How to Create a Capsule Wardrobe on a Budget

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Capsule Wardrobe
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With college in your rearview mirror and your professional life on the horizon, it’s time to start acting – and dressing – your part as a young adult. But you’ve hit a roadblock — the clothes you want are too expensive, you’re spending too much on new items each month, and your budget is suffering as a result.

If you’re looking to build a refined, stylish and timeless wardrobe while balancing financial concerns like student loans and rent, one of the best things you can do is create a capsule wardrobe.

In this article

What is a capsule wardrobe?
How to create a capsule wardrobe
6 capsule wardrobe must-haves
General tips for creating a budget-friendly wardrobe

What is a capsule wardrobe?

A capsule wardrobe is a small collection of items that mixes and matches easily, said Hanna Donnelly, a Chicago-based personal stylist and owner of Hanna Lee Style. Capsule wardrobes typically consist of classic items (think jean jackets, button-down blouses, white T-shirts and trench coats) that will never go out of style.

The concept of a capsule wardrobe came from Susie Faux, a London-based boutique owner, in the 1970s. It has since grown in popularity, with more and more stylists offering their advice for creating one.

The number of items in a capsule wardrobe varies, though it’s typically somewhere between 20 and 50, which includes clothing and shoes but not accessories. If you research capsule wardrobes online, you might see the number 37 popping up — many people believe this is the perfect number of pieces to have in a capsule wardrobe.

Capsule wardrobes are popular not only for their simple, streamlined approach to style, but also because they can help you save money over the long-run.

“When you realize how little clothing you need to feel and look great, you will become more attuned to needless spending, specifically on clothing,” said Andrea Woroch, an expert on consumer savings based in California. “By fine-tuning how you shop and limiting what you buy, you will spend less on impulse [purchases] and focus on investing in quality pieces that last.”

How to create a capsule wardrobe

Creating a capsule wardrobe is simple and will save you money over time. Here’s how to get started.

Go through your closet with a fine-toothed comb. The first thing you want to do is get organized. Remove everything from your closet and drawers and lay it out in front of you. This way, you’ll know exactly what you have.

Purge any items that are sitting gathering dust. By now, you’re likely familiar with the Marie Kondo method of organizing in which you get rid of anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” Take this approach when building your capsule wardrobe. Get rid of anything that doesn’t bring you joy, as well as anything that doesn’t fit, or anything you haven’t worn in a while and don’t anticipate wearing soon (think formal dresses, old ratty T-shirts, brightly-colored heels, etc.).

“Anything that doesn’t bring you joy should be donated or sold,” Woroch said. If some of your items still have resale value, consider going to your local consignment shop or selling them on Poshmark, eBay, thredUP or Facebook Marketplace.

Choose a core color scheme. With a capsule wardrobe, you regularly mix and match various items. Because of this, it’s important to choose a core color scheme, Donnelly said. For most people, this will be either black or navy.

“Choose a core color [that’s easily matchable],” Donnelly said. “Black is the most obvious choice, but black isn’t always the greatest [option] for everybody. Navy is always a second option, but that might be more difficult to find. Why black is so fabulous is because you can buy it really cheaply, and it can still look expensive because it hides imperfections.”

Use discretion when selecting new items. Once you’ve pared down your closet, you’ll be ready to begin growing your capsule wardrobe. Be sure to focus on items that are timeless, versatile and fit your personal style. “Select classic colors and pieces that will transition through the seasons and can be worn different ways to maximize use,” Woroch said. “If you fall into a style slump, search for outfit ideas based on garments you already own using Pinterest.”

The key to a capsule wardrobe is purchasing timeless items that will last for several years. Because of this, you won’t need to replace your entire capsule wardrobe each season. But if you want to switch things up or the weather changes drastically where you live, you can consider switching out five or so items each season.

Accessorize wisely. It can be tempting to jump on the latest trend bandwagon. But will a colorfully embroidered top be something you wear for years to come? Probably not. Opt for something that still fits the trend in question, but on a smaller scale, such as a bag strap, scarf or belt. “If there’s a new trend you want to wear, like a bold color or print, opt for a small accessory that you can add to your ready-to-wear wardrobe instead of wasting it on a blouse that you will get sick of the following season,” Woroch said.

6 capsule wardrobe must-haves

Must-have wardrobe items will vary from person to person, but regardless of your personal style, there are a handful of items you should consider having in your capsule wardrobe.

Jackets and cardigans for layering. Layering is crucial when you have a capsule wardrobe. Not only will different layers help you get through different seasons, but they’ll also help you transform an outfit.

“I really believe in layering, especially with jackets,” Donnelly said. “I think they can just change a wardrobe and an outfit so easily. If you should have anything, I’d say have two to three different jacket layers.”

Black leather boots. These can be short or tall, depending on your preference. You can also opt for tan or camel-colored leather boots if that fits your overall style and capsule wardrobe color scheme better.

A versatile black dress. Select a black dress that can be dressed up or down, and worn no matter what season it is. A good option is typically a fit-and-flare, knee-length style (with or without sleeves) that isn’t too low cut.

The perfect pair of jeans. We all need at least one pair of go-to jeans. Find a pair that’s comfy and not too fashion-forward (i.e. super high-waisted jeans) so they can be a part of your wardrobe for years to come.

A few colorful accessories (scarves, necklaces, belts, etc.). Because your capsule wardrobe will be fairly simple and pared down, you can add flair to your style by accessorizing.

“Use your accessories really wisely,” Donnelly said. “Things like jewelry and scarves can change a whole outfit. You could wear the same dress three times a week, but if you wear it with a different scarf or [piece of] jewelry, it’ll look completely different. Even belting it [works].”

A nice white T-shirt. A high-quality white T-shirt (preferably a scoop or V-neck) is timeless, and can be dressed up or down. Select one that will withstand multiple washes and several years of wear.

General tips for creating a budget-friendly wardrobe

Perhaps a capsule wardrobe isn’t for you. That’s totally fine! If you want to stick with your current wardrobe but still need budget-friendly shopping tips, consider these strategies.

Shop secondhand.

Shopping secondhand doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to spend hours digging through items at your local Goodwill or Salvation Army. There are plenty of places you can shop secondhand online, like Poshmark and thredUP.

“I think secondhand is intimidating for some people, and it’s time-consuming, but when you can find a gem, you can really find a gem,” Donnelly said.

Do a clothing swap with friends.

Sick of your closet? It’s likely your friends are, too. Consider having a clothing swap party in which you all bring a handful of items you no longer wear or want.

“I think that’s such a great way to cheaply have a new wardrobe,” Donnelly said. “It can be fun — you can make it like a party and have snacks and cocktails.”

Borrow an outfit from someone.

If you’re in dire straits — say you got a last-minute interview, but you don’t have an appropriate outfit — you don’t necessarily need to run to Nordstrom and drop $100. If you’re looking for an outfit you know you’ll only wear once, call a few family members or friends to see if anyone has something you can borrow.

The bottom line

Creating a capsule wardrobe requires time and attention to detail, but it’s a great way to create a classic wardrobe while also saving money in the process.

“Capsule wardrobes help hone personal styles and demonstrate how little clothing you actually need to showcase your personality, which is a great way to save money while ridding clutter from your life,” Woroch said.

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