Some Style: Examining Capsule Wardrobes

The capsule wardrobe is a concept that’s been around for decades, but has seen a solid boost in popularity in recent years. It’s a movement entwined with others, like minimalism and slow fashion, that seem to respond to the spectacularly privileged issue of overconsumption and its ensuing effects: decision fatigue, overspending, and climate change – to name a few.

Targeted at people with overwhelming closets, a capsule wardrobe is typically a small set of practical, rewearable pieces curated from your larger inventory of clothing. There are innumerous frameworks, permutations, and printable templates, but the way I see it there are two variables: number of items and time. And the challenge is balancing the two until you find your Goldilocks combination that gives you desired versatility, while meeting your everyday needs.

There’s also the notion of a capsule as simply a collection of items – time notwithstanding – like a set of essentials you mix with a rotation of other, more exciting items. For ardent minimalists, or your frugal, no-nonsense grandmother, they may already have a permanent small wardrobe that holds, say, 20-50 items, in which case the challenge of creating a capsule may be rendered null. This approach is arguably the most efficient, where everything fits a cohesive style, gets worn in multiple ways, and nothing is hidden away in the back.

But considering the reality that most Westerners, like me, enjoy a much bigger wardrobe than they really need, I like the addition of the time constraint: these are the pieces you get to wear within this period of time. It’s the reason I like packing for travel so much and being challenged to dress myself for all sorts of situations with the limited items in my backpack. When I pack poorly, it can be horrible (picture shivering in the rain in a sodden sundress), but when I pack just the right ingredients, I can make some delicious meals.

I think the capsule wardrobe could be an interesting training program to help you better use what you have, while reducing the sensation of not having anything to wear and helping you reflect on what it is you truly need. Capsule wardrobes can be user-friendly interfaces to the messy, wiry back-end that modern wardrobes have become. Since I started thinking about my closet in a more conscious way, I’ve dabbled in capsule creating, but never intentionally tried to follow some prescribed formula – and, really, I don’t think you need to in order to absorb its lessons of making more out of less. Then again, the scientific method enthusiast in me is always down for a good experiment.

Here, I’ve selected a few rather distinct “capsule wardrobe” concepts to review and discuss: what it is, how I would approach it, and how feasible I think it would be for my life. While I doubt I’ll want to adopt any of these models as a permanent practice, the notion of the capsule wardrobe as an creative exercise has always piqued my curiosity. Maybe you are curious, too.

Project 333

One of the most prolific minimalist fashion challenges out there, Project 333 was conceived by Courtney Carver in 2010, whose followers count other popular bloggers and readers alike.

The idea: Select 33 items to wear for 3 months, including clothing, accessories, and shoes (though one’s going to hang you for 29 or 36)

My take: The relative simplicity of this capsule concept makes it approachable for someone who wants to test the waters of minimalism without diving into sparsity. I think that 33 items over 3 months is plenty, and not so much some aspiring challenge designed to trip you up, but a reasonable approach that can be easily adopted and perhaps sustained. It allows a good amount of variety – there’s room for the jeans you’ll wear 20 times a season and the cocktail dress you might only wear once, due to the severe lack of date nights in your life. Depending on the types of pieces you choose, 33 items could result in hundreds of combinations, many of which you won’t even get to wear in your 90 days.

Unintentionally, I’m already doing this with my rotation of seasonal items. Due to my wardrobe composition, I naturally wear somewhere in the ballpark of 33 items a season without having to plan for it. Pictured below are the 27 items that comprise my summer wardrobe, although I will mix in a pair of running shorts or an old, lounge-y tank top here and there. Shoes are not pictured, but I have 3 pairs that I wear regularly in the summer. I also have 2 purses that get moderate use (I usually just tote around a canvas grocery bag) and one woven hat. All that tallied up miraculously comes to 33, which makes me feel like I’ve won a game of blackjack or something. Some of the pieces in my “capsule” are more rewearable than others, but when you have more items to play with, not everything needs to be a workhorse. Overall, I think Project 333 is well-balanced in terms of number of items and time, but for someone who’s already on the small wardrobe path, perhaps you’re looking for a more meaningful challenge.

Ten-Item Wardrobe / 10×10

A not-insignificant not step down takes us to 10 items; here, we have the Ten-Item Wardrobe, a concept popularized by Jennifer L. Scott, who was inspired by the succinct wardrobes of the French, and the 10×10 Challenge, created by blogger Stylebee during a self-imposed shopping fast.

The ideas: The Ten-Item Wardrobe is a capsule of 10 core items, curated per season, that may be rounded out with “extra” pieces of clothing, shoes, and accessories. The 10×10 Challenge similarly whittles your wardrobe down to a 10-piece set – including shoes, but not accessories – to be worn and styled interchangeably over 10 days.

My take: To me, 10 is a solid number of items to have in a capsule, if you’re looking for a challenge, but don’t want to feel stuck wearing the same things. It’s usually the magic number of clothing items I bring on a trip, whether I’m going away for a week or a month. Ignoring the “extra pieces” clause, wearing the same 10 items for 3 months is an endeavour I’d be willing to take on, if I wasn’t actively trying to get adequate use out of all the clothes I have. While I think it’s doable, picking those 10 items would definitely come with some stressful decisions and require intimate knowledge of local weather patterns. A less risky approach is the 10×10 Challenge, where there’s less pressure riding on the pieces you pick because you’ll only be wearing them for 10 days. As a notorious outfit repeater, this challenge is again something I’ve probably done without paying attention. However, I do think it could be an interesting tool for working in the items that you get least wear out of; a 10×10 with my most-worn pieces might be a breeze, but add in the pieces I have trouble styling and the challenge is back on.

