Steve Jobs wore his trademark black turtleneck.
President Obama keeps his wardrobe simple to avoid decision fatigue.
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Forbes even made a list of celebrities who always dress the same.
What can we learn from the idiosyncrasies of the rich and famous?
You don’t want a closet with dozens of the same outfit. You aren’t Superman.
We can learn to keep our wardrobes simple, especially when we’re traveling.
In today’s post, we’ll discuss what a capsule wardrobe is, look at some examples, and build one that will work for any length of trip.
What Is a Capsule Wardrobe?
A capsule wardrobe is a collection of basic, functional clothing that will not go out of style. Each item should be functional and be compatible with the rest of the wardrobe.
Think staples, not this season’s must have’s.
An ideal capsule wardrobe will have a small number of quality items, not a lot of cheap stuff. You shouldn’t need to replace everything on your next trip. Each item should be higher-quality and longer-lasting than your average item of clothing. Fast fashion has no place in a capsule wardrobe.
Simple and functional doesn’t have to mean ugly. Not even for women. We’ll get to some examples later.
First, let’s review some of the principles of packing light. These rules will tell us what to include in a capsule wardrobe.
- Pack for one week. You don’t have to replace your entire closet. Having a core wardrobe that you can travel with will simplify your packing. When you travel for longer than a week, do laundry.
- Pack in layers, not in bulk. Multiple thin layers are more versatile than one heavy layer.
- Wear the right fabrics. Wool is expensive but good at repelling smells and regulating temperature. Synthetic performance fabrics are good at wicking sweat but hold on to odors.
- Simplify your color palette. Keep your capsule wardrobe within a matching color palette so that you don’t have to decide which clothes to wear together. Leave bright colors and wild patterns for the rest of your closet.
Now that we’ve established the basic rules, let’s look at some examples of capsule wardrobes before building one for ourselves.
Capsule Wardrobe Examples
You may be thinking that you can’t limit your fashionable self to a basic wardrobe, not even for the length of your trip.
Let’s look at a few extreme examples. Prepare to be humbled. I was.
I first had the idea for a travel capsule wardrobe after reading Matt’s Reddit post, One Year, One Outfit has begun.
His challenge (to himself) was to build a collection of the best, most versatile clothes for his lifestyle. Aside from the “one outfit,” he included a few items for specific situations like working out and inclement weather.
Matt’s approach is extreme, but it gives us a good starting point. His wardrobe is also a good reminder that one size does not fit all. He included extra stuff to fit his lifestyle and the weather he would see. You should do the same for your travel style, your favorite activities, and the weather at your destination.
A capsule wardrobe is just a base. Adapt it to your travel style and destination.
Even with his extra items, Matt ran into some difficulties traveling with his one outfit.
We’re building a wardrobe, not an outfit, so we can plan around these potential problems.
Long-term travelers end up creating a capsule wardrobe even if they aren’t familiar with the concept. Clayton at Spartan Traveler wrote How to Wear the Same Clothes for a Year. In the post, he details his core wardrobe and how he supplements it at each multi-month-long stop on his travels.
Nadia Eghbal took this idea another step further as documented in her blog post, Why I Wore The Same Outfit Every Day for a Year.
In an attempt to break a shopping habit and simplify her life, Nadia pared her wardrobe down to one outfit. The experience taught her an interesting lesson.
I realized that when I cared less about what I (and others) wore, I cared more about what I (and others) said and did.
Remember that line when you’re traveling and meeting new people every day.
Now that we’ve looked at three minimalist examples, let’s build our own capsule wardrobe for traveling.
Building a Capsule Wardrobe
We’ll build our capsule wardrobe using the light packing advice we outlined earlier.
Remember that a good capsule wardrobe is made up of a small number of durable, classic pieces. No cheap throwaways. No fast fashion. This wardrobe is an investment. If something costs more than you would usually pay, that’s okay, as long as it lasts longer and never goes out of style.
I’ve worked to pare down my clothes over the years but don’t have a minimalist closet yet. The list below is more of a thought experiment than an expert’s how to guide. We’re figuring this out together.
We’ll base our wardrobe on the Tortuga packing list because the list is designed to last a week in a carry on bag.
