How Many Pieces in a Workable Wardrobe?

There are so many videos and blog posts about capsule wardrobes. It seems that everyone is touting the merits of a well-chosen set of pieces that build a foundation for a season on outfits. In theory, I love the idea and have unconsciously done this most of my adult life – likely due to my grandmother and her enviable wardrobe of classic pieces that I can still recall (wool trousers in camel, a gorgeous grey dress with a million knife pleats in the skirt, sigh…).

But, what is a capsule wardrobe and why don’t I truly embrace it?

Let’s start with a little fashion history lesson. In the 1970s, the owner of a London boutique, Susie Faux, set out to create a set of classic pieces that would always be in style, last a long time, and pair well with accessories and other items. In fact, the definition of a capsule wardrobe, from Susie Faux herself is:

“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.”

In 1985 (I remember it well), American designer Donna Karan launched her answer to the capsule wardrobe, called 7 Easy Pieces, which included a pair of tights, a bodysuit, the classic white shirt, a pair of versatile trousers, a cashmere sweater, a tailored jacket and a skirt.

Today, capsule dressing is everywhere and that is a good thing; mostly. Thoughtful consumption of material goods means less waste for the environment and ostensibly less stress for the dresser since she, or he, has limited items that all work will with one another for a cohesive wardrobe. But here is where I jump off the bandwagon. Capsules are great but I think too many people are missing the idea of having a well-rounded seasonless wardrobe. A collection of pieces, most of which can be worn year-round when done in the right style and fabric and others that are typically relegated to a certain season. If this year-round wardrobe premise becomes more popular does it render capsule dressing obsolete? Are they the same thing?

Perhaps it’s an issue of semantics? I guess one could argue that a seasonlesss wardrobe IS a capsule wardrobe with a long-term plan, but let’s get to my point – How many pieces do you truly need for a working wardrobe that spans all 4 seasons?

My answer is…..it depends on you.

For me, the number is about 55 items of clothing, including outerwear. This doesn’t include shoes (13), undergarments(??), sleepwear(5), workout wear(3), bathing suit (2) or accessories/bags(19). These pieces work for all facets of my life – from the dressier end of life (holiday parties, weddings, client visits at some very traditional companies) to walking the dog (the casual end).

How did this all start? Well, after moving across country in December 2017, I needed to add in some items for cooler weather (e.g. 4 months of actual winter, instead of a long weekend in the mountains). So, in February 2018, I found myself at about 105 items of clothing. That felt like too much for me, especially having traded my massive suburban closet for a wee little nook in the city, so in January 2019, I took a hard look at the cost- per-wear of each piece using StyleBook and culled the closet down to 78 pieces.

Since then, I’ve been very focused on trimming that number down to 55…well, 53 with room for 2 items on my wish list. Here is what my wardrobe looks like now.

These are the 53 pieces I have in rotation and it is still work in progress.

Why 55? I’ll admit it is an arbitrary number and 55 well-chosen pieces let me dress for any occasion, don’t take up too much space in my city-sized closet, allow me to express creativity with new pairings, and can be packed up and moved easily. In fact, with some careful folding I could fit everything (including shoes and accessories) in my Pelican case. The current 53 pieces make me feel great when I put them on – I rarely have a day where I feel like an outfit is a ‘black-bar DON’T’ and I have fun when I get dressed. Novel concept, huh?

I still have about 12 items that are boxed up in another closet waiting to see if they are missed. I will make that determination in December when I do another review of times worn and cost per wear of each item. These are a few dresses I like but don’t love, some shoes that I haven’t worn that often, and a few items in colors I appreciate but I am not a fan of wearing. The whole point of this is, as Alyssa Beltempo says at the start of each video, “a wardrobe full of pieces that you actually love and wear…”

Having lived with this principle for years, here are a few tips if you want to move towards a seasonless wardrobe of fewer, higher quality pieces that fit your lifestyle:

