Building a Minimalist Capsule Wardrobe: How to Dress Better with Less
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Remember a few years ago when capsule wardrobes started becoming a trend? Personally, I had never given a thought to creating one. I thought I enjoyed having all my options – a giant stack of denim, rows of tops and dresses, and even more hats, scarves, and jewelry to boot. I was sure I needed most of these items that kept my closet full.
Then in 2017, I began a transition to living in a tiny space. I realized if I wanted to see this dream come true, there was no way I could take even 75% of my current wardrobe with me. That’s when a minimalist capsule wardrobe started to make sense. It’s also when I realized how much time and energy my over-flowing closet had been sucking from my life.
What is a Capsule Wardrobe?
The capsule wardrobe idea originated in France in the 1970s. Susie Faux came up with the concept of building a wardrobe with a few quality, seasonal, interchangeable pieces.
These pieces are usually pulled from your more extensive wardrobe and can be changed out seasonally.
What to Expect from a Minimalist Capsule Wardrobe
Once you commit to it, creating and maintaining a capsule wardrobe is an enjoyable process. It becomes almost addictive! You learn so much about yourself, including what clothes make you feel and look your best.
For me, the process allowed me to really define my style. Even though I lived in Colorado for over a decade, my North Carolina saltwater roots would always have some influence over my ski town wardrobe. When I later started living a nomadic and outdoor lifestyle, that change impacted my closet again.
I think everyone has a unique style – the things we’ve done, the places we’ve lived, and our current lifestyle all define our personal style. How these things manifest in the clothing we wear is all very individual.
Capsule Wardrobe Rules: Do You Need Them?
I like to make my own rules when it comes to capsule wardrobes.
Just because you live with a tiny wardrobe doesn’t mean you need to conform to a specific set of items.
As I scroll through Pinterest, many of the capsule wardrobes are based on a classic meets preppy neutral look. Although there’s nothing wrong with these, when was the last time you saw a mock-up of a boho-inspired capsule wardrobe or one with a color focus other than navy or tan? I hate to think people interested in creating their own capsule wardrobe are getting hung up on that.
You can create something that feels like you, and it doesn’t have to fit in a “khakis and a white tee” box if you don’t want it to.
In the spirit of this, I’m not going to tell you what to wear. Suggesting a little black dress or tan trench coat is necessary for your capsule wardrobe would not benefit you.
I will share with you how to build a minimalist capsule wardrobe that will help you get dressed quicker and easier with fewer clothes. And how to create it based on your taste, experiences, and lifestyle.
How Many Pieces Should Be in a Capsule Wardrobe?
Most people aim for somewhere between 30 and 50 pieces for a capsule. Some extreme minimalist wardrobes include less – maybe ten items and only one pair of pants, one or two tops, etc.
You can include (or not include) whatever clothing items you want in these numbers. I prefer to include:
I personally don’t like to include jewelry. Jewelry requires minimal space and can offer a creative outlet for accessorizing, so don’t put a limit on it if you don’t need to. I would still advise creating a jewelry portion of your capsule since it will help you dress faster.
It’s helpful to pick a number or range to aim for before building your capsule. This will give you a goal to strive for and keep you on track.
I personally have around 35 items in my capsule wardrobe. Still, it took me a while to become comfortable with that number of items. Remember, you can always pull things from packed-away clothing if you decide you need more options.
Extreme Minimalist Wardrobe
If you’re looking to simplify your life further and eliminate clothing clutter, you can opt for an extreme minimalist capsule wardrobe. This type of capsule may be as little as a 10-piece wardrobe containing only the essentials.
When building an extreme minimalist closet, it’s important to choose versatile pieces that can be mixed and matched to create multiple looks. With such few items available, every piece must be able to pair with the others in the wardrobe. Building this much flexibility might seem daunting, but it’s pretty simple once you learn how to adopt a minimalist wardrobe.
Here is an example of an 11-piece minimalist wardrobe I created.
- Pants – stretch canvas pants in olive
- Pants – denim jeans in black
- Skirt – cotton mini skirt in black/cream
- Tee – short-sleeve graphic tee in black
- Tee – short-sleeve graphic tee in cream/brown
- Tank – wide-strap tank in black
- Top – poncho top in mauve
- Wrap – wrap/cardigan in tan
- Jacket – denim jean-colored jacket
- Sandals – leather slides in black
- Sneakers – white sneakers with neutral accents
NOTE: All the above tops, bottoms, layers, and shoes are entirely interchangeable to create 48 unique outfits. In addition, you can tuck or tie tees in multiple ways to create different looks. I didn’t include accessories in the wardrobe count but allotted myself jewelry, a small crossbody bag, one pair of sunglasses, and a headscarf.
