Sunday, June 12, 2016

How to build a capsule wardrobe the rational way from the clothes already in your closet

Big claims in that post title, I know, but I don't make them lightly. Maybe this sounds silly but I really feel like I have finally cracked a code here!

My previous post ended with the insight that 10 bottoms, 12 tops, and 10 toppers is a good size for a capsule wardrobe, in the sense that it is Enough Things to build a wide variety of outfits for a three-month season.

So that's how many items I'll be assembling here. How to choose them?

Like the "1 Piece at a Time" method from The Vivienne Files that I experimented with in my previous post, this new system of mine starts with a favorite outfit for the season at hand. (Again, this is a spring capsule wardrobe, which I realize isn't quite seasonal at this point -- but the larger principles apply across seasons.) And I'll use the same outfit here as I did in that post, to help show how this new approach is similar and how it differs:

So the first three items in my capsule are the components of that first outfit -- bottom, top, sweater:


To begin building out my capsule, I remix each piece of that initial outfit in three additional ensembles. The rules here are:

  • Focus on creating the outfits that I really want to wear featuring each piece.
  • Don't repeat items, either from the original outfit or within the remix. This means that each pair of pants, for example, has to go with at least 4 different tops and 4 different sweaters.
  • Try to capture the different ways to wear each piece. So for example I like to wear my mid-wash skinny jeans in super-casual outfits with tall boots, and also, on warmer/drier days, in more polished outfits with flats, and both of those types of outfits are represented below. Keeping this goal in mind helps reveal the full range of versatility of each capsule item, I think.

So to start off with, I made three outfits featuring those mid-wash skinny jeans. Again, these are all my actual clothes, and items that I already own:


Each item used in those outfits now becomes part of my capsule, and will eventually be remixed in turn. Here's my capsule in a kind of embryonic stage after that first round of outfit creation:

When I created outfits around that first item, by definition I added all new items to my capsule (because of the no-repeats rule). In subsequent rounds of outfit creation, I can either use items already in the capsule, or add new items. The only constraint is that I have to stop adding to my capsule once it contains 10 bottoms, 12 tops, and 10 sweaters.

You can see how this works when I create three outfits featuring my Breton-striped tee (that is, the top from my starting outfit):


The ivory cardi with black trim and the navy argyle cardi were already part of the capsule, and the teal cardi, black skirt leggings, dark-wash skinny jeans, and mustard cords are added new in this round.

Here's the capsule as it stands now:

More items (coral cords, gray skinny jeans, and three tops) get added as I create outfits with the Aran cardi from that first ensemble:

After round three this is sort of starting to look like a capsule wardrobe, isn't it?

From here on out I continue this cycle of creating three outfits around each bottom, top, and sweater, tackling items in each category in the order in which they were added to the capsule. So next up is three outfits with those black skirt leggings:

And now I've expanded my capsule with three more tops and three more sweaters:

Next, outfits featuring my Liberty-print popover:


The capsule now, after the addition of an emerald-green cardi and black skirt in this round:

And three outfits featuring the camel cardi:



I just added two items, my black jersey knit dress and a pair of mid-wash bootcut jeans, this time:


Three more outfits, these featuring my dark-wash skinny jeans:


And a capsule update -- I added two tops (navy gingham button-up, gray scoopneck knit) and one sweater (long teal cardi), the final items in my "budget" for tops and sweaters:


Some outfits featuring my Black watch plaid button-up:

And with the addition of dark-wash bootcut jeans in this round, that's it -- the capsule is complete!


So from now on I'll be creating outfits solely with this group of items. Here's how I used them in outfits featuring the next item in the rotation, my ivory cardi with black trim:


I'll stop there with the examples of outfit creation/remixing, since this is already a very long and picture-heavy post. Just for the record, though, I really did go through and do this exercise for all 32 items in my capsule, yielding a total of 97 (!) different outfits. And yes, it worked, in the sense that I was able to make the requisite trio of outfits with each item -- though this did get a little challenging towards the end.

This system has some of the same advantages as the "one piece at a time" system: It begins with that manageable starting point of a single favorite outfit. And it focuses on the creation of outfits, not just the assembly of the capsule.

Unlike the "one piece at a time" system, though, this method doesn't really encourage you to justify why you are adding each new item to the capsule. But on further reflection, I think this is a feature rather than a bug. Too often, thinking about what a capsule wardrobe "should" contain ("A chambray button-up is a versatile basic," "I have several neutral items so I need a 'pop of color'") leads us to items that don't really suit us.

In this system, all that matters is what you want to wear. If you want to wear jeans and a long-sleeve tee every day, then that is what you build your capsule around. If you only want to wear wiggle dresses and cropped cardigans: ditto. Or all neutrals. Or nothing but purple and gray. Who cares what anyone else is doing?

For me, the 10 bottoms - 12 tops - 10 sweaters structure of this capsule is really ideal. It accommodates my need for layering, as I mentioned in my last post. And seeing how many outfits can be made from this number of items quiets that "fear of scarcity" in a way that is honestly revolutionary for me.

