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A Traveling Woman’s Guide to Building a Capsule Wardrobe

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If you’re an adventurous woman, you’ll benefit from building a capsule wardrobe.

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A few months ago, I decided to fly out to visit my extremely fashionable friend in Chicago, and I was hard pressed to pick outfits that would impress while not wrinkling in my Outbreaker travel backpack. I knew I’d be crashing on her couch for a week, and that our activities would range from biking, to clubbing, to fancy cocktails, so I developed a system that worked for me.

Basic Capsule Wardrobe

What, exactly, is a capsule wardrobe?
Good question. There are quite a few resources out there for women who want to define their personal style aesthetic while investing in a minimum number of pieces. Un-fancy suggests paring down your entire clothing collection to the bare minimum and using only those pieces for a few months before deciding what you need to add in. That’s great if you’re redefining your entire look, but capsuling your wardrobe specifically for travel might look different.

The Rules

1. Buy Quality, Not Quantity 
Capsule wardrobes aren’t really forgiving when it comes to your collection of shoddily made, but glittery, going-out tops from Forever21. You don’t need a whole rainbow of bright tops either. Find your colors and pick one or two.

2. Choose Fabrics Carefully
Select those that last, work in multiple climates, and aren’t prone to wrinkling. Remember, this is your collection of packable items, so your fabrics need to look great when you pull them out of a small compartment in your backpack, shake them once and put ’em on. Denim and leather don’t tend to wrinkle, and if they do, they actually end up looking better.

3. Harmonize Color Schemes
Why waste time on the road trying to figure out if a certain skirt goes with a particular sweater? Remember that black, grey, khaki and white aren’t your only choices for neutrals; stripes or small florals can match easily with solids, and you can go as crazy as you want with tops if you only pack neutral bottoms (or better yet, neutral tops with kooky bottoms!) If you’re nervous about mixing colors, use a color scheme generator.

What to Include

The first rule is that the aesthetics in this process are largely up to you. Every single piece in your wardrobe should make you feel good, so start with that magic sensation of wearing something that makes you stand out (or blend in, whatever you’re into).

Personally, I love wearing a very specific shape of long skirt that I’ve only seen on Modcloth, so I tend to pack one of these and match it with different tops. While not everyone would wear a vintage-inspired skirt, it’s kind of my thing during warm weather, so I stock up.

What’s your “thing”?

Any capsule wardrobe, no matter who you are, will include a week’s worth of underwear, one pair of shoes for walking, and a pair of shoes for fancier outings (these can be flats or nice sandals, just not your hiking boots). You’ll also include omething to sleep in, 2-3 bras (I like to bring a padded push-up and two unlined lace bras) and lots of layers. If you’re a jewelry person, leave the statement pieces at home and pick a couple of neutrals. Be sure your sunglasses go with everything.

Women’s Capsule Wardrobe Packing List

  • 4 light tops (one of these can be nicer)
  • 2 tank tops or camisoles for layering
  • 1 sweater in neutral color
  • 1 light jacket
  • 2 pairs of jeans (not cheap jeggings, but real denim jeans)
  • 1 skirt or pair of overalls (whatever quirky bottom piece you’re into)
  • 1 pair black leggings
  • 1 sundress
  • 7 pairs of socks
  • 2 pairs of shoes (one for walking, one more presentable)
  • 1 pair of pajamas
  • 8 pairs of underwear
  • 3 bras
  • 1 beanie or baseball cap

Light Tops

Tops can range from quality t-shirts to blouses, depending on your personal style. Black and white horizontal stripes go well with bold colors, and jewel tones are complimentary on everyone.

Quality t-shirts and tops that go beyond the basic boxy shape can be purchased at American Apparel or Urban Outfitters. If you’re a conservative dresser and are looking for function over form, Uniqlo and Gap have options with less flair. If you’re searching for feminine cuts designed to accentuate your curves, Victoria’s Secret (surprisingly) has some great tops.

Tank Tops & Camisoles

I like to take these when I travel because I’m a little modest, and dressing in front of other people, especially in a crowded hostel room, can be nerve-wracking. Camisoles are also great as light undergarments, which means they give you an extra layer in the cold and absorb your sweat when it’s hot, which keeps your outer layer fresh enough for a second wear.

I get my tank tops at American Eagle, but you can easily find these at Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, or Ross. These don’t need to scream quality; they’re just functional pieces that help to transition between outfits.