Getting Started with a Capsule Wardrobe
Before you even look at your closet, sit down with a pen and paper and think about the outfits you like to wear. Think about what you wore in the last week.
- What did you feel the best wearing?
- Did you wear anything that didn’t make you feel your best?
- What details can you record about the outfits you love? (Color, fit, style, etc.)
- What details can you recall about your least favorite outfits?
- What are your favorite ways to style your clothes? Tucking in tops, jewelry, other accessories such as hats or scarves, rolling up denim, etc.
Search your answers. Did you find any patterns? Many of us already have a personal uniform without even realizing it.
Did your favorite outfits include a specific color or clothing style (leggings, jacket, etc.) Are the outfits you love a slimmer fit or more relaxed?
Also, look for clues to styles that fit your body type. I’m pear-shaped, and no matter how much I like the look of those patterned capris, I know they’ll just make my wide hips look more prominent. Dark jeans with layered pieces on top will draw the eye up and away from my hips. Know your strengths, and play to them.
There’s no room in your capsule wardrobe for clothes that don’t make you look your best!
What about the way you style your clothes? Look for possible “style trademarks”. For example, do you like floral patterns, wear a lot of bracelets or big earrings, do you wear headbands or scarves? Maybe you love midi skirts!
Style trademarks are great in a minimalist wardrobe because they can guide you to dress confidently with fewer clothes in a unique way.
5 Tips for Creating a Minimalist Capsule Wardrobe
Once you’ve done your homework and figured out what clothes you love to wear, you’re ready to start building your capsule wardrobe.
1. Choose Quality Items
You’ll get more wear out of fewer items with a capsule wardrobe. So it’s essential to choose higher quality items that can handle the wear.
It may seem cheaper to buy the fast fashion leggings or the acrylic sweater that’s on sale. In reality, the quality item that will last years has a lower cost per wear. Not only that, but a high-quality item will provide a better fit and higher comfort level than its cheaply-made counterpart.
How to Identify High-Quality Items
Check the fabric. Natural fibers are usually best. Beware of items made entirely of synthetics (or semi-synthetics), such as polyester, acrylic, or viscose. But they aren’t all bad. Some of these fabrics are added to natural fibers to improve the final garment. Materials such as nylon, Spandex (also known as Lycra or elastane), and Tencel Lyocell (a form of rayon) are just a few fabrics that add water-resistance, stretch, durability, and other desirable properties to a piece of clothing.
Check the seams. Most importantly, inspect the clothing seams for loose threads and stitches and make sure they are straight and tight. The seams are usually the first thing to give away a low-quality piece of clothing since this is where manufacturers can save the most time and money.
DID YOU KNOW? The average American tosses out 82 pounds of textiles a year – 11 million tons from the U.S. alone. Source: The True Cost documentary
2. Focus on Layering
When building a minimal capsule wardrobe, a good strategy is to opt for clothing that can be layered. Layers allow you to use pieces in a lot of different ways.
- Pair leggings with a long sweater or cardigan, or wear them under a dress or skirt
- A denim jacket or cardigan can be worn over a tee or tank in warmer months or layered with a thicker jacket in winter
- Short-sleeve or tank dresses can be worn alone in the summer or layered under a cardigan or knit sweater in cool months
Versatile pieces in your wardrobe will help you minimize space and decision fatigue while giving you the option to create many different outfits.
3. Outfits for Your Lifestyle
Once you’ve started selecting items for your new minimalist closet, make sure to include clothes for all parts of your lifestyle.
- If you have a dress code at work, ensure you have enough pieces to create the number of outfits you need for the week.
- If you have a more casual dress code or work from home, you can combine your everyday and work clothing.
- If you usually dress up to go out, make sure you have enough interchangeable items to create Saturday night outfits.
To minimize pieces, identify crossover items that can work for multiple areas of your capsule. A basic dress can be dressed up for going out or dressed down for the office. Even if you’re creating a seasonal capsule, you’ll still want some items that work year-round in your wardrobe.
4. Don’t Replace Your Wardrobe All at Once
Before you run out and replace half of your wardrobe, make sure you’ve taken the time to really define your style. This can be a slow process, but well worth the reward.
As you begin to use your capsule in the real world, you’ll most likely find some items that are missing and items that aren’t working. Take your time, and figure out what you need and what you’ll actually wear.
For example, maybe you decide you need a cardigan.
Here are a few questions to ask to find a good match for your wardrobe.
- What material makes the most sense? Look for wool or a wool blend if you need something for cooler days.
- What color will work with multiple outfits? You can wear neutral colors like black or beige or throw in a bit of color with a mauve or olive tone.
- What length and other style features do you need? You might want a longer cardigan if you need something to wear with leggings. A button-up or a waist tie can offer more styling options.
Once you’ve narrowed down what item you need, see if it’s in your more extensive wardrobe. If not, add it to your shopping list.