I mean, look at all these different outfits I have to wear! And this is barely a quarter of the possibilities:


That said, there is nothing set in stone about that 10 - 12 - 10 structure. If you live in a hot climate and rarely need a topper, go ahead and shift some of that sweater allocation to tops, or even bottoms (maybe you want 12 - 16 - 4, for example). If you're a true minimalist at heart maybe you want fewer items, so go with a 5 - 6 - 5 structure. Or, you know, 5 - 7 - 5 if you are a minimalist who loves haiku. ;-) Point is, the system of capsule assembly and outfit creation should work no matter the size or structure of your capsule -- as long as you stop adding items once you get to the requisite number in each category, and make at least 3 additional outfits featuring each item.

However I do think that the final capsule should be not very much bigger than 32 items of clothing. I think if it gets too much larger it will be too hard to mentally keep track of the options. And I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I suspect that regardless of the distribution across categories, 32 items will enable you to make enough outfits for a 3-month season. (Again, not necessarily a different outfit every day -- but enough to feel like enough.)

I also think that this method does a good job of addressing some of the difficulties I had with applying the "one piece at a time" method to my existing closet. Because I could bring in multiple new pieces from my closet at a time (a new pair of pants AND a new sweater to make an outfit with a top already in the capsule, for example), I was able to create new silhouettes more easily. And because my whole closet was available to me in those early rounds of outfit creation I had the flexibility to assemble the outfits that I really wanted to wear, rather than ending up with outfits that were passable but that I wasn't excited about.

I should also say that I think the ideas here owe a lot to a couple of posts from Bridgette Raes' blog -- specifically one on creating a capsule wardrobe outfit by outfit and one on how to get more from your wardrobe (the latter of which I played with some last fall). But I think I've taken it a step further here by making things more organized and structured.

Alright, I know this has been a monster post, and if you've made it this far you deserve a gold star. I'm so curious to hear reactions! Is this a system that could be useful to you? Or how would you tweak it to make it work for organizing your wardrobe?


  1. Lovely explanation. I think this could work for me; the "should haves" suggested for most capsule is big stumbling block for me too. How many shoes did you end up with?

    1. Thanks for commenting, Cassie! So glad these ideas could potentially be of use to you. Regarding shoes, I confess I didn't pay too much attention to them as I was assembling these outfits. (To be clear, this was sort of a theoretical exercise, not a record of what I've actually been wearing.) But looking at my shoe rack, I can see three pairs of clogs (those red peep-toes, tan maryjanes, and navy maryjanes), four pairs of flats (black, nude with black cap-toe, green, navy flower-print), and three pairs of boots (tall gray, black ankle, rain boots) that I'd be likely to wear during spring. So, 10 pairs. But not all would be an option on any given day, due to weather -- as Rita pointed out in her comment to my previous post, it's tough to keep a really tight capsule in those changeable seasons.

  2. "5 - 7 - 5 if you are a minimalist who loves haiku." Oh, this made me laugh, Sarah ... I am *totally* a minimalist who loves haiku, but alas ... my numbers are going to look something like 2 - 10 - 4 (although I AM thinking of trying to up that first number by adding a skirt or two to my wardrobe).

    I love how you went through your closet and went through the exercise of pairing (tripling, really) everything up, and how it's all come down to "all that matters is what you want to wear". And I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "Too often, thinking about what a capsule wardrobe "should" contain ("A chambray button-up is a versatile basic," "I have several neutral items so I need a 'pop of color'") leads us to items that don't really suit us." Far too often we (me included!) get a bit hung up on things we're supposed to have --- it's nice to be able to take a step back from that and question it all! And I do have to say that this sentence --- "....seeing how many outfits can be made from this number of items quiets that "fear of scarcity" in a way that is honestly revolutionary for me." --- makes me especially glad for you :) . It feels wonderful to figure things out!

    As to whether or not this system could be useful to me ... I think it very well could, although I do have a long way to go, both in numbers/variety, as well as in just the way I think about clothing. I know I'm a bit of an oddball, but I tend to not think of "outfits" ... I really only think tops and sweaters, because for the longest time now I have only been wearing jeans (2 pairs) or capri-length jeans (1 pair). This makes the whole wardrobe thing much easier but tbh I don't know whether I'm happy about this or not. I have to admit there ARE a number of pieces you have in your wardrobe that I would love to buy for myself, but would I *actually* wear them? (Example: I bought a gorgeous navy linen skirt the other day, which I absolutely know will go with ALL my tops ... but in the back of my mind is my 11 year-old son telling me "but you don't WEAR skirts!" (My answer to him was, "I USED to!" But does that translate into "I will again"?))

    1. Yes you're right, it DOES feel wonderful to figure things out! Here's hoping these will be insights that stand the test of time.

