A capsule wardrobe is a fantastic thing. Whether you want to save money by buying less, help the planet by consuming fewer resources, or make getting dressed a breeze, having a small number of clothes you love is a great way to go about it.
My husband teases me because I love making packing lists for trips. I start my list weeks in advance, and carefully select which clothes I want to pack so that I am prepared for any event while bringing the fewest items possible. There’s something so enjoyable about opening a drawer in my hotel room with a beautifully curated selection of KonMari-folded clothes and knowing whatever I pull out will go together perfectly.
I’ve never succeeded at maintaining a capsule wardrobe for my real life, for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ll address in this post. But I’m in the process of building a wardrobe of handmade clothing that will, by necessity, likely be a capsule wardrobe for the foreseeable future (simply because of how long it takes to make anything) and I wanted to share what I’ve learned so far.
There are two main components to creating a capsule wardrobe that suits your personal style. The first is actually defining what that personal style is. You can’t create a small, cohesive wardrobe you love if you don’t know what you love or how to make it cohesive.
The second component is building and refining your wardrobe until every piece in it is a perfect reflection of your personal style. It can take time to do this well, and it’s important not to rush this process – that’s how you end up discarding 90% of your clothes only to rush out and buy more because you don’t have enough to make it through the work week without doing laundry (trust me, I’ve been there).
My personal rule is to only discard clothes that no longer serve a purpose. For everyday clothing, this is simple enough. If I don’t wear it, then I should give or sell it to someone who will. For special occasion clothing, it’s a bit trickier, because I might not wear a particular dress for a couple of years but I absolutely love it and wear it any chance I get. That said, it boils down to the same thing: If I had an event coming up where it would be appropriate attire, would I wear it? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the answer is “yes, but only because I don’t have anything better” or “yes, it’s the one cocktail dress out of the five I have that I reach for every time”. In the first case, I should hold onto it until I have actually replaced it, so that I can take my time and find (or make) a replacement I love. In the second case, I should hold onto it because I love it, while the answer to the question for the other dresses would be a “no” and into the donation bin they would go.
Developing your personal style
Seek out inspiration
I have two different Pinterest boards for my own personal style. The first one has over 300 pins, and it’s every image that I saw and went, “hey, I like that!” The styles within range from grunge to fantasy-inspired to Edwardian to cottagecore and more.
The second board has 41 pins, and is much more selective. I could have done with just one board and simply deleted the extra 250+ pins, but I wanted to keep it as a record, so instead I created a second board. This second board I sort through and winnow on a more frequent basis, removing anything that I don’t feel still fits and adding anything I think is missing. This is the board that more closely embodies my own personal style, rather than simply everything I looked at and thought, “oh, that’s pretty!”
Once you’ve done this, you should hopefully be able to identify some patterns, and perhaps a colour scheme. In my case, I see a lot of tartans and tweeds and layers, lots of full skirts and white and ecru blouses, and lots of deep neutrals and rich cool tones like wine and teal.
By now you should have a solid sense of your ideal style. However, your ideal style and your true style might actually be quite far from each other. I went through several rounds, over quite a few months, of adding and removing items from my personal style board before I hit upon what I think is the right style for me.
This is where it’s important to consider your actual life. Is your Pinterest board full of cocktail dresses, but you go to an average of one wedding a year? Or perhaps it’s full of strappy sundresses, but you live in Alberta.
In my case, my ideal style is full of tartan skirts, woolly cardigans, and tweed waistcoats. Where I live, these are fantastic clothes – for about half the year. They are not fantastic clothes in the summer when the humidex is over 40C.
This doesn’t mean that I must completely abandon my personal style in the summer. I can keep the full skirts (made from cotton or linen rather than wool), but perhaps have short-sleeved blouses and no other layers. There are only one or two short-sleeved blouses on my style board, but this is a case where it’s best to make a relatively minor adjustment to my style in order to stay comfortable.
The other thing that’s worth considering is your body shape. I don’t for a second believe this claptrap that you should identify your body shape’s so-called shortcomings and then dress in a way that minimises them, where “flattering” is code for “makes you look thinner”. However, that doesn’t mean that your body shape has no impact on the way the clothes you wear look; the same dress will hang very differently on a slender, angular figure than on a softer, curvier one, and it’s important to be sure that your sense of style is something you like on YOUR body.
