I have several 1940s home economics textbooks which discuss, among many other things, planning and budgeting for a wardrobe. What they mean is a capsule wardrobe:
- Decide a base color, like black, brown, or navy
- Get a coat, (skirt) suit, shoes, hat, and bag in that color
- Add a dress and blouses in a coordinating print or solid
- Mix and match skirt, jacket, blouses, and dress
There are charts that include estimated/recommended cost to get quality items. I think at least one also recommended a similar summer capsule, based on white, with a skirt, jacket, playsuit, etc.
This practical and frugal mindset seems to have lead to the idea of universal staples. I suspect that this arose in the 1970s, when the day dress (as a staple) was gone and separates ruled. But how did it evolve from the individual capsule wardrobe to only specific items? The white shirt, the trench coat, the turtleneck, the silk blouse, the little black dress. When I think of these items, I think of what I've seen in movies and TV shows: East Coast/Upper Midwest Career Woman Of The Past. Overall they don't relate to me, or most of the women I know, or the culture or climate of where I live.
It's strange how limiting these lists are, and indicative of the culture of the writers. Maybe the 1940s had it right.