How I Finally Made a Capsule Wardrobe Work

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There are two periods in my life where getting dressed was easy. Once, at 19, I worked for a conservative law school and had to wear a suit everyday. And then again at 31, I worked in construction building roof trusses, and wore the same safety green shirts and black Carhartts on rotation.

In between those periods?

I have absolutely SWEATED the process of getting dressed and managing my wardrobe. For many years – over fifteen if you put them all together – I have tried to find a process for a capsule wardrobe that works for me in real life, rather than just as a chic concept picture on Pinterest.

And, up until now, I have failed.

How To Build A Capsule Wardrobe

Making A Pinterest-Worthy Capsule Wardrobe…Practical

With four kids ranging from teenager to one-years-old and now a full-time creative, I decided I had to try again. It was the perfect time — I’d been in construction since 2018, basically until I was pregnant in 2022. My sizes were all over the place and most of what I owned was milk-stained, maternity, or no way in hell would it fit. So, I literally made it a resolution in 2023: This time would be different!

It took almost a full year of digging, watching a lot of YouTube videos, and reading (this sounds insane, I know!), but I think I have finally cracked the code, and even have one season of using it under my belt as proof.

Why I Love The Idea of a Capsule Wardrobe

How To Build A Capsule Wardrobe

First, a capsule wardrobe isn’t for everyone–I totally get that. But for me, when I had to wear a “uniform” my life was a lot simpler. I know that sounds kind of dumb, but I felt freed from an overwhelming choice of what to wear everyday, my laundry was one or two loads, and it surprisingly released me from a lot of angst over my body. 

Now, I love fashion. I will talk your ear off about the Tom Ford era of Gucci, my love of vintage Halston, or the recent Maison Margiela show (it was incredible). But I am not a fashion girlie in my wardrobe – it doesn’t suit me. The last thing I want to do is think about my clothes every single day when I am woken up by my toddler slapping me in the face and have to rush a kid to the bus stop at 6:15am. 


The Problems with Building a Capsule Wardrobe

I think a lot of women love the idea of a capsule wardrobe, and like me, run into a lot of roadblocks trying to actually execute it. And because I genuinely do love fashion, I’ve often fallen into the trap of buying things because I find them exciting, not because I feel great wearing them. 

I also struggle with fit and budget. I’m too petite (re: short) to be able to buy straight off any rack without fit issues. I also need to buy out of season, shop thrift stores and/or save for well-constructed clothes that are either petite, work for my frame, or are (ugh) tailored. Many times in the past, I would end up buying a lot of things on sale, all in black, assuming I’d be able to make them work, but ultimately unable to pull anything together. 

Finally, I could never figure out how to actually pull a capsule together. If you search on Pinterest, you get a ton of beautiful looking wardrobes, but they are quickly overwhelming. Get ten neutral tops! Five bottoms! Make them all coordinate! Okay?? I’m struggling to find one pair of pants I want to wear that don’t make me hate myself, now I need five? 

How To Build A Capsule Wardrobe

My Year of Research (Methodology)

I went into this project already equipped with two very important things. Long before Tik-Tok discovered image and color typing, my due date club/mom group from 2013 had hyper-fixated on both! So back in 2015, I had a color analysis done in person with a 12 seasons analyst and already knew I looked best in the darkest part of the Soft Summer color palette. I’d also spent time getting very comfortable with those colors and felt great in them. I was also typed within the Kibbe-esque system at that time, as a Dramatic Classic. (The stylist I worked with for both is local to Philly and she was great!

Color analysis

If you love a good fashion/style hyperfixation like I do, there is a ton of stuff online to dip your toes into these waters. Was it worth it? I think the color stuff was incredibly helpful, and the “image” typing probably less so. Partly because I already knew, on a gut level, that I looked and felt best in tailored, simple clothes. But also because it didn’t resolve my delusional desires, which was to be 5’11, a clothes hanger, and incredibly Stylish (™). 

While both typing assessments made it easier to narrow things down, I still didn’t have any real personal style, and I still bought everything in black because I thought it would make it easier to wear. Oh, and I still cried anytime I had to get dressed to go out and then felt like the stupidest person in the world to have hyper-fixated on something for most of my life that I still couldn’t figure out! (But that, turns out, was the undiagnosed autism!)

