Defining the Capsule Wardrobe – 3 Common Principles & Unique Approaches

Although the “capsule wardrobe” concept has been around for decades, it’s becoming increasingly culturally significant. As fast fashion proves ever more destructive and unsatisfying, there is a movement away from disposable clothing in favour of a more focused and enduring wardrobe.

Though the term was coined forty years ago by London boutique owner Susie Faux, there still isn’t a single definition for it. Many enthusiasts have their own spin on the concept, keeping things interesting with unique interpretations and rules. An iconic example of this is Caroline Rector, who’s highly influential blog Unfancy recorded her experience creating a wardrobe of 37 pieces each season. Another example is Project 333 which promotes a minimalist wardrobe of 33 pieces for each three month season.

By providing a precise formula, these methods help us break out of old habits and make dramatic, liberating changes. But must we limit ourselves to 33, 37 or any set number of garments to embrace the capsule wardrobe?

Must all the garments in a capsule coordinate together?

Is a wardrobe still a “capsule” if it reflects more than one colour palate or style?”

The answer is that there’s no single approach to developing a capsule wardrobe – and you don’t have to adhere to strict guidelines to be part of the movement.

Even rule-based enthusiasts note that followers should adapt their guidelines as needed. But if rules aren’t the defining characteristic of a capsule, what is?

Colorful clothes hanging in wardrobeWhile there’re no single right answer to that question,  capsule enthusiasts almost always share three overarching principles:

Utility and coordination: Perhaps the defining characteristic of a “capsule” is to only buy clothing that coordinates with the other pieces in your wardrobe and works with your lifestyle. While this may sound intuitive, it actually goes against the grain of fast fashion culture. Between persuasive advertisements, constant promotions and 52 micro fashion seasons each year, we’re conditioned to shop for emotional reasons rather than utility. We end up buying clothes as individual pieces, often for their symbolic value, instead of thinking about new purchases as part of a collection.

Less is more / quality over quantity: Capsule wardrobe advocates focus on purchasing less items overall but finding pieces of superior quality, wearability and fit. It’s a matter of finding pieces you absolutely love and wearing them often, rather than replacing mediocre pieces with new ones on a frequent basis.

Personal style over trends: A key driver of the capsule wardrobe is to identify your signature style and only purchase pieces that compliment it. It’s okay to take inspiration from trends, but your wardrobe should be geared towards pieces that will stand the test of time, compliment your figure and lifestyle and bring you joy season after season.

In my view, the main difference in the way capsule wardrobes are discussed in the blogosphere is which principle the writer focuses on. These are the three main approaches:

The Staples Approach:  This is probably the most common understanding of the term, with the driving principle of utility and coordination. The focus here is on curating a wardrobe of high quality staples that work together and last many seasons. Fashion designer Donna Karen popularized this concept with collections of seven interchangeable work wear pieces in the 1980’s.

From this viewpoint comes the terms “investment pieces”, “wardrobe workhorse” and “staples”, although what one considers a staple will varies with their lifestyle (i.e. a black blazer in the corporate world might be reinterpreted as a leather motto jacket for a university student or mom). Because a chief goal of this approach is to maximize the amount of outfit options offered by a minimal wardrobe, it lends itself to rules and guidelines, such as how many pieces to include in your capsule or the ideal ratio of tops to bottoms

Blogs emblematic of this approach include Unfancy and Confidence Tricks.

The Minimalist Approach:  Minimalism is a hot topic these days, not just in our closets but as an overall lifestyle. Clearly the driving principle here is less is more.

The minimalist approach is driven primarily by lifestyle values or ethics. Proponents are taking a conscious stance against the perils of fast fashion and mass consumerism, be them environmental, humanitarian, economic or psychological.

Sites emblematic of this viewpoint include Into Mind, Becoming MinimalistProject 333 and Eco Chic.

The Curated Closet Approach:  This perspective is focused on developing your personal style and only buying pieces that compliment it perfectly. The key driver is the third principle, personal style over trends.

The psychology of self image is a defining theme of this approach. A key goal is to identify and develop an intended image that reflects and reinforces who you are, both internally and to those around you.

The curated closet approach is not rigid. Its proponents don’t typically have “rules”, just best practices. Not all pieces are intended to work together and there is less emphasis on the total amount of pieces.

Proponents of this viewpoint include Wardrobe Oxygen, the classic transformation show What Not to Wear and me, Working Look (although I also emphasize sustainability).

Capsule wardrobeWhile the above outlines are helpful in understanding different approaches to the capsule wardrobe, it goes without saying that these viewpoints are not exclusive of each other and correlate strongly together.

The examples I’ve listed in each category are based solely on my opinion as a fan of their work; they may define themselves quite differently. Case in point, I’ve seen just about every episode of What Not to Wear and I’ve never heard hosts Stacy or Clinton use the term “capsule wardrobe”. I would argue, however, that by virtue of eliminating everything from a contributors’ wardrobe that doesn’t work for them and then creating them a small wardrobe of highly coordinating, lifestyle-appropriate pieces to reflect an intended personal style, they are among history’s most influential capsule wardrobe proponents.

Now that you have my take the different approaches to capsule wardrobes, are you excited to build one your own?

Still not sure if a capsule is right for you? Take the quiz!

Female Black And White Clothes And Shoes

Need some help picking the right pieces for your capsule wardrobe? Download the Style Counsel app on your iPhone and get free stylist feedback to your fashion questions! 

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