Clothes for older women; How to build a capsule wardrobe for midlife and beyond

a rack of coordinated clothes for a capsule wardrobe

Transitioning clothes from your working life to retirement is a challenge for many older women. I recommend you start with building a capsule wardrobe from what you already have, and refine it over time as you settle into your new lifestyle. A process I have found useful is to familiarise yourself with the basics of building a capsule wardrobe and then adapt those for yourself.

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But what is a capsule wardrobe?

A capsule wardrobe is a curated collection of clothing and accessories that work together. They are pieces that stop that feeling of “I have nothing to wear”, and replace it with a sense of comfort and certainty when you open your wardrobe; the knowledge that the pieces you love are there front and centre and that every piece matches your lifestyle in a way that has you feeling great every day when you get dressed.

What should be in your capsule wardrobe?

I was asked this recently and I found it difficult to answer because what’s important in your wardrobe is different to what is important in mine. But we all love a starting point, so let’s have a look at what I consider essential in my capsule wardrobe. For context my lifestyle is relatively casual, so 80% of my wardrobe is casual clothes. But I’m not talking about daggy trackpants here, I’m talking about pieces I am happy to wear to go to the shops or out for an impromptu coffee or lunch. And I’m a firm believer that there are certain items, like good jeans or trousers, that will take you most places.

I want to add here that I believe in only two fashion rules – one is to buy the best you can afford (not necessarily the most expensive), the other is to buy things that make you feel good when you wear them, and that you don’t need to constantly adjust and fiddle with.

So here’s my capsule wardrobe list

  • Good quality long and short sleeved tees – as a minimum a white, a black/navy and a striped tee in both sleeve lengths. My personal preference is for a vee neck but I will also wear a crew neck tee. My favourite brand for tee shirts is Styling You The Label because the fit and quality is excellent, but I do own other brands as well
  • Jeans – both blue jeans and coloured jeans. They need to be comfortable as well as stylish and my favourite place to shop for blue jeans is birdsnest. In terms of coloured jeans, my brand choices are more eclectic and often driven by what I see in local boutiques
  • Trousers – both stylish and relaxed. I have two pairs of white linen pants which will take me anywhere with a nice top. They are investment pieces that I have owned for years. I also have some soft pants which are more casual, with elasticised or drawstring waists. You have a huge range of choices here so work out what suits you – full length, cropped, wide leg, skinny leg or a combination. I will always have a pair of dressy trousers in a base colour like black or navy – my preference is a soft jersey that travels well.
  • Jogger pants – these are my comfortable pants of choice rather than track suit pants – yes I have the latter but I don’t wear them outside our front door. I have jogger pants in a couple of colours including a gorgeous coated black pair that dress up well (see image below). Jogger pants team really well with sneakers but can also be dressed up with heels.
  • Nice shirts – there is a meme around on social media to the effect that if you don’t know what to wear, jeans and a nice shirt is the answer. And there is some truth in that, except for really formal occasions. I have a couple of nice shirts – one is a white tuxedo style shirt, the other is a soft double layered jersey, I also have a sequinned top that I am happy to dress down with jeans or dress up with black pants. I also have some less dressy shirts in linen and cotton that work with everything in my wardrobe.
  • Skirts – for summer I tend towards flowing longer length skirts and for comfort will choose a drawstring waist by preference. I also have a couple of pencil skirts, one in a block colour, one in a colourful print. For winter I also have a couple of pencil skirts that work well with tights, but in winter I am more likely to be wearing jeans or pants.
  • Jackets and blazers – a denim jacket is a must have for me, as are a couple of blazers. Denim jackets go with pretty much everything in my wardrobe, and a good quality blazer will add so much style to a dress or even a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. Choose comfortable blazers like these ones, again from Styling You The Label – I have this blazer in two colours.
  • Knitwear – my favourite knitwear pieces are cardigans that can be worn buttoned up as a top, and beautiful cashmere jumpers. My cardigans are from Uniqlo and my cashmere is from an ethical brand – Cara Cashmere.
  • Trench coat – a wardrobe classic that you will have for years. Mine is black in a classic style and I purchased it at David Lawrence who at present seem to only have short trench coats; mine is knee length. It is a regular inclusion in my luggage when travelling to Europe. Try brands like Sportscraft and Trenery for trench coat options. I also have a wool and cashmere overcoat which gets very rare use due to my living in a warm climate, it was an investment piece that comes out when travelling to our southern states in winter.
  • Dresses – I wear dresses all year round, but particularly in summer when I am looking for cool comfort. I no longer wear high heels, so in summer you will find me wearing dresses with sandals, sneakers or a low wedge, and in winter with sneakers or a low ankle boot. Dresses are a great way to bring colour to your wardrobe.

