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How to Build the Perfect Travel Capsule Wardrobe

March 2, 2024

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Welcome, my friends! If you’re one who tends to overpack, or if you’re trying to reach the status of COO pro (carry-on only), then this post on how to build the perfect travel capsule wardrobe will become one of your favorites. If you put the tips here into practice, you will be the happiest traveler ever … and look great at the same time.

My life changed when I discovered the concept of a travel capsule wardrobe. I used to cart along those “just-in-case clothes” I never wore. I would try to pack light, but they always snuck in at the last minute because … “what if???”

Airlines are allowing less luggage on board and raising fees for checked bags. As I’ve gotten older, I can't heft that big suitcase into the overhead bin anyway, despite trips to the gym.

But by employing the concepts below, I can now travel for months at a time with just 15 pounds in a small suitcase overhead and a backpack that is my personal item under the seat in front of me.

That’s right. No more lost luggage, no more luggage fees, no more rotator cuff problems, and no more clothes flung around the hotel room as I try to figure out what to wear.

The tips below will get you on your way whether you’re trying to pack carry-on only for the first time or just want to reduce a little weight in your checked bag.

Why Is a Travel Capsule Wardrobe Important?

A travel capsule wardrobe lets you take fewer clothes, which means less checked baggage fees, less annoying luggage to haul around, and fewer injuries from hefting heavy bags.

You’ll also be able to better enjoy your vacation without having to pack and unpack your suitcases and sift through everything to find something that goes with something else.

What goes into a capsule wardrobe?

Here’s how to start thinking about a capsule wardrobe for travel.

Consider your destination

Do some research. Check out 10 Travel Planning Tips to Create the Perfect Trip for ideas to get you started.

  • What will the climate be like? Hot and muggy? Below freezing and windy? A little of both?
  • How do people dress where you’re going? Are they very casual, and you can get by in jeans and a T-shirt, or are they smart and stylish, and you’ll need to dress accordingly? You’ll want to take the right clothes, so you don’t stand out as a tourist.
  • What events will you be attending? If you only have one or two dressy affairs, what day-time clothes can you bring that can do double duty for the evening with a bit of accessorizing with some jewelry or a jacket and tie?

Create a packing list

Once you have an idea of the types of clothes that will be required, create a simple packing list. This way, you'll be sure to have the clothes that you need based on the culture, the weather, and your activities. Then, you can start thinking about which individual items you'll take, which you already have, and which you'll need to purchase.

For example, can you get by with a pair of jeans and a white t-shirt or will you need a little black dress? Can you trust the laundry at your destination or should you leave that lovely silk blouse at home?

Select the right fabrics

Opt for lightweight clothing you can layer rather than bulky items that take up space, and choose fabrics that resist wrinkles.

Cotton takes forever to dry unless it’s very lightweight. So instead, choose clothing made of performance fabric like polyester or nylon. Two other good choices are Merino wool or linen.

Clothes made from Merino wool--my top picks--are lightweight and comfortable in a variety of climates. The nice thing about Merino is that it repels odors, so you can wear it many times before it needs a wash. Linen also works in different climates as it traps heat yet is breathable.

There are several different ways to set up your capsule wardrobe for traveling. The main key is to choose versatile pieces as base layers that can work in multiple situations and take up little space.

Start with the bottoms

Choose whether you’ll go with neutral colors on the bottom and add more color and flair with your tops or vice versa.

If you choose neutral bottoms, start with a foundation of neutral-colored pairs of pants, skirts, or shorts. These can be black, white, gray, navy, or beige. For example, a black pair of leggings or slacks, dark-wash jeans or chinos, and a beige skirt or shorts. Be sure they’ll be comfortable if you’re sitting for long periods as well as being on the go. And have one pair that you can dress up or down.

If you’re going for color and pattern on the bottom, check out RipSkirt. It’s incredible how many RipSkirts you can pack in one suitcase!

Add mix-and-match tops

If you’ve chosen colorful bottoms, look for neutral-colored tops that work with several of the bottoms.

Woman in a colorful top to complement the neutral bottoms in her travel capsule wardrobeIf you’ve chosen neutral bottoms, then have some fun and choose print and colorful solid tops that coordinate with the neutral bottoms you’ve chosen. These could be button-down shirts, casual blouses, T-shirts, or tank tops. Remember to choose lightweight fabrics that can be hand-washed and will dry overnight, as you’ll be washing the tops more than the bottoms.

Of course, if it's your personal style, you can always just choose a neutral color palette, take versatile basics, and then add a pop of color through your accessories.

Pack day-to-night dresses

If you wear dresses, choose a color and style you can dress up or down depending on how you accessorize it. That way, it works for both your days out and for an evening event. One of the many dresses from Wool&this dress from Chico’s, or one of the many dresses from Karina will fit the bill.

Or try a convertible dress like the Encircled Chrysalis Cardi or the Wayre Roma Reversible Wrap Dress.

