How to build a foundation for effortless style

Any skill, including style, starts with mastering the basics. Here are some of my tips to help you create a capsule wardrobe for effortless and chic style over 50.

This is the second post in my Effortless Style Series. Read my introduction, “the truth about effortless style” here.

Mastering the basics: the effortless chic capsule wardrobe

What is a capsule wardrobe? I’ve seen many versions and definitions, but to me it’s a core of versatile basic pieces that can be worn in multiple combinations. A well-chosen capsule wardrobe reduces decision fatigue and makes getting dressed easier. And with simple pieces that can multi-task and be worn in different combinations, you can do more with less.

There’s an oft-quoted statistic that most of us wear 20% of our wardrobes 80% of the time. If that’s true for you, what pieces are in that 20%? Those garments you tend to reach for day after day are a solid clue as to the basic building blocks of your capsule wardrobe.

So each person’s “basics” may be quite different. Think about your lifestyle, climate, aesthetics, style personality, and budget. Your basic wardrobe capsule should accommodate all of those aspects.

An effortless chic capsule wardrobe for a casual lifestyle in warm neutrals. Plaid blazer, cotton fisherman sweater, silk top, half-zip sweater, metallic slingback shoes, brown trousers, straight leg jeans, long sweater blazer, suede loafers, brown sneakers.

Budget-friendlier options:
jacket | blouse | trousers (plus) | jeans (plus) | slingbacks | sneakers

For many of us, lifestyles are more casual now. (Even those who have returned to work in an office may find the dress code is much more casual than in the past.) If you’re updating or refreshing your wardrobe to accommodate these changes, look for pieces that can dress up or down, depending on what you wear them with. (And mixing levels of formality in an outfit is one of the ways to achieve a modern look.)

The case for neutrals

By neutrals, I’m referring to white, black, navy, gray, charcoal, brown, tan, cognac, camel, ivory, cream, and olive. (Navy is the most universal neutral across color seasons; I’ll be doing a post soon on finding the best navy for yours.) And I consider most denim a neutral.

Yes, I wear some color most days, but versatile, neutral basics are the foundation and starting point to my outfits. Why?

  • they’re versatile and easy to style
  • neutrals tend to look more polished and sophisticated
  • neutrals tend to be perennial, and won’t look dated in a season or two
  • yes, you can often mix your neutrals (navy + black, navy + brown, black + gray, ivory + camel, etc.)

The collages in this post include some examples of the types of neutral wardrobe basics I find work well for mostly casual lifestyles. Think of these sets as a “starter kit” rather than a complete capsule wardrobe. Remember, there is no single garment that’s a “must have” for everyone. And you can use some of these same concepts as a starting point for smart travel wardrobes.

An effortless chic capsule wardrobe in cool neutrals. Navy blazer, striped sweater, silk shirt, v-neck sweater, black trousers, Mother Dazzler jeans, slingback heels, lug-sole loafers, metallic sneakers.

Budget-friendlier options:
blazer | shirt | sweater | jeans (plus) | sneakers

Building your effortless chic capsule

I often refer to my basics as “wardrobe workhorses.” They’re the pieces I rely on day in and day out as the starting points for my outfits. I keep them in the most visible section of my closet. But my best basics may be quite different than yours. How do you know which pieces are truly your basics and worth investing in?

Identifying your wardrobe basics

  • Look at your lifestyle, and how you live 70-80% of the time. Is it casual? Do you work in a corporate setting? Business casual? You’ll want to build your capsule around that 70-80% (We’ll deal with the one-off’s in a separate post.)
  • What are the pieces you reach for most days? Those are a good indicator of the types of items you’ll want to focus on.
  • Think in terms of building blocks: bottoms, tops, outer layers. (Or dresses + another layer if you wear them.) You’ll want your capsule to be cohesive, which means that most tops go with most bottoms.
  • What’s your aesthetic and style personality? If jeans are anathema to you, then by all means skip them. Maybe you’ve never been able to wear-button front shirts. Maybe utility jackets suit you more than blazers. Lean into your own tastes and preferences.
  • And of course, climate. If you live in a very warm climate, you’ll probably want fewer sweaters and more light tops than if you live where it’s cooler most of the year. Again, look at what you reach for most days.

Just a note…

about the images/items shown in the effortless chic capsule wardrobe collages: it’s becoming more and more difficult to find “flat” clothing images (not on a model). Some of the items I’ve used for illustration are spendy, but I’ve linked to many more budget-friendly alternatives in the SHOP. Click HERE for more neutral wardrobe basics.

Wardrobe basics in warm and cool neutrals. A neutral capsule wardrobe is the foundation of effortless chic.

Do you use capsule wardrobes or something similar?

Shop more neutral basics here.

