Discover the less-is-more approach of a capsule wardrobe.
By Caroline Rector
Photography by Aaron Rector
Ever buy some fun new clothes, but end up wearing your old favorites anyway?
Ever go to your closet and feel like you have nothing to wear, even when your closet is filled with clothes?
A couple of years ago, I started wondering why I was keeping a closet stuffed with clothes I didn’t love. I also started wondering why I kept spending money on clothes I didn’t wear because they didn’t fit quite right or work for my lifestyle.
Back then, I subscribed to the notion that having great style meant I had to have a big closet and lots of options.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I could be really happy with a lot less.
I didn’t need more clothes, I just needed the right clothes.
So I tried a capsule wardrobe.
It changed my life.
What exactly is a capsule wardrobe?
It’s the embodiment of the adage, “Buy Less, Choose Well.”
It’s the practice of keeping a small number of useful clothes in your closet — clothes that are suitable for the season, fit today and match your lifestyle — and remixing them each season.
So often we keep our closets cluttered with clothes that don’t fit or don’t work for our lifestyle. These clothes aren’t only visual clutter, they’re mental clutter. We keep things hoping they’ll fit again one day. We keep things because we feel guilty that we spent money on them. We keep things out of fear that we might not have enough one day. Our clothes have more emotional significance attached to them than we realize.
Instead, imagine opening your closet to find a small number of pieces that make you feel good just as you are right now. Imagine letting go of that mental clutter and letting the past be in the past. Imagine fully embracing where you are in life right now.
To me, a capsule wardrobe represents more time and energy for what really matters (less time spent deciding what to wear, less time spent shopping, less time doing laundry or caring for clothes) more money for our dreams and for helping others (less money spent on clothes that never get worn) and more contentment and happiness.
On Black Friday 2013, I went on a clothes-shopping binge, buying anything and everything in the heat of the frenzy. I got home with a mess of clothes that contributed nothing to my style or my needs – and immediately knew this was part of a bigger problem.
Recently, I had noticed that I had a bad habit of using shopping as a way to jolt myself out of a bad mood with a little instant gratification. Not the worst thing in the world, right? Maybe not on the surface but when I looked a little deeper, it hit me hard when I realized I wasn’t shopping for clothes – I was shopping for happiness.
No wonder my closet didn’t make any sense.
I wanted a change. I wanted to stop spending money on emotional purchases. I wanted to stop buying clothes that were going to end up in the donation pile after a month. I wanted to start making more intentional buying choices. I wanted to start finding my style and confidence.
So, I googled it. I searched all sorts of things like “how to find your style” and “how to curb a shopping problem” until I stumbled upon the term “capsule wardrobe.” It was coined in the 70’s by London boutique owner, Susie Faux.
I immediately cleaned out my closet and whittled it down to about 37 pieces total.
As I started living with less, I noticed the biggest change happening in my heart. I saw with fresh eyes that happiness, contentment and joy come from within — not from stuff or external circumstances.
I couldn’t help but share it. So I started my blog, Unfancy, for two reasons: (1) to show that it’s possible to live with a tiny wardrobe and still have plenty, and (2) because trying something new and taking control of your closet can be a powerful reminder that it’s never too late to change your life.
HOW TO BUILD A CAPSULE WARDROBE
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
If you want to try a capsule wardrobe, you can make it as flexible or as structured as you’d like. There are no real rules — you can approach it however feels right to you.
If you want to approach it like I did for the first year, here are four steps to get you started:
- Clean out your closet and pare down to about 37 pieces, including tops, bottoms, dresses, outerwear, and shoes.
Workout clothes, jewelry, accessories, purses, swimsuits, pajamas/loungewear, underwear, and the jeans you wear when you paint your living room don’t count toward your 37 pieces.
Why 37? After trying out different numbers, I settled on 37 because of how it broke down in each category. For example, I knew I wanted 9 pairs of shoes, 9 bottoms, and 15 tops. Then the remaining 4 were just enough for 2 dresses and 2 jackets/coats. To me it feels generous yet minimal.
And honestly? The point of this is just to try something new if we don’t like our current closet situation — it’s not about getting obsessed with a number. If 37 isn’t your thing, find a number that’s right for you.
