Dressing Like an Adult: Capsule Wardrobes Demystified & Simplified

If you’re scrolling through Pinterest these days, you’ve surely noticed the term Capsule Wardrobe beneath a graphic featuring at least a dozen outfits created from only 2 pairs of pants, a few $300 shirts, a hairpin (MacGyver style) and a crap ton of magic. Of course I’m exaggerating, but the idea of buying all new clothes/shoes/accessories or throwing out 99% of the clothing you already own makes a capsule wardrobe sound so unattainable. Furthermore, there are tons of fantasy capsule wardrobes floating around the internet whose sole purpose seems to encourage buying more in order to achieve this “minimalist” wardrobe. Other countless misconceptions about what a capsule wardrobe actually is keeps many scrolling past these images. Some of the following are questions that might arise when you see such an image of a perfectly curated, Polypore-captured “capsule wardrobe”:

  • What exactly is a capsule wardrobe?
  • Do I really only have 12 items from which to choose?
  • How can I quickly create outfits from so few items? Is it going to take even longer to get dressed if there is so little in my closet?
  • How much is this going to cost me?
  • Do I have to donate or toss all of my existing clothes?

If you have ever asked any of those questions or if you often have a difficult time “getting dressed” in only a couple of minutes (or ever), then this post is for you! My goal is to demystify and simplify a capsule wardrobe, making it attainable for you.


What exactly is a capsule wardrobe?

Believe it or not, Pinterest and Bloggers did not come up with the term “capsule wardrobe”! Nor is it a new thing. London based boutique owner Susie Faux came up with the term 30 years ago as a means of helping working women to develop their personal style. Ms. Faux says that a capsule is comprised of a dozen or so fewer, higher quality and timeless basics, from which one will be able to wear repeatedly due to their ability to form countless combinations, AKA outfits.

The basic idea is simple: by building a capsule wardrobe you will buy fewer clothes of a higher quality that you will wear more often. You will look and feel confident and successful because the quality will show and because you know that the overall look works. And never again will you have a cupboard stuffed full of clothes that you don’t wear and yet be unable to find anything to wear when you’ve got an important occasion. –Susie Faux

Sounds good, right? *Note: Some of you may be parenting small children at home and/or may work from home, but please keep reading!* The concepts of a capsule wardrobe can be applied to anyone and in any setting. For anyone whose home base each day is home, simply swap out the office setting to a general public setting and you’re set.


Do I really only have 12 items from which to choose?

To be a true capsule wardrobe, then yes, you’ll stick with 12 foundational pieces (or less)–per Susie’s definition. However, I think the heart of the idea is to minimize our spending, our time spent shopping, our clutter, and our stress over processing so. many. clothes. every. darn. day. Think about it: if you have less to look at and choose from, you have fewer decisions to make. Besides, even with only a handful of clothing there are already so many combinations. Let’s do a little math, shall we?

If anyone reading ever took an algebra class, she’ll remember (or be retaught here-ha!) the formula for determining unique possibilities from various numbers of items. It’s actually quite simple. If I have 4 clothing tops and 4 clothing bottoms that all coordinate, I simply multiply them together to determine my outfit combinations. See below example.

4 tops x 4 bottoms = 16 total outfit combinations

Shoes and accessories up the ante here, because they add in further multipliers.

4 tops x 4 bottoms3 shoes48 total outfit combinations

4 tops x 4 bottoms x shoes x 2 scarves = 96 total outfit combinations

So while you don’t have to only use 12 items in a Capsule, you probably don’t need all 12 black tops you might currently own. Figure out which pieces you love the best in each category…the ones you return to again and again…and use those as the base for your Capsule.


How can I quickly create outfits from so few items?

Does anyone remember the opening scene from Clueless where Cher is is picking out her outfit on that amazing, futuristic computer program that would call a Match or Mismatch? Guess what, similar technology exists! 35a29adf57c75ddb205c355139840abc

It’s finally real and it’s called StyleBook. It doesn’t tell you if something matches, but it does allow you to put together outfits without having to try everything on in front of a mirror. It’s a major time saver! *Note: there are other several garment or wardrobe organization apps (and I’m including a link to some fabulous reviews of them), but I am choosing to only discuss StyleBook today, because I totally use it and I completely adore it. I should also state that I am not being paid to discuss the StyleBook app, nor is this post sponsored in any form.*

Cost: $5/one time fee; available only on iPhones.

