Capsule Wardrobe
Photography by Peter Stigter

You’re Doing the ‘Capsule Wardrobe’ Wrong

People of the Internet, listen up: enough with your bloated versions of the “capsule” wardrobe. You keep saying that word; I don’t think it means what you think it means. So, what does it mean, then?

Credit for coining the term “capsule wardrobe” goes to London boutique owner Susie Faux in the 1970s, although it really caught on in America in the 1980s thanks to designer Donna Karan and her “Seven Easy Pieces” collection. At the time, a capsule wardrobe was defined as a compact wardrobe made up of staple pieces in coordinating colours–usually in the realm of 30 items or fewer, including shoes and sometimes even accessories. Faux suggested fewer than a dozen items for an ideal capsule wardrobe. One might update the wardrobe with a couple of new trendy or seasonal items two or three times a year, but that was it. The goal was to have a streamlined wardrobe of high-quality pieces that could be worn often and interchangeably, thereby saving money, closet space, and time.

Now, however, the capsule wardrobe appears to have taken on a new meaning. It has sneakily been repackaged as a new vessel for our society’s obsession with consumerism. A harsh proclamation perhaps, but it’s true. So many blogs and articles have pushed the capsule wardrobe idea because it’s currently trendy, without actually committing to the actual tenets behind the concept.

One “minimal” style blog, Un-Fancy, offers up these suggestions for curating a capsule wardrobe: “If picking a number doesn’t jive with you, listen to your intuition—it’ll tell you when you have enough.” The blogger, Caroline, used her intuition to choose 37 items for her capsule wardrobe–but rather than those 37 items being worn year-round, they are meant to be seasonal items for a three-month period. After those three months, she “typically end[s] up getting between 4-8 new pieces for each new season.” Caroline calls this wardrobe approach “generous yet minimal.” I’m sure that many people with much larger wardrobes would not call this generous, but at the same time I’m not so sure it can be considered minimal either–especially when contrasted with Susie Faux’s original capsule wardrobe concept of around a dozen items meant to be worn year-round, every year.

Another misguided approach to the capsule wardrobe has been spreading around Pinterest a lot since it was published on Who What Wear back in May: “How to Create a 5-Piece French Wardrobe.” Intrigued, I clicked on the pinned article to find out how French women manage to be so stylish with only a five-piece wardrobe! Of course, the title was wildly misleading. The actual wardrobe is a fairly pared-down collection of 33 classic staples. The key, apparently, is to add five new items of trendy clothing every season. (This season, we are advised to purchase items such as a romper, culottes, and flatforms. Those are certainly trendy.) Of course, this is to be done after cleaning out your closet and then purchasing “new basics to fill any gaps” that opened up after getting rid of your old clothes.

Wait a minute, I thought to myself after reading these blog posts (and many more like them). Why is the capsule wardrobe suddenly all about shopping? The whole point of a capsule wardrobe is for people who are on a budget or dealing with minimal closet space (or even people who simply aren’t interested in spending a lot of time and money on fashion) to be able to stop making multiple purchases every two to three months and still have a serviceable wardrobe.

If you are someone who is intrigued by the capsule wardrobe idea but can’t possibly imagine trimming your entire wardrobe down to fewer than 50 items, then you may find blogs such as Project 333 helpful as a starting point. Not everyone has to have a capsule wardrobe, though. Just because the minimal trend is popular right now doesn’t mean it will work for your lifestyle or tastes, and that’s fine.

Still, you may find that you actually have a good reason to switch to a capsule wardrobe. Perhaps you’re on a tight budget or trying to save money. Perhaps you don’t have enough closet space anymore or your home is becoming cluttered with clothing and shoes you don’t wear. Perhaps you find yourself overwhelmed by clothing options when getting dressed in the morning. And then, of course, there’s also the environmental and ethical backlash caused by our love affair with fast fashion.

So if you do decide to try out the capsule wardrobe for yourself, great! Just try to be mindful of how you go about it, lest you fall into the trap of using your capsule wardrobe as an excuse to buy more things that you “need” to make your wardrobe “perfect.” Nobody’s wardrobe is perfect, whether it’s minimal and streamlined or chock-full with trends. There will always be another item that you need to make your wardrobe complete; it’s human nature to want something more, something new. My issue isn’t with the number of items in anyone’s capsule wardrobe, but rather the focus being put on the constant shopping required to update one’s capsule wardrobe every season.

If you’re serious about sticking to a capsule wardrobe, for whatever reason, look for guidance from minimalists who really know what they’re doing. The aforementioned Susie Faux has a very helpful blog and I also enjoyed posts such as “On Using the Term ‘Minimalist’” and “Closet Organization” on the style blog Dead Fleurette. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo is also required reading, of course. And finally, a rule of thumb… If you’re constantly shopping for items to add to your capsule wardrobe, perhaps you should just call it what it is: a wardrobe.

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