Sweaters

I can’t believe how long I went, as an adult woman, without owning a black sweater. I’ve always had this misconception that flashy clothing is more memorable, but I wear my black sweater multiple times a week now that I have one. It’s a Calvin Klein v-neck that I got for a fraction of the normal price at Marshall’s, so I’d recommend shopping somewhere for discounts. The nicer your sweater’s brand, the more washes and wear it’s going to survive, so this is an item you’ll want to splurge on.

If I can avoid wearing a coat or a jacket, I will, so I am a big fan of chunky pullover sweaters.

Light Jacket

As I mentioned in my Boston packing list, I am allergic to hoodies and sweatshirts. I think they’re a really easy way to make people look frumpy, like they don’t care about the city they’re visiting, so I avoid these altogether.

Luckily, there are so many options for light jackets that function well, while making the wearer look stylish. Light-wash denim jackets, especially with a bit of wear, look great, and black leather moto jackets add a bit of edge to anything (even a sundress).

I have a couple jackets from Urban Outfitters, but honestly, searching for a jacket you’re going to remember when you look at your world traveling photos is best done in thrift stores. There’s something definitively romantic about finding a pre-worn bomber jacket that fits you perfectly, especially if it’s in a packed and dusty Goodwill. Commit to a long-term quest to find your travel jacket; you won’t regret it.

Jeans

I’ll say this with emphasis: buy yourself two pairs of good denim, high waisted, black, or dark wash jeans! Once I made the switch to high-waisted, flattering jeans, I never bought another pair of awkward, low-cut, jeans made for teenyboppers. Those jeans tend to slip over your hips and downward, and it’s really frustrating to constantly hike them back up while wearing a big backpack.

I’m, admittedly, addicted to buying those low-quality, soft jeggings and wearing them around town, but for travel, I always bring my actual, rough and tumble, thicker denim jeans because they have pockets and won’t sag around my butt after two days of walking. I also like how skinny jeans fit around your ankle for easy bicycling, but flares are apparently on their way back. Who knew?

Don’t buy your jeans in stores that cater to teenage girls: they’re just not meant to fit a woman’s body. While Urban Outfitters have a couple cuts that I enjoy, my favorite jeans are from Acne.

Skirts & Overalls

I swear to God, I’ve never gotten more compliments from women on a piece of clothing than I get wearing my black overalls from Gap. I feel like Taylor Swift in these things; they’re cut to end just above my ankle, so I roll them up a bit and wear them with combat boots. They fit snugly around my butt and hips like a good pair of jeans, but they slouch around my legs and torso in a way that makes me look carefree (I am not a carefree person).

As for skirts, I’m a huge, huge fan of the 50’s inspired mid-length skirts over at ModCloth. They are not for everyone, but I promise you that you’ll feel like an absolute goddess in one of these, paired with a simple, form-fitting t-shirt (cropped works best) and a denim jacket. They’re breezy, easy to pack into a small space and so full of color that you won’t notice the rest of your capsule wardrobe is just shades of grey.

As for shorts… just kidding, don’t buy shorts. Who are you, Jan Brady? Alright, fine. If you’re visiting a hot climate, shorts are inevitable, but be reasonable about it. You may look fantastic in short-shorts, but knee-length or beachy shorts will save you a lot of hassle on the road.

Black Leggings

No one warns women that there are a million different types of leggings, and that most pairs are not completely opaque. Don’t show the world your underwear; buy a pair of black leggings meant for athletics, and you can throw them on under a skirt or dress if it gets cold, or wear them to bed.

Sundress

It’s a difficult process, finding sundresses that won’t wrinkle, but it’s worth the effort. I have a dress that goes well under a sweater that I pack everywhere I go; it’s also made of soft cotton so it doesn’t wrinkle, and it comes almost to my knees so I don’t have to worry about it floating around in the wind.

In my opinion, the “little black dress” standby is a bit boring. I’m a fan of the “little, bold color dress” in a solid tone. You know, the color that always makes your mom go, “Oh honey, that’s your color, what a lovely shade on you!” Mom knows best; buy a dress in that color, whatever it is.

Socks

I know what you’re thinking: I’ve got this, how hard can socks be? The answer is deceptively hard. Most of the Tortuga team prefers Smartwool, but I have no opinion on the brand.

I’m lucky enough to live in Cambridge, MA, where I have a speciality sock shop right next to the farmer’s market where I buy my kale bunches, but for those of you who can’t visit: 100% wool socks, of any brand, are your friend.

