Capsule Wardrobe: Ultimate Guide to Build Your Capsule Closet in 2021 (Examples)
By Georgette Kilgore | Updated on September 20, 2021
If you’ve ever looked at your closet in frustration and moaned that you had nothing to wear… you’re not alone, but you should know that building a capsule wardrobe is a simple solution that will save you time and help you start the day on positive note.
As we seek to become less cluttered, simplify our lives, and be more eco-conscious in our choices, that overloaded closet with pieces you’ve only worn once is becoming a relic of the past.
A capsule wardrobe offers so many benefits that it’s no wonder it’s becoming all the rage… again.
What is a Capsule Wardrobe?
Although you may not know it, “capsule” (when meaning small and compact) is a totally American word… appearing with that definition in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1938. And the concept of a capsule wardrobe has been around for nearly as long, becoming part of our vernacular in the early 1940’s.
It was used to describe a small number of critical clothing pieces that never go out of style, and that can be used together to mix and match, layer and accessorize.
Sounds simple, right? It is!
You simply keep ‘key’ items in your closet as staples, then you can maximize the number of outfits you can coordinate.
Although it’s been around for decades, a wardrobe that is ‘capsule’ size is making a comeback as more and more people recognize the outrageously high environmental cost the fashion industry has on the planet. In fact, you probably already have everything you need to create a capsule wardrobe, but just didn’t realize it.
And, the benefits of using this wardrobe are numerous!
Capsule Wardrobe Women: A History and Comeback
Everyday we’re bombarded with advertisements that are designed to make us want to buy more… stuff. Everything from fast food and car insurance to new electronics and creature comforts. But, it seems like the more we have in our closets, the harder it becomes to choose an outfit that is comfortable, stylish, and quick to don.
After a short lull during the 1950’s-60’s, capsule wardrobes were revived by Susie Faux, who owned a fashion boutique in London during the 1970’s, named “Wardrobe.” Her idea was that a few key items never go out of style, and that by keeping those pieces as the center of your wardrobe, they can be enhanced using seasonal pieces to keep them looking new and different.
In the mid-1980’s, the idea was further brought into the mainstream by Donna Karan. The American fashion designer released a “Seven Easy Pieces” collection that included seven interchangeable workwear items in a dramatic way. Her models were all clad in bodysuits and black pantyhose, and then began adding simple wrap skirts, trousers and dresses, which visually demonstrated how practical and lovely a capsule wardrobe for working women could be.
Her idea was a huge success. No need to buy endless new designs for each season, which makes it not only a great idea for anyone on a budget, but also helps you reduce your carbon footprint by lowering your spending and shopping emissions.
Recently, the idea has been featured in popular television shows in both the U.S. and Britain, and it is routinely referred to in fashion magazines.
Benefits of Capsule Clothing
You may not know it, but building a capsule wardrobe doesn’t just reduce your spending, it impacts all sorts of things in your life. Just a few of the benefits include:
Reduce Decision Fatigue
Recent studies on the brain show that an American adult makes about 35,000 decisions a day, and the concept of decision fatigue revolves around the fact that as more and more decisions are required, the harder and harder they become. This ‘ego depletion’ or mental fatigue can lead to impaired cognitive functions and other behavioral, emotional and physical consequences.
Having a closet of capsule clothes means that you have less decisions to make in the morning, reducing the opportunity for decision fatigue.
It seems like we’re always looking for more time. Our daily schedules are jam packed with work, errands, family and a host of other commitments. No digging through your closet only to find that the skirt you picked (and you haven’t worn for months) is suddenly too tight (or, if you’re fortunate) too loose. Who couldn’t use an extra 5 or 10 minutes each morning, right?
Plus, you have a clear understanding of the items and pieces you need, so shopping is much easier.
Having a wardrobe that consists of a handful of well-made, quality garments, is so much better for the environment than having loads of trendy items that you wear one season and then never use again. The garment industry accounts for 10 percent of all annual carbon emissions… more than all international flights and maritime shipping emissions combined!1
The timeless pieces you buy will be worn for years, and this is one way to help eliminate ‘fast fashion,’ that consists of creating and manufacturing new designs every week. Nearly 100 billion new garments were made in 2019, and less than one percent of that clothing is recycled into new garments.1
Think of all the dollars spent on the clothes in your closet, many of which you’ve only worn a few times. With the capsule concept, the pieces that are crucial, naturally, should be well-made, but there is considerable savings because you aren’t spending and buying every season on the newest fashions.
How to Put Together a Capsule Wardrobe
The method involved in establishing a capsule wardrobe is actually very simplistic, and can be applied to any budget or region. However, there are some considerations you’ll need to go over before diving in and building it.
The first step is putting together a capsule wardrobe is to track what you wear for one month. You can write it down on a daily log, or just go super easy, and take a selfie every day. You’ll notice that there are outfits and pieces that you continue to choose over and over… and these will likely remain in the capsule.
