“Style is a simple way of saying complicated things.” — Jean Cocteau
I’m back in London. The adjustments have been mildly traumatic – so much so I’m calling it London Belly. It’s like Delhi Belly, except instead of tummy upsets, it’s other confounding shocks to the system.
I feel under siege with the constant bombardment of advertisements everywhere I turn. Because I can read the language, it feels much more invasive than in other countries. As my first time here since I turned vegan(ish), I’m taken aback to see how everything has meat or fish in it – though I am pacified by the careful labelling on menus: V, GF, SF. I’m startled that a takeaway lunch for one costs the same as a week’s supply of fresh fruit (which is what I mainly ate) in Bombay.
But my biggest adjustment was my wardrobe. When I left the UK two years ago, I gave Oxfam all my cold weather clothing – faux furs, tall boots, thermals. I was going east. The sun shines over there. I wanted a life in year-round open sandals (my definition of happiness).
Enter the capsule
A capsule wardrobe means a small set of items that work in numerous combinations, creating different looks. It works for minimalists, people who travel but hate luggage, people who live in small houses (or have small closets), and really, anyone who doesn’t want getting dressed every morning to be a giant production or angst fest. We can look presentable and feel good without the daily stress or aggravation, because everything goes with everything else, and it suits our requirements and environment.
I actually have several capsule wardrobes to accommodate the different cities I move between. But the total is probably still fewer than a lot of other people’s because excess unsettles me. All those things that take up space but are never used. All those items in our closets that taunt and maybe even haunt us. Oh, the happiness when we release the clothes that no longer fit our bodies or our lives! Keep moving, my friends, keep honing.
I have one wardrobe for my life in Dhaka, which is primarily made up of shalwar-kameezes – loose trousers with knee-length tunics, with a shawl draped over the shoulders. I see a lot of women there get amazingly matchy-matchy. They’ll wear a three-piece turquoise set and match it with turquoise bangles, rings, earrings, nail polish, eyeliner, shoes, hair clips, and handbag. The next day, they’ll do that with purple. I feel faint just thinking about it. I figured out my capsule wardrobe by having only the following:
- 3 white cotton bottoms + 2 white scarves
- 3 beige cotton bottoms + 2 beige scarves
- 6-8 cotton tunics that work with either (hot pink with white; orange with beige; white with white; black with beige; etc)
- 1 handbag in beige
- 2 pairs of (identical…) sandals in gold/beige
And for saris – worn for more formal events – everything has to work with a red, orange, gold or black blouse.
I have another wardrobe for my life in Bombay:
- 2 black cropped cotton trousers
- 4 black and grey tops of different styles
- 4 cotton jersey dresses in black, grey and blue (can be dressed up or down)
- Same beige handbag
- Same two pairs of identical sandals in gold/beige. (I wore these Havaianas to a casual brunch, to dinner at a five-star hotel, to drinks at a bar, to dancing at a nightclub; I wore them wading through monsoon rains; I wore them to the pool every day; I wore them walking all over Turkey on a recent holiday. I love these sandals.)
Not included in these lists but also part of my wardrobe: home clothes (max 2 sets) and workout clothes (about 5 sets + trainers + socks). When travelling, 2 sets (leggings + t-shirt x 2) suffice for both purposes.
Being back in London, I felt disoriented and out of my element. A clever capsule wardrobe, I realised, would help to feel at home again.
It was while living in Italy that I understood the beauty and ease of capsule wardrobes (on my own – long before this concept was splashed about in magazines with the fervour they are today). I was a college student in the US when I first planned to study in Florence for a semester. An Italian friend took me aside and told me that Italians really, really care about what they wear. She gently suggested I’d feel more comfortable there if I didn’t wear my usual jeans and sweatshirts.
Because I was planning to do the Eurorail backpacking thing afterwards, I arrived with only a small pack carrying everything. I had a combination of black, forest green and burgundy clothing: trousers, skirts, and what were then called ballet tops (it was the early ’90s…). Black tights, a cardigan, a green coat, two pairs of black shoes and I was in business. I could go from my painting class in the morning to an art history tour in the afternoon to dancing all night. I looked appropriate for my age, environment and activities at all times. I felt liberated.
