Monday, May 30, 2016

What should I wear this spring?

First, let me say that I realize the question in the title of this post is pretty ridiculous, as in belated, to be asking the last few days in May. But this was a time-consuming post to put together, and I've been noodling on these ideas for a while. And in any case, I think what I'm about to say is applicable to dressing for any season of the year.

For the past year and a half or so, as I've mentioned before, I have been experimenting with seasonal capsule wardrobes to help organize my closet and streamline getting dressed.

I still love the idea of this, and especially of having distinct color palettes for each season. But lately I have to admit that my capsules haven't, so far, quite done what I hoped they would do.

Even though I like the individual items in my capsules, and think that most of those items are relatively versatile, I often struggle to quickly and easily pull together outfits that I'm excited to wear and end up feeling good in.

That's the real purpose of a capsule wardrobe, isn't it? To be a reliable, relatively stress-free source of great outfits.

And yet up until now I've more been focused on the collection of items in my capsule rather than the individual outfits that they make. Which is sort of natural -- after all, those capsule wardrobe collages you see all over the place online sure are pretty. (So pretty, in fact, that I couldn't help but put one right at the top of this post.) But I wonder if maybe I've been thinking about it backwards.

And along with the idea that I should be somehow building my capsules around outfits rather than individual items, there's also the suspicion that I haven't included quite the right items in my capsules so far. But how to figure out what those right items are? And how many of them should there be? I've been skeptical of what I perceive as* arbitrary number limits in various capsule wardrobe schema, but I think I've probably had too many items in my capsules up to now.

*(That's foreshadowing, by the way.)

All of this was rattling around in my brain when Janice of The Vivienne Files introduced her "1 Piece at a Time" capsule wardrobe concept earlier this year. I was immediately smitten.

The system begins with a favorite outfit of three pieces -- bottom, top, second layer. From there, you add clothing one piece at a time -- add a top, then a second layer, then a bottom -- remixing the new pieces with existing ones to create new outfits with each addition. This rotation repeats until you reach a total of 16 items (an extra top gets added in towards the end).

Janice presents this system as a purchasing strategy -- a way to build a coherent wardrobe over time by adding pieces to your closet one by one. But I thought I would see if it could also work as a strategy to build a capsule wardrobe from the clothes already in my closet. Here's how it went:

Initial outfit

I chose an outfit that is quintessentially Seattle spring to me: Classic nautical color scheme, but warm enough for the chilly days we tend to have here especially early in the season (I could have worn this outfit yesterday, to be honest). So my wardrobe starts out with three items: jeans, a Breton-striped tee, and my Aran cardigan. (Janice's scheme doesn't include shoes or accessories, but I've shown them in some outfits in this post.)

Item 1: teal fine-gauge cotton sweater

Since I started out with a patterned top, I'll add one in a solid color. These are all images of my actual clothes, by the way.

And now I can make a second outfit:

Item 2: charcoal gray cardigan

I have a light-colored cardigan, so I'll add a dark one.

And now I can make two more outfits:


Item 3: coral skinny cords

My first pair of pants were made of medium-wash denim, the most basic of neutrals. So let's mix it up with a bright pair of pants here.
From here on out, with each item added to my capsule I'll show four additional outfits I can make:



Here's my capsule wardrobe so far, after one round of additions:

Item 4: gray/white striped popover

My first two tops are dark knits, so let's add a light-colored woven shirt.

Four more outfits:



Item 5: Navy argyle cardigan

Adding a patterned cardigan at this stage in the game seems bold, but I know I like pattern-mixing with this piece, and its longer length matches well with the skinny pants I have in the rotation so far.

The outfits:



Item 6: Black skirted leggings

A dark-colored bottom option is always good to have.

And now I can wear:



An update on how the capsule is shaping up:

Item 7: black watch plaid button-up

Another subtly patterned woven shirt, but this time in a rich, dark palette (it's more vivid in real life, promise).

The outfits:



Item 8: Teal cardi

So far my top layers are neutral or semi-neutral, so here's a color -- and in a slightly different silhouette.

The outfits:



Item 9: Gray skinny jeans

Jeans are a wardrobe staple for me, so I'll add another pair, in a different color.

And now I can wear these outfits:



The capsule after three rounds of additions:

Item 10: Chambray popover

A long shirt that works well with skinny pants, and will work now that I have gray jeans in the mix (I'm not a fan of blue-denim-on-denim, so I wouldn't likely wear this top with the blue jeans).

More outfits:



Item 11: Black-trimmed ivory cardi

I love my Aran cardi, but it's very casual. Here's a sweater in a similar color that gives me a more polished option.

And these are the outfits I can now create:



Item 12: Eyelet-trim striped tee

The "extra" top. Breton stripes are a signature pattern for me in spring and summer -- here's a lighter variation on the top I started out with, with a little whimsy for good measure.

And here's what I'll wear it with:



Item 13: Green A-line knit skirt

Finally, a skirt to round things out.

And the final set of outfits:



And the final capsule:

What worked about this system for me:

  • I really like that the process begins with a single outfit -- that's such a manageable starting point. I think even people who don't feel great about their wardrobe in general usually have at least one outfit they like to wear. It's great to begin from that place of confidence.
  • The process encouraged me to think through why I was adding each item to my capsule -- not just "do I like this item" but "how does it function as part of the whole."
  • It also focuses on the creation of outfits, not just the assembly of the capsule -- exactly what I had felt was missing from my previous forays in this area.
  • This is the first capsule wardrobe scheme I've encountered that accommodates my need for layering. Most capsule-building advice leaves you with something like a blazer and two cardigans, but this system gives me roughly equal numbers of tops and second layers. Yay!