Coming into last year, my first step was to go to YouTube. I watched a lot of styling videos on YouTube and most of them were terrible, like it’s not helpful for me to see what other people bought. I’m great at BUYING clothes. I have excellent TASTE. I cannot EXECUTE IT ON MY OWN BODY, is the problem. But finally, I discovered YouTuber Hannah Poston’s video on Matching Your Wardrobe to your Lifestyle. This really kicked things off for me. In the video she breaks a wardrobe down into five categories: loungewear, athletic wear, casual, polished casual and dressy. Your wardrobe needs are based on how many times you need to wear an outfit in each category every month. 

When I did this, I realized that I tended to fixate on the areas where I struggled most to put together outfits (polished casual/3 times a month), and less on the areas where I actually needed outfits to wear everyday (casual/30 times a month). So there was a huge mismatch in where I was putting my resources. After that, I went over to Pinterest and created (another) style board, dividing the sub boards to match those categories. I pinned a bunch of things I thought fit my style and might also be something I could tolerate for more than 30 minutes without itching and then… well, then the process kind of petered out. I knew I was onto something, but had no idea what to do next. 

Pinterest board inspiration

Style is What You Don’t Wear

So, I kept researching. I liked this other video from Hannah, How to Find Your Personal Style. It wasn’t directly practical to my goal, but did help me reframe my thinking in a vital way. She talks about understanding the difference between things that make you excited and appeal to you and things that actually fit your life. It helped me start thinking of my actual needs rather than my aspirational needs. She also talks about understanding your personal “practical constraints”. This is when I started admitting, I hate poly blends. I HATE POLY BLENDS. They make me feel sweaty and anxious. It allowed me to give myself permission to just say, I only want to wear natural fibers. Which needs to be balanced by the constraints of me having four kids and needing clothes that do not require special cleaning. 

100% organic cotton white t shirt

Hannah also included comfort as a type of constraint, and that helped give myself permission to admit, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the clothing is, if I am uncomfortable in the least it’s all I can think about and I will overheat and cry and have a panic attack in a public bathroom somewhere. 


My Constraints

  1. Natural fibers except workout clothes
  2. Clothes for North Carolina “seasons” (hot and humid 70% of the year)
  3. Petite, Tailored, Minimal line breaks 
  4. 90% casual/10% polished casual
  5. Wash and Dry
  6. MUST BE COMFORTABLE AND NOT CONSTRICTING

The Missing Piece: Modules 

This all helped me cull things from my closet, but it didn’t help me add anything. Because of being postpartum, I didn’t have a single thing that actually fit except maternity bike shorts and giant t-shirts. I continued wearing these things while I kept searching. I thought maybe understanding proportion and fit better might help, but all of these things were missing what to actually buy and how to get dressed. Then, I found this unassuming video: How to Build a Capsule Wardrobe and stumbled across this incredible piece of information. A Capsule Wardrobe is made up of modules and each module is this: 2 pairs of pants, 3 tops, 1 outer layer and 1 pair of shoes. That is one single module. An entire wardrobe is built of multiples of these blocks. 

Capsule wardrobe inspiration

This was the key that unlocked everything for me. I needed all the precursor information about what to put in those modules, but understanding, oh I need to build 3 casual modules and 1 polished casual module and in each module I just need this setup, was literally life-changing. 


To the Salon!

At first, I didn’t know it would work. I hoped it would. But I’d been burned before! To test it out, I did something totally different–instead of Pinterest, I went to Canva. Canva whiteboards, to be exact. I started with casual, the stuff I actually wear everyday, and threw in approximated screenshots of the stuff I already owned and actually liked wearing (sweatpants, my jacket/sneakers, yoga pants). Following my constraints and the idea of 2 pants/3 shirts, I started visually building outfits out of what I had. That exposed the places I actually needed stuff. 

Canva capsule wardrobe

Once I had the stuff I already owned in the mix and could see what I needed, I started shopping online. Instead of just buying things, I’d first screenshot and drop it into my draft modules to see how it fit or if I liked it. I limited myself to tried and trusted stores when it came to fit. I also purchased multiples of things I already loved, just in different colors, which I usually don’t do because it felt boring, but I really needed things to wear and not just look at. 

It took awhile to move things around and get three capsules for my casual outfits, and I did sweat over it a bit. But I was able to use a lot of what I already had and I felt much more confident when I finally made purchases. I used the same coat and shoes throughout because I really didn’t need (or have the budget for) variety.