Some years later, I returned to teach in Florence. I had to look more polished for my role while still being on my feet all day. I had two pairs of beautifully-cut black trousers; one black zip-front blazer and one black leather jacket; two shirts and a few t-shirts in numerous blue/grey combinations; a pair of stacked heels (it was the mid-’90s…), and red lipstick. I actually went there carrying far more clothing, but this was all I wore for my 10 months there.
How capsules work
Make a list of your ideal wardrobe for your present life (not an imaginary one). Go through your existing clothes to see what matches this list. Get rid of the ones that don’t. Fill in the gaps. Be smart: start small, stay small. And never, ever shop for What If scenarios. If you suddenly get called to an interview for your dream job, or a date with your dream man, you will find exactly what you need when you need it. Trust me.
All tops should work with all bottoms. If you have 4 bottoms and 6 tops, that means 24 different outfits. Joy!
We need more tops than bottoms because that’s what we see more of (it’s what’s visible when we’re sitting at a table, for example). Tops also need more frequent washing.
While I’ve adored black clothing from age 12, I don’t believe capsules work only with a neutral colour. It’s not difficult to mix and match brights (as I do in Dhaka). I consider the quality of sunlight of where I am. Black feels too harsh in Dhaka, while most tropical colours would hurt the eyes in overcast London outside the summer months.
Capsules work best with a sort of “uniform” that makes you feel (a) stylish and (b) comfortable. They work less well if your tastes are wildly eclectic (corporate one day, bohemian the next, retro glamour the day after, etc).
Some people say having fewer items means spending more on each one. I’m not so sure. This was how I used to do it, but I’d still outgrow them (sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically) and then feel guilty for having spent so much money. With my current limited budget, I’ve done it all inexpensively and – woo-hoo! – it works just as well. I say: spend as much as you’re comfortable losing. After all, clothes get ripped, stained or shrunk in the wash. It’s not worth having a funeral over.
What is worth spending a bit more on are accessories: shoes, bag, sunglasses, watch, jewellery, gloves, hat and so on. These are worn across different outfits, so they have to hold up well. Cheap accessories can also feel a bit depressing. Good quality accessories, on the other hand, elevate the whole outfit and last for years.
Own impeccable underwear (two lace and one t-shirt or sports bra that fit perfectly, and at least twice as many underpants in the same colours) instead of piles of faded, stretched, dreary pieces. Think of your morale!
To make clothes last for a long time: don’t wash after every wear. I realise this sounds appalling to most Americans, but do what Europeans do – hang them up and air them out unless they smell or are stained.
When washing: choose machine wash cold (30°C), air dry, and iron with as little heat as possible on the reverse side. High temperatures from a washing machine, dryer or iron are what ages clothing (fading, thinning) the most.
Owning only a handful of pieces means needing little storage space. I don’t even have a closet right now; everything has to be folded into a cubbyhole or put on six hangers. If I ever have a walk-in closet, I’ll turn it into a ping-pong room.*
It’s wise to work out what styles, colours and shapes suit us best, and stick to them no matter what (ridiculous) trends are being shoved in our faces. I am broad-shouldered and big-chested; I look like a turnip in skinny jeans so prefer a flare to balance me out. I adore yellow, but it makes me look ill, so I keep it to footwear.
At the same time, I try to stay open. For years I’d been draconian in my monastic clothing preferences, but now I’m rediscovering the small joys of wearing bangles, nail polish, and a dab of a new perfume.
The biggest change in my wardrobe has been adding heels again. I walk everywhere and so for years I’d stuck to wearing flats. But there is something literally elevating about walking tall. Heels make trousers hang better, they balance out my long torso and also stop me from striding (a good thing). The day I bought a pair of stacked heels (yikes, trends do cycle back every 20 years), I kept humming the Jackie Wilson song, Your Love Keeps Lifting me Higher and Higher.