What didn't work:

  • I found it difficult to introduce different silhouettes into my wardrobe. I am picky about the proportions between the top and bottom of an outfit, and as a result I felt a bit trapped in the "skinnies / top / long sweater" outfit formula that I started out with.
  • I also felt constrained by the small number of items to choose from, especially early on in the capsule-building process. Remixing as I added each item gave me outfits that I could wear, but often they weren't outfits that I really wanted to wear. I knew I had better combinations in my closet than what the process was giving me.
  • Items added early get used in more outfits than items added late -- I never thought I would say this, but I am well and truly sick of looking at that Aran cardigan! Another consequence of this is that the process doesn't facilitate wearing all the items in the capsule evenly. (I realize that once the capsule is assembled you can mix the items up into new outfits -- but wouldn't it be great if the process of building the capsule gave you more of a head start at planning the outfits you wanted to wear?)

What surprised me:

It occurred to me that this process results in the creation of 40 outfits from a 16-item capsule. Do the exercise twice and you have a 32-item wardrobe and 80 outfits. That's about the number of outfits that will get you through a three-month season, and -- oh hey, that's right around the number of items featured in a lot of capsule wardrobe schemes. (I realize that those systems sometimes include shoes and/or accessories, which I haven't done here -- but not always.) So it turns out there's some theory behind those supposedly "arbitrary" item limits after all.

I have to say this was a hugely, hugely useful epiphany for me. I think a kind of "fear of scarcity" has made it difficult for me to pare down my wardrobe in the past. But here was evidence that 10 bottoms, 12 tops, and 10 sweaters would give me a different outfit every day (N.B.: One doesn't actually need to wear a different outfit every day.) for a whole season. Here was hard proof of how much is Enough.

And this insight, combined with the pluses and minuses I identified as I went through the exercise, gave me an idea about how to tweak the process to make it more useful for assembling a capsule from clothes I already own. I'll show you what I came up with in my next post.

{Update: you can read that next post right here.}


  1. I think the proportion issue is one of the reasons I've never really bought into the capsule wardrobe idea except for when I travel. Plus, I am just too much a creature of habit to actually wear all of those potential combinations! I find I usually have 3-4 bottoms per season (plus a couple of dresses for Sundays), and I tend to settle on about 2 outfit combinations with each top layer and keep those in rotation. The downside is that by the end of the season I'm usually quite tired of a couple of items.

    1. You know, I am a creature of habit too -- doing this exercise made me realize that even though I think of that Breton tee as a spring style staple, I only ever wear it with the Aran cardi. I really do like seeing those other potential combinations though, and am excited to try some of them out. But I can totally appreciate the pleasure and practicality of your approach of rotating through a few tried and true outfit combinations too. I agree that the proportion issue is much easier to sort out in a travel-sized capsule!

    2. I do try and challenge myself to find new combinations once in awhile, especially for less day-to-day outfits. It's fun and I do sometimes find a new combination that makes it into regular rotation. I hope you'll post on which new combinations you ended up wearing the most!

    3. Ooh, that's an interesting idea, to report back on the most successful "new" combinations. I'm not sure I have the data to do that for spring but maybe I can keep that in mind for summer and report back at the end of the season. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. I loved seeing all your outfits laid out, especially how each piece can be worn with a number of other pieces. This is exactly my goal for my wardrobe - to make sure whatever I buy or sew can go with something I already have. (This sort of thinking has already saved me from a few purchases, as has really thinking hard about what items I enjoy wearing, what items I don't, and what the difference is between the two.)

    Oh, I hear you on the idea that it might be a kind of "fear of scarcity" which prevented you from paring down your wardrobe in the past. I know already that even when I am *done* my sewing and I have my summer wardrobe, I will have an awfully hard time parting with the clothing I am working so hard to replace...

    1. It sounds like you have been productive & successful with your sewing! I would love to see the results when you have a moment to post.

      I agree that it is so useful to pinpoint the difference between things I enjoy wearing and things I don't, and the reasons why. That can be trickier than it seems like it should be, though! And yes on the difficulty of getting rid of things even if you know you don't like/aren't wearing them. (I've been known to make use of the "out of sight, out of mind" trick quite a bit -- throughout a season I'll throw things I don't think I want anymore into a bag, but not actually donate it until the end of the season. I very rarely "rescue" anything from the bag, nor regret donating it eventually.)

  3. I love this post. I've realized that some of my difficulties stem from not really knowing what my uniform should be any more. Things that look good on the hanger don't always on my body. :-( But once I figure that out, this way of looking at it will be really helpful for me.

    The challenge that I don't know how to solve, though, is the laundry one. I see that I could be OK with 32 items, but I often want to wear something more than once a week. Pants are usually fine, but the shirts that go next to my body can usually be worn only once. And I'm super-finicky about temperature--hate to be hot or cold. Winter and summer are fairly easy because the weather's pretty consistent, but I find my wardrobe always expands in spring/fall, when it can be low 60s one day and mid-80s the next (this week!).

    1. Yeah, I agree with you about the difficulty of keeping one's active wardrobe lean in spring/fall. I have this incipient idea of a "transitional capsule" that consists of a few pairs of cropped pants, a couple of 3/4-sleeve shirts, and the like, that I would rotate in at some point in spring. And probably rotate out some of the heavier, wintrier items -- after a certain date I just feel wrong wearing corduroy pants and that Aran cardigan, even on a chilly day! So the overall capsule would stay about the same size. I haven't really done the "permutation analysis" to figure out whether/how that would actually work yet.

      I hear you, too, about the shifts in "uniform" that accompany shifts in body and the difficulty of sorting that out. I'm glad this post was useful to you and I think my next one might be even more so, so I'll get cracking!

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by Janice -- glad to think that I've used your system well. You've obviously been very inspirational in helping me figure out how to think about my wardrobe!