Tuesday, November 8, 2011

{Vintage for Beginners} Building A Vintage Starter Wardrobe

Following up from my So you want to do vintage post, I thought I'd tackle the question of a vintage 'starter wardrobe' for ladies wanting to introduce more vintage style into their closet. For an excellent example of a year-round capsule wardrobe, I would encourage you to check out the 1949 feature I posted last year, which documents an all-weather essential wardrobe.

If you're looking to overhaul your entire wardrobe, I'd recommend doing so in steps, rather than flinging everything out and starting anew!

Go through your closet and consider each item of clothing, asking yourself questions to determine its usefulness:
  • Do I wear it often?

    Favourite pieces, even if they're not very 'vintage', can still be made to work, so there's no need to toss them at this stage.

  • Can it be styled in a vintage way?

    While you're still building your vintage wardrobe it's worth hanging onto items which you can style up. Pencil skirts, high-waisted trousers, demure blouses, sheath dresses, sundresses, and fitted knitwear all work in a vintage look.

Building your vintage wardrobe

When you're getting into vintage it's easy to get carried away and buy everything you see that's (approximately) your size. Try to resist - you'll just end up with a mishmash of pieces which don't work together. If you're just starting out, it's worth investing in a few versatile key pieces. What these key pieces should be depends on what will work for you, your own style and taste. You could begin by examining your favourite style bloggers' outfits, and try to analyse why they work. Note which pieces get a lot of wear, as its a safe bet that these are the most adaptable.

It might be worth deciding on a colour palette, since it will ensure that, while you're building your wardrobe, it will all co-ordinate, thus maximising outfit potential.

The Essentials

Not long after I started this blog I posted my own idea of a vintage capsule wardrobe, and nearly two years on (and with a lot more experience gained) it still pretty much stands up, so I've based the list below upon it. My list is a top ten of what I'd consider the bare essentials of a vintage wardrobe. It is by no means definitive, and reflects a bias toward the 40s-50s aesthetic, but can be used as a jumping-off point for planning your own vintage capsule wardrobe.

  • Pencil skirt in a neutral colour.
  • Full skirt - for maximum versatility choose either a solid colour (perhaps accented with a novelty applique?), or a monochromatic plaid/check.
  • Print cotton shirtwaist dress.
  • Background dress
  • Bombshell dress or Day-to-night dress (rayon crepe is a good day-to-night fabric). A dressier cocktail or evening frock can follow later.
  • Demure blouse or two - silk, rayon or cotton. Choosing one with a bit of interest - e.g. a novelty print, or embroidery, or lace trim - will make sure that every outfit has a bit of flair.
  • Fitted sweater in any colour of the rainbow.
  • One or two fitted wool cardigans.
  • One or two pairs of shoes that will go with everything (black, navy or brown are best) and comfortable to wear all day.
  • Flouncy petticoat.

If you can buy original vintage that's great (I'll cover shopping for vintage in my next post in this series), but if you have to rely on modern clothing from charity shops and the high street my "building a vintage wardrobe" series - starting next week - will help you know what features to look out for.


Sears & Roebuck, 1944

Accessories are so important in a vintage look - especially while you're still building up your wardrobe. As you first start buying, try to curate your accessories into matching 'sets' of at least two out of the following:

Gloves ~ Belt ~ Shoes ~ Bangles ~ Hat ~ Purse

Good sets to start with are red, leopard (everything goes with leopard print!) and black. With a few of these in your arsenal, all you need to do to change up your outfit is grab one for an instantly co-ordinated look. Multiply the possibilities by combining sets: red hat, purse and shoes with pink gloves and belt; or leopard belt and hat with black purse and shoes. Having at least two accessories match creates a more cohesive look overall (but I wouldn't generally recommend wearing more than four matching accessories at a time or you risk looking a bit OCD).

Next in the series: Shopping for Vintage


  1. Great post! :) I have a far from capsule or 1-era wardrobe, but I do have those pieces and they really are utterly versatile (the pencil skirt and bright sweater(s) especially so).

  2. Excellent post! I've been building my wardrobe for about a year, I started as you suggest and styled what I had already to provide the look I was after, I was suprised at how many "vintage" looking pieces I already had, I've gradually removed or replaced items which didn't look very 30's. I would recommend doing your research, knowing what's already in your wardrobe and my own rule is to only buy something if it will go with at least 2 things I already have. Takes time to build your own look rather than have top shop (or any other retailer) do it for you!!! X

  3. brilliant post! Only thing I can add, is go for it and buy the first couple of dresses you love straight away, then you'll spy everything else with an 'will it work with what I have already' eye rather being overwhelmed by all that vintage. Once I had 2 main pieces it was so easier to zone into what else i needed to go with my emerging capsule wardrobe and PUT STUFF BACK on the shelf if it didn't! xx

  4. This so interesting, I'd like to build a vintage wardrobe someday, I need to start saving for that. :D

  5. Great list! I'm doing some closet clean out this week because I have the very problem you mention (buying up things that fit but don't necessarily go with anything else I have.) I'm going to keep your list handy :)

  6. I'll be bookmarking this for future wardrobe-building efforts. It isn't something we can really afford right now but I daydream about it constantly!

    Would you consider doing some Vintage for Beginners posts on hair & makeup? I've loved the beauty-themed posts you've done in the past, but sometimes it can be confusing for newbies to pick out which styles are from which decades or how, exactly, a 1940's face differs from just swiping on some red lipstick.

  7. Really useful post!
    I am planning to go through my closet and decide what pieces of clothing I should keep and which I shouldn't... I'll probably follow your tutorial;)

  8. thanks so much for the post! i spend far too much time gazing at vintage clothing sites online, though i don't own one bit of vintage myself. now i have an idea of where to start, so here i go...tallyho!

  9. Forgive me, Charlotte, but could you explain to this poor ignorant American female what you mean by a "background dress"?

    Thank you so much for your kindness!

    Donna H. in CO

    1. A background dress is one in a solid colour (or very simple pattern) with minimal fussy detailing, that literally provides a "background" for the accessories you select to put with it.

      xx Charlotte


I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Related Posts with Thumbnails