The Process


First: upload each of your tops, pairs of pants, skirts and pairs of shoes into the app. Might I suggest only adding the pieces YOU LIKE–meaning they fit well, wear easily, and are worn frequently, etc. Don’t bother with the stuff that you don’t love, because chances are that you aren’t wearing it. You can always add it into the app later. You can also add handbags, outerwear, and even accessories like scarves, belts and hats, but chances are you’ll be fine selecting a handbag on your own or a coat based on the weather the morning of. I choose to invest my time in the app uploading the foundational pieces (tops, bottoms) plus scarves and hats, but do what works best for you.

The uploading process is an upfront investment in time, and it did take a little while to catch onto how to do it quickly, but overall the app has saved me so much time getting dressed. It was taking longer than normal to upload things at first, because I was trying to make the images too perfect and really, the sole point is just to visualize an outfit, not to have a catalog-worthy outline of a top or a speck-free background (I’m referencing the background removal tool in the app). My recommendations for uploading the pieces:

  • Just do your best with the background removal tool, but try to photograph the items on a hard floor or use the back of a solid colored tablecloth to get a crisp line between the garment and the background.
  • Break up adding pieces by doing it only for the current season (no point in taking time to photograph swimsuits in December when you can do it later). Further still, take all tops pictures one day, all pants pictures another day, and so on.


After adding the clothing, create as many outfits as you can. This is the fun part! Very quickly you’ll realize and visualize all of the combinations that can come from only a few pieces of clothing. The outfits can be scheduled in advance or in the past. You can add details to each piece such as size, colors, price and any other necessary data. Did I mention that it uses such data and the built-in calendar to track value or trends in your wardrobe? For instance: it will show me “items most worn” as well as “items never worn.” This clues me in to what I might need to add more of when replacing damaged items within my wardrobe or what I might need to donate. Useful!

I love visually seeing all of my clothes and realizing that I have a capsule wardrobe already with no need to buy anything in the foreseeable future. Eventually as items deteriorate, and if I track my outfits on the calendar portion of the app, I will have a good idea of which ones justify being replaced.

Confession. I am not 100% perfect at documenting my outfits. I try to do it at least one solid week a month just to jump start my excitement for getting dressed with what I own and also to document a sampling of what I have worn for future replacement purposes. Imperfect posting of outfits aside, I find it quite satisfying to look at a week’s worth of grown-up outfits that I created from pieces I already had and felt good about wearing. Personally, it creates a similar effect to wearing a brand new outfit, except I’m using existing pieces in new ways.

Surprisingly, more than anything, I’ve found that [Stylebook app] helps me stay content. Whenever I feel an urge to go shopping, I go straight to my phone and try to make a couple of new outfits with clothes I already own. Usually, it quiets that shopping urge instantly — and it reminds me that I have enough. In fact, it was what helped me initially see just how much I could do with less. –Caroline of Un-fancy.com

But what if I don’t want to, or can’t, use a wardrobe organization app?

Take 10 minutes on a Sunday morning (natural light is your friend) and pick out 3 tops and 3 bottoms to wear throughout the week. You can document the outfits by laying them on your bed and quickly snapping pics with your phone to reference them when it’s time to get dressed each day. Accessories can be added the day of depending on weather and grooming requirements. Outfit photos could be deleted after the week is done or saved in a special folder to be later referenced.

How much is this going to cost me?

If you’re like the majority of Americans, you have an insane amount of clothing. And much of it goes unworn! If this is the case, chances are that you have multiple capsule wardrobes within the clothing you own.

The U.S. apparel industry today is a $12 billion business and the average American family spends $1,700 on clothes annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The dollar figures are of little significance since it accounts for just 3.5 percent of a family’s expenses, on average. What is significant is whether that money is spent on need or waste. The answer is, largely, waste. In 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits. Today, that figure is 30 outfits — one for every day of the month. –Forbes.com

Are Tiny Wardrobes for You?

I found a fantastic post titled Before You Throw It All Out for a Minimalist Wardrobe by Inside Out Style Blog. She brings up some great questions to ask yourself before taking the plunge into “tiny” wardrobes. If you are ready, here’s how to proceed.

Type 1 Scenario

If any of those figures quoted by Forbes.com represent you and you’re looking to simplify with a capsule wardrobe, then it’s time to shop your own closet. Hint: this isn’t going to cost you anything.

