In 2015, Matilda Kahl wrote a piece for Harper’s Bazaar detailing her decision to wear the same thing to work every day. As art director of Saatchi & Saatchi at the time, she purchased “15 silk white shirts and a few black trousers” in order to save herself the daily headache of picking out a new outfit. This extreme minimalism had extreme benefits. “[I]n the long run, it has saved me — and will continue to save me — more money than I could imagine,” wrote Kahl.
Though you might not want to follow in Kahl’s footsteps and wear an unofficial uniform, there is something to be said for adopting a capsule wardrobe. By buying only well-made, mix-and-match pieces, you can reap the financial benefits of minimal living.
What Is a Capsule Wardrobe?
A capsule wardrobe is a pared-down collection of clothing — usually 30-40 pieces — that you wear throughout the year. These pieces should be quality items that are versatile enough to wear in different combinations, thereby giving your wardrobe longevity. The 30-40 items tend to be parceled out by season — a spring capsule wardrobe, a fall capsule wardrobe and so forth — as you likely won’t wear a tank top in winter or rain boots in summer.
A capsule wardrobe example might include a T-shirt, blouse, jacket, blazer, skirt, pants and two pairs of shoes. Those eight clothing items can be worn in 24 different combinations, which is nearly a month’s worth of outfits — provided, of course, you stay on top of your laundry.
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How to Build a Capsule Wardrobe
Purging your closet of unused items, freeing up space and streamlining your life probably sound pretty great to you. Who doesn’t prefer less stress and more money? But, now you’re likely wondering how to create a capsule wardrobe. One of the first things you should do is create — and follow — some rules.
“Having guidelines for your wardrobe stops you from buying anything outside of your ‘rules’ and helps you avoid trendy fast fashion and impulse purchases,” said Michelle Summerfield, creator of the blog The Classy Simple Life. Summerfield is an expert on capsule wardrobes. In 2014, she blew $19,000 on designer outfits she didn’t even like, all in an effort to look the part at work. After that disastrous mistake, she decided to focus on a set number of items and follow rules to keep herself in line.
Rule No. 1: Figure Out Your Style
When Summerfield made her $19,000 splurge, she said she went into it blindly. “I had no plan, no real idea of my personal style and I bought items on an emotional whim, only to take them to consignment several months later, realizing they weren’t ‘me,'” Summerfield said.
Before you do any shopping, you need to understand what you like and don’t like. You don’t want to go out and by three pairs of flared jeans, only to discover you really hate the ’60s look. Try looking through magazines, websites and Pinterest for fashion inspiration. What is your style? And, more importantly, how do you want to look going forward?
Rule No. 2: Understand How Your Clothing Will Be Used
With any capsule wardrobe, versatility is key. However, you can divide up your wardrobe based on season and utility. A winter capsule wardrobe will look different than a summer capsule wardrobe, for instance. A work capsule wardrobe is likely to look a lot different than a travel capsule wardrobe. Figure out the life you want to lead and the outfits you’ll need to accomplish that.
“By sitting down and understanding what I wanted and needed from a wardrobe, I was able to focus my shopping outings,” Summerfield said.
Rule No. 3: Choose Pieces That Will Look Good on You
Understanding your body shape and what pieces of clothing will flatter it is key. If you buy items that make you look frumpy, you’re not going to feel confident wearing them, and that defeats the purpose of your capsule wardrobe.
Try using Oprah’s foolproof method to figure out your body shape. Once you know your shape, do an online search for style tips specific to it. You might have been planning on buying a few crew neck sweaters only to learn that crew necks are a big no-no for you.
Of course, you can always wear whatever you want — especially if it makes you feel happy — so, take this rule with a grain of salt.
Rule No. 4: Figure Out Your Color Palette
It’s great to choose clothes based on utility and style, but running out and buying everything in chartreuse only to realize that color doesn’t work for you would be a real downer. Figure out not only the colors that you like but also the ones that complement your skin tone and eye color. There are online quizzes that can help you with this, but you can also consult a makeup artist at a store like Sephora or Macy’s.
“Armed with a list of key pieces, a color palette and knowledge of styles that flattered my skin tone and body type, I was able to curate a practical wardrobe I loved and made me feel confident — and comfortable,” Summerfield said.
Rule No. 5: Choose Only Quality Pieces
When figuring out what your capsule wardrobe essentials should be, quality must be a key consideration. If you choose cheap, poorly made clothing, you’re only going to have to replace them sooner — which means spending more and more money.
