What I've Learned from Keeping a Capsule Wardrobe

In contrast to my last post, this one is about something that's working out well - the capsule wardrobe system. Or my version thereof. 

My week 44 challenge was to try a capsule wardrobe. Initial results were great, right up there with most of the decluttering-type challenges, about which I have zero regrets. As a matter of fact, making a new capsule is on my calendar every three months and I look forward to the task. Am I cool or what? 

Before (left) - so many shoes, no dresses, jeans must have all been in the wash, long-sleeve shirts not suitable for summer in St. Louis (far right is Eric's stuff). And after - less of everything except jeans and dresses (sorry, Eric, but the other curtain rod is so low!).

Before (left) - so many shoes, no dresses, jeans must have all been in the wash, long-sleeve shirts not suitable for summer in St. Louis (far right is Eric's stuff). And after - less of everything except jeans and dresses (sorry, Eric, but the other curtain rod is so low!).

Every three months I go through all my clothes, switch out things according the seasons, and get rid of pieces that no longer work for me. I don't adhere to a set number, but I'd say the total is generally under 40 items including shoes, outerwear and work clothes. 

When I started this, I incorrectly assumed that once a capsule was set, it wouldn't change over those three months. But things happen and new clothes come in. My mom gives me something that she doesn't want; I get a new t-shirt or something to workout in; I order something I've wanted; the weather changes and long sleeves are out of the question. So invariably, after three months, my closet needs to be cleaned out. 

I realize now that this repopulating of the closet is going to happen whether or not I go through everything four times a year, but if I follow through with that, it never gets that bad. 

After starting with someone else's rules, I've pretty much got my own at this point. They are as follows:

  1. Everything in the closet has to fit. Clothes that don't fit are pointless and frustrating.
  2. I have to like everything and want to wear it. All of it. (This is actually more difficult to accomplish than it sounds.) 
  3. There has to be at least one dress. I'm not necessarily a dress person, but occasions come up. 
  4. I have to have something I can wear out to a nice dinner that's not a dress.  
  5. And I have to have something I can wear to the store without feeling the slightest bit dressed up, but also without feeling like a bum.
  6. My shoe selection has to work with all the above. Likewise for bags. 

Although workout gear and lounge wear don't count toward the capsule, similar rules apply, but with a more general "enough but not too much" approach. I've been wearing two loose sundresses around the house this summer and that's about it, but I've got way more workout gear in rotation because I sweat a lot and have to wash each piece every time I wear it. 

You can find different rules on the internet. Or you can make your own. You'll have to decide for yourself if a system like this would work for you, but I'd definitely encourage you to try it. If it doesn't work out, you can right back to stuffing your closet full of everything you ever liked and might like in the future. 

It works for me because it gives me a set date to clear out my closet, think about what I have and what I need, and get rid of anything that doesn't work. It's all too easy to acquire a few things here and there, not be fully honest about them or truly not know how they're going to work out, and let them stay in the closet on wishful thinking. This last time, I got rid of a pair of linen shorts I liked more in theory than practice, a couple t-shirts that didn't fit quite right, some shoes that essentially served the same purpose as shoes I already had, a lot of around-the-house clothes I didn't especially like or need, and some workout clothes that weren't comfortable. It felt good. 

Because I've found a system I like, I hadn't done any research on capsule wardrobes since I wrote that original post. A quick search revealed some interesting reads from the last year or so. One of my favorite websites/guilty pleasures/okay-I'm-addicted, Apartment Therapy, has a three-part series about one of their writer's processes here. And I found a bunch of stuff about how for many people, it seems like capsule wardrobe = perfect wardrobe = shopping and spending money. I read about how the challenge comes down to owning up to the crappy quality of your clothes, how one writer made the switch from "capsule" to "curated," and then there's this guide to How to Build a Capsule Wardrobe that will Last a LIfetime. Hm. Probably not my lifetime.

Also, there's Everything You Need to Create Your Own Princess Kate Wardrobe. Here's what goes on in my mind when I read posts like this:  I like her style, but I will never need to dress like that. I wonder if we'd be friends if she knew me. Why on earth do I think I want to be friends with a celebrity? Do princesses even have time to read books and also is she technically a princess or just calling herself one? Stop thinking about Princess Kate already! Whew. Okay, let's move on... 

I saw a post on Reddit the other day, I think on r/frugal, from a frustrated person who'd read about how some minimalist blogger was upgrading everything in his capsule wardrobe each time he created a new one. The most recent "upgrades" included jeans that cost hundreds of dollars and a $500 coat. This person was pissed because he'd bought all his clothes at thrift stores and on sale for much, much less, yet achieved the same thing. 

