. And I hate the way that looking good is associated with privilege and spending power (seriously, what do you see in Vogue that you could wear to work at a first world job, let alone anywhere else in the world!). Rant over. All this to say, I agree, and I'm glad that other women feel this way.

Margaret said...

Halleluja and pass the potatoes, sister. You always manage to articulate your thoughts very well, and they often coincide with mine. I loved today's post.

Now, what am I to do? My "winter cardigan" is in the dryer? Oh nooooooo. :)

Bootzey said...

I completely get your meaning.... But it has been a fantasy of mine to get a new wardrobe every season. Capsule wardrobes make that happen. But that is just a fantasy....

Can you post the blogs that do feature capsule wardrobes? I would like to see them

Ali said...

Here's to the death of the white button-down shirt! I'd spoil it in seconds.

I am a fan of the concept of the Capsule Wardrobe but like Tanit-Isis says, it's really about what we want personally, not what's been dictated elsewhere. What would be in our own, personal wardrobe that would make us feel comfortable and confident? And you're right, many of us already have a capsule wardrobe.

And I totally dig ideas like Project 333, though I'm not sure it's a fitting challenge for me. I actually, in a fit of obsessiveness, made a list of what I thought would be in my ideal wardrobe: 88 items!! And those items would inevitably change throughout the year -- many neutrals and whatever colors/prints catch my fancy at the season.

I think the larger point may be that we're inundated with all this stuff that, in some ways, an imposed whittling down can be eye-opening.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, especially since life was too crazy to participate in SSS and Me-Made-March is on the horizon. How cool would it be to only wear me-made? But at the same time, that's limiting -- there are old RTW standbys that pair beautifully with my me-mades. Do I make an exact copy of something I already own just to make it homemade? Isn't that sort of wasteful? And that's the beauty of the challenge -- you've allowed us to self-define. And for me, it's about celebrating homemade and not about having excess. At the end of every challenge month, folks are surprised at how little they need!

So that's how I'm leaning this year: Wearing mostly me-mades (maybe 2 items daily). Me-mades with the occasional "essential" or "basic" items in my closet that pull their weight in gold because they're so dang versatile or they express something about my style.

As always, thanks Zoe, for getting us talking!

Mary said...

Oh, this post is like my own musings regarding capsule wardrobes, magazines, and the cult of conformity. Further, imagine being a middle aged (or older) woman who is interested in clothing and wardrobe...who looks at these fashion layouts. What is there for me? Not really a lot. I can do my own wardrobing, thank you. If I don't know what looks great on me yet, I never will.

Erin Derr said...

Zoe, I love your articles, especially ones like this. I have been increasingly annoyed by fashion magazines over the years, and I now get my fashion inspiration from craft magazines and patterns. The problem with "the essential wardrobe" that is supposed to look good on everyone is that it doesn't look good on everyone, of course, and it doesn't really allow us to have fun with our looks. Would you have as much fun with your look if you "couldn't" have your nautical-themed stuff? Or what about me and my bright colors and patterns? (the downside of my preferences is that it's hard to make a variety of outfits with what I have. On the other hand, it is my worst fashion nightmare to be dressed head to toe in neutral solids every day). So good for you for standing up to that ridiculous machine that is the fashion industry, while still being passionate about clothes.

Rapunzel said...

I almost didn't read this because the title and first picture made me go "Ewwww...." but I love your blog so I kept reading.
You are so spot on!
My own capsule wardrobe starts out "six long dresses, six pinny aprons, three pair hand enbroidered jeans..."

Anonymous said...

Another great article, this one actually had me chuckling out loud...Your subject matter and writing is great Zoe. I've often wondered about the white buttoned blouse, never had the need for one myself and also, quite possibly the next article in the magazine would be warning against the dangers of having white close to the face as it is too harsh and 'drains' a lot of people's colour!

Debbie B

katherine h said...

Hello Zoe,

I really enjoy your thought provoking blog posts. Thanks also for yesterdays sales tips...after I went and looked at the file I didn't come back to leave a comment, but I did want to thank you and Pat for putting it together.

I agree with all you have written, but i must confess, I am addicted to my fashion mags. My consumeristic vice is not buying lots of is buying lost of fashion mags with glossy pictures of clothes. This habit started as stress relief when I had 3 small screaming children and was too tired to focus long enough to read words and could only look at pretty pictures...but years later, I can't give it up.

I do read all those wardrobe planning articles as well. They are never applicable to my lifestyle but I still read them. I did have fun drawing up my own list ( I think this was a worthwhile exercise because it has focused my sewing on items I wear rather than items I simply desire.

So I guess I'm like the person that knows lollies are bad for us but naughtily eats them anyway.

Amber Elayne said...

Zoe, this is GREAT! I've read about the capsule wardrobe but to me, the idea is rather boring because currently, while my stuff is in transit from Australia, I have about 24 articles of clothing, and I am BORED!

But I also beg the question, do my workout and dog-walking clothes fit into this capsule or are they separate????? Then I only have a handful of 12 or so :)

Sigrid said...

Thanks so much for unpacking the silliness of this topic. I admit to reading fashion magazines, and to having thought that perhaps a capsule wardrobe could make dressing easier. And then you sum it up so perfectly, " We already all have our own ‘Capsule Wardrobe’. It’s the stuff we wear most of the time anyway."

