How to Build a Capsule Wardrobe With What’s Already in Your Closet

by John Stapel

Capsule wardrobes may sound like a new-age concept, but budgeting experts and fashionistas alike have been promoting this approach to thinning out closets for decades.

A capsule wardrobe isn’t just an effort to buy and wear a specific number of coordinated outfits. It’s a minimalist approach to fashion that anchors your daily decision about what to wear with timeless pieces.

From a great pair of wide-leg trousers to a slip dress, these clothing staples are the building blocks for a more versatile wardrobe and an intentional approach to personal style.

April Grow, the founder of Stunning Style, encourages her followers to embrace capsule wardrobes not only to save money but to reduce stress and impulse shopping.

“It may seem like narrowing down the pieces in your closet would make it harder to find something to wear — but it actually has the opposite effect,” insists Grow. “When you fill your closet with only pieces you love, (that) fit you well and go with everything else, getting dressed in the morning is a breeze.”

What Is a Capsule Wardrobe?

A capsule wardrobe is a limited, curated collection of clothing, shoes and accessories that can help you live simply while reducing decision fatigue — à la Barack Obama and Steve Jobs.

A capsule wardrobe generally consists of 30 to 50 pieces that you can mix and match to create outfits. Most of the clothing in a capsule wardrobe will be classic pieces like tailored trousers or a trench coat.

Grow says the goal is to create an effortlessly styled look that you can layer with statement pieces or accessories.

“Always start with your wardrobe basics. I call them the unsung heroes of the closet, and they are the foundation of every wardrobe and outfit,” she says. “Just like a house needs a foundation to support the walls, windows and other beautiful architectural features, so does your wardrobe. Wardrobe basics are neutral, classic items that go with anything.”

How the Capsule Wardrobe Got Started

According to internet fashion folklore, the term “capsule wardrobe” was coined by a London boutique owner named Susie Faux.

In the ’70s, she made it her mission to help women find their personal style by honing and focusing their wardrobes. And she found a magic formula that just seemed to work.

Faux instructed her clients to:

  • Start with classic, neutral basics to mix, match and reuse.
  • Throw in a few statement pieces to inject some personality.
  • Leave a little wiggle room to bring in seasonal or on-trend items once in a while.

And just like that, the capsule wardrobe was born.

Can You Save Money With a Capsule Wardrobe?

Building a capsule wardrobe doesn’t mean you need to go on a shopping spree. In fact, a good capsule wardrobe should save you money each season by leveraging the same timeless pieces mixed and layered in different outfits.

You may buy a few new pieces to fill out your capsules but you’ll likely spend less than the $1,434 a year the average consumer puts into clothes and shoes. At least some of that money could go toward another financial goal when you take a more intentional approach to shopping.

A capsule wardrobe sits on hangers on a clothing rack. Photo courtesy of Meach Zavodny/ More by Meach

Time Is Money When it Comes to Capsule Wardrobes

Lifestyle blogger and content creator Meach Zavodny of More by Meach advises that capsule wardrobes do far more than save money.

“The best part about a capsule wardrobe is that it eliminates so much unnecessary work,” Zavodny says. “With it, I have fewer clothes, and that means less laundry to manage and things to store and organize. It also makes it easier to get dressed in the morning!”

Minimalists, busy professionals and budget-minded folks alike embrace the capsule wardrobe approach because it does more than clear closet clutter. It saves precious time. And If done correctly, you’ll get more value out of pieces because you’ll wear them longer.

How Do I Start a Capsule Wardrobe?

Fashion experts have thrown out plenty of arbitrary rules over the years as the concept has evolved, but there are no hard and fast boundaries when creating your capsule wardrobe.

Here are some general guidelines from personal stylists on how to build a capsule wardrobe of high-quality pieces.

Step 1: Weed Out Your Closet

Before you can put your capsule wardrobe together, you have to level your current closet. But remember, starting a capsule wardrobe doesn’t mean starting from scratch, Zavodny says.

“First, start with what you have! I actually created a free, downloadable capsule wardrobe checklist that helps people audit their closet and uncover gaps. When using it, a lot of people find that they already own plenty of pieces that can be integrated into their capsule wardrobe,” she says.

Start by pulling literally everything you own out of your closet and piling it some place where you have space to work, like on the bed. Clothes, shoes, accessories — everything. Then, separate everything into four piles:

  • Like
  • Love
  • Donate (or sell!)
  • Trash (or recycle)

Step 2: Only Keep the Clothing You Love or Like

When you sort everything into these piles, take time to try things on and notice how they make you feel. Be honest with yourself about if you’ll ever really wear it again. If you haven’t worn something in more than six months or you wouldn’t be willing to wear it in public tomorrow because of how it fits, it’s probably time to let go.

Once you’ve got everything sorted, bag up the donate and trash piles and move them to the trunk of your car or garage. Don’t let them languish in your closet.