Ed does not do upgrades. He's always been perfect, actually.

Ed does not do upgrades. He's always been perfect, actually.

My thoughts on this are two-fold. Yes, it can be good to spend more money on something you know you're likely to wear for years. On the other hand, we humans are always changing. We change our opinions, our habits, our jobs, our friends, even - god forbid - our style. There's a chance that guy's $500 coat might outlast his interest in wearing it, and that change might have nothing to do with styles changing, but with him changing. If you can afford to replace a $500 coat every few years, maybe it's worth taking that chance. Otherwise, stick with price points you can afford every few years. 

(I'm assuming we're all in the mindset of buying and wearing, not buying with the intention to resell. There is a resale market for designer clothes that one of my good friends participates in, which can make an "investment" piece retain value with proper care. That is way to much work for me. Deciding what to invest in, taking care of it... I just want to have something to wear to dinner with the in-laws that doesn't look like crap!)

In terms of what to upgrade, I'm somewhere in between, but much closer to the frugal guy. I don't think anything in my closet cost more than $100. But having fewer clothes has shown me what's worth spending on. I've had the same winter coat for three years and I still like it. It's probably worth paying someone to mend the holes in the pockets, so it's at the tailor's right now. I ruin all my white t-shirts within the season, so I should spend as little as possible on them. I get attached to cardigans and will wear them for a long time, so I can spend a little more. Anything I can't wear over a few size changes is probably not worth dropping a lot of money on. Except for bras; bras are worth more to me. It's not important to spend a lot on workout gear, but I'm more likely to work out if I have something functional and comfortable to wear, and in the summer, there has to be enough that I can wear something clean without doing laundry every single day. It turns out I'm flaky about shoes, so I shouldn't spend much on them. On the other hand, I have been known to keep purses until they fall apart. 

Would  a capsule wardrobe work for you? You'll have to try it yourself and see if you learn anything. Eric tried it. He hated it. He got frustrated when the weather changed and half of his clothes were in the attic. He brought them down, pared down enough that he could keep everything in one place. He had a lot more clothes than I would want to deal with, until he went through everything again last week and pared it back down, donating three bags of clothing and a couple pairs of shoes. He still has more in the closet than I do, but it's less than he's ever had before. Whether or not he'll be happy with it remains to be seen. 

What I've Learned: 

  • Having fewer clothes to choose from, and only having to choose from things that fit, are appropriate for the season, and go together is freeing. It takes less time and effort and is easier. 
  • Looking critically at what I have keeps me from getting bogged down in my own history. This applies to all decluttering - I recently realized my desk was filled with mailing supplies from a time when I regularly sent stories out to journals via snail mail. That is not what I do now, so I took all that stuff downstairs and put things I do use in my desk drawers. 
  • The process is most effective if I take everything out of the closet and only put back what I want to wear. It seems like this shouldn't be any different than taking out what I don't want, but it turns out there's a big difference between letting something stay (easy) and putting something back (harder). My eyes glide right over clothing I don't like, as if it were part of the fixtures, unless I physically remove it from the closet. 
  • Sometimes the urge to buy something new just goes away. Sometimes it means I've changed and how I want to present myself is changing. And sometimes I just want to shop, but if what I want overlaps with something I already have, I know I need to wait out the urge.
  • I enjoy the process of clearing out things that don't work for me and this process gets easier every time, as I learn more and more about what works for me. 
  • It's especially nice to get rid of underthings that don't fit, are old, or that don't feel good to wear. Often other people don't see these things and it's easy to force ourselves to keep wearing them (see PS about bras). 

I hope you'll consider trying a capsule wardrobe, or at least putting anything that doesn't fit or is out-of-season in a place away from what you're wearing now. 

PS for Bra Wearers

At some point since my first capsule, I discovered a sub-Reddit called "A Bra that Fits." I lurked for a while, reading about the struggles people have with this, lamenting my own and wondering if it was really that bad. Then I finally took my measurements and plugged them into the bra size calculator. I took my new sizes (quite different from my old sizes) and ordered a bunch of bras from places that offer free shipping both ways (mostly Nordstrom and Amazon). And I finally found a bra that fit! I still take my bra off as soon as I get home and I prefer to go without when I'm at home, but my bras are no longer uncomfortable. The straps stay on my shoulders and my boobs aren't being squished into unnatural shapes when I don't want them to be. Sometimes I forget I have them on. Craziness. If you wear a bra and you haven't gone through this process, I highly recommend giving it a try.