“One thing I did right in my $19,000 mistake was buying quality garments,” Summerfield said. “They retain their value for consignment and they last longer. Your upfront cost is higher, but in the long run, your return on investment is much better. I went from buying ill-fitting, cheaply made Gap jeans for $80 to North American-made, fit-like-a-glove Citizens of Humanity or Paige jeans for $200. They fit well, last years instead of months and I only own three pairs of jeans instead of eight.”
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Rule No. 6: Take Good Care of Your Clothing
What’s the use of investing in quality clothing if you aren’t going to treat it well? By following the care instructions and avoiding any activities that the pieces weren’t meant for — sorry, no mud wrestling in that parka — you’ll allow your pieces to hold up longer.
“When you curate a small wardrobe of quality items, you have less to care for,” Summerfield added. “If you pay attention to care instructions when buying an item, you can easily avoid wasting time and money on expensive dry cleaning.”
Rule No. 7: Set Shopping Limits
You can set a spending limit that makes the most sense for you, but Summerfield urges you to “approach your wardrobe with mindfulness and intention.” If you have an impulse shopping problem or can’t stop shopping online, it’s time to curb those habits. By clogging up your closet with a ton of clothing, you’re creating a headache for yourself both mentally and financially.
“By setting guidelines for my wardrobe, I reclaimed my money and time,” Summerfield said. “I was no longer shopping every free moment I had and throwing away money.”
Rule No. 8: Don't Buy Unless Clothes Need Replacing
You should try to only add pieces to your capsule wardrobe when you see that something you own is wearing out and in need of replacing. Then, if you want to introduce a new piece into your closet, take the old item and donate or sell it on a site like Poshmark or Threadflip. If you keep adding pieces and forgetting to subtract some, your minimalist lifestyle won’t stay so minimal for long.
Rule No. 9: Find Designers, Tailors and Repairers That You Trust
When you have specific people that you go to for your clothing needs, it simplifies everything. Having a designated designer means you only have to shop at one store for clothing instead of several. You can also stick to one shop for alterations when you have a go-to tailor. And, with the right repairer, your shoes, jewelry, and bags will last longer — thereby saving you money.
Having a “dream team” of sorts will help you not only build but maintain your capsule wardrobe.
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Rule No. 10: Don’t Follow Trends
There’s a reason why Kahl opted for white blouses and black slacks. Classic pieces that will stand the test of time are the staples of a good capsule wardrobe. When people inevitably move from fad to fad in an effort to appear trendy, you’ll be there in your timeless outfit with extra money in your pocket.
Rule No. 11: Pay Attention to Fit
Though your weight will likely fluctuate — sometimes dramatically — items that fit your body well are capsule wardrobe essentials. Don’t buy a size too small because you’re hoping to fit into it at some point. Buy what fits you well now and adjust as needed if you lose or gain weight. If you can find a piece of clothing that will hold up to you losing or gaining 10 pounds, all the better.
Rule No. 12: It’s OK to Look for a Good Deal
Yes, finding a designer you love and investing in their clothing is important — especially if it’s local and ethically made. However, that doesn’t mean you have to shop at overpriced stores. Nordstrom Rack, for instance, might have the same brand names you love at Nordstrom but at far lower prices. Who doesn’t love a bargain?
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Rule No. 13: Don’t Rule Out Secondhand Items
On that same note, don’t be afraid to shop vintage or secondhand shops. If the piece you find is well-made and in good condition — plus looks good on you and makes you feel good — it shouldn’t matter if someone has worn it before or not. That trench coat from the ’60s might be just as good as one off the rack at Zara.
Where to Start Your Capsule Wardrobe
Now that you know how to create a capsule wardrobe, where should you start? Here’s a list of places to consider for quality, well-made pieces that aren’t always expensive:
- Nordstrom Rack
- SUSI Studio*
- Brave Gentleman*
- Citizens of Humanity
- Native Shoes*
- American Apparel
- Urban Outfitters
- Stella McCartney*
Excited to get started? “Adopting a capsule wardrobe will save you time and money and will reduce decision fatigue in the morning when you’re trying to pick out something to wear,” Summerfield said. “For me, it’s curbed my impulse spending and allowed me to be mindful of what I put on my body and spend my hard-earned dollars on.”
Click through to find out how much it costs to tidy up like Marie Kondo.
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Michelle Summerfield contributed to the reporting for this article.
Brands marked with an asterisk are also vegan, ethical and eco-conscious.