I'll Take the Small Closet

How to Build a Move-Proof Capsule Wardrobe

Last summer, I PCS-ed from Northern Virginia to Germany with one 50-pound suitcase and one small backpack. My daughter and I vacationed in California before joining my husband in Germany, so we decided to pay out-of-pocket to fly a discount airline from Portland, Oregon to Frankfurt rather than flying to Baltimore to catch the Patriot Express, the free military flight. It was only going to work financially if we didn’t incur costs for extra bags and a larger rental car.

One 50-pound suitcase doesn’t amount to much when it has to hold everything you need for two months, which for me included a full-size yoga mat. Fortunately, I had started experimenting with a wardrobe capsule in the spring, so it wasn’t too hard to make a few changes for a summer capsule and pack it up in my one suitcase. When we met with limited closet space in our on-post housing in Germany, I told my husband that I’d take the small closet and he could have the big one. He was skeptical, but it’s working and we even have an extra shelf in the closet.

In a lifestyle that often feels chaotic, I find a lot of peace from minimalizing my wardrobe. It’s simple to figure out what to wear, and it’s easy to put things away. I know that everything I have curated will feel and look amazing when I put it on, and everything mixes and matches with each other. Wardrobe capsuling also saves me time and money by eliminating shopping as a pastime. I put together my wardrobe capsule at the beginning of the season, shop for missing or replacement items, and that’s it for the next three months. By shopping less, I’m able to mindfully buy nicer things. This season, I only needed rain boots and I was able to splurge on some black Hunter boots when I saw them at the PX.

To dial up the peace and contentment in your life, I encourage you to give wardrobe capsules a try. Here’s my method:

Here’s my method:

1. Do all of the laundry. You need to see what you have to choose from, and the clothes in the laundry are probably the ones that you wear the most. Don’t let this step be an obstacle to getting started though. If you have to, you could always turn the dirty clothes inside out so you can see what you have and not get the dirty clothes mixed up with the clean ones.

2. Grab a trash bag and a giveaway bag. Purge as you go. If you don’t feel excited about something, I give you permission to get rid of it. It’s more important to clear space for things you love than to feel guilty about money already spent or the gift that wasn’t on point.

3. Gather all of your clothing together. Collect all of your clean laundry (or dirty if you must!), shoes, outerwear, and accessories from wherever you have it stashed….closets, dressers, basement, etc. You are going to shop your wardrobe for the next season and you want to see everything you have.

4. Pull out what’s appropriate for the next three months. Think about weather, lifestyle, and travel. For me here in Germany, I know we’re going to have some warm afternoons but it’s going to get chilly and wet fast. I’m going to go to language classes every morning and work from home in the afternoons. We’re going to travel to Paris for our daughter’s 13th birthday, head to Italy for her fall school vacation, and do as many weekend day trips as we can. I’m going to practice yoga, hike, and walk for sure with some runs and bike rides and runs perhaps peppered in. Ask yourself what your life is going to look like for the next three months and choose clothes that work accordingly.

5. Try everything on and choose things for your capsule based on the following questions:

  • Do I love it? You should be excited to wear each item that you pick up.

  • Is it practical? Think about comfort, color, care instructions, and your everyday life. I love a crisp white button up shirt, but I almost never wear the one I have because I’m always afraid of getting it dirty. Instead of keeping it in my fall capsule, I prioritized a soft plaid flannel shirt that I always put on as soon as it’s clean.

  • Does it fit well right now? Some people say not to keep fat or skinny clothes. Now that I’m over 40, I understand the need to have clothes in different sizes, but only keep things in your current capsule that make you feel amazing. That might mean putting some things in storage and sizing up or down for the current season. All of those low-rise jeans that are too small though? I gave those to my daughter and she’s stunning in them. If I were to go back to that size I would want a higher rise style now, so there’s no sense in storing them.

6. Curate your wardrobe capsule. You can adjust to suit your gender or lifestyle, but these are the guidelines I used.  Include accessories, jackets, and shoes. Exclude undergarments, athletic wear, jewelry that you wear every single day, and specialty gear like hiking boots and swimsuits. I’ve included 33 items here in step with Project 333, a minimalist wardrobe movement that started in 2010 and met with unexpected enthusiasm. Download this Capsule Wardrobe Worksheet to fill in the items you carefully curate.

  • 12 tops

  • 6 bottoms

  • 3 dresses

  • 3 jackets

  • 4 accessories

  • 5 shoes

7. Make sure your wardrobe capsule items all coordinate with each other. If you have a top that will only layer under one sweater, that’s not versatile enough to give you lots of wear. Also, choose a color palette. I love the ads for closet organization systems. They are so clean and peaceful. If you take a close look, they usually have one pop of color accompanied by lots of neutrals. This season, I’m going with raspberry, black, white, and grey. Even though I love it, my favorite chambray button up is going in storage because it doesn’t fit my color palette and I’ll be super excited to see it again next spring when I bring out all of my blues.

8. Be flexible. You’ve done the hard work of curating your wardrobe. Now, if it’s going to change your life to add a few more accessories or a pair of shoes, do it. The numbers are here to help you choose less, but in the end, it’s the practice, not the exact number, that matters.

Have wardrobe capsules already positively impacted your life? If not, are you intrigued by the idea?