Note I have excluded exercise gear from this list and I haven’t covered accessories. I wrote in a previous post about comfortable and stylish shoes and I have a forthcoming post on other accessories like jewellery and scarves – these are essential for extending your wardrobe for different looks.

My go to style is a pair of jeans and a short or long sleeved tee. I add a jacket or blazer for style and warmth

How to build a capsule wardrobe

The most common steps to building a capsule wardrobe are as follows. But don’t allow yourself to be totaly dictated by these, and definitely allow your emotions at least a little play. There is something to be said for the Marie Kondo ‘does it spark joy?’ philosophy. So for instance don’t limit yourself too strictly on colour. If you have a bright jacket of many colours that holds precious memories for you, and that you will definitely wear, then keep it. With that in mind, let’s get started….

THINK ABOUT YOUR LIFESTYLE DREAMS

This step is so important and is often missed when talking about creating a capsule wardrobe. It is particularly important when you are making a transition from a working life to a retired lifestyle. It’s a critical step in your overall retirement planning, and will determine what wardrobe pieces and accessories you need in your capsule.

If you haven’t already taken some time to think about your lifestyle dreams, I recommend you read this post on time management (I know that sounds strange but take a look) as a background to the issues to have front of mind. For more on this also have a look at my post on what to wear in retirement.

The reason your lifestyle is important to consider is to choose clothes that will match that lifestyle. For example, if you plan to play golf a couple of times per week then some snazzy golf clothing will be important to you. Do you have a lot of formal events to attend? Are you planning to travel – for me this is a key consideration with every garment that I purchase – will it travel well and fit within a small travel wardrobe ? What other lifestyle considerations should inform your personal choices?

a woman wears black pants and a denim jacket
Black pants and a denim jacket are two must haves in my capsule wardrobe

Start with what you have

Having clarified what you expect your retirement lifestyle to be, use this lens to run over everything in your wardrobe, from clothes to accessories, and yes even undies.This may be the most daunting part of the process but it’s the most important foundation for building your post retirement wardrobe. As you assess every piece, ask whether or not it justifies a continued place in your wardrobe. Notwithstanding my message above about noticing your emotional response, be firm with yourself. Will you wear that garment again and again or will it take up space in your wardrobe because maybe you spent a lot of money on it? I spent a fortune on suits when I was working but I no longer have a need for them so they were donated to a charity that dresses women for work.

Make sure you have first covered all the basics

Don’t rush out and buy special occasion pieces first – unless of course you have an imminent special occasion and really have nothing to wear. Start with tops and bottoms in a colour scheme that works for you – plains, stripes, spots as you prefer. Go easy on patterns when choosing separates, as they will limit your mix and match options unless you are confident to print clash. The safest place to start with adding colour and prints is in dresses, then as your wardrobe builds add more in other pieces.

a woman wears a purple dress next to a rack of capsule wardrobe clothes
Dresses are one of the easiest ways to bring colour to your capsule. Add a blazer or denim jacket for warmth and style

Add pieces that will work with what you have

Having established what you need for your lifestyle and audited what you already have in your wardrobe and wish to keep, then add pieces that will work with what you already have and will suit your lifestyle. A good rule of thumb when purchasing new pieces is to determine how many other pieces will it work with, 5 is a good number. It’s never a good feeling, and indeed it is a waste of money to get a new piece home, whether a separate or a dress, and find that you can’t wear it with anything else be that shoes or a jacket.

Think about layering options too, you can significantly expand your wardrobe options by clever use of layers. This leads me to my final point…

Learn to style your clothes in different ways

When adding a new piece to your wardrobe think about different ways to style it. For example, a shirt dress can be worn unbuttoned as a duster over a tee shirt and pants, a knit can be worn over a dress, a shirt can be used as a layer over a tank or tee shirt. If you aren’t already on instagram I recommend setting up an account and following people who share their daily style – it’s a great source of inspiration. You can even find me there.

Another view on capsule wardrobes.

Looking for a travel capsule wardrobe, check my tips here.

Retiring not Shy!