Remember, you’ll want to do this entire process again when the seasons change.
Assess Your Current Closet and Wardrobes
This will take time, so plan to audit your clothes on a day when you have a few hours to spare. The best way to do this is start removing items one at a time and ask yourself the following questions for each piece.
What category does it fall into?
If you divide your garments into categories first, it can help narrow down the process.
- Spring and summer
- Fall and Winter
- Donate or Sell
When did you wear it last?
If you haven’t worn something in over a year, odds are you’re probably never going to wear it again. The exception here is cocktail dresses and other items that are ‘keepsake’ items. Make good judgements about these pieces. Keep what you can’t part with, place everything else in a stack for sale and donations.
Does it still fit?
So many of us have pairs of jeans, skirts and other items stuck in the closet that simply don’t fit. Too large or too small… these items go in the discard pile.
Does the item work with your lifestyle?
Many people have shifted to work-from-home positions over the last few years, and simply don’t need so many pairs of suits, slacks, blouses, and jackets. Or, maybe you’re a stay-at-home mom and need outfits that are comfortable and easy to wear for movement.
If the item is too far removed from your daily lifestyle, consider moving it out.
What do I like about this?
There will be plenty of items in your closet that fit, work with your lifestyle and that are part of your current ‘favorites.’ So, pay attention to the design, the cut, the color, and anything else you like about it. Ask yourself why you wear it again and again. This will give you a good idea of the things that will make up your capsule closet.
Move Out the Old
Now that you have assessed what you should get rid of, divide the clothing into two categories: Items to sell and items to donate. You certainly don’t have to sell anything… many of us are simply too busy as is to add another errand to the list, but there are many consignment shops who will do the selling for you and any return you get on your things will be a bonus.
For your donation pile, remember that there are many people who would love to have that too-small pair of jeans that you only wore once… or that blouse that simply doesn’t sit right on your chest. And, there are many places (local and national) who will help get your old clothes into the hands of someone who can use them.
Not only does this help someone in need… it also helps the environment because the garments aren’t ending up in a landfill somewhere, contributing to the dangerous methane gases that are heating the atmosphere.
Also, if some of the items are too worn for donating or selling, grab your scissors and make dust rags, cleaning and car washing cloths, or even pet toys (take strips of old tee-shirts, tie knots at the middle and both ends for a fun pull/chew toy for Fido).
Reusing your worn-out garments like this is just another way to establish a sustainable closet.
How To Build a Capsule Wardrobe
Now that you have identified all the garments that you really love… and that fit, you’re ready to start building your capsule wardrobe. The number of items is completely up to you! Some recommend 33 or 37 pieces, but really, the decision is yours.
Think about where you live.
Many people suggest having two or three capsule wardrobes, based on the climate. If you live in a lovely place with four real seasons, you may want to make a fall/winter wardrobe with a few extra items to use, as well as a summer and spring one.
Remember, the number of ‘sets’ you decide on will be based on your needs.
Think about the colors you love.
One of the standard colors of a capsule wardrobe is black… but if you hate wearing black, it would be a waste to use it for your clothing choices.
Colors that work best in this minimalist plan are neutrals. Browns, tans, black (of course), beige, off white, greys. But, don’t be afraid to add in your favorite. If you have an affinity for purples or cranberry, choose them! Just make sure that as you’re building your wardrobe, you keep in mind that all the pieces should coordinate and work together.
Neutral tones are easy to mix and match, but can also be accented easily.
Think about the styles you love.
Are your favorite pair of jeans boot cut or skinny? Do you love flowing skirts and hate pencil styles? V-necks or scooped? The idea here is to consider the garments that you feel comfortable in, that flatter your body type, and that you like. When you feel confident in your clothes, it impacts your entire outlook, so carefully consider what you like wearing, and use those preferences to help guide your choices when you build your capsule closet.
Think about the fabrics you like to wear, in which seasons.
Are you crazy about linens and lacy things, or would you rather have stretchy fabrics? Do you prefer rugged tweeds and heavy wools, or cozy cottons? Choose fabrics that you enjoy wearing.
Now, you’re ready to choose your capsule clothes!
Choosing Capsule Wardrobe Pieces
Now that you have pared down your seasonal closet… hopefully in a massive way… you’re ready to complement the pieces you already have with capsule clothing that will coordinate with your personal style.
Before You Go Shopping: Some Extra Things To Remember
Items like underclothes, workout gear, pajamas, socks, etc. aren’t part of the capsule wardrobe, so no need to include them.
Choose high quality garments for your capsule clothing. These items will be part of your wardrobe for years, so spending a little more now (and hopefully on sustainable brands) will pay off in the long run.
Also, look for items that will look good with wear. Although it’s a great idea to use detergents that are eco-friendly and less harsh on your clothes, things will get worn, and blacks, especially, have a tendency to fade. So, choose wisely.
