I thought I’d discuss a bit of my life that I don’t talk about much: my clothing, and in particular my ever-shrinking zero waste capsule wardrobe.
My capsule wardrobe was very much a happy accident: I definitely had an abundance of stuff growing up, but years of moving, living in tiny spaces, traveling, and being more mindful of my purchases made a capsule wardrobe just kind of… happen.
(It also really helps that the only color I wear beyond black or grey is dark green so matching within a limited wardrobe is my only option.)
But what exactly is a capsule wardrobe? For those of you who may not know, a capsule wardrobe is defined as:
“a collection of a few essential items of clothing that don’t go out of fashion, such as skirts, trousers, and coats, which can then be augmented with seasonal pieces.”
You’re going to have a selection of long-lasting, cool-but-not-trendy items which you can then spice up with extra pieces. Basically, instead of shopping for a whole new wardrobe each season, you’ll always keep your core pieces and invest in a few on-trend items when needed.
Here’s what this post will cover:
Capsule wardrobe FAQs
- What makes a zero waste capsule wardrobe?
- How many items should be in my zero waste capsule wardrobe?
- What’s counted in a capsule wardrobe?
- What is the best way to transition into a capsule wardrobe?
- What should I do with all of the items I decide to get rid of?
- How do you decide how many of each item to have in your capsule?
- So how does all this work with seasons?
- Don’t your items wear out quickly?
- How do you find quality clothes on a budget?
- See my capsule wardrobe!
- Other resources for capsule wardrobes
What makes a zero waste capsule wardrobe?
This is something I’ve entirely made up, but to me a zero waste capsule wardrobe is essential a wardrobe in which nothing (or very little) will go to the landfill once your clothes have reached the end of your life.
This means purchasing 100% natural materials like cotton, wool, cashmere, linen, etc. (preferably second hand). Once they’re no longer wearable, repurpose them into rags or use them for sewing projects. Finally, compost them at the very end of their life. If possible, save buttons, zippers, etc. for future sewing projects.
To me, this also means really thinking critically about your clothes; after all, even if you buy 100% natural fibers, if you donate it there’s not a great chance it’ll be disposed of responsibly by the next owner. So a zero waste capsule wardrobe means taking ownership of your clothing for the entire life cycle.
How many items should be in my zero waste capsule wardrobe?
The number of items in a capsule wardrobe, really, is up to you. Traditionally the number of clothing per season tends to hover somewhere around 30 items. I find that seems like a fair number although after about 7 years of having a wardrobe about this size I’ve drastically reduced. (I’m working with a 10-item wardrobe with 3-4 items tucked away in storage for other seasons.)
Still, if you’re just getting started a number around 30 gives you options but definitely limits you in terms of going out and buying more clothes.
In terms of a zero waste capsule wardrobe mindset, I urge you to think about having a number of items that you will comfortably be able to find alternative uses for once you no longer want them. Either by donation or repurposing, don’t find yourself overwhelmed by clothes.
The 30 number also makes a lot more sense once you have your general “uniform”. By narrowing your outfits to a certain type, sticking to a lower number seems much more reasonable!
What’s counted in a capsule wardrobe?
That’s actually entirely up to you! My big rule of thumb is: if a certain type of clothing takes up a significant portion of your wardrobe, it should count in your numbers.
I don’t count pajamas or casual wear as it’s limited to a couple pairs of pants and sweaters; I do count my jeans because I could have too many pairs if I let myself. I don’t count shoes because I only ever switch between two pairs; I do count button-ups because I could buy a million stupid second-hand ones.
If you exercise regularly and have a drawer fit to bursting with workout gear, count it! If you’ve got a bit of a shoe problem – count those pairs!
Use your discretion and just remember that keeping items out of your count is absolutely fair game until it becomes a crutch to add more and more things back into your wardrobe!
What is the best way to transition into a capsule wardrobe?
I’ve had a capsule wardrobe for about seven years now (even if I didn’t call it that) and what really pared me down was years of constantly living out of a suitcase and flying across the Atlantic Ocean at least once a year. If you don’t have time for that experience, I’d still recommend transitioning slowly.
We are so used to being presented with an overabundance of options, having so little can seem shocking. Don’t pair down too quickly in a fit of motivation. I’m almost positive you’ll panic, feel unprepared, and then start restocking immediately to fill the perceived void.
MINI CHALLENGE: Choose a week to wear a “uniform” and see how it feels. For example, my uniform is an Everlane tee or tank, sweater, jeans, boots. Choose your top/bottom/accessory/shoe of choice and then choose 2-3 of each item to mix and match through the week. Essentially, create a mini-capsule for a week of testing. (If you’re feeling really brave, pack/separate all your other clothes away to remove temptation!)
