How to: Capsule Wardrobe

I am writing this for someone who has never used a capsule wardrobe before.

First and foremost, why should you try a capsule wardrobe? In short, to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio. When I use a capsule wardrobe, I am reducing decision fatigue by avoiding paradox of choice issues. I am eliminating things which don’t make sense for the literal season of my life (some people set a capsule for ten days, a month, two months, three months, warm or cold months, or an entire year – more on that and some reasons why each is helpful, below).

I choose to link my capsule duration and change to the actual season – roughly the 21st of March for Spring, 21st of June for Summer, 21st of September for Autumn, and 21st of December for Winter (other than winter, these dates usually land the 20-23 of their respective months and I key to those exact days). I find this serves me well in terms of weather – I need to plan for significant temperature variation for spring and autumn, but I can plan on consistently hot weather by late June and consistently cold weather by late December, without significant change by 2-3 weeks into either September or December. Other folks with similar 3-month spans change over Jan 1, Apr 1, Jul 1, Oct 1. That’s where I started. But since I moved my dates up by 7-10 days, I’m much happier with my wardrobe.

OK. I get why. And even when. But HOW?

I start by considering color palette, weight, and calendar. Sometimes I just have a color palette already in mind, and sometimes I want to build from a key, multicolor piece. My goal is for every item, alone or in combination, to work with a variety of other pieces, circumstances, and weather conditions.

This was my inspiration piece for winter 2020-2021:

Navy, Burgundy, Gray/White…

This is, arguably, a perfectly-lovely piece for Autumn. I received it last Autumn in a Stitch Fix order, and wore the heck out of it last year in September and October. But this was my Fall palette (because Mama wanted rust/blush this year):

Fall 2020 Palette: rust, camel, slate, blush.

Throwing burgundy and navy in with the fall colors felt discordant. Trying to have half of my items work with rust and blush and half work with navy/burgundy would have meant half my wardrobe wasn’t functional on any given day. No thanks.

So my overarching colorway for Winter 20-21 is burgundy, navy, gray. I can deviate from this as much as I want to, as long as the item works within the overarching colorway. I also have a bit of hunter green for variety (yum), a HINT of rust and cream for warm contrast (good), and just a touch of black for grounding (a little goes a long way for me).

Next up is weight. Winter is often chilly here, and the days that are warmer often come with chilly winds or are overcast. Two months ago, I needed short sleeves. Now I can hardly bear to look at them. But that doesn’t mean there WON’T be a 70-degree day between now and late March. So I prioritize my coziest knits, long sleeves, thickest jeans, and closest neck cuts (crew- and turtle- over v- and scoop-necks). But I also throw in one or two short sleeves for those warm days, or even days when I’m so unbearably tired of feeling like I’m wearing the exact same thing over and over (no matter how many items I have, I’ll be as sick of jeans and sweaters by late March as I was excited about them in early October). This also means that I have a lot of pretty navy short-sleeved blouses that are great for a spring or summer capsule, but I’m not even considering them for this one.

Finally, calendar. What do I have planned between now and the end of the capsule? In 2020 to first-half 2021 when there’s a raging pandemic? NOT MUCH. I want to dress up a little for Christmas Eve, I guess. Maybe wear something nice on Christmas Day when I convince myself to take off my PJs just before lunch. Something comfy-fun for NYE at home, maybe? And definitely leggings on NY Day, when I might want to go on a decluttering bender (scratch that, WILL WANT TO). But when I am not socially isolated, I would need to plan on church clothes for Sundays, Christmas Eve performance, and maybe a choir or orchestra performance (this requires all black, business casual to semi-formal). If I had parties or weddings, I should plan for that. And if I have a lot of those things, I need to figure out which daily items can be dressed up, or whether I can rewear my fancier stuff from one event to the next. If building a capsule AND counting in these things is too impossible, creating “mini” capsules for things like formal wear (10 items, tops, say, that you mix and match for fancy events) are options, too. I’m sharing the rules I use — you can certainly make your own. If it doesn’t eliminate the stress and anxiety of a stuffed closet or too many choices, you’ll know and can tweak as you go. So! Not much to worry about this time, but I have a fun new-to-me skirt for Christmas Eve. The pandemic also makes choosing outerwear, shoes, and accessories easy, because my day-to-day is pretty consistent.

How many items do you choose? I follow Courtney Carver of Be More With Less’ Project 333. So I have 33 items for three months, and I’m finding it easier than ever. But if that feels too hard, ADD MORE. You’re not a fraud if you have 35, 40, or 50 items or tweak rules to work for you. The first year I did this in 2013, I did about 40 items over 2 months and didn’t include bags, accessories, or outerwear. I also let myself swap things in every month. And you know what? It’s too much and too frequent change for me in 2020, but I totally swapped a sweater for shoes I promised myself in my fall closet (new clogs). You do you. Adjust as necesssary.

What About Shopping?
Some folks do a no buy. I am allowed to shop for holes I discover in my current wardrobe or items for future capsules, but unless I specifically make a plan to swap something, I have to wait until the next appropriate capsule to use it. I incorporated the following new(-to-me) items in my winter capsule:

  • Pendelton paisley skirt (vintage, secondhand)
  • Reebok sneakers (new)
  • Levi’s Wedgie jeans (new)

I also ordered a navy turtleneck (secondhand) that hasn’t arrived yet. I planned to include it, but feel good about what I have. I might swap the poncho tneck sweater for it, or see if it’s a good weight for spring (it’s merino, but a loose weave that a lot of people say is good for transitional weather).

Nuts and Bolts. I have a ratio of roughly 2:1 tops/toppers to bottoms, 2:1 bottoms to shoes, and what needs to be warm outerwear for winter in a pandemic could be less outerwear and some more accessories in spring/summer/fall, or a mix of heavier and lighter outerwear, or layers. I laid everything out on my bed and added and subtracted until the final layout had 33 items and the right balance. In fact, I started with a bright red plaid shirt (it stuck out like a sore thumb, so I removed it), two coats (I don’t really need two coats; I’d rather have an extra sweater), and three pairs of shoes (none of which would look sufficiently dressy with the skirt I picked).

The end result:

(I won’t use the shoes on the door, save for athletic ones for athletic purposes only. I won’t use the items in grey bins or on the upper shelves. They are just storage and work well, so I’m not reinventing the wheel.)

What’s NOT included.

  • Underthings. Bras, underwear, camis you don’t wear as standalone tops, hosiery, socks.
  • Pajamas. Stuff you sleep in.
  • Loungewear. If you’re the sort of person who changes out of your stuff at the end of the day but not all the way into PJs, but wouldn’t wear that stuff as part of your regular day/go someplace clothing, it’s not included. For me, this is most of my sweatshirts, sweatpants, and a few pairs of leggings. It overlaps far more with pajamas than my daily wardrobe.
  • Activewear. So long as it is worn for working out and only working out (change into regular clothing afterward), it’s totally excluded.
  • Junk Clothes. I don’t include the stuff I paint the house or do yard work in, basically.

As I mentioned, you may also exclude: outerwear, jewelry, bags, formalwear, etc. You define your challenge. I am finding the greatest benefit in pushing for the “true” 333, but even then, I don’t have a shopping ban or ban on swaps, but I try to do these things as mindfully as possible.

Do you capsule?
Will you now?


xo, Roo

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