I think of it like the interplay between furniture and architecture. When I moved in with my now-husband ten years ago, he had this hideous chest of drawers. It had brass drawer pulls, a walnut veneer, and it looked horrendous in our flat, which was in a building that had been gutted and redone a decade earlier. His parents had bought it for him in an antique shop and we think it’s from around the 1930s.
I hated that thing. I hated it so much I hid it in a closet so I didn’t have to look at it. I hated it so much I wanted to sell it or donate it when we moved to Canada, but my husband refused. It had been a gift from his parents, and he loved that thing.
When we moved into a flat here, we didn’t have space in our bedroom for a chest of drawers, and it wouldn’t have fit well in the walk-in closet. It found its way to a corner of my parents’ dining room, where my mum uses it to store the table linens.
And, dear reader, that chest of drawers is absolutely beautiful. My parents’ house dates to the Edwardian era, and the tall ceilings and varnished oak skirting boards make it come alive. It looks fantastic in their dining room, and when I see it there I wonder how I ever thought it was ugly.
As it turns out, there was nothing wrong with the chest of drawers at all. It was just the wrong style for the much more contemporary style of the flat. The kind of furniture that did look good in that flat, with sleek lines and right angles, doesn’t work in my parents’ house at all.
I tend to think of clothing in the same way. If your style board is full of tall, willowy women and you’re short and curvy, then you may not like those clothes on your own body. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your body or your self-image – it just means that you liked how those clothes looked on them, but not on yourself (although it says something about the bodies that we as a society consider to be better that it’s easy to fill a Pinterest board with images of tall, slender women but much harder to do so with other figures).
Or you may find that even though those are all styles that look “bad” on your figure, you love them anyway. And that’s fine, too! Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t wear something because you have the “wrong” body for it. If you love it, then wear it with pride.
But it’s also okay to say that you like a particular style, but not on your own body. I like a lot of loose linen dresses, for instance, but on my curvy figure they just look boxy; on me I prefer something with a defined waist, and so that’s what I gravitate towards. Another woman with a different figure and the same tastes might favour the loose linen dresses and not like how high-waisted skirts look on her. Neither of us has the “right” or “wrong” figure; they’re just different and when defining your personal style it’s helpful to consider how that style fits with your body shape.
Evaluate your existing clothes
The final step in defining your personal style is to evaluate the clothing you already have. Even if you think you absolutely hate everything in your wardrobe, it’s worth going through these steps.
First of all, look at the things you wear the most, and consider why you do so. In my case, I was mostly wearing some iteration of jeans and a t-shirt, largely because it was convenient. I have a number of t-shirts in neutral colours, a couple of pairs of jeans, and some flannel shirts and cardigans, and I would mostly just pick and mix from within that.
This tells me three important things for building my own capsule wardrobe. One, that I like to layer lighter-weight tops with warmer layers, because I have a range of approximately 0.7 degrees where I’m comfortable and I’m otherwise too hot or too cold. Two, that I like to have an outfit formula that I can follow from day to day, where I switch up the specific items I wear, but I’m still wearing the same basic outfit. And finally, that although I love skirts on an aesthetic and sensory level, I often gravitate towards trousers because they’re easier.
Translating this to my new personal style, which is full of blouses and full skirts and cardigans, I would expect to have a couple of full skirts, several different blouses, and a couple of cardigans that I can mix and match from day to day. It’s essentially the same formula I already follow, but the details have changed. I also know I shouldn’t rush to get rid of my jeans, because as much as I do want to incorporate more skirts, there may well come occasions (particularly when we’re allowed out again) that I just feel more comfortable in trousers.
After the items you wear the most, think about the ones you love the most. Are these the same items? If not, why not? Maybe it’s a blouse you love that never quite fit right and you just need to get it tailored. Maybe your favourite item is a cocktail dress that you wear to every wedding you’re invited to, but it still sits in the back of your closet for 363 days a year – and it’s entirely up to you whether you sell it to someone who would get better use out of it and wear a more versatile dress to those events, or if you keep it and continue to wear it whenever you can.
