How to build a capsule wardrobe

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I couldn’t afford an entirely new wardrobe all at once, so I started with the basics… and then realised I didn’t need anything else.

How to build a capsule wardrobe
You’ve heard it a million times: one of the easiest ways to cut back on fast fashion purchases is to buy fewer locally made, sustainable garments or try vintage shopping. But when you’re used to picking up a new dress for every special occasion or doing online retail therapy at 2am (guilty!) it’s a tricky idea to get your mind around.

My story

I didn’t mean to become a ‘minimalist’, but due to some health issues my body size and shape changed quite dramatically. I couldn’t afford an entirely new wardrobe all at once, so I started with the basics… and then realised I didn’t need anything else.

A few years before that, I had read Marie Kondo’s famous book to help me pare back my possessions before I moved to a new flat. And then I moved five more times in five years, so it’s a good thing I read that book when I did. I learnt that my mindset was key to thinking about my possessions in a different light.

Owning fewer things is not deprivation. It’s freedom. I held onto a lot of my clothes (and other possessions) out of fear.

What if a specific occasion comes up and I need this thing I’ve just gotten rid of? When I freed myself from all the extra stuff, I realised I had everything I needed. And if the occasion did arise, I had the resources to buy, rent or borrow the things I didn’t own. All those little ‘what if’ items had been piling up, holding me back.

As a reformed hoarder and maximalist, I feel especially excited to share what I’ve learnt about whittling down a wardrobe to basics that are anything but.

Your mindset

Try not to think of quitting fast fashion as a compromise. Think of it as an opportunity to define your style and free up your mind for other decisions. It also makes getting dressed in the morning or packing for a trip super quick and easy.

It feels counterintuitive but having less to choose from will give you more outfit combos, more space in your cupboards, AND free up your mind.

Your uniform – or not

There are a few ways to approach a capsule wardrobe and the most straightforward way is to create a ‘uniform’ of sorts. Find an outfit that works and stick to it.

From Steve Jobs and his famous polo neck to Barack Obama’s decision to only wear blue or grey suits, lots of high-performance people choose to wear the same outfit every day, citing ‘decision fatigue’ as the reason.

This may or may not be scientifically accurate, but what we do know is that if you are happy wearing the same outfit every day, it can give you a sense of control and certainty in a world where we have very little of both of those things. So, if you’re into wearing a ‘uniform’, and needed permission to go for it, here it is. Be free and do your thing, you style icon.

If the thought scares you or sounds boring, not to worry – read on.

Your colour palette

One of the first steps I took when building my capsule wardrobe was to figure out my colour palette. Don’t panic, I’m not going to tell you you’re ‘an autumn’ and to wear only red and brown from now on.

Nope. Just take a look at your current clothes to see what colours you buy most often. For me, it’s dusty pink and yellow. I think of black, white, tan, and denim as ‘basics’ so I don’t count them as colours, but hey, it’s your life – you pick what works for you.

It doesn’t mean you should never buy a statement colour or print again (I’ve been known to leave the house in five different kinds of floral on occasion), but it’s a good way to make decisions for future purchases and make sure everything goes with everything else.

Once you have an idea of your colour palette, you can add variations of each item. I had a yellow t-shirt that went with everything, so I got a polo neck and a knitted version of it too. No matter the weather, I know I have a yellow top that goes with all my other clothes.  

Your essentials

Depending on your style, the weather and whatever else affects the way you dress, you’ll need the basics. Maybe that looks like a bunch of t-shirts and other tops, a couple of pairs of jeans, some skirts or shorts, a pair of dungarees or three (okay, four), a few dresses, jerseys, jackets, coats and your sports and leisure wear.

When picking these items, the most important thing is that they fit your body well and make you feel good. I chose two really good pairs of jeans – one classic skinny indigo denim pair and one faded black ripped-knee mom-silhouette pair. The great thing about these is that they match all the same tops and shoes, but create completely different looks.

If you’re starting from scratch like I did, I had to go out and find these items, but if you’re paring back, you may already own these basics. And you’ll know which ones they are, because they’re the items you reach for most often.

And here’s the real trick – if your essentials are from fast fashion brands, when they wear out you can donate or upcycle them, and then replace them with a good quality, local, sustainable version that will last you for years.

Your silhouette

This is where you can have a lot of fun. Try out wild silhouettes you may not have thought would suit you, or you thought were ‘too much’.

Once you have pared back a lot of the clutter and found your colour palette, a giant bell sleeve shirt or a tight pencil skirt can add a lot of interest to your look, especially if you style your clothes in layers.

Your shoes, bags and other accessories

The same thinking applies to your accessories.

When I pared back my shoe collection (even though my feet didn’t change in size, thank goodness), I realised I wore through my white Air Force Ones so fast I didn’t need many other pairs of sneakers. Along with some running shoes, flat sandals, boots and a couple of pairs of high heels, I pretty much wear ten pairs of shoes all year round.

I’m not fancy when it comes to handbags, so this part was easy. I have a backpack for work and travel, a big tan leather bag that fits my laptop for daytime use, and two smaller bags for evening or formal use, one black and one tan.

If you have hats, scarves, jewellery, I don’t know – a scrunchie collection – just keep applying the same principles. Keep what you wear most and replace them with sustainable versions when their life comes to an end.

Your care and storage

The last point is washing and storing all your beautiful items. One of the kookier points in Marie Kondo’s book is to hold your clothes and thank them for what they allowed you to do that day, before you put them away or into the laundry basket. I thought it was a little wild until I tried it.

Once you pare back, organise, and find a place where every item can happily live, doing laundry and looking after your clothing becomes a mindfulness exercise. You’ll begin to appreciate your clothes more – where they came from, what they’re made of and who made them.

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