Last spring, I was in a wardrobe rut.
I’ve always had a sense of how I wanted to look but had accumulated a confusing group of clothes and accessories that didn’t work together. Before packing for a weeks-long trip to Turkey, I purged my closet of unwanted items and winnowed it down to practical items I liked and wore often. It was painful, but it had to be done.
In the past, I’d fallen into the trap of purchasing seasonal pieces just for vacations, but my puffy-sleeved dress sat untouched in my closet; it never seemed right for the occasion. It was a reminder of money wasted, so I donated it. Now I was determined to continue on my path of responsibility: No more clothes! This vacation, I wanted to look like myself — just a little more carefree.
This was my version of a capsule wardrobe, a small collection of clothing and accessories that can be mixed and matched into looks that fit your style. In a capsule wardrobe — a direct repudiation of the micro-trend cycles dictated by fast-fashion brands — each item earns its spot on the rack. More considered choices mean less shopping, which is good for the planet and the pocketbook. And it’s particularly well-suited to traveling.
The concept is widely believed to have been coined by London shop owner Susie Faux in the 1970s and took off in 1985, when American fashion designer Donna Karan launched a seven-piece collection that, according to Vogue, could “take a woman from day to night, office to party.” This fashion trend has now taken hold with millions of social media users.
New packing cubes, toiletry bags and other space-saving gear for your next trip
Dressing this way initially requires some thought and observation. Being able to pinpoint what you like — and what you’d like to look like — is important. Allison Bornstein, a wardrobe stylist who has worked with actress Katie Holmes, has gained a following on TikTok by giving people the tools to define their style and a vocabulary and framework to build their own capsules.
One of the tenets of Bornstein’s styling technique is the “three-word method,” the idea that each person’s style can be described with three words. For example, actress Dakota Johnson’s words are “’70s, modern and classic,” while “Sex and the City” character Carrie Bradshaw’s are “daring, elaborate and mismatched.” They serve as a guide, a gut check to see whether each piece fits the image you’re cultivating.
Doing this legwork ahead of time eliminates packing stress, because you already know what you like and what looks good. “I have so many clients who say that they have an easier time getting dressed on vacation because they are limited to what they have packed and therefore have more focus and feel more empowered to experiment instead of feeling overwhelmed by a bunch of options,” Bornstein wrote in an email.
It’s also a smart proposition, given how chaotic travel has been lately, with numerous travelers experiencing delays, canceled flights and lost baggage. “Everybody who would normally be checking a bag is scrambling to figure out how to travel carry-on-only, so this is becoming a huge issue,” said Alex Jimenez, founder of the Travel Fashion Girl site, which shares packing lists and tips.
Here’s how to create a useful, personal and stylish capsule that will work for any trip.
Make a mood board. Bornstein encourages clients to create a mood board or pull reference images of looks they’d like to emulate, then “shop” their closet to see which pieces they already own to create looks for trips. Pay special attention to the fits, fabrics, shapes and constructions of the pieces you like, then emulate those. (After receiving an invitation to a destination wedding in Italy’s Tuscany region, a friend told me he wanted to emulate the breezy tops and shorts Timothée Chalamet wears in “Call Me By Your Name” for sightseeing, and the sun-drenched opulence on display in the Italian wedding episodes in Season 3 of “Succession.”)
Think bringing one carry-on for a two-week trip is hard? Try only packing 11 pounds.
Another way to start is to pick a color story to build the capsule around. “Typically, I’ll do white and navy, and everything I put in my suitcase can be worn together and be part of that color scheme,” said Sky Pollard, head of product at Nuuly, a subscription clothing rental service that includes brands from Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and Free People. One of her must-have vacation items is a white shirt, which can be dressed up or down.
Bring “regulars” and remix them. Think about which outfits you like wearing at home, and come up with ways to make them suitable for your destination. For example, someone who likes wearing a blazer, jeans and T-shirt could try donning a tank, denim shorts and button-down for warm weather, Bornstein suggests. The key is to reimagine your pieces in new and interesting ways to suit your trip. “We don’t need new pieces, we just need new ideas and techniques on how to wear those things,” Bornstein said. “This way, you are not just copying and pasting something you saw on someone else.”
Bring clothes that fit the trip. Think about the situations you’ll be in and the activities you’ll do on your trip to avoid running to the local shops. Pack reliable shoes that will work in different contexts and will support walking on various terrains.
And don’t forget items for comfort to make dealing with potential travel hiccups easier. “There’s all kinds of things that can happen during the travel process, and for me, being comfortable matters a lot,” said Cora Harrington, a fashion commentator and the author of “In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie.” Her vacation wardrobe doesn’t differ much from what she wears at home, and it includes soft leggings and easy dresses.
Take cultural requirements and customs into consideration, and bring items to make your existing wardrobe work. The slip dresses in my suitcase were appropriate for Istanbul but didn’t work for the more conservative places I visited; I wore T-shirts and bodysuits underneath to make them less revealing and appropriate for smaller towns. A silk wrap worked to cover my head for visiting mosques.
Renting items is an option, too. Nuuly launched a seasonal travel webpage called “The Getaway Shop” with curated collections of vacation rental pieces suitable for different types of trips, such as a cabin or beach getaway; 82 percent of Nuuly’s nearly 82,000 subscribers have rented at least one item from the shop since its launch in May. For a recent wedding in Italy, Pollard rented a yellow dress with ruffled sleeves, an item she wouldn’t purchase normally but was able to pair with sneakers during the day, a jacket for dinner and a “pink, fun shoe” for the rehearsal dinner.
Rent the Runway has also seen interest from its approximately 135,000 subscribers in renting items specifically for vacation, said Sarah Tam, the company’s chief merchant officer. She noted that warm-weather vacation items remain popular in the winter as travelers escape the cold for tropical climes. In colder months, the site also sees a spike in rentals for cold-weather attire such as puffers and ski jackets, plus après-ski attire, from roughly December to March.
Make (and follow) your own rules. There are numerous examples of sample capsules available, but they’re not suitable for everyone. A capsule doesn’t have to only consist of work-appropriate separates or neutral colors; a summer vacation capsule doesn’t have to be all sun hats and espadrilles. There are no rules to follow — except that you like the clothing and will wear it again.
Decide which items are your own hero pieces. For Tam, that includes well-fitting denim in dark and white washes and “a fabulous-fitting white shirt.” On the other hand, Harrington wears a lot of loungewear, as well as pajama sets as pantsuits and robes as jackets. “I like it, and I don’t really care if people think it’s weird, and that comes from confidence in your style and in your aesthetic, which is something I think you have to practice and cultivate,” she said.
However, there’s one fashion mantra that Tam encourages breaking: You need a little black dress. She doesn’t think black brings everyone confidence, and she says the dress you wear should be the one you feel great in — whether “white, black, a neutral or a color.”
Pick items that travel well. Choose pieces that you’ll wear and that can handle being folded, tossed and jammed into a suitcase without sustaining damage. Bring low-maintenance pieces that aren’t too delicate and that don’t require special laundering or dry cleaning.
Last spring, I was in a wardrobe rut.