Don’t trust blends, and only buy cashmere socks if you’re planning on laying around the house the entire time you’re traveling. Sturdy cotton socks are great for walking, but wool socks will get you through annoying airport jaunts, cold nights and breezy early mornings.

I also tend to buy long socks and crunch them down around my ankle if I don’t want to look like a school girl. Ankle socks are overrated, anyway.

Shoes

We’ve written a lot about shoes, and some of us even hate the most-often recommend shoes for travelers: hiking boots. I’m personally a fan of fashionable booties with a half-inch heel (I wear a pair I found vintage, every single day) but I can get behind combat boots, white Keds or Sperry boat shoes. Basically, any type of shoe that’s supposed to look worn out is going to make you look worldly and well-traveled (which helps if this is your first time backpacking).

I also think it’s nice to keep an option open and pack a second pair of shoes, whether they’re sandals or comfy flats that won’t tear up your feet. You never know where you’ll be invited, and you may not want to wear your filthy walking Keds to cocktails on a rooftop bar.

Pajamas

Man, I love pajamas. I was once a woman who wore a lot of cute, butt-length nightgowns, because I wanted to look like I was in a music video while wearing my acne cream and reading comics in bed, but in my adulthood, I made the switch to matching sets. Flannel is fine, but cotton is better. You want a pair of incredibly cozy pajamas that you’ll feel comfortable getting into every single night. Victoria’s Secret has the coziest sets.

Underwear & Bras

Girl, you wear whatever makes you feel like a queen! I recently bought some matching Calvin Klein, classic grey and white undies with soft sports bras and they make me feel lovely, but I’m also a fan of lacy, cheeky things. Just be sure to bring at least one thong, or a pair of underwear meant to be seamless, in case you need to wear something tight.

As for bras, make sure they’re the right size (this is harder than it sounds, so get a second opinion from a professional). I always bring a padded bra and two unlined bras, to satisfy my whims on the road.

Beanie or Baseball Cap

Here’s the deal with my hair when I’m traveling: Day one is good, day two I need a bit of dry shampoo, and by day three I either need to wash my hair or it’s going under a hat. Beanies remain effortlessly cool, but I’ve included the baseball cap option in case you’re afraid of looking hip.

Finding Basic Pieces

Since we urge you to pick quality over quantity, steer clear of fast-fashion joints like Forever21, Primark, Old Navy and H&M. You may be able to buy five black sweaters for $25 bucks, but they’re not going to last very long.

Uniqlo has great solid color warm layers, Banana Republic is great for “boring” basics like turtlenecks, and ModCloth and Nasty Gal are fun for mid-quality statement pieces that can fit with your neutrals. You can also reply on Gap for mid-price basics and Anthropologie for splurges.

TL;DR

Think ahead and create a capsule wardrobe that’s built to travel. The process of purging your clothing and replacing only a few, quality pieces will help refine your personal style, and save you a ton of grief and thought during your trips.

  • Quality over quantity
  • Don’t be afraid of color
  • Choose what makes you feel good
  • Denim and leather are your friends

What would you put in a capsule wardrobe?

Image: Victor Hanacek (Pixjumbo)

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  • Christina

    Loving all these suggestions, especially the fun mid-length skirt and Acne’s skin 5 jeans. I never ever pack more than two pairs of shoes and always take a large but very thin scarf that provides both warmth and sun protection.

  • Vanessa

    Love this post! I have only recently become a carry on packer, and this really inspired me to work on a capsule wardrobe. I always have a couple more tanks because I wear them every day (almost a security blanket for me), as well as a pair of flip flops, and a swimsuit. The rest of the list seems really perfect. I love the idea of searching for my “travel jacket.” Thanks!

  • jainpk

    This is a great guideline!
    I like the Icebreaker Villa pants. These are my airplane and train pants. I do wear them in regular life, too, and they are especially comfy without looking sweatpants sloppy. For places when I want to look a little nicer, I had pack a couple of skirts and one pair of tailored pants. I’m always torn about bringing and wearing jeans. For me it is a trip-by-trip decision. In America, I’ll wear jeans. In Germany, I’ll wear jeans. In Italy and France, I don’t. One benefit of jeans for travel, too, is that I’m not afraid of them getting ruined by hotel laundry.
    My Doc Martens were a godsend my last Europe trip. I wore them every day for three weeks with everything–the villa pants, the tailored pants, and the skirts with tights. I travel with kids, so I didn’t need any cute clubbing shoes.
    The travel jacket is the biggest challenge for me. It needs to wear well over layers, and be somewhat water resistant, and still be chic. I’ll find this unicorn yet!