Using Layers and Sewing a Dress-Based Capsule

May 12, 2017   /   byPatty  / Categories :  Feeds

When I first heard of wardrobe capsules, it was in the context of minimalism and travel. You know… cutting down your wardrobe and traveling the world for three weeks with four articles of clothing, looking fresh and funky every morning. The stuff of Project 333 and every single ‘Classic White Shirt Wardrobe’ magazine article ever written.

I had a problem with that approach to wardrobe planning… apart from an ingrained gypsy-magpie love of bright-colored clothes that resists any thought of reducing a wardrobe to less than 40 garments, most capsule-based plans are very top-and-bottom centric. A couple of neutral ‘bottoms’ (trousers and a cute pencil or A-line skirt) and a bunch of mix’n’match shirts. There might be one basic dress (hello LBD, we see you) perfect for dressing up and down as the occasion merits.

But I like to wear dresses. All day, every day. Over the years, I’ve moved from more structured, still-beloved, vintage-style fit and flare styles to less structured lagenlook-inspired styles, but nevertheless, I am a dress girl with a bust that has never met a ‘classic white shirt’ that wasn’t sloppy and too big or fitted and gaping at the buttons (I know, I know…  Harrison Shirt.)

BTW — if you are one of those who digs a more classic wardrobe capsule, check out Liesl’s ‘Core Wardrobe’ over at Oliver + S… she has great, classic style and has been posting a lot on Instagram lately!

Nevertheless, I’m drawn to Sewing With a Plan (SWAP) schemes and like to make sure I’m not sewing orphans. Plus, my style (less structure, more layers) lends itself well to wardrobe based sewing projects. When it comes down to it, there are different goals that might inform your decision to use a wardrobe capsule plan.

Wardrobe Capsule Goals

  • Maximize closet (or suitcase) space — the original ‘minimalist’ approach of cleaning out the closet. Great idea for travel, too!
  • Avoid wardrobe orphans — you know what I’m talking about. That dress with the integrated crinoline that you just had to sew (or buy) that’s been taking up too much room in your closet since the one time you wore it…
  • Sew with structure — there’s something about structure that helps reign in and focus creativity. Julie Powell did it with Julia Child’s recipes and Gertie started out doing the same thing with the Vogue’s New Book for Better Sewing. Sure, it might feel contrived or stunt-like, but putting a structure on your sewing will help focus your creativity.
  • Push creativity — closely related to sewing with structure, by choosing to sew with rules, you will stimulate your creativity. I’ve had times where I’ve wanted to sew… something but could not decide what to sew. Eventually, it gets boring to sew another-one-of-what-you-already-made. By sewing a capsule, especially the Sudoku-style capsule, you are forced to do a little creative problem solving to make sure each ‘line’ in your Sudoku works. This creates a good kick-in-the-creative-fanny!
  • Create a statement (and sew with joy) — stylists will talk about your ‘statement’ piece to wear every day and set the ‘tone’ for your style. While I don’t particularly think it’s necessary to stick with a single ‘style’, that can be a great goal in simplifying your life and seeing your wardrobe as a creative extension of your soul, rather than a problematic, occasionally difficult evil. Anyone who’s been through a disappointing afternoon of shopping for jeans or a bathing suit knows what I’m talking about. Use wardrobe capsule planning to create garments that reflect ‘you’, create a consistent vibe and fill you with joy and your sewing/clothes shopping becomes a super duper fun place to be.

Pick Your Approach

For a dress-based Sudoku, you’ll have to pick an approach. Well, you don’t have to do anything, but…

My preferred planning style is the Sudoku. This framework is a bit more strict and is more ‘outfit-based’, which should leave you with ten new outfits that you will wear on the regular. I think the 4×4 method is great for a separates-based capsule that can serve as a foundation for a full wardrobe, but if we’re headed down layering way, as one does with a dress-based capsule, Sudoku will for sure get us there. Can’t remember the difference between Sudoku and 4×4? Then head back to Jennifer’s great overview to brush up on the details.