My Completed Winter 2023-2024 Wardrobe:

Here are all of the pieces that I included in my winter capsule wardrobe for casual dressing:

Capsule wardrobe inspiration

Now, let’s break it down into modules and outfits. It’s not particularly exciting–pretty standard casual mom fare. But I included all these to show that yes, I did sit down and create each possible combination to make sure it all worked together. 

Module 1: A Quilted Jacket or Hoodie, Casual Tops, Jeans or Flare Leggings + Sneakers

Capsule wardrobe inspiration

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Module 2: A Quilted Jacket or Cardigan, Casual Tops, Flare Leggings or Joggers + Sambas

Capsule wardrobe inspiration

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Module 3: A Cardigan or Sweatshirt, Casual Tops, Flare Pants or Joggers + Sambas

Capsule wardrobe inspiration

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I did the same thing below with my polished, dressy module. I usually have one or two evenings out a month at author events or with my partner, and one or two times I need to look super polished at a meeting or a child’s therapist/appointment, so I was mindful of that. I also added a dress and two sweaters to the mix because it’s winter and they were beloved items I already owned and knew I was comfortable in.

Capsule wardrobe inspiration

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Managing the Rotation

At that point, I actually pulled everything out of my wardrobe except the capsule items and a few comfortable t-shirts and shorts just for convenience. Much of it I bagged for the thrift store (I’m done with maternity clothes lol), but the things I wasn’t sure if I’d like to keep or bring into a new season, I just put in a storage container and left in the corner. I dug through that box exactly once to see if something worked and, guess what, it did not! If I go six months or more without using any of those things, I’ll probably just take them to the thrift store as well. 


But Did it Really Work?

I felt like I was finally on the right path, but would it actually work in practice? Well, I’ve been doing it since December, pretty much exactly as I have pictured, and it’s gone better than I even hoped. I have cried over an outfit zero times. All my clothes fit neatly in my tiny dresser and one load of laundry. I have something to wear everyday that doesn’t make me itchy. 

I have little quibbles–I probably only needed two modules for my casual clothes and I tried to make some things work that I already owned, but I don’t love them and I avoid wearing them (lol). I bought a pair of Sambas because I desperately wanted to be trendy, even though I already knew from the first round of trendy Sambas (in 2000) that the backs come up too high on my ankles and I’m basically still breaking them in because of it, but they are finally getting comfortable. I have not worn those jeans in my polished module and I ended up putting them in the donate bag (I’d already had them and was trying to make it work, but when I wear them I want to peel them off instantly). But overall, it’s been the uniform dressing experience I’d hoped for. I feel so freed! 


Planning the Next Round

Now that I know it works, I’m moving into the real bulk of it: Spring. North Carolina spring is very much also its summer and fall, so winter was more like a test run and spring will end up being repurposed into Summer and Fall, essentially what I wear all year. I’ll probably stay with three casual modules (or maybe make two and one an athletic wear?). I would like to bring more of my life influences into my style without straying too far from what I actually find comfortable to wear. I’d also like my casual wear to look a little more elevated than I did the first time, without sacrificing any of the comfort, and pull further away from wearing all black.

I still browse Pinterest for inspiration, but Canva whiteboards is where I’m continuing to actually build my looks. While doing my usual online window shopping or reading all the great posts from TheMomEdit, I’ve been dropping screenshots of things I wanted to buy into a whiteboard to collect them and add a little note about what store it’s from. This has helped me curb the desire to buy things out of impulse and is letting me see what types of pieces are showing up in multiple formats. Another benefit is that because my wardrobe is so tightly planned, it frees up my limited budget to consider pieces I’ve long wanted and didn’t think I could afford. I’ve got my eye on you Eileen Fisher coordinates. I’m looking forward to culling these down to modules.

Here’s a sneak peek at my spring inspiration (casual dressing):

…and a sneak peek at my spring inspiration (polished dressing):


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I can’t tell you how great it feels to know that I have clothes to wear and won’t cry getting dressed. Plus, it’s just been easier to live inside my body when I’m not making it fight a tight waistband or a pair of cringy jeans everyday. Now that I’ve got this foundation of building a useful wardrobe, I’m excited to see where it takes me.

Hopefully, if you struggle to make your wardrobe useful and not just full of interesting pieces, this will help!

Xx,

Sarah