Capsule Wardrobe

summer fashion

I love packing for my summer holidays. I realise that may seem an odd, even slightly masochistic statement. But no, for me, packing is a pleasure – it taps into my innate enjoyment of organization and neatness – and more than that, it allows me to combine my research into fashion history with my lived experience of dress. My fascination with American sportswear from the 1930s-50s, and special interest in designers Vera Maxwell and Claire McCardell can be given full reign, as I pursue the perfect travel wardrobe.

While fashion magazines are now full of stories on ‘capsule wardrobes’ and articles on how to dress for every possible travel destination, in the 1930s, this was a newly emerging trend. Maxwell and McCardell helped to define this idea of a small, well-curated selection of separates that could be mixed-and-matched for the duration of the holiday. Developments in diverse areas, including, ready-to-wear manufacturing, advances in dying various fabrics the same colour and the growth of travel as a leisure activity – think cruise ships and new airlines – meant the coordinated capsule wardrobe was the rational and modern way to approach dressing.

By the late 1930s, McCardell was making five or seven piece collections of clothes that addressed women’s lifestyle needs – whether travelling for business or pleasure. Lightweight chambray in an easy dress, shorts, jacket and sun top, for example could be taken for a short beach holiday. Or a navy-based wardrobe of jacket, skirt, trousers, culottes and knitted top might be good for a business trip.

What mattered was the sense of ease and appropriateness – these designers were professional women themselves, they understood the demands of modern life and saw their task as problem-solving – making their customers’ choices more straightforward, allowing them to carry minimum luggage, while being assured of their fashionable status.

But their designs are not just logical, cold answers to a fashion question. Their love of fabric and detail, focus on clear silhouettes and variety-through-combination make them fascinating pieces of modern design. And fashion photography of the time, by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for example, emphasized the sense of happiness and ease their work promoted.

So when you pack your suitcase this summer, think of these pioneers of travel fashions, and enjoy the pleasures of simple, modern classics.