Fashion · Nostalgia · Vintage

Capsules full of colour


So my 1980s fashion advice book arrived and, no, it is not the one I was thinking of which is a bit of a shame. However, it is another one that I was besotted with at the time and I still find it compelling 34 years after it was first published. The book is called “Looks That Work” and the author is Janet Wallach.

The premise of this book is to take three distinct career profiles – the Corporate (you’re smashing through the glass ceiling at an Investment Bank), the Communicator (you’re a TV anchor-woman), and the Creative (you’re running an advertising agency) – and to build a selection of example capsule wardrobes for each. There are various questionnaires dotted through the book so you can determine which category you belong to. I’m not sure whether or not these are helpful, but I’m not a questionnaires sort of girl because I always want an answer that isn’t in the options! The capsule collections are accompanied by monochrome illustrations, with an 8-page section in the centre of the book providing coloured versions of some of the drawings. Although the shapes are redolent of the 1980s, I think they would have dated far worse if photographs had been used, and I find these illustrations very appealing. I wanted to be those women back then and I still want to be those women now.

Each career profile gets a selection of main capsule suggestions: 2 traditional and 2 contemporary for the Professional profile; 1 traditional, 2 contemporary and 1 innovative for the Communicator profile; 2 innovative and 1 avant-garde for the Creative profile. This gives the author a chance to show a variety of shape and colour combinations. Because you need to understand these are not the tasteful, neutral (did someone say bland?) capsule wardrobes of the 2020s; no, these are a riot of colour, even the traditional corporate ones.

I always felt that career-wise I fell into the Communicator category, working in secretarial or team admin roles in engineering-type companies. The Corporate side was too rigid for the types of firms I was involved with, and the Creative a little too way-out. By the time I achieved my secret ambition of working in a Creative setting, this type of dressing was sadly rather out of vogue.

I thought, to give you a taste of the information in the book, I would give some details of my favourite capsules from each career category.

Traditional Corporate Capsule in Navy and Grey



The 12 basic pieces are given as a navy single-breasted jacket with shawl collar with a navy slim skirt, a grey v-neck jacket with a grey pleated skirt, a navy and grey tweed double-breasted jacket with a matching slim skirt, a navy/grey/white plaid single-breasted jacket with a matching dirndl skirt, plus 4 blouses: white, grey, curry and yellow. Ms Wallach says this will take you through two working months with a different outfit every day. It’s very heavy on suits as you’d expect for a fairly rigid professional atmosphere, and of the capsules I’ve chosen is the most muted. However, the variety of shapes and textures elevates this from the boring suit and blouse combinations that we might have anticipated.

Innovative Communicator Capsule in Black and Cocoa



This one is understandably much less suit-orientated than the Corporate Capsule. It consists of a black suede jacket, black and cocoa plaid asymmetric jacket with matching skirt, black and cocoa tweed skirt, black trousers, black button-front dress, cocoa jersey shirt and matching skirt, a multicolour cardigan sweater, and 3 blouses: white, beige and rust. These will provide “forty looks to take you through eight working weeks”. It’s the shapes and style details that attract me to this capsule, but I wouldn’t go for black. One of the things I always liked about this book is how easy it would be to reimagine the capsules in different colour combinations.

Avant-Garde Creative Capsule in Mustard and Black



If you’re of a nervous disposition, look away now: the 12 pieces here are going to blow your mind! We start with the mustard cocoon jacket, red jacket, mustard jodphurs, black skinny trousers, mustard jersey skirt, black leather skirt, white silk blouse, mustard tunic, black turtleneck sweater, purple cowl-neck sweater, purple blouson cardigan and multicolour pullover. The author doesn’t give a count for the combinations here, but says “the looks range from serious to amusing, business to weekend wear”; I wonder where the mustard jodphurs fit into that. There is an added benefit to the Creative Capsues in that the other two career profiles can dip into this section to create their leisure capsule.

Each capsule section finishes with a discussion of accessories. In the Corporate and Communicator arenas, about 12 basic pieces are suggested – 2 pairs of shoes, 1 handbag, 2 belts, 2 pairs of earrings, 2 necklaces and 3 scarves. I think that’s very heavy on the scarves and belts and very hard on handbags. The Creative person isn’t given much limitation and seems to be a case of the more the merrier so long as it’s attention-grabbing.

That is the main part of the book, but by no means all of it. There’s a brief section about careers where you have to wear a uniform which includes a leisure capsule that I very much like, and then there is a travel capsule for each career type. There’s lots of advice about the career types, and as it also covers shopping strategies and grooming etc, it’s a pretty comprehensive volume. A couple of words of warning are needed, though. Those totals of the number of outfits you can create from the basic capsules rely on layering pieces together and, given that the options already lean towards cold-weather dressing, that may not be comfortable if you work in a heavily heated environment or if it’s warmer weather. Also, unless you are a skilled seamstress, it’s going to be up to you to work out colour schemes and patterns that are available to buy at the current time rather than slavishly following what is set out in the capsules.

I’m really glad to have re-discovered this book and added it to my library. Looking through it I realised that this is basically what I think of when I’m considering strategies for my own wardrobe and it has reignited in me an interest in capsule wardrobes so long as they can incorporate a variety of colours, textures and shapes. I can see myself studying this book in greater depth in the coming weeks.


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