If it wasn’t too difficult, you’re probably ready to pare down and start seriously thinking about a capsule wardrobe! Also, be sure to check out this capsule wardrobe planner to help you get started.
What should I do with all of the items I decide to get rid of?
From a zero waste perspective, this is definitely the trickiest bit of downsizing into a capsule wardrobe and why I advocated above for moving slowly and being very intentional about what sneaks its way into your wardrobe.
While it may be tempting to simply pack up all of your unwanted clothing and drop them off at the nearest donation center, the truth is a lot of these items go to for-profit recycling programs that aren’t particularly concerned where those clothes end up.
Instead, you could reuse the items in sewing projects or even for cleaning cloths if they’re too old to be worn anymore.
If you have way too many clothes for that to be feasible, consider giving them directly to a local organization calling for clothing. Homeless shelters or safe spaces for victims of domestic violence are also constantly looking for women’s and children’s clothing. (I personally prefer non-religious organizations aside from a few tolerant ones, but many churches also have periodic clothing drives or ongoing ‘closets’ for people in need.)
You could even resell some of your higher-end items.
How do you decide how many of each item to have in your capsule?
In a general sense, I’d suggest coming up with a uniform (mine’s tee, sweater, jeans, boots) and allocating at least 50% of your wardrobe to key pieces – realistically closer to 60%.
I’d allocate 25% to seasonal items and the remaining 15-25% to whatever you see as a gap in your wardrobe.
In a 30 piece wardrobe, those numbers would break down to 15-18 items in your uniform, about 7 seasonal items, and 5-7 extra items that may be needed.
Let’s say I’m trying to create a 30 piece wardrobe. Right now I have 22 items, and 15 of them are part of my uniform. That’s exactly 50% of my capsule (not at all planned, I swear!). I’ve added 7 more items – sweaters, jumpsuits, and a skirt – which work with my core items but aren’t technically part of the uniform. That still leaves me with 8 items that I could potentially add to my capsule that would be specific to the spring/summer seasons. Those items might include: a pair of shorts, a pair of sandals, a few tank tops, etc.
My general theory on deciding how much of each item to include revolves around laundry. I like to ensure that I have enough items in my uniform to last for a whole week (or more!) without washing.
I need plenty of t-shirts as I may or may not be able to wear them twice so I allocate about 7 out of 15 uniform items for shirts. Sweaters – enough for variety, but I can re-wear so 3-4. Shoes and jeans are not a priority and can be rotated frequently, so 2-3 of each.
The 3-4 other categories are extra, non-uniform items and depends on a case-by-case basis.
So how does all this work with seasons?
My capsule wardrobe started in Russia, so I don’t want to hear you all complain you can’t do it! Living somewhere with 90F summers and -30 or below winters is no joke.
Here are some tips of creating a capsule wardrobe to span the ages:
- Envision a uniform that could realistically work year-round. Some people like the idea of packing away their entire wardrobe each season and buying/pulling out 30-ish fresh pieces. I’m not about that; instead, I like my core capsule (AKA those 15 pieces of uniform) to go with me year-round.
- Choose a box for off-season clothing and don’t get outside of it. Pick a container that will fit neatly into your storage space to save your off-season clothing. Anything that doesn’t fit in there doesn’t go in your capsule.* Right now, my “container” is one drawer of an unused dresser that has my heavy sweaters, heavy black pants, and my hats/scarves/gloves. Once the season changes, I’ll rotate some currently-in-use items into that space to give them a break.
- Layering is your friend. For real. That tank I wear over a pair of light jeans in the summer? It goes under a light sweater, a heavy wool sweater, and maybe even a coat/jacket once the weather gets cool. Don’t be afraid to utilize pieces in different ways instead of having one item for every possible scenario!
Don’t your items wear out quickly?
This is probably the biggest question I get about having a small wardrobe (aside from the very American shock of not washing clothes after every wash.)
The answer to the question is, honestly, no. And I say this as someone who wears the same items over and over and over and over… Why not? I have a couple of theories:
- I look for quality items. I choose quality over quantity. Because I buy less, I have more money to spend on higher-end items when I do choose to spend money. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy to spot excellent, long-lasting construction. (See the next question for more information about quality on a budget.)
- I don’t wash my clothes very often. I really don’t even want to admit this because it freaks some people out, but I wash my clothes really infrequently. We only do laundry once a week, so that mitigates a lot of stress on the clothes. Some of my more delicate items I prefer to take in the shower with me to wash there. Also, never underestimate the power of just hanging clothes in some fresh air every once and a while (after spraying it with some citrus vinegar!).