Bring pieces to layer

This is where the magic comes in. Add a couple of layering items to adapt to changing weather conditions. For example, you could include just a long-sleeved shirt or a light denim jacket if you’ll be heading to a tropical location, or if colder, a lightweight cardigan, a jacket, a trench coat, or an oversized scarf will help you adjust to changing temperatures.

I pack one pair of lightweight hiking pants that I can wash and dry. They’re black so that I can dress them up in the evening.

If it’s warm, I roll them up a bit. If it’s cold, I add a layer of silk or merino long underwear underneath. They take up almost no room in my suitcase but give me the security of knowing I’ll be nice and toasty if the temperature drops.

And layering is the way to go for the plane. That way, you can peel layers on or off as the cabin temperature changes. And wearing extra clothes is an easy way to reduce the weight of your luggage if you're close to the limit.

Lighten your footwear

White sneakers as part of a travel capsule wardrobeShoes take up soooo much space, so a smart choice is to limit yourself to two pairs…OK, three at the most.

That would be a comfortable shoe for walking (Suaves are fabulous, and my fave, the Zilker, packs up super small), a shoe to wear in the evening (I love the flash of color in my Rothy’s), and a sandal if you feel you need all three.

Love your white sneakers? Consider where you're going and how long they'll stay white. Hiking? Wear your boots on the plane.

Merino socks can be worn repeatedly without getting smelly. Thin Merino socks will dry overnight, but thicker ones may take another day.

You can usually get by with two pairs if they’re thin: one to wash and one to wear. If you have thicker socks, then take three pairs. If you’re hiking or it’s going to be cold, take a pair of silk sock liners. They’ll help keep your feet toasty and will be easy to wash out to wear again the next day.

Add accessories

Now for the fun part!

Accessories don’t take up much space and can transform one outfit into many different looks. Stylish pieces like scarves, hats, belts, and jewelry all fit this category.

The accessories you bring should coordinate with several outfits rather than just one. Once you start looking at accessories to create a different look rather than another piece of clothing, you’ll be well on your way to stress-free packing.

The Vivienne Files even shows you how to build a travel capsule wardrobe, starting with a scarf.

Don’t forget underwear

How many times a day do you change your underwear? Multiply that number by two, and that’s all you need to take for a trip of any length. The trick is to have undies that will dry overnight. If you wash them in the sink each night, you could get by with one pair, but that makes most people nervous. So, OK, two pairs.

ExOfficio is one of my favorite brands for travel underwear. Understance is another. Both are lightweight, come in various styles, and dry quickly. Skip cotton because of the long drying time unless you can’t get by with anything else.

Bras are personal, and you need to give the girls the support they need. Consider whether the bras will dry overnight, and you’ll know how many to take. You usually won’t need more than two or three.

A good rule of thumb is to pack something for nightwear that can do double duty. How about a RipSkirt Sleep Shirt that can double as a beach coverup as well as something comfy to lounge around your room in the evening? Or maybe a cami or T-shirt with leggings or shorts that you could wear while washing the rest of your clothes?

Look for performance clothes like you’ll find at Prana or REI. They’ll be lightweight and won’t take up much room.

And remember specialty items

Since you’ve done your research, you’ll know if you need to take a small umbrella, a packable jacket in case of rain, or a snowsuit. Get ones that pack small or wear them on the plane. Do you work out, or are you a swimmer? You’ll need to add your athletic clothes and swimsuit.

The key to a travel capsule wardrobe is to pack items that make you feel comfortable, stylish, and confident while providing versatility. With a well-thought-out capsule wardrobe, you can focus more on enjoying your adventures and less on worrying about what to wear.

How Many Items Should You Take in Your Ideal Travel Capsule Wardrobe?

Sport coat and shirt on hangars for a masculine travel capsule wardrobe.There are many systems for putting together a travel capsule wardrobe.

You’ll create your own method over time, but here are a couple to get you started.

Note: If you don’t wear dresses, just substitute another bottom or top. That will give you even more outfits. The same principles apply in terms of the number of items, no matter your gender.

Travel essentials wardrobe

This 7-piece capsule wardrobe forms the basis for the capsule travel wardrobes that follow.

  • 2 tops
  • 2 bottoms
  • 1 long-sleeve top/jacket/sweater to layer
  • 1 dress
  • 1 pair of shoes

These items, plus underwear and a few accessories, will give you 7-10 different outfits depending on how you use the layering piece and will be sufficient for a few days to a week.

Optimal travel set

This is, to me, the ideal amount of clothes to create a travel wardrobe that will take you to almost any place for as long as you need to be away. It consists of 10 pieces of clothing plus 2 pairs of shoes.

  • 4 tops
  • 3 bottoms
  • 1 long-sleeve top/jacket/sweater to layer
  • 2 dresses
  • 2 pairs of shoes

Without the long-sleeve layer piece, you can