It’s a rewarding process to shop for your carefully selected items. Once I find something on my list, I get so excited to add it to my wardrobe—the excitement of an entire shopping trip (previously) in one new item.
5. Properly Care for Your Minimalist Closet
Now that you’re dressing with fewer quality items, you’ll want to treat them well so they’ll last. Remember to pay attention to the care instructions for each garment, and follow these basic tips when possible.
- Wash your clothing on the cold setting with a non-harsh detergent
- Hang dry your clothes or lay them flat to dry to avoid shrinkage and pilling (if you use the dryer, use wool dryer balls instead of dryer sheets or softener)
- Treat stains carefully and with the right tools (we like this stain bar, this liquid stain treatment, and this fabric brush)
- Use a sweater comb to remove excess lint from sweaters and fleece items
If you take good care of your new small closet, it will take care of you!
Minimalist Capsule Wardrobe Checklist
Although the tips above will help you identify what you need in your capsule based on your personal style, sometimes we need a little help getting started.
Below is a checklist of items you may want to include in your capsule wardrobe. These items lend themselves to layering, as well as mixing and matching. Remember to keep comfort and durability in mind when choosing these items.
- Jeans – black or blue denim
- Leggings or Joggers – great for everyday wear (try leather leggings for a dressy option that only takes up a little space)
- Tees/Tanks – quality tee(s) or tanks in colors you love
- Blouses – a dressier top option that fits your color palette and compliments your body style
- Dresses – simple t-shirt dress or similar item that can be layered
- Skirts – long, short, mid-length (pair with a tee or dress up with a blouse or sweater)
- Cardigans – for layering with tees and tank tops (one light, breathable fabric, and one wool or heavier fabric)
- Jackets – casual denim or leather jacket in a neutral color
- Boots – short or tall (consider waterproof based on your location/lifestyle)
- Casual Shoes – sneakers or flats
- Sandals – a durable and comfortable sandal
- Handbags – one casual and one dressy crossbody or clutch (accessorize a simple casual bag for different seasons by tying a scarf on the handle or adding pins or bag charms)
When it comes to headwear, jewelry, sunglasses, and scarves, be sure to express your personality and use these items to convey your unique style.
Remember, you don’t HAVE to have any of the above items in your tiny wardrobe. It’s totally up to you based on your lifestyle and personal style.
Your Real-Life Minimalist Wardrobe
You’re not going to instantly have a fully functioning capsule wardrobe where you love every item and outfit. Creating your minimalist capsule wardrobe is a process.
You’ll learn more about what you really love and what you’re most comfortable in as you curate your closet. You’ll also start getting dressed much faster!
You’ll make mistakes and learn from them, and that’s ok. But you’ll make fewer mistakes if you take your time to hone in on your personal style.
MORE INSPIRATION: Check out The Curated Closet. This guide doesn’t give you a capsule wardrobe checklist. Instead, it hits on themes to create a color palette, recognize quality clothes, and define your uniform based on your unique style. I reread parts of this book whenever I revisit my wardrobe!
For more answers on why to have a minimalist wardrobe and dress with less, check out 6 Life-Changing Benefits of a Massive Clothing Purge.
Want to learn more about downsizing your closet to a minimalist wardrobe?
Check out our five-step guide to downsizing your wardrobe.
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Good info, enjoyable read but needs way more pictures!! Thanks for taking the time to write about your experience with capsule wardrobes and the things you’ve learned along the way. Happy travels!
Hey Sharayah, glad you found this post helpful. I’ll see if I can get some more pictures from my wardrobe for this one!
started this plan MANY years ago ago with a book called Color me (something) it had a section for all color preferences and lifestyles. Saved a lot of $$$$ and mistakes.
That’s so great to hear Emilie. Maybe it was the book ‘Color Me Beautiful’? I’m a big believer in finding the colors that make you look and feel your best. Very helpful tip!
Viscose is not a synthetic fiber. It is what rayon is called in most of the world outside of the US. Same fiber, made from wood pulp.
Hey Terry, thanks for taking the time to comment. I believe viscose is a semi-synthetic, so I have updated this section for more clarity. Thanks again!
still go to that book for inspiration
Just read this articles wish I know about capsule wardrobe been traveling quite alot since I retired the thing is I want to bring my whole wardrobe with me I dont even have coordination on what to bring.Just came back a day ago from our close to 4 week stay in the Philippines.I have some unnecessary clothes dont even wear.I am so glad I read this article .Hope to remember this .for my next trip in March 2023.Thankyou
Hey Julie, I’m glad you found this article helpful! Like many things, capsule wardrobes take a little practice, but traveling is a great way to hone your skills 🙂 I bet you’ll do a lot better on your March trip. Best of luck!