Due to my experience, the list will be biased toward men’s clothes though many examples are unisex. For advice on a fashionable capsule wardrobe for women, read our friend Alex’s Capsule Wardrobe Essentials ebook. Her site, Travel Fashion Girl, has lots of great advice for what to pack, including her 10-piece travel essentials packing list.
Capsule Wardrobe Packing List
- 4 t-shirts
- 2 long-sleeved shirts
- 1 light jacket
- 1 pair of jeans or chinos
- 1 pair of shorts
- 6 pairs of underwear
- 6 pairs of socks
Merino wool is the ideal t-shirt fabric because it regulates your body temperature and repels odors. You can wear a merino shirt multiple times before needing to wash it.
The problem is that merino wool is expensive.
For larger items like long-sleeved shirts, remember to avoid anything bulky. Don’t pack any huge hoodies or cable knit sweaters.
Choose thin shirts that you can layer with the t-shirts above or jacket below. Thin, merino wool shirts work well. Some of the brands from the last section also make long-sleeved versions of their t-shirts.
Shirt jackets also work well. You can wear one over a t-shirt as an outer layer in temperate weather. Edgevale’s North Coast Shirt Jacket is a good choice. Just be careful to avoid overly thick fabrics like some flannels.
Your choice of jacket is highly dependent on the weather in your destination.
Is it cold? Is it temperate? Is it rainy?
Cold weather is trickier. Warmer jackets are typically heavier jackets. The biggest question is how variable the temperature will be at your destination.
Will you always need to wear your jacket? If so, you can carry a heavier jacket because you won’t ever need to pack it in your luggage.
Remember that you can always stick your jacket in the overhead bin during flight and leave it in your room when necessary. However, you’re still carrying it in those situations. Weigh how often you’ll need it against how willing you are to wear it in unideal situations.
Snarky Nomad reviewed five ultralight down jackets that can be packed in your luggage. I avoid cold weather when I travel.
I grew up in Pittsburgh. Eighteen years of northeast winters were more than enough for me. Temperate or warm weather makes packing easier and lighter. I’ll stick to Mediterranean and tropical climates for my travels.
Jeans or Chinos
For jeans, skip the performance gear and go with your favorite style and fit. If you wear jeans at home, you can wear them on the road. Just remember to wear them in transit as they’re big, bulky, and hard to pack.
Most “performance” jeans look like dad jeans from an 80s department store.
Outlier’s Slim Dungarees look good and, while not cheap, are priced comparably to high-end denim brands.
Bonobos’ Travel Jeans are cheaper and designed to travel well. They’re made of 10.5 ounce denim, which is relatively light for wearing and packing. The jeans also have a 1% stretch.
If you prefer chinos to jeans, check out Bluffworks. Their pants are made to look office-appropriate but still work for outdoor adventures. Michael at Art of Adventuring, Eytan at Snarky Nomad, and James at The Savvy Backpacker all gave the pants positive reviews. The last link has lots of good pictures for reference.
Chinos are classics. Every brand from Gap to J. Crew to Banana Republic makes its own version. Find a pair that fits you well and isn’t too bulky. Outlier offers a high-end version too.
Athletic shorts are a versatile option on the road. They can be used at the gym, for outdoor adventures, as a substitute for pajamas, and as swim trunks.
Outlier made their New Way Shorts to be the only pair of shorts that you own. They were made to double as casual wear shorts and as a swimsuit.
Eytan from Snarky Nomad recommended another option: Uniqlo AIRism boxer briefs. I’ve tried and would recommend them too. They look better than ExOfficio underwear and are made of a smoother, softer material. Plus, you can get two pairs for under $20.
Choose any brand that looks good and feels comfortable. Avoid cotton at all costs. You need a fabric, like the underwear above, that will repel odors and dry quickly.
For socks, we’re Smartwool loyalists. Their wool socks stay up and fit snugly. The only downside is that I’ve had a few pairs wear out above my heel.
A capsule wardrobe is a worthwhile investment for frequent travelers. Build a core wardrobe of matching basics so that you can pack light and never have to decide what to pack. Above, we’ve listed a handful of our favorite brands. For more recommendations, see Snarky Nomad’s list of travel clothing.
Would you build a capsule wardrobe? Why or why not?