  1. Set aside time–perhaps over the course of a month, break it down over each weekend.
  2. Try on e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, and be ruthless.
    1. Does it fit you now?
    2. Does it flatter you now?
    3. Does it make you feel comfortable or good to wear it?
    4. Does it make sense with your lifestyle (yes, moms can wear nice things and we’ll be talking about that in the near future)?
  3. Make donate, keep, toss, mend piles.
  4. Organize the remaining clothing in a way that makes sense for you.
    1. By season
    2. By color
    3. By occasion
    4. By garment type, etc.
  5. Perk up your closet in some small way. Choose at least one option.
    1. Getting hangers that match. They need not be fancy. Wood hangers take up more room, so process that before investing.
    2. Painting the walls.
    3. Painting the shelves.
    4. Improving the shelving.
    5. Scrubbing down everything and using the vacuum where needed. Most of us should probably do this at the very least.

Type 2 Scenario

If you’re at a point in life where you may not have ever had clothes that flatter you properly or clothing of quality (quality does not mean expensive, BTW, and we will be discussing this later in our series), you might actually need to make a list of items to buy. BUT. Do not rush out and buy everything at once! More than ever, you want to make wise economic decisions with your hard earned money so that you don’t continue the cycle of buying quick, cheap clothes that you tire of a year later. Follow these steps.

  1. Track what you wear.
    1. You may still prefer gray sweaters and when the ill-fitting ones give up the ghost, you’ll know that you are justified in buying one of better quality. You may also find that you no longer feel the urge to buy patterned shorts, because they simply hang out in your closet, unworn.
  2. Watch what others wear.
    1. What appeals to you? Is it comfortable? Ask your friends about the things they wear and if they feel like the items wear well.
    2. Try on many items in a store, but leave your wallet and cards IN THE CAR. If things are still on your brain 5 days later, chances are they would be something that you’d love for a long time.
    3. Make an inspiration board on Pinterest or from fashion mags of outfits that speak to you for developing your everyday style. What reccurring types of items or colors do you notice in these images? Are the looks patterned or more simply color blocked? Is blue everywhere? Are the looks layered with cardigans or other toppers? Answers to these questions will direct you to a few pieces you might need to add to your wardrobe to make your wardrobe reflect you.
  3. Keep a short list of items to purchase.
    1. These should be justifiable purchases–either because you have shown you will wear them or because you have tried them on without wallet in hand, and know they will fit you well and flatter you. If I’m on the hunt for a specific piece, I’ll stop into a consignment store once a month on my free morning (without kids) and see if they have what I need. If they don’t, I’ll check out Shopstyle.com to see what kinds of sales are going on. Shopstyle.com is great because you can type in a specific search such as “white drape cardigan” and then add filters for size, price, sale discount, brand, etc. From there, click pics that look interesting and it’ll take you to the website to read reviews, fabric content, etc. It has helped me score some wonderful deals without having to drag all of my squad into a store.

Do I have to donate or toss all of my existing clothes?

Whether or not you fall into Scenario 1 or 2, you do NOT need to get rid of all of your clothes and start anew. The point of a capsule is to consume LESS, so beginning from scratch by buying all new items defeats this purpose. Instead, if you have a capsule within your existing wardrobe, I would consider sectioning off the out of season or less worn items for a time (if you don’t have an attic or additional storage, consider taking a huge lawn garbage bag and wrapping it over the hangers and pushing the bag to the side in your closet). The linked post by Inside Out Style Blog mentioned doing this as well. If during this time, you remember one of the pieces in there that you are desperate to wear, then by all means grab it from storage. However, if after one full cycle of clothing swaps (for example: when you switch from your hot weather clothes to your cold winter apparel and then back again to your hot weather items) you’re still not reaching for certain items, it’s probably time to donate them.

Items that should probably be donated or tossed are items that will cost more to repair than they are worth. Items with a couple of small moth holes can be easily repaired, but if there are 10, or if they are large, chances are you’re out of luck. Small and large tears at seams are easy to repair! Taking in and letting out pants a bit is also easy, so if you love the way a pair fits everywhere except for the waist take them to a tailor or seamstress. Many dry cleaners can recommend them. Hemming is easy and I’ve also had pants narrowed from bootcut to skinny leg, when that was popular. Skinny legs are still in, but thankfully so are bootcut! Honestly I don’t know if anything is “in” anymore, because it all seemed to be “in”  at Fashion Week. I digress.

Also in the Dressing Like an Adult series…

  1. Why
  2. Demystifying & Simplifying the Capsule Wardrobe
  3. Solutions to Get Ready for the Day Faster
  4. Care & Keeping Solutions
  5. Shopping Strategies + Personal Style Development
  6. Quality Matters + The Flatter Factor
  7. BONUS: The Page I took from the Midcentury Housewife’s Book

Thank you for reading! I am having so much fun writing this series. Please let me know what questions you have about “Dressing Like an Adult” in the comments.