I've ranted for years about the idea of kitchens needing a certain batterie de cuisine in order to cook, but I guess I am so insecure about clothes, that I never stopped to extend this thinking to the idea of "fashion essentials."

dixie said...

This is a pretty timely post for me. Right before reading it I was trying to decide which magazine subscription to get (I have rewards points saved but only enough for a magazine) and was floating through all the fashion magazine options. I really like fashion but I don't always love the way it is presented in magazines and I really hate the fast turnover for trends. Anyway, with all the lackluster fashion mag options I ended up ordering Wired, totally non-fashion. Ha!

I have yet to find a fashion mag that appeals to me. Maybe Bust but I wouldn't consider that strictly fashion.

Oh, and I, too, hate the plain white button down shirt!

Isis said...

"But isn’t that actually just ‘A Wardrobe’?"
bah ha ha ha ha!!

thanks, love this article.

DalĂ­gula said...

Great post, Zoe. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

In my country the idea of the 'capsule wardrobe' is not known yet, I think... but most probably I'll see it soon and named in english, since that seems to be the trend in Mexico: magazines in Spanish with expressions in english, which I find ridiculous... but, what the hell: I guess I'm not as fancy as them :)

Personally I don't mind that much in taking some time to >see< fashion magazines, since it's a great source of inspiration and amazement at the same time, taking me so easily from 'wow' to 'wtf?'. But I find >reading< them really exhausting, since they seem to take so seriously everything related to fashion, and their approach to it extremely annoying. Statements like 'you should NEVER wear red with animal print' or 'matching the color of your nails with your purse is the WORST thing you could do to your career' are, as you say, a restriction: And what if that is exactly what I want to do?

Even when I think that having a style is important as a way to express yourself, I just cannot handle the idea of suffering because of it or spending a huge amount of money just to keep up with trends that will be shown in the same magazines as a NO NO! in a few months... and that's why I can't take fashion so seriously.

Or I should say that I do, since I spend a lot of time -and some money- drafting patterns, cutting and sewing my clothes (not to mention shoes!), but for me is a relief to know that these garments that I made will be 'on trend' for a long time: as long as I still like to wear that type of garments.

Again, thanks for this post. It's refreshing to read this article, and after reading some of the comments, it's great to know that there is a bunch of people thinking different and approaching clothes and fashion from a point of view that cannot be tagged as shallow.

Hugs from Mexico!

Veronica said...

I love all your posts liked this! I could totally add lots of angles I think about it, but so don't have time! I might write a response on my bloggie when I get around to it!

xoxo Love your work Zo!

Anonymous said...

Zoe, this blog post is spot on. I don't read fashion mags, or "women's" magazines in general INCLUDING health magazines because, frankly, they don't represent the "real" or "average" woman within their pages. Rather, they rehash the same point over and over via both images and text: skinny is better, curvy is not. I'm a curvy gal, I have curvy gal pals. I also have rail thin gal pals, pear shaped gal pals, gal pals with long legs, gal pals with short legs. Name a shape, and I'm sure I hav a gal pal it represents. Fashion magazines don't represent US in any way; rather they represent this idealized body that I'm supposed to obsess over and make myself miserable attempting to achieve. The clothes within the pages are no exception to this rule: they are rarely "real" figure flattering. That being said, I do have some go-to staples; however, these go-to staples (including a little black dress) are something I'VE carefully cultivated for years based on what flatters my figure and my sense of style. I love to, for example, pair my little black dress with leopard print heels and one of my various obnoxious colored cardigans. And I don't own a single white button down the front shirt because, well, it's just not practical for a klutz like me. I'd love it if fashion magazines started featuring out-here-in-the-real-world people or on the street people of ALL SIZES (as I know some magazines "sorta" already do this...). I've love to see someone Adele sized (I LOVE HER) be featured, I'd also love to see someone teeny tiny like 1960s twiggy. I'd like the accompanying article to be HOW to cultivate your OWN style without having to buy into whatever the magazine/big corporations want to sell you.

Tilly said...

Hahaha! Love this post, Zoe. The reason I started reading blogs in the first place was because I couldn't bear to read another fashion mag (why are the shoes always three foot high?!) but still love clothes and wanted to see what real people are wearing... and from there I stumbled upon the sewing blogs and got inspired to take my disdain for ever-changing trends one step further by making stuff myself. You'te right, they can all piss off! xxx

Unknown said...

I bloody love you. You've just, in one articulate and funny post, made me feel an awful lot better for not being able to put together a capsule wardrobe based on what fashion 'experts' tell me. Thank you.

chrrristine said...

oh Zoe, you are speaking from the bottom of my heart there! good stuff.

Ulrike said...

Hello Zoe,

I totally agree with your article. I always thought "why does the fashion change so quickly and even quicker every year?" or "why should a Jeans be the essential 'key peace'?" - in my opinion that does not seem very open-minded or creative. By the way, the worst thing I read the other day was an article in which a lady was described who gives away everything she hasn't worn for a month. So there is a constant 'turn-over' in her wardrobe; a thing I don't prefer as I do not want to spend so much time with thinking about what to wear. That's not my cup of tea. I rather prefer the idea that a capsule wardrobe is containing of things I love to wear most. But those things do not change so often - they remain for some years in my stock until I do not fit into them anymore.


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