In my hypothetical 10 item capsule, I’ve included several of my well-worn basics, like the navy silk skirt and white shell top. As a wildcard, I’ve thrown in my lilac slip dress – an item I love, but seldom wear (note: there are 9 pieces pictured, minus my black leather sandals that I wear almost everyday). I’ve also sketched some of the outfits I could compose with this collection: the striped tank and navy skirt combo is one of my go-to looks, but tucking the slip dress into pants, like a camisole, would certainly be a sartorial experiment for me. This is a capsule that I could easily see myself living with for 10 days or more. An entire season, on the other hand, would be tricky, and I’d probably have to swap the fun silk dress for something a little more utilitarian, like a button up or long sleeve shirt. In my opinion, a challenge that nests in the middle of these two approaches, like 10 items x 30 days, would be a better item : time ratio.

A Single Dress / Outfit

Reducing the capsule’s scope to its smallest unit, could you wear a single outfit for 5 days / a month / 100 days / a year? More rogue, one-off projects for capsule extremists than organized movements, I’ve pulled a few examples of wearing one outfit for varying durations to discuss. Emily of Cupcakes and Cashmere wore the same shirt-pants combination for five consecutive days, while Maria of Gold Zipper donned the same little back dress for a month. Continuing the trend of black dresses, the brand wool& challenged participants to spend 100 days in its merino swing dress, while Elizabeth Withey stretched her Frock Around the Clock project to a whole year.

The idea: Pretty self-explanatory: 1 dress/outfit : x consecutive days. However, shoes, accessories, and other layering pieces are not counted in this loosely capsule-esque challenge. (There is also the approach of having multiples of the same t-shirt + sweatpants ensemble à la your billionaire Silicon Valley mogul, but I think that’s cheating a bit.)

My take: Of all the capsule challenges, this is arguably the most ambitious, and is the one I’m most enamoured with. Whether I could do it in practice is a different story, but in theory, I like the idea of wearing a single outfit day after day, and the aesthetic satisfaction of waking up to that single dress, on a single hanger. The one-outfit capsule could be construed as a creative challenge (hair! makeup! accessories! layering!) or it could be about embracing austerity and restraint. Whether you treat it as a palate cleanse or a Masterchef challenge is up to you – personally, I think I’d fall somewhere in the middle, giving myself over to my laziest tendencies, while busting out the lipstick when I feel like it.

Summer is probably not the ideal time to do this kind of challenge, due to the elevation in heat and sweat, but I’d probably choose this silk tank dress from Everlane for such an experiment. It’s breezy, cool, durable, easy to wash in the sink, and quick to dry. I can wear it holed up at home, which is where I spend the majority of my time these days, or to go out, and it’d be easy to throw on a jacket or layer something underneath. In terms of challenge duration, I have the eliminate the year-long experiment; I commend those who’ve done it, but it’s neither feasible nor desirable for me. 100 days in a dress would only be doable should wool& kindly provide me with one of their awesome dresses… Realistically, 5 days to a week is probably my limit, but I do have this fantasy of travelling to a (temperature-stable) place with no clothes, but the one all-purpose outfit I’m wearing and a knapsack full of books.


In examining these different “capsule wardrobe” concepts, I have just a few overall thoughts. Firstly, I think a seasonal or monthly capsule of limited items would work best for me – it’s a good amount of time to experiment with a set of clothes and allows me to tailor my choices to the climate. Second, I think capsule wardrobes should be treated as fun exercises, a means of gaining self-insight, rather than grudging, inflexible tasks. For that reason, I don’t think any of these capsule methods would work for me as a permanent ritual – and most of them are posed as challenges rather than wardrobe dogma, anyway. Whether or not I start a capsule tomorrow, I’m inspired to experiment more with my own wardrobe and to see my clothes through the lens of “collections” rather than the random assortment of pieces they are.

6 thoughts on “Some Style: Examining Capsule Wardrobes

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  1. I’ve been doing a capsule wardrobe for a couple of years now and really like it. I take everything out of the closet every three months and go through it. The first time it took me 2 days. Making the decisions of what to keep and what I need to replace got a whole lot easier over time, so now it takes less than a day. Over time, I donated any items I had trouble styling, so everything pretty much goes with everything else. If I later wear something that all of a sudden fits weird or makes me feel dowdy, I just put it in the ‘get rid of’ pile when I get home.

    I store the ‘off season’ clothes in a bin and return the current season items to the closet. To start, I turn all the hanger handles towards the front. Later, as I wear clothes, I re-hang them with the hangers facing the other way. Then, three months later, it’s easy to see what I wore and what I didn’t wear.

    I live in Southern California, so a good portion of my wardrobe is year-round, with extra layers for cooler weather. I have somewhere around 30 items, give or take. Honestly, I could probably cut that in half, since I tend to wear the same few things over and over.

    I’m a simple dresser and don’t require a lot of variety. But I do like to look ‘put together’ and the capsule wardrobe makes that easier. I feel more confident and relaxed in an outfit that I’m comfortable in.

    PS I like your ‘pack 10 items for a trip’ idea. I’ll try that next time I travel. If we ever get to travel again!
    🙂

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    1. It’s awesome that you’ve been able to keep it up over time – it seems like you have a very thoughtful approach to managing your wardrobe. I too hope we get to travel again soon. Thanks for reading!

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  2. The 333 and 10×10 challenges appeal. Definitely couldn’t handle wearing the same item every day for a week though. I think that one relies on having a personal style that makes a lot of use of accessories.

    In the sewing blog world some people do SWAP (sewing with a plan) to create mini wardrobes where everything works together. It’s surprisingly difficult to design one, having tried lately.

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      1. My goodness I like that blazer dress. Hadn’t heard of Vetta before – thanks! This has inspired me to have a closer look at my Vogue Wardrobe patterns too; sets of patterns that are meant to work together.

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