Or maybe they’re clothes you love but they don’t actually fit your style as you defined it earlier. They might be colours that you don’t like with your complexion, or styles you don’t like on your figure, or they’re billowy dresses and you like slim-cut jeans. It’s perfectly fine and normal to love clothes and also acknowledge they’re not part of your style.
The third group of items to consider is anything that you thought you loved, but actually don’t. This is a trickier question, so I’ll give an example. I have three tiered wrap skirts – all the same skirt, but in three colours. I bought the first one and absolutely loved it, so I bought two more in different colours. I wore them for a few months, and then they were slowly relegated to the back of my closet.
Starting with what I loved about them, they were long and flouncy and swishy. Indeed, my style board is full of big skirts that flounce and swish. I also loved the colours: I had teal, grey and wine, which are the three colours that make up most of my personal style.
But the devil, as they say, is in the details. For one thing, they were ever so slightly too long, so I had to wear heels with them, and I tend to prefer flats. I couldn’t readily hem them, either, as they were edged in eyelet lace. For another, they were one-size wrap skirts, and that one-size was smaller than me. This meant the darts were in the wrong place and the skirts never quite wrapped right. Plus because of the wrap style, there was a big bulky bow at my waist that made my short torso look even shorter if I wore it at my waist, and that made my waist disappear entirely if I wore it lower on my hips. And on more than one occasion I got the bow caught in an errant door handle.
From this rather expensive mistake, I’ve learnt that I like skirts that are fitted around my waist and hips and flare out with plenty of body to my ankles. And so I made one like that, and a petticoat to go under it, and you can see the glorious swish in the image for this post.
Building your capsule wardrobe
Armed with a strong sense of your personal style, suited to your own life as well as your preferences, it’s time to start building your capsule wardrobe. Unless you have recently purged your closet, chances are you have plenty of clothes, you just might not like many (or any) of them.
The biggest piece of advice that I can give at this stage, learnt from many failures in the past, is to not discard anything you wear regularly. Shortly before moving to Canada, I went on a KonMari binge and got rid of so many clothes for relatively minor flaws. One top was actually one of my favourites, but it was slightly too small in the shoulders and not quite in the right colour scheme, so in the donation bin it went. But there was really nothing wrong with it. It was a stretchy knit, so being slightly too small in the shoulders wasn’t insurmountable, and while the brown and gold tones were warmer than I tend to favour, the predominant colour was navy blue, which is a major neutral tone in my wardrobe. I was so obsessed with perfection that I discarded a perfectly serviceable top.
The bigger problem, however, was that this was one of the better tops in my wardrobe. By the time I was through, I had so few tops left that within a few months I was in panic-buying mode, and I ended up getting quite a few “okay, but not great” fast fashion t-shirts to try and plug the gaps in my wardrobe.
I tend to overheat easily, and my office building is warm year-round, so I need a minimum of 5 tops just to get through the work week. Because I like to separate my laundry by weight/colour to help things last as long as possible, I prefer to have at least a fortnight’s worth of items so I don’t have to do multiple loads in a single weekend. This means that I really need about 12-14 tops, and I had about 4.
This time round, I’m not getting rid of anything just yet. As I build up my wardrobe with more blouses that I love, my existing tops are likely to fall out of the rotation, and when they do I’ll donate them, but until then I’ll hold onto them so I don’t find myself in a situation where I literally do not have anything to wear. This follows my personal rule of getting rid of anything that no longer serves a purpose; the purpose of “keeping me clothed and looking okay” isn’t as exciting as “being absolutely beautiful and making me look awesome”, but the first one is basically what clothes are for, so it shouldn’t be discounted.
When building a capsule wardrobe, it’s best to go slowly. If you’re buying the best quality you can afford, and from ethical and sustainable sources as much as possible, then unless you’re very well off you’ll likely encounter budgetary constraints, and perhaps only be able to add a new item every month or three. At that rate, it would take a year to just get a fortnight’s worth of much-loved blouses.
Even if money isn’t an object, it’s better to take the time to find the perfect item rather than settling for something “good enough”, so that’s why I like to keep the “good enough” clothes that I already have rather than discarding them and rushing to replace them and ending up with something of comparable calibre.