If you want to mix up the variety with patterns, remember to pick those that never go out of style. Simply plaids and stripes are a perfect example.
And, don’t feel like you have to accomplish this in a day! There are a number of different apps, like Smart Closet, that can help you build your wardrobe and plan out the items you need to supplement what you already have.
Capsule Clothing Essentials
In this framework, we use more than the seven pieces Donna Karan used… but this is only a guide. If you feel like you can use less, or you think you should have another piece or two, add it in. The main idea is overall minimalism, so don’t get hung up on the number of items.
Since fall is right around the corner, this clothing selection is perfect for breezy cool days and nippy nights:
- Leggings—As always, leggings work well in all sorts of outfits and pair great with boots, ballet flats, or sneakers.
- Jeans—A staple for almost every closet, a couple pair of jeans that you love (perhaps different cuts) will be a versatile addition.
- Khakis—Another must have, khakis are a go-to for a number of situations.
- Tailored pants—Dressy pants provide classic style and are always in vogue.
- Skirts—Obviously, if you hate wearing skirts, don’t include these. However, longish pencil one is often invaluable, and midi length is another favorite, and a wrap skirt is essential.
- Day dress—The same rule applies here. If you don’t wear dresses, don’t add it, but you never know when you may need one.
- Cocktail dress—Ditto
- A few short sleeved tee-shirts—grab a few different colors as well, because these are perfect for layering and can transfer to your spring/summer capsule closet as well.
- Long-sleeved tee—another staple.
- Sweatshirt or hoodie—these are musts for fall weather, but choose great quality brands that will last.
- Four-five blouses—Choose various fabrics and cuts, and maybe even add a patterned one for variety.
- Cardigan—a nicely made one works for a number of occasions.
- Two-three sweaters—crew neck, v-neck, turtleneck… whichever style you like, or mix it up.
- Casual blazer—perfect for layering with blouses, sweaters and tees.
- Tailored jacket—Goes without saying, but make sure to complement that dressy pants and skirts you’ve chosen.
- Raincoat—Of course!
- Pea coat (Full or half Length)—You can also choose another style, but pea coats are timeless.
- Winter coat (Parka)—Choose for warmth.
- Two pairs of boots—go for different, classic styles here, and for those of us who think boots are accessories, remember to make sure they coordinate with your capsule colors.
- Ballet flats—must haves.
- Pumps—a black pair of pumps is another essential.
- Knitted hat/scarf—perfect for winter.
This basic list can point you in the right direction, but remember, there are no set rules here. You are choosing clothes that make you feel good and look great… and that’s something that is different for everyone. So, don’t be afraid to add or subtract from this basic starter list.
A Word about Spring/Summer
The same ideas apply to a spring and summer capsule wardrobe, but you can swap out shorts and miniskirts for pants, and add more ribbed tanks and brighter colored blouses.
The main thing to remember is that you want to choose items that can complement the pieces you already have and love, so that you can reduce your carbon footprint by buying less.
Don’t forget that you can choose hats, scarves, handbags and jewelry to complement the outfits that your capsule wardrobe includes. And this is a great place to include some more trendier items. Just don’t forget to recycle and reuse whatever you can, when it’s no longer at the height of fashion.
Although a complete capsule wardrobe isn’t for everyone, even making some small changes to your fashion buying habits can have a big impact on the planet. In order to help the environment, thinking about the ways you shop and moving toward a “slow” fashion concept will not only make your mental health and bank account healthier, it will help the planet breathe easier from reduce carbon emissions.
So, what are you waiting for? Check out your closet, then start building you capsule wardrobe today!
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1World Bank. Worldbank.org. “How Much Do Our Wardrobes Cost the Environment?” 23 September 2019. Web. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/09/23/costo-moda-medio-ambiente
2Image: White Sands Pima Cotton Dress $249, Peruvian Connection https://www.peruvianconnection.com/product/303022-white+sands+pima+cotton+dress.do?sortby=ourPicks&refType=&from=fn
3Image: O Ka Honua Plant-Based Performance Leggings $65, Happy Earth, https://www.happyearthapparel.com/collections/leggings/products/leggings
4Image: Knitted relief long cardigan, €240, mila.vert, https://www.milavert.com/collections/pullovers-jumpers/products/knitted-relief-long-cardigan
5Image: Athena Black Knee High Vegan Boots $430, Beyond Skin, https://beyond-skin.com/vegan-shoes/athena-black-knee-high-vegan-boots/
6Image: Back to Front Shirt Dress, $175, Aday, https://www.thisisaday.com/products/womens-long-shirt-dress-back-to-front
7Image: Longline Hooded Padded Coat Grey, $184, Monsoon, https://www.monsoonlondon.com/us/longline-hooded-padded-coat-grey-24649128.html?dwvar_24649128_color=CHARCOAL&quantity=1