A rack of seasonal clothing for a capsule wardrobe. Photo courtesy of Meach Zavodny/ More by Meach

Step 3: Take Stock and Sort Capsule Wardrobes Seasonally

First things first: Your capsule wardrobe should consist of only clothing you like and that you like on your body, and generally includes neutral colors and styles that you can mix and match frequently.

Think more about what makes sense for you instead of limiting yourself to a set number of pieces in a capsule, says Grow of Stunning Style.

“I don’t believe one number of items in a capsule wardrobe is perfect for every woman. It’s really up to her,” Grow says. “For some women, it’s more, and for others, it’s fewer.”

Each “capsule” should last for three months. Focus on putting together seasonal capsules until you get the hang of it. And make sure your capsules have enough outfits for going out on the town as well as more casual moments.

Creating a capsule wardrobe is a marathon, not a sprint. Prioritize. Add what you can, when you can. And make sure everything you invest in will help you to reach that end goal.

Step 4: Build a Foundation With the Basics

Now that you’re left with your “like” and “love” piles, sorted by season, it’s time to create your first capsule.

Pick your top one or two favorites from each of the following categories. We’ve also included some specific clothing suggestions to make a great capsule wardrobe.

  • Tailored trousers or pants
  • Jeans (skinny jeans, relaxed jeans — you choose)
  • Skirts (denim skirt, pencil skirt)
  • Dresses (Sweater dresses, slip dresses, little black dress)
  • T-shirts (white T-shirt, tank top)
  • Nice tops (white shirt)
  • Sweaters
  • Jackets (black blazer, denim jacket)
  • Swim/outerwear (depending on the season)
  • Shoes
  • Jewelry
  • Accessories (sunglasses, bags, etc.)

Once you have a couple of good basics in each category, start filling in the gaps. Opt for versatile pieces that can do double duty. A sweater that works equally well on a slouchy Sunday and in a meeting on Monday. Or a pair of flats you can dress up for a night out or down for running errands on a busy afternoon.

Zavodny relies on clothing staples many people already have in their closet.

“Some of my favorite pieces to include in a capsule wardrobe are ‘coatigans,’ neutral T-shirts in a flattering cut and dainty gold jewelry — earrings, necklaces and bracelets,” she says. “These items can be dressed up and down all year long.”

Step 5: Sprinkle Outfits With Your Personal Style

Have you heard the phrase, wear the outfit but don’t let it wear you?

Once you have a template, start thinking about how to add layers of style to make your own capsule wardrobe. Whether it’s a brightly patterned maxi skirt or a distinctive trench coat, the details are what make fashionistas pop off the pages of social media sites.

As Zavodny suggests, capsule wardrobes don’t have to put a damper on your style.

“My method for creating a capsule wardrobe encourages people to integrate colors that look good on them and timeless prints they love, so individual style is not lost,” she says. “If anything, I think creating a capsule wardrobe forces people to dig deep and truly develop their own signature style. It’s extra exciting to get dressed when you know that everything in your closet fully reflects you.”

Clothes hang on a rack as part of a capsule wardrobe. Photo courtesy of Meach Zavodny/ More by Meach

Step 6: Perfect Your Capsule Wardrobe

The capsule wardrobe is a learning process.

Treat the first couple of capsules as practice. You’re not going to make perfect picks every time, and you may end up swapping out a piece or two here and there. Give yourself some flexibility as you build a curated wardrobe.

During your first season, you’ll notice what’s working — and what definitely is not. Think about those notes while you’re building your next capsule, and try to adjust to create a perfect capsule wardrobe for you.

As you expand your capsule wardrobe, Grow says to be on the lookout for old habits that might creep in.

“Your local thrift stores can be a treasure trove but do not buy anything. just because it’s a ‘good deal.’ That is the No. 1 money waster. If you wouldn’t pay full price for it, don’t pay $3 for it,” she says.

Step 7: Sell or Donate Clothing You Don’t Need

Trimming your closet seasonally and storing clothes may encourage you to downsize your wardrobe significantly. Eventually, you might find you don’t need the extra options stored away in bins, and you might be ready to sell those clothes for a little extra cash.

If you live with your capsule for a few months and realize there’s a need your current wardrobe just can’t fill (like a white button-down or a classic pair of jeans), it’s OK to invest in a high-quality piece that will last.

Capsule wardrobes are a process that helps evolve your wardrobe slowly and cost effectively, Zavodny reminds us.

“Creating a capsule wardrobe is a marathon, not a sprint,” Zavodny says. “Prioritize. Add what you can, when you can. And make sure everything you invest in will help you to reach that end goal.”

Build a Capsule Wardrobe That Lasts

A capsule wardrobe is a good opportunity to hone your style and figure out how to express yourself — without going on a major shopping spree every few months.

The bottom line: As long as you’re focusing on eliminating decision fatigue and curbing your spending, there’s no wrong way to do a capsule wardrobe. And those classic pieces you invest in will live on to become the foundation for a new fashion trend next year.

Kaz Weida is a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder.

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