Additionally, the basic items that you don’t love might work just fine with a few other changes. In my case, for instance, I had no skirts. My Pinterest board was full of skirts, but there were none in my closet (other than the wrap skirts that we’ve established I dislike). Which brings me to my next point, which is to start with the items that will make the biggest impact. I made a skirt and a petticoat, and suddenly my plain t-shirts fit just fine into the overall silhouette I’m going for, particularly if I throw a cardigan or shawl over them. Over time, I’ll replace them with handmade blouses, and when they fall out of my rotation I’ll donate them.
If you, too, feel like your current wardrobe and your inspiration board are on opposite poles, try to identify one or two items that will make your existing wardrobe more tolerable. It might be the perfect scarf, or a new pair of jeans, that transforms your existing clothes from blah to acceptable.
Make a plan
Because building a capsule wardrobe takes time, it’s important to go in with a plan. You may not know exactly every item you want to add to your wardrobe, and you’ll likely change your mind about things as you progress (I’m pretty sure the plan I just linked is outdated by now!), but it’s good to have a basic plan. In my case, I selected a few blouse and skirt patterns I wanted to make, and I also settled upon a colour scheme.
Colour schemes for capsule wardrobes are tricky things. I remember when I first discovered capsule wardrobes when I was an undergraduate, and there were all these rules about how you should have a little black dress (not a good option for a pale-skinned, mousy-haired Scot) or you should stick to X number of neutrals and Y number of colours. I found this so overwhelming because I would think I had my three colours, only to remember my favourite cardigan was in a fourth colour, and my go-to scarf was a fifth. In reality, all the colours in my wardrobe still worked with each other. Most of my neutral-toned clothes were grey and navy, with a little bit of black (I never liked black on me with my natural hair colour, but since I started dyeing it red I’ve been wearing more and more of it), while the colours were cool tones that complemented each other as well as the neutrals: burgundy and sapphire, rose and lilac.
For the wardrobe I’m creating now, I’ve decided to use neutrals for most of my tops and cardigans, and then make dresses and skirts from any colour. “Any colour”, in this case, is likely to still work with my existing burgundy winter coat and the pink scarf I bought in Paris when I was 15, because the colours I gravitate towards are all in a similar colour palette. For neutrals, I’m likewise going to mostly stick to cooler tones – greys and blacks and whites – but with room for some warmth in whisky-brown leather and cream-coloured blouses. In addition, I have a number of coloured tops and scarves already that I will integrate into my capsule wardrobe, including the burgundy blouse you see in this post’s image. This is why I chose black for my first skirt, because it goes with all my existing tops beautifully, and I’m sure I’ll get lots of wear out of it.
You don’t need to pick a specific palette of three neutrals, two colours, and one accent colour. You can if you like, and Anuschka Rees has a couple of fantastic articles on how to do so if that’s what you’d like to do, but if you’re like me and you find it stressful to try to incorporate both your lovely rose cardigan and your lilac linen top, then it can be helpful to have vaguer rules. Perhaps you’ll stick to warm, earthy tones – russets and moss greens and golds and browns – or, like me, you’ll use neutrals for most pieces and allow more freedom with colour for one part of your wardrobe.
A final note
I hope this post helps in your journey towards a capsule wardrobe that fits your personal style. One last thing I’d like to say is that it’s okay if the process feels messy and disorganised at times; that’s why it’s so important to go slowly when it comes to acquiring and discarding new clothes. One thing that I am doing rather accidentally by making everything myself is that I’m giving myself time to integrate each piece into my wardrobe before getting doubles or similar items.
For instance, I absolutely love this new long skirt. I have plans to make several more long skirts, because I love it so much. However, I have also stepped on it more than once climbing up the stairs, particularly when I’m carrying a cup of tea and a snack up to my office. By the time I am prepared to make another skirt (I have socks, a shawl, and a pirate shirt to get to first), I will have a better idea of whether this is a good everyday skirt or if I should make more skirts knee-length and keep the long ones for occasional wear.
This also means I’ll avoid the problem I had with those three wrap skirts, where I thought I loved them but the shine quickly wore off. Whether you’re buying or making your clothes, I would recommend doing the same. Give yourself time to really integrate a new item into your wardrobe before buying doubles or similar items, especially if it’s different from your current daily wear (if you already wear lots of sundresses and buy a new sundress that you love, then you’re probably safe to buy it in another colour, but if it’s your first sundress then hold off a little longer).