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A Travel Capsule Wardrobe
Travel capsule wardrobes are one of the five key principles of light travel. A capsule has clothing that works in a variety of situations and 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 to control temperature variation. This tutorial provides guidance (not rules) for planning a wardrobe. Modify this to fit your own personal needs.
This tutorial contains the following sections:
- An overview of the capsule wardrobe philosophy
- Step by Step process for creating a capsule
- An example capsule wardrobe with extender pieces
- A suggested packing list for a capsule wardrobe
- Notes on shopping your closet
An overview of the capsule wardrobe philosophy
Capsule wardrobes are small, light, and portable. You can’t take all of your clothing so you’ll need to consider the following as you plan out your wardrobe:
- Don’t try to plan for all “what-if” contingencies or you’ll end up bringing your whole closet. Plan for a normal range of dress based on your destination, activities, and expected temperatures. This means that the clothes you bring for a trip to a beach resort will be different from the clothes for a trip to Paris.
- Plan for a normal range of temperatures. This means that a trip during the middle of summer will have slightly different items than a trip during the middle of winter.
- Scarves, sweaters, leggings, and light long underwear can greatly extend the temperature range of your wardrobe without adding a lot of weight. These small and light weight items are key to making your wardrobe work when the temperature drops.
- 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. It doesn’t sound like much but you’ll be combining the clothing to create far more than a weeks worth of outfits. A great capsule wardrobe of just 9 pieces gives you over 40 outfits!
- Plan to do laundry. Make sure all of your items are washable. Some people sink wash along the way, some send laundry out once a week. Don’t forget that many hotels have laundry services. Drop your clothes off in the morning and pick them up after a day of sight seeing.
- 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 redundant items. Pick a skirt or a dress. Get rid of an extra 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. Great travel clothing is fashionable. A few investment pieces can greatly expand the usable range of the wardrobe.
Step by Step process for creating a capsule wardrobe
Step 1 – Research your destination
It is important do research your destination before you pack. You want to bring the right clothing for your trip.
- Check the weather at 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.
- Check the dress at your destination. Is it casual or formal?
- Find out what activities you will be participating in.
Step 2 – Plan your colors
Many travel sites advocate wearing a black wardrobe. This almost always comes from someone who looks great in black. Forget that! Pick colors that look good on you. Navy, dark brown, and grey are great replacements for black. They are still dark enough to hide the dirt from travel but colorful enough to flatter your skin tone. Create a wardrobe based on dark neutrals if your destination is formal. Create a wardrobe based on light neutrals if your destination is casual. Denim blue may be treated as a dark neutral on casual trips.
I find that choosing two neutral colors (one light, one dark) works well when I’m planning my wardrobe. I usually use the dark neutral as my formal color and the light neutral as my casual/athletic color. After that I’ll pick one or two accent colors for variation. One of these colors will be dominant, the other complimentary. I’ll pick tops and accessories with the accents in them to pull the wardrobe together. If you have trouble with accent colors you may want to look at this post on using the color wheel for accessorizing.
So to summarize:
- Pick a dark color (or neutral)
- Pick a light color (or a lighter neutral)
- Pick an accent color
- Pick a metal for jewelry
- Fill in gaps with white, cream, black, or other neutral pieces
- Add in some colorful tops, scarves, and accessories in your accent color for fun
Step 3 – Create a place to lay clothing items out where you can see them
Choose a bed or a large space on the floor to lay out your wardrobe. This is where you will review your capsule and make sure it actually works for you. Laying clothing items out next to each other helps you visualize your outfits and create new ones.
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
- A dress
- Another sweater
- Another top
- Dress shoes
Step 6 – Add Accessories and extender pieces 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. Add in:
- One or two scarves
- One or two belts
- One or two necklaces
- One or two bracelets
- A pair of leggings
- A Cross Body Bag
Step 7 – Review
You now have everything you think you’ll need for travel. Make sure that your capsule will actually work for your trip. Mix, match, and layer all the items in the wardrobe to see how they work together. Try the outfits on to see if they work for you. This is especially important if you are layering clothing. Make sure you include clothes that you feel comfortable in and really like. You’ll be living in them for a week or longer. Who wants to continuously wear something they don’t enjoy?
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What items will I wear on the plane?
- What items will I wear to dress up?
- What items will I wear for an outdoors adventure?
- What items will I wear for museums, shopping, and cafes?
- What items will I wear if it gets incredibly cold?
- What items will I wear if it gets really hot?