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  1. Wonderful roundup, I have all the pieces suggested for the cool toned basics. My fall/winter favorites are blazers; classic and sweater. My favorite is a gray herringbone blazer. A thin puffer vest and coat Virginia winters are all over the place. Cashmere sweaters, they are the best at regulating heat. On another note, when buying online how do you distinguish if a color is right for your color type? I find reds and greens are the hardest sometimes burgundy.

  2. Susan this is so great to have the warm and the cool neutral capsule wardrobes for us! Thank you! I discovered that I’ve probably built this capsule already (with your help!) but have olive trousers instead of warm browns. They still all go together! I could use that plaid jacket! Thanks too for posting the budget friendly items!

  3. Hmmm…I think I cover most basics. A black skinny has disappeared from my wardrobe but I’m hesitant about skinnies. Straight and somewhat tight I am OK with, but skinnies are going to disappear from my wardrobe I think.

  4. I love this and thanks for including warm and cool versions! I really like the outfit mixing the navy blazer and black pants. I want to mix black and navy but struggle to do so. I hope you will update with warm weather selections later this spring! I also like how you have incorporated two “incoming” trends: metallics and sling backs!

  5. Thank you for adding more options in the “shop” link. I’ve been wanting a navy blazer so I used your link to scoop up the J Crew Going Out Blazer. Thanks again

  6. Love your posts, especially the new color content. I find these helpful for travel as well as everyday use. You make it so simple and easy to implement, thank you!!

  7. Good morning. do you think the cinq a sept blazer in black in your last post would look good paired with a deep blue satiny slip dress for formal wedding? thanks!

  8. I first tried using a capsule wardrobe for a 10-day trip back East several years ago, inspired by Janice at The Vivienne Files. I managed with only a carry-on, and it was a huge success. But I love seeing your versions incorporating the concept of seasonal colors. Thank you for including budget friendly items!

    I look forward to your input on finding items in navy. As a spring like you, I’ve been on a quest for a warm (in hue, not heat) navy blazer that works for my coloring (hopefully one with something under a $600 price tag).

  9. I have always loved cool colors and my neutrals were blue, black and gray. It suddenly occurred to me at the tender age of 75 that I look better in warm colors. I am struggling to give up my favorite tops, even though they make me look like I have one foot in the grave. Having a hard time finding replacements, especially since I favor collared button-ups. And even when I find a style I like, the mediums are invariably a bit to small and the larges a bit too large. Thank you for giving me a place to complain. Love your post today with the warm-colored outfits.

  10. Susan, I have a question about the slingbacks. I messaged giniandalbert but I am not quite sure how they are sold, besides online. I am really intrigued by their styles, but I would want to try them on since I haven’t worn them before. Do they have a brick and mortar store? Are they carried in any boutiques?

    1. Hi Mary Alice, they don’t have a brick and mortar store, but you may be able to arrange to try them in her design studio in the valley. I know there are a few local boutiques that carry select styles (also in the valley) but I’m not sure which ones. If you don’t hear back from her in a couple of days let me know and I’ll try to touch base.

      1. Sorry I wasn’t clear. They very kindly replied to me but I couldn’t figure out from their answer where they are sold. I have done a deeper dive and see that they sell in a couple of boutiques in the valley. Their shoes are gorgeous!

  11. Susan, thanks for this round up. It helps me to have a clearer picture for a wardrobe and my wardrobe. I am definitely in the cooler tone side of the suggestions. I am retired now and living in Southern California in a retirement community . I travel a lot and have been working on redefining what I need everyday and what will work for travel. One item I have removed from my wardrobe is a blazer or dress jacket, just not my lifestyle need. I have replaced the blazer/jacket with good sweaters. I look forward to mor suggestions like this.

  12. This might be an odd question for this post, but I’m hoping to get some input from others (since I seem to be mostly surrounded by people under 40 in my work).

    I am in my early 50s and perimenopausal/menopausal, which has resulted in some weight gain around my mid-section. As a result, I can no longer wear my size 4 and many of my size 6 pants. I would like to build a classic capsule wardrobe, but I’m struggling with what size I should be buying if I get new pants. Do I go ahead and buy size 8 (or even 10) based on size guides? Should I assume that this weight gain won’t likely go anywhere (without a colossal effort that I don’t think is worth it)? I want to invest in some quality pieces, but don’t want to spend the money on them and find that I’ve chosen the wrong size.

    1. Hi SJ, it can be frustrating when our bodies change and our favorite wardrobe pieces no longer work. My suggestion for you for now would be to think “tabletop dressing.” Perhaps invest in just a few pairs of pants that fit you now, and that work with your tops. As to sizing, yikes, it can be all over the place. Can you try going up one size in the pants you already own? Some retailers post actual garment measurements which can be helpful as well. Fabrics with a little bit of stretch can also accommodate fluctuations.

      And most pants can be taken in if you find you’ve gone down a size.