- Having less clothes forces you to care about them. Sure, I may still throw my clothes on the floor but I know I shouldn’t. When you know your wardrobe is limited – and you’ve made a firm commitment to stop buying – you’re forced to consider everything more precious.
How do you find quality clothes on a budget?
Here’s the super real deal: it’s an incredibly frustrating, slow process. Don’t expect to have an on-point, high-end capsule wardrobe with just a couple of bucks and a few days.
The other important point to consider is cost-per-wear. A $9.99 tank from H&M lasted me about 6 months wearing it once a week. That tank was approximately $0.42/wear. The $22 tank from Everlane lasted me at least 2.5 years wearing it 1-2x/week. That thank was approximately $0.14/wear.
After considering that, I’m willing to spend more.
My first point is generally trawling through the second hand stores around the richer parts of town. With a little bit of luck, you can find extremely high-end brands of excellent quality for just a couple bucks. There’s a whole world of basic tees and nice jeans that have only been worn once or twice, trust.
A few tips for successful thrifting:
- keep a running list of items you’re looking for on your phone. Once you’ve solidified your uniform and what number of different items you want in your capsule wardrobe, it’ll be pretty easy to compile a list of what items are missing. Learn that list. Love that list. Do not buy pieces that are not on that list!
- say no if: the garment doesn’t seem to fit with the other items already in your closet, it’s not in season, there’s major pilling, there’s an imperfect fit you aren’t willing to pay to fix/do it yourself, the item is made from synthetic fibers (if that’s a priority).
- head toward the people whose clothing you want. I prefer higher-end basics from name brands. Therefore, I head north of Indianapolis into Carmel or Noblesville (AKA the richer suburbs of Indianapolis). If I’m looking for trendier items, I’l head towards spots in Fountain Square. Common sense, but shop where the people you want to look like live!
- don’t settle for a meh item. Look, this sh*t is already second hand. If you don’t love it/it doesn’t fit in seamlessly with the wardrobe you already have, it’s not worth it. Don’t fall into the trap of “oh, but it’s only $5”!
- accept defeat but don’t be afraid to come back. Let’s be real: what are the chances you’re going to find the perfect black tee, green cardigan, and grey pair of work pants on the same day in a second hand store? Pretty close to zero. AGAIN, this is a slow process that you shouldn’t rush. Come back another week and give it another try.
For those basic items I just can’t find second hand, I usually turn to Everlane. Expensive, but absolutely worth every penny. My parents brought me the cashmere sweater I bought over to Russia right before my wedding in 2013 – the sweater’s still in excellent condition and I’ve worn it at least 1-2x/week. (Cost-per-wear? About $0.65!)
See my capsule wardrobe
This is my current wardrobe. I cut down majorly after seeing myself start to buy more clothes but continue to wear the same items over and over again.
I have the rest of my clothes stored in a small basket at the bottom of my closet – I do not anticipate taking out more than 3 or 4 items for summer and passing the rest on via Freecycle. After some experimentation, I’ve returned to my beloved uniform; what can I say? When it works, it works.
My capsule wardrobe:
- Pair of black Mossimo jeans
- Black Miakoda jumpsuit
- Black Uniform jumpsuit (similar)
- Black Pyne & Smith dress (second hand)
- Black Everlane tank top
- Oatmeal FLAX linen tank top
- Black FLAX linen long-sleeved shirt
- Oatmeal FLAX linen long-sleeved shirt
- Grey Everlane cashmere sweater
- Tan unlabeled cashmere sweater
- Unlabeled wool sweater
Other resources to start your zero waste capsule wardrobe
Into Mind: this is a great blog for very beginners in the capsule wardrobe game. This blog has scads of posts dedicated to finding your aesthetic, determining ratios, and laying out step-by-step how to create a capsule wardrobe. There’s even a book!
Project 333: Be More With Less and Project 333 skews more mindful than I generally prefer, but it’s a great challenge (33 items of clothing for 3 months) for those feeling like clutter may be taking over their closet – and their life!
Unfancy: Unfancy is the glossy magazine of capsule wardrobe blogs. If you’re not a tall, thin person in a creative field, you might not have much to gain from her, but Unfancy does show off some cool remix posts that show plenty of ways to re-style the same items.
Treading My Own Path: there’s not much in her capsule wardrobe tag, but I like this blog as a zero waste perspective toward a capsule wardrobe.
Do you have a capsule wardrobe? If not would you consider working towards a zero waste capsule wardrobe – or does it just sound like torture?