- What will I wear for my (fill in the blanks) activity?
Your wardrobe works if you can create at least one outfit for each scenario. If you can do two or more, you have chosen your pieces very well. Congratulations!
Step 8 – Be Cruel – toss items out
Ask yourself if you really will use each item. Step 7 should give you a pretty clear idea of what clothing pieces work multiple times for your outfits. Were there any items that didn’t work well with the wardrobe? Travel guru Rick Steves says that each item should be worn at least 3 times or it gets left behind.
Step 9 – 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 10 – Reflect
After your trip is over, decide what worked and what didn’t. Use this information for planning the next wardrobe. Every time you create a capsule it gets easier. You will learn what works for your style of travel.
An example capsule wardrobe with extender pieces
The Basic Capsule
The picture below shows a basic summer capsule wardrobe. My two neutrals are chocolate and tan, with tangerine as a the primary accent color and green as the secondary color. Note that the major pieces are neutrals. Variety comes from accessories that have color and texture. 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, one is a dressy capri)
- 4 tops (one dressy)
- 2 cardigans
- A dress
- Walking shoes
- Dress shoes
- Rain wear
A few extender pieces can greatly expand the power of the capsule. The extender pieces add to the temperature range of the basic wardrobe – either for hot weather (tankini) or cool weather (leggings, sweater vest). Each piece performs at least two functions within the capsule. Please limit these or you will no longer be traveling light. For this capsule the extender pieces consist of:
- A swim tankini that alternates as a cami under a sweater (or as a spare bra when doing laundry)
- A light weight skort for touring/hiking – far more versatile than shorts!
- A small wristlet that doubles as a jewelry holder
- A beach cover-up that doubles as sleep wear (or a tunic with leggings)
- A light sweater vest for extreme cold or traveling in the mountains.
- Leggings for lounging and layering on cold days
Note that all of the extender pieces have to work for their place in the wardrobe. If any clothing item can’t greatly enhance the capsule it doesn’t deserve room in your luggage.
Mix it up for different outfits
The pictures below show 56 different outfits you can get from mixing and layering. There are actually more combinations. Each picture shows a different way to wear one of the tops or dress from the capsule wardrobe. If you choose a different top from the day before most people won’t notice that you are repeating clothing.
A suggested packing list for a capsule wardrobe
The suggested packing list has all the clothes you will ever want to take on a trip. You will not be taking all the items in the list. Instead, you will carefully select items out of the list. Try to cut items as much as possible and think hard before bringing any of the items listed as optional. If you do bring an optional item, you should leave another one out. Don’t forget that you’ll be carrying all of this around. Your goal is to travel light!
- (Optional) Dress pants in dark color – if you are taking a dress you may not need these.
- Casual pants in lighter neutral or in light color (roll up capris work well in summer).
- Cardigan or jacket in a dark color – this is your formal piece.
- (Optional) Cardigan in light color – this is your fun piece.
- 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
- (Optional) 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
Notes on shopping your closet
How do you get a workable travel capsule without spending a lot of money? The answer is to first have a home capsule wardrobe based on good quality neutral pieces. Creating a travel capsule becomes a simple task when you are pulling well-loved items out of your home capsule. Through the years I have slowly added pieces to my home capsule wardrobe that will also work for travel. Every time I buy a new piece of clothing I make sure that it is washable, doesn’t wrinkle, and integrates with my other wardrobe pieces. Packing is now very easy when because I know that all of the tops and bottoms work together. Consider creating your own capsule wardrobe out of your clothing at home. You’ll need less clothing, still have plenty of outfits, and can use the money you’ve saved on travel. The “Starting from Scratch” series from the Vivienne files gives you step by step instructions on how to create your own home capsule wardrobe.
Updated on October 6 2012 – Included principle of dark for formal and light for casual.
Updated on June 22 2013 – expanded comments on optional clothing and layering.
Updated on June 22 2013 – added comments on the power of accessories.
Updated on March 24 2014 – Updated capsule with versatile clothing selections, added in better accessories. Removed extreme example and added in extender pieces.
Updated on March 28 2014 – Reformatted post to make sections of the tutorial clearer. Added text that explained each section of the tutorial. Moved suggested packing list down to the bottom of the post. Added notes on shopping your closet.
Updated on April 17 2014 – Added in pictures of capsule combinations.
Updated on July 17 2014 – Added in reference to the Vivienne Files “Starting from Scratch” capsule wardrobe series.