Guidelines for a layered or dress based capsule

This spring I sewed a wardrobe Sudoku capsule that was based on the rules for a contest over at Pattern Review. I was amused that in the contest description it was mentioned that the Sudoku framework really worked best for tops and bottoms and not for dresses. Loving a challenge, I set out to prove that statement wrong.

Nevertheless, there is a slight mindset change needed if you are sewing for a dress-based capsule rather than one with standard trousers and shirts.

  • No more tops and bottoms! Instead of ‘two trousers, two skirts and four shirts’ think of creating garments that work together.
  • It’s all about proportion. Instead of ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’ start sorting patterns by proportion. Longer, shorter, etc. This opens up the door for building up layers that will work together.
  • Pattern and color mixing and matching. While you can totally build a neutral, dress-based wardrobe capsule, when you start focusing on layers you have a great opportunity to really work with patterns. Here is my favorite combination (have a look at my article on choosing a color palette for your capsule wardrobe for more on this!).
    • One ‘classic’ pattern that reads as a neutral. Favorites include pinstripes, ticking, toile, gingham, and polka dots.
    • One ‘pop’ pattern or color. This is where I’ll pull in brighter colors (especially in great fabrics like cashmere or patterned solids like damask) or else integrate florals.
    • One neutral to pull it all together. This is often a cardigan or the base slip or bloomers. Here are a few examples of mix’n’match patterns I love

Mixing Patterns by Patty Brower

Mixing Patterns by Patty Brower


Think outside the box

When building a dress-based capsule, start thinking out of the box to maximize layers and get more outfit options. Layer things in new ways or look for ways to wrap, adjust and knot your dresses and cardigans to create new silhouettes and show off all your great patterns

  • Foundation garments as outerwear — if you love the 50’s vintage silhouette of a fitted bodice and flared skirt, consider making a few dresses way shorter than you’d normally wear as your ‘short’ layer. Wear with brightly colored petticoats or knee length skirts.
  • Add knots — Love maxi dresses and skirts? I often will layer two maxi’s or a maxi and a skirt and tie a knot in the maxi so the inner layer shows through.
  • Create a new silhouette by wrapping a cardi — pair a looser dress with a longer cardigan that’s knotted or wrapped and tucked to create a more fitted bodice and waist.

Knotted Cardi by Patty Brower

New garments styles to consider

While I keep saying ‘dress-based capsule’ I do actually wear ‘bottoms’… just not standard ones! Consider a few new garments that lend themselves well to layering and make dress-wearing in the summer more comfortable (I’m talking about you, chub-rub)

  • Bloomers — I’m a huge fan of bloomers for everyday wear. Here are a couple pictures of what I mean. Wear with a tank for a more standard ‘top and bottom’ look, or wear under a dress as another layer. I personally don’t care for how I look in jeans and trousers and really only wear jeans occasionally around the farm or walking the dog. I love the silhouette of bloomers (I mean, they are practically a skirt with all that fabric). It’s pretty fun wearing them out and about, too… I get so many comments from random women who love my outfit! If you’re looking for a pattern, start with the Sew Tina Givens website.

Perfect Pantaloons by Patty Brower Perfect Pantaloons by Patty Brower

  • Leggings — Leggings make a great layer in a dress-based wardrobe and are nice and comfy under dresses if you have trouble with thigh chafing. I personally tend to wear shorter dresses (mid-thigh) and leggings more in the winter for warmth and for the summer switch to longer dresses, bloomers, and the chafing gel in the blue tube which I’m super excited to also try as a face primer.
  • Aprons — similar to bloomers, aprons (or pinafores) are a garment that was more popular in Laura Ingall’s Wilder’s time but is still popular in some pockets of the internet (i.e. my blog).  A cute apron/pinafore over a tank is nice and cool in the summer! Here’s my Pinterest board where I was obsessing over it, for your reference and here’s the pattern (Tina Givens’ Hunter Jumper) that I’m plotting on making with my next capsule.

My ‘core’ garments

These are my core garments that I live in, sew, and snap up at thrift shops for my dress-based wardrobe. I’ve sorted into the categories used in the Sudoku framework for reference.