  1. Know your needs – Be brutal about what you actually do. That ball gown may be gorgeous but if you aren’t going to balls, cotillions, fetes, or debutante dos, you probably don’t need it. If you are a Disney princess and do need a gown, why not rent one? While I dislike athletic wear away from living in yoga pants (have more self-respect, please) IF you are a yogi or own a Pilates studio, stock your closet with all sorts of athletic wear. Whatever you choose, make sure your pieces make you feel great whether you are dressing for the boardroom, the PTA meeting, or brunch. For me, having a set of go-to pieces for travel (business or pleasure) is key and because my wardrobe is neutral, minimal, and seasonless packing is pretty easy. I just determine length of the trip, temperature range, activities, and locales and then, pack accordingly.
  2. Never underestimate the power of layering – Pieces made of natural fibers (or a blend with a natural fiber majority (now there’s a political party name!) can be layered beautifully. A Breton tee under a chambray shirt topped with a lightweight tweed wool boyfriend blazer worn over skinnies with boots? Yes, please! Add a cap, scarf, and gloves and you have a perfect outfit for a chilly/cold Saturday in late autumn or early winter.
  3. Keep your materials natural – Again, natural fibers are the best. Materials like lyocell, modal, rayon, and viscose can give you the drape of synthetics but are much more breathable. Silk is always good but can be warm. Linen is a perfect material for hot-weather dressing as it is breathable and a white linen shades you from the sun in style. If you can’t find lyocell or modal tees (my favorite) look for a blend of cotton/polyester just be sure the cotton is the highest percentage on the tag. A special note on wool – if you can wear it (i.e. you don’t get a rash or itch like mad) make it a staple fabric. Different weaves and weights of wool give you a ton of versatility. It is natural odor-resistant and I find that the right weight of lightweight wool travels like a dream. Some of my wardrobe workhorses are my lightweight wool trousers, blazer, dress and pencil skirt.
  4. Take care of your clothes – Don’t toss your clothes on the floor. Determine if you can get another wear out of an item. If so, hang it up or lay it flat to air out. If not, put it in the hamper or hand-wash bag. Don’t hang your knits, fold them and watch for any drawer marring that can snag. Buy some wool and cashmere spray to refresh more than just your sweaters. Sew on missing buttons, fix a loose hem, add a snap to a too-low wrap-dress instead of a safety pin. Polish your leather shoes regularly. Brush your fabric and suede shoes to keep them looking new. Keep your purses and totes stuffed with old newspaper to help them keep their shape. If you invest a bit of time in keeping your items in good shape you will look and feel better in them and they will last longer.
  5. Consider style versus fashion – Remember, style is timeless – fashion is confined to a season or two. According to the dictionary, style is definedas a particular kind, sort, or type, as with reference, to form, appearance, or character. Fashion is defined as a prevailing custom or style of dress, etiquette, socializing, etc. For me, I’d rather be stylish than fashionable. Perennial well-heeled and not able to be pinpointed to a certain time (oh, the agony of those mustard yellow Hammer pants in the early 90s). When you put your seasonless wardrobe together, think about color, cut, and comfort. If you think about these things as they relate to your clothes and their required functions, you have a better chance of creating a lasting wardrobe.
  6. Be sure it all works together – I am not telling you to wear your linen shorts with your long puffer coat. What I mean is that all the pieces that transcend seasons (jeans, a few tees, chambray shirt, etc.) should work with the all the other pieces. That is the genius behind a manageable year-round wardrobe. Having colors and styles that can be worn in almost infinite combinations.
  7. Invest in tailoring – Please, for the love of Audrey Hepburn, be sure your clothes fit you. Whether you are 100 pounds or 300 pounds, your clothes should fit you. If you struggle to fit your chest, buy larger and have the waist tailored. Short torso? Buy that dress in larger size in Petite and have the hem shortened. If you invest in quality pieces, you owe it to them and yourself to have them fit. You’d be amazed at what a good tailor/seamstress can do! Two of my favorite summer dresses had major tailoring done (taking up the shoulders to make the neckline less vulgar, taking in around the rib cage, closing underarm gaps, adding side slits, etc) and have been worn so much that the cost-per-wear PLUS cost-of-tailoring is down to less than $15 for each! A good tailor can even remake that vintage find into something that works for you. A vintage Chanel jacket that has damage to the sleeve? Your tailor can crop the sleeve and add a grosgrain trim that would fool even Coco.
  8. Have fun with it – Just because my 4-season wardrobe is mostly black, doesn’t mean your has to be. Black is my happy color. Black is quiet but makes a statement. Black is easy but so refined. Black is versatile and constant. BUT FOR YOU? Maybe violet is your jam. There are no rules for the color or items in your seasonless wardrobe. If it makes you happy and meets the needs of your daily life, then go for it. If you want to go heavy on a classic pattern, like polka dots, for all your tops and they pair with all your bottoms, have at it. Just because someone does a ‘thing’ doesn’t mean it has to be your ‘thing’. Life is too short to base your wardrobe decisions on me or anyone else.
  9. BONUS TIP: Be prepared to evaluate and adjust – The development and care of a wardrobe isn’t a one-time event. It is a constant process of evaluation. Periodically ask yourself:
  • “Do these pieces work for my life?”
  • “Did I have a series of events where I felt out of place because I wasn’t wearing X (insert sartorial offender here)?”
  • “What items do I gravitate towards on a consistent basis?”

Questions like these, and an app like StyleBook, will help you realize any holes or surplus you have in your year-round wardrobe. Once I reach the true 55, I will monitor over the course a year and make choices based on what worked, what didn’t, what wore out, and what fits and feels good. While this sounds like a lot of effort, it isn’t, once you get a sense for who you are, what you do, and how you want to look. I find it fun, like a never-ending puzzle of yummy fabrics and creative choices.

While my wardrobe is currently 52% black, I get a lot of mileage and pop from the few patterns and colors I do have. Here are some actual outfits I’ve worn over the past 12 months with some of the 53 pieces. Running from January to December, I actually remember each day pictured here and remember feeling really good in my skin. Ah, the power of clothes.

What do you think? Could you live with a limited wardrobe that spans the seasons?

I hope you enjoyed this and I’d love to hear about your minimal, or intentional, wardrobes, so be sure to leave a comment.

NOTE: Clothes that don’t make the cut and are in good condition (maybe need a button) I offer to friends first and then, donate. I am toying with the idea of consigning some of the higher end work pieces (I work from home and have enough suiting for the occasional client visit). I will let you know how it goes.

NOTE: I did not provide brand details because I believe it is a personal choice. For me, the brands that make quality clothing in my style include Banana Republic, J. Crew, Everlane, Madewell, Cuyana and some local boutiques. If you want to know the provenance of a specific piece, let me know.

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