- Wear only these 37 pieces for 3 months — AKA a season. I split up my seasons like this: Winter (December-February), Spring (March-May), Summer (June-August), Fall (September-November).
- Enjoy your capsule wardrobe and take a fast from shopping during the 3 month season. Challenge yourself to not shop for clothes at all. You’ll learn so much during this step.
- During the last week or two of the season, plan for next season’s capsule wardrobe. At this point, you can shop if you need a few new pieces to accommodate the weather or lifestyle changes. Then start the whole process over again.
HOW TO CLEAN OUT YOUR CLOSET
Usually, when it’s time to purge, we rifle through our clothes while they’re still on hangers in our closet. But there’s a much better way — one that will actually help us find our style + give us clarity.
Step 1: The secret to cleaning out your closet is to completely empty your closet. I know, it sounds like a ton of work. But it works. Take absolutely everything out of your closet and lay it out on your bed.
Step 2: Sort each item into one of these four piles:
- LOVE IT AND WOULD WEAR IT RIGHT NOW! It fits. It’s right for your lifestyle. You feel comfortable and confident wearing it. Put it back in your closet.
- MAYBE. This is for items that don’t fit quite right, the color is a little off, it has sentimental value, you can’t put your finger on it but you just don’t wear it, or you’re keeping it because you paid a lot for it. Put all this stuff in a box and store it in the garage. You can always go get stuff out of it, but you probably won’t. If it’s still in the box at the end of your season, it’s time to say goodbye to it.
- NOPE. Donate, swap with a friend or sell it to fund new purchases.
- SEASONAL. Wool coat in summer? Probably don’t need it handy. But you’d never get rid of a staple like that. If it’s not in season, but you LOVE IT, put it in a nice under-the-bed box and store it. You’ll use it when the appropriate season rolls around.
Step 3: Assess what’s left in your closet – your LOVE IT clothes. You should start seeing a clearer picture of your style. From here, I suggest going on a shopping hiatus — especially if your wardrobe is less than perfect (and trust me, it will be). Living with what you have for a little while will teach you so much about your style and what you really need. Once you’re finished with your shopping hiatus, make a plan for the next season and then shop for the missing pieces.
A FEW TIPS
If you’re nervous about getting rid of the clothes you clean out, simply store them instead. Boom — safety net! It gets the visual and mental clutter out of your closet but it takes the pressure off. And later, if you realize you miss something, you can go grab it.
As you go along, edit the process to fit your own lifestyle. If you want two smaller capsule wardrobes (one for work and one for the weekends), go for it. If you need more clothes than 37, add ‘em in. If you hate numbers and rules, scrap them all together. No matter what, make it yours and enjoy it.
Mistakes are a part of the process — there’s no such thing as a perfect wardrobe. I always make a few mistakes in my capsule wardrobes, but I don’t really regret them. Those mistakes end up being the best teachers. Even if I see I’ve made a mistake, I still try to wear them for that season and try to make the best of them. Sometimes they even end up surprising me and becoming beloved pieces by the end of the season. But even if they don’t, the mistakes help me hone in on my style even more and help me know what to do better next time.
And remember that it’s not meant to be a miserable experience – it’s meant to be inspiring and fun. The goal here isn’t to bash shopping, clothes and style. The goal is to try something new if you don’t like your current situation.
I lived with a capsule wardrobe for a year and blogged about it every day — sharing my struggles, my breakthrough moments, and everything in between.
By 2016, my heart and habits were healthy again.
It was time to let my “capsule diet” melt into my real life. I let go of some of the structure, like limiting my closet to a specific number of pieces or sticking to strict seasons.
But I carry the heart of it with me — smaller closet, intentional purchases, less shopping, and more joy.
If you find yourself with a shopping habit you want to kick or a closet full of clothes you don’t love, I’d love to invite you to try a capsule wardrobe.
Because trying something new — even something small — can be a powerful reminder that it’s never too late to change your life.
(Head to my blog to learn more. You can even download and print my free wardrobe planner. Just go to: un-fancy.com/capsule-experiment.)