Travel capsule wardrobes are the key to having a lot of nice outfits to wear. If you plan ahead of time you will create a wardrobe that meets your needs but will also fit into a carry on. All of the pieces coordinate with each other and combine for different looks. They will also layer together for temperature variation. In this post I’ve listed some guidelines (not rules) for planning a wardrobe. Modify this to fit your own personal needs.
A few things to consider
- Don’t try to plan for all contingencies. Plan for a range of dress. A trip to the beach will have very different clothing than a trip to Paris.
- Plan for a range of temperatures. A trip during the summer will have different items in the wardrobe than a trip during winter.
- Scarves, sweaters, leggings, and long underwear can greatly extend the temperature range of your wardrobe without adding a lot of weight.
- Select lightweight clothing items to layer for a variation in looks. The layers also add warmth when needed. Layering tanks and light weight cardigans are great selections.
- At most, you will be taking one weeks worth of clothes. Plan to do laundry. Some people sink wash along the way, some send laundry out once a week.
- Make sure all of your items are washable.
- Make sure your items will hang dry without wrinkling. Try doing a sink laundry test before the trip.
- Be careful not to bring too many items of clothing – it is far too easy to add “just one more shirt” or “just one more pair of pants” and end up with an extremely heavy bag.
- Subtract articles if you need to go lighter. I suggest getting rid of either a skirt or a dress (pick one to keep). Get rid of a pair of pants. Get rid of one or two tops.
- Consider bringing some technical clothing if you are planning any outdoors activities (hiking, climbing, canoeing, etc). These are quite expensive but can take the beating of the outdoors while looking normal on the street. A few “investment” pieces can greatly expand the usable range of the wardrobe.
So here is a step-by-step guideline for putting together your capsule wardrobe:
Step 1 – Research your destination
Find out what the temperature range will be. If it is warm, take more short sleeve tops. If cool, more long sleeve tops. Don’t know? Take tops with roll up sleeves! Bring a pair of tights or long underwear if you worry about cold.
Find out how formal your destination is.
Find out what activities you will be participating in.
Step 2 – Plan your colors
No, you don’t have to wear black unless you are going to Europe. You’ll look ridiculous wearing black in Hawai’i. I find that chosing two colors (one light, one dark) works very well when I’m planning my wardrobe. I usually use the dark color as my formal color and the light color as my casual/athletic color.
- Pick a dark color (or neutral)
- Pick a light color (or a lighter neutral)
- Pick a metal for jewelry
- Fill in gaps with white, cream, black, or other neutral pieces
Step 3 – Assemble clothing items out where you can see them
You will want to lay out your items to see how they work together. Mix and match each item to make sure that it will work in the wardrobe.
Step 4 – Begin with a basic wardrobe
The basic wardrobe includes the clothing you will be wearing while in transit. The basic wardrobe consists of:
2 bottoms (one dressy, one casual)
3 tops (one dressy)
A sweater or jacket
A pair of nice walking shoes
One of the bottoms usually consists of a dress item – either dress pants or a skirt.
Step 5 – Add in extras as needed (but not too much)
Extras can include
Step 6 – Add Accessories to change the look of an outfit
Accessories have the ability to radically change an outfit. A dark dress with pearls gives a demure look. The same dress with a bright scarf and belt gives a fun look. Be careful with your accessories – too many accessories means too much weight.
Step 7 – Be Cruel – toss items out
Combine the items into outfits to see how they work. Ask yourself it you really will use each item. Rick Steves says that each item should be worn at least 3 times or it gets left behind.
Step 8 – Relax
If an unexpected special occasion arises, you will do the same thing that you would do if you were at home. Go Shopping!
Step 9 – Review
After your trip is over, decide what worked and what didn’t. Use this information for planning the next wardrobe.
Putting it together –
Here is a list of all the clothes you will ever want to take on a trip. This is the absolute maximum number of items carried. Most trips need far less clothes than what is in the list. You should try to eliminate them as much as possible. Please think hard before bringing any of the items listed as “optional”. If you do bring an optional item, think about leaving another one out. Don’t forget, you’ll be carrying all of this around!
- (Optional) Dress pants in dark color
- Casual pants in lighter neutral or in light color (roll up capris work well in summer)
- Cardigan in dark color
- (Optional) Cardigan in light color
- Solid top in dark color – if it matches the dark color bottom so much the better.
- Solid top in light color
- Solid top in white or cream
- (Optional) Striped or print top in light color
- (Optional) Another nice top – it can be partly sheer to wear over other tops/swim suits, etc.
- (Optional) Simple classic dress in dark color
- Skirt in dark color, or in print with all colors. This is interchangeable with a skort.
- (Optional) Another dress in either a print or color (sun dress?)
- (Optional) Skort in light neutral
- Nice walking shoes (dress snow boots in winter)
- (Optional) Dress shoes (strappy sandals with low heels work well in summer)
- (Optional) Ballet flats in color, or very light slides/sandals/flip-flops
Jewelry and Accessories
- Earrings in chosen metal
- Bracelet in chosen metal
- Earrings in light color
- Bracelet in light color
- Necklace in chosen metal
- (Optional) Colored “statement” necklace
- Print scarf in neutral and/or color
- Tote bag in neutral (cross body style works well)
- (Optional) Small clutch or wristlet in color (use this to store your jewelry)
- Two bras (one to wash, one to wear)
- Three pairs of underwear (one to wash, one to wear, and a spare)
- Two to three pairs of socks
- Nylon Stockings or tights (if you wear them – nice in the winter)
- Swim suit in dark neutral or color
- Silk Long underwear top
- Half slip
- Camisole top
- Pajamas – light cotton T-shirt dresses are a nice option – they may be used as a 2nd dress
- A nice waterproof jacket
- (Cold weather) Leggings
- (Optional) An insulated vest or sweater filled with down or prima-loft
A Basic Capsule Example
The picture below shows a basic capsule wardrobe. My two colors are chocolate and tangerine. I used one of the posts from The Vivienne Files for inspiration. The capsule consists of:
- 2 bottoms (one is a pair of convertible pants)
- 4 tops
- 2 cardigans
- A dress
- Walking shoes
- Dress shoes
- Rain wear
Combining tops with bottoms gives me at least 9 different outfits, and that doesn’t include the variation I will get with the cardigans. With the cardigans added I can create 27 different looks. Layer the tops that have sleeves over the sleeveless knit dress for 3 more looks. Add in the cardigans for 6 more looks. That gives a total of 36 outfits! Combining the outfits with the scarves, jewelry and shoes will give even more looks. Not bad for 9 clothing items and a jacket.
An Extreme Example
Using the guidelines above, I created the absolute maximum capsule wardrobe for a multi-week trip to Europe during shoulder season. I’ll be honest – this really has too many clothes. I would only take this much if I were staying in one place for a month or more. This capsule will be very heavy and is only suitable for an extremely long trip with a huge temperature variation.
Updated on October 6 2012 - Included principle of dark for formal and light for casual.
Updated on June 22 2012 - expanded comments on optional clothing and layering.
Updated on June 22 2013 - added comments on the power of accessories.