      I hope you're not offended when I confess that when I wrote that line about "If you want to wear jeans and a long-sleeve tee every day, then that is what you build your capsule around" I was thinking of you. Really the only problem I see with the idea of a 2 - 10 - 4 capsule is laundry. But if that jeans + long sleeve tee formula truly works for you, why not just buy a couple more pairs of jeans (yes, the exact same ones if you like!) and go for it? I think it's totally possible and a worthwhile goal to be confident and well put together with a simple, small, non-trend-driven wardrobe.

      That said, you write "This makes the whole wardrobe thing much easier but tbh I don't know whether I'm happy about this or not." That's really the question, isn't it? And...I rather suspect that if you're not sure of the answer, the answer is no. Or at least, it's not yes. Yet. But that doesn't mean that you're hopeless! I love the idea of a navy linen skirt. That sounds like just the perfect jeans alternative for summer. And look -- you added one item to your wardrobe and gained at least 10 additional outfits. It's as if you were carrying out the ideas in this post before I even wrote them down -- genius!

      (I hope you can read the tongue-in-cheek tone there. ;-) )

      Anyway, I would venture to say that there are very few 11-year-olds from whom we should be taking fashion advice. Would love to see your new skirt in a post -- perhaps paired with one of the tops you've recently sewn?

  3. In the last few years, I've developed a bit of a capsule by being more thoughtful about what I keep and purchase. Living in Wisconsin, it's a bit more difficult to truly have a capsule but I'm starting to feel pretty happy with the jeans, leggings, skirts, dresses in my closet. The only problem I've run into is when one of my workhorse pieces (my 3/4 sleeve black dress in this instance) gets shop worn or stained and I can't find a replacement!!!

    Also, what a lot of work you must have put into these posts!! Thank you for taking your time to explain them!!

    1. Thoughtfulness goes a long way, doesn't it? Though I also know what you mean about the risk of a workhorse becoming unwearable and being unable to find a replacement...that, I have to admit, is where that "fear of scarcity" kicks back in for me. It has helped me to realize that with a slightly larger capsule as I've shown here I should usually be able to do without a given item until I can find a replacement (whether a reasonably exact facsimile or just something to take a similar role in my closet).

      And yeah, these posts were definitely some work to put together -- worth it though in terms of what they've taught me. Thank you for the appreciation!

  4. Wow what a lot of work. I think I have several capsules. Smart things for work including lots of jackets, casual stuff for home, hiking travel stuff for trips and sometimes at home, plus seasonal variations particularly of the work clothing. I also like to be more matchy and got rid of a lot of black. So sometimes the work part is hard to dress for. It's given me ideas though.

    1. It is a lot of work! But I'm hopeful that the intense work will be sort of a one-time thing. I have this idea that it will be much less burdensome to then add/subtract/swap out a smaller number of items each year when a given seasonal capsule comes round again -- once I've done the work to understand how the capsule as a whole works. (Am I making sense? I'm hoping to pull together a post with an example of this sometime in the next few weeks.)

      The idea of multiple capsules -- not just for different seasons but also for different purposes -- seems very sensible to me. It's so much easier for me to see how items work together when I'm considering a smaller subset of my wardrobe at any given time.

  5. I read this soon after you posted, and it's been banging around in my head ever since. Yesterday I went shopping because now that I'm out of school I suddenly feel like I have nothing to wear. Which was really more about the things in my closet not working together than about change in activities. So, I went, and the ideas in this post went with me. I so often shop and buy separates rather than outfits, but this time I bought outfits. I made sure that each piece I bought could make two outfits with the other pieces. I didn't get all that much--a few shirts, a few shorts, and a sun dress. This morning, to help me decide what I would keep, I used your method to see how they mixed with what I already have. Just the process of going through to make outfits made me see combinations I might not otherwise have seen. I ended up deciding to take back only 1 thing (a pair of shorts I decided that I really don't need because I've got plenty already). And I saw a few holes (pair of sandals, a belt, and a t-shirt to go with a skirt I love) so that I know exactly what I'd like to have to complete my summer wardrobe. This post was really helpful to me--so thank you!

    1. WOW! That is fantastic, Rita, I'm so glad to know that the ideas in this post were helpful to you and that you were able to employ them in a real-life, practical way. That is *extremely* gratifying to hear! Your purchases sound lovely and I hope they are serving you well.

      I agree with you that the systematic making of outfits helps identify combinations that I might not have otherwise seen. That's been a real game-changer for me. Though I have to admit that it's been harder to use this method with my summer clothes than it was with my spring wardrobe. I think that is because there is both more variation in silhouette (cropped pants and shorts, more dresses than other seasons, etc.) and more color/pattern than I have in other seasons. So I'm finding there are a number of pieces that I absolutely love but don't go with as many things as they "should." Still definitely a work in progress!

    2. I find summer to be easiest, but I think that's because my life is simpler and I don't need as much variation. (That sounds nicer than saying I don't feel the need to dress as nicely in the summer because I'm not working!)

  6. This is brilliant - thanks so much for sharing it with us!


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