  • Bloomers — super lightweight linen for under dresses (too sheer to wear alone) and thicker weights to wear alone. I mostly make from neutral colors and patterns.
  • Leggings — I still buy all my leggings, but will probably start experimenting with making more in prints this fall.
  • Slipdresses — a slipdress is a longer dress that is not fitted at all and is meant to be worn as a bottom layer. I often will play with the hem — adding ruffles, pleats, and ruching. Thrift shops are a great place to look for slipdresses — tons of rather dowdy rayon numbers out there that look great if you add a few fun hem details.
  • Skirts — I prefer dresses over skirts since dresses can work as top or bottom layers, but I do have a growing collection of skirts that I’ve been working on. As with the slipdresses, I pay attention to fun hem treatments and detailing for the bottom/under layers.


Frocks and tunics — ‘frocks’ is my catch-all word for dresses that I intend to wear as an outer layer. The only real difference between a slip dress and a frock is that I will use heavier weight fabrics for frocks (you don’t want a bottom layering piece too stiff) and I make sure the armscye for frocks is decent. I have a few slipdresses that show my bra off but don’t really care because it’s all covered up. Tunics are the same thing as frocks… but shorter ?


  • Dusters — By duster, I mean a longer garment that buttons all the way down the front. It can be sleeveless, short or long-sleeved, although a traditional duster is a long-sleeved outwear garment. That has something to do with the wild west. In historical fashion terms, this garment is similar to a pelisse. In any case, the full button front offers tons of options for layering. Wear over a slipdress and only button up the bodice buttons. Tie up the front hemline in knots for a fun detail. Button all the way up and wear as a underlayer… I love this style of garment. This, also, is a good thrift find as there are a lot of rayon school mistress pieces out there that you can get for a few dollars and alter to make your own.
  • Cardigans — I live for cardigans. I tend to wear cropped or very long cardis and like asymmetrical hems that scoop up at the sides.
  • Scarves — A great way to fill up the ‘accessory’ box on the wardrobe Sudoku if you’re feeling stuck.


Shoes are part of the wardrobe Sudoku — at least, the way I did my last Sudoku. Here are the shoe styles I like for this style of dressing.

  • Ballet flats — super cute, but a lot of women have trouble with flats. I have a plate and screws in one of my feet from breaking it a few years ago, so can’t wear flats for very long anymore. I use Superfeet inserts — pricey, but so worth it.
  • Combat boots — looks great with longer dress styles or leggings! Especially if, like me, you grew up in the 90’s and just can’t quite give up the Docs.
  • Prairie-style tall boots — I love, love, love my full lace brown boots with bloomers! Very Little House on the Prairie. I’ve had good luck finding cute boots in this style at Torrid, although the materials aren’t that great….
  • Oxfords — A lot of women who dress in lagenlook, layered, prairie style love oxfords. These are the lace-up style of shoes that have a menswear vibe. I personally dislike oxfords on me due to a long, difficult relationship with being very tall and not ever having jeans that covered my ankles in elementary school. But they are super cute on other people and cute with the longer, layered look!

So what does a dress-based wardrobe capsule look like?

I recently completed a dress-based Sudoku wardrobe capsule for fun. Here’s my design board as well as shots of all the resulting outfits.

Spring Sudoku Capsule by Patty Brower

The Design Board

Spring Sudoku Capsule by Patty Brower

The Design Board with Finished Garments

The Spring Sudoku Capsule | Patty Brower

The Spring Sudoku Capsule | Patty Brower

And like many of you, I’m planning a new capsule for summer. Here’s the start of my design board. Empty spaces are for footwear or jewelry (my wardrobe, my rules)…

One note on this design board — if you reviewed the ‘rules’ in Jennifer’s post, this one might seem a bit strange – for example, in ‘outfit #2’ – I wouldn’t really wear a tank, dress and skirt together because the dress would cover up the tank! This is my first pass after picking fabrics. As I start making things, I’ll rearrange and it will all come together and make sense by the end!!

Summer Wardrobe Capsule by Patty Brower

So what’s on your sewing design board? Ready to go with all dresses are take the plunge into recreational bloomer wear? I’d love to hear your plans!

This is a syndicated post. Please visit the original author at Curvy Sewing Collective

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