*Ode to Marjorie Hillis, author of Live Alone and Like It.
Making capsules work
Though most of us have a range of daily activities, unless this involves deep-sea diving or galas, we rarely need specialised items. Keep in mind that a generation ago, exercise gear was regular comfortable clothing and shoes; now we dress as if we’re in the Olympics even when going for a walk, convinced we’ll suffer without the sweat-wicking, the flex grooves, the shaped foam. That’s persuasive marketing for you.
To make clothes work across different seasons, choose fabrics that work for more than one (so no linen or velvet) and go for layers (several thin, rather than one bulky).
To look current, buy only one fashionable item per season and wear it to death. This is how the Italians do it.
Remember: nobody else is keeping tabs on what we wear. We value people by how comfortable and happy they are in themselves and how they make us feel – not whether they’re wearing the same trousers they wore two days ago.
By simplifying the process of getting dressed, we accomplish two worthy tasks: we enjoy the process of adorning (adoring) ourselves. And we can then forget about it and get on with our day.
My London capsule wardrobe
This is what I’ve chosen for my London capsule wardrobe:
- 3 black trousers (I may eventually replace a pair with 1 skirt)
- 6 tops/t-shirts in black and grey
- 1 black v-neck sweater
- 1 black blazer
- I black dress
- 1 coat
- 1 black wrap
- 1 pair of grey gloves and grey hat
- 2 pairs of shoes: one stacked heels, one wedge heels – both the same height so they work with all the trousers.
- Accents: dark nails, perfume, 1-3 bangles (odd numbers look better), watch, eyeliner, lipstick and shaped brows.
Notes on the above:
• The images (you can click through for shopping details) are largely for demonstration purposes; I don’t own $720 Gucci flares. Annoyingly for me, flares are available at the two ends of the design chain – high end or super cheap, rarely from my favoured middle.
• I generally find what I’m looking for at Zara and Uniqlo for clothing; Fly London for footwear; and MAC for cosmetics.
• My jewellery (from Liberty and Harvey Nichols), gloves and hat (Brora) are from the days I used to spend more per item and, many years later, are still in impeccable condition.
• The Uniqlo ultra light down coat can be squeezed into a small light pouch, which is excellent for travellers who don’t want to be stuck carrying a heavy, bulky item when in warmer climates. For freezing weather, they can even be layered under a heavier coat.
• Except for the blazer, nothing I own requires dry-cleaning (bad for the environment, tough on the wallet, and annoying to have to do).
• Tweezerman slanted tweezers: accept no substitute! I’ve had mine for decades, and gift them to discernable friends.
- Mild weather: trousers + top + blazer, or trousers + top + sweater, or trousers + top + wrap.
- Moderate weather: add the cashmere wrap to the blazer or sweater.
- Colder: trousers + top + sweater + blazer (+ wrap if needed).
- Colder still: add coat.
- Even colder still: add gloves and/or hat.
- Coldest: wear tights under trousers, and thermal vest under shirt.
I feel sorted. And I feel free again.
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style.” — Maya Angelou
Virtually any French film – whether starring Brigitte Bardot or Audrey Tautou – will show stylish women re-wearing the same handful of clothing throughout the story. This is not just because French women famously have very sparse closets, but it keeps the focus on the person, not on the clothes. I’ve randomly picked one of my recent favourites, though I can’t specifically recall the wardrobe from it: Respire, directed by Mélanie Laurent.
There’s no shortage of books explaining how to create capsule wardrobes. Most are totally dire (I know, I’ve read them all). Only a handful are actually useful, one of which is 1000 Outfits From Just 30 by Wendy Mak. It goes into specifics, which is handy if you’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to start.
One of the most successful online projects is Project 333, founded by Courtney Carver. She chose 33 items (including clothing, accessories, jewellery, outerwear and shoes) to wear for 3 months, and then switched them out for the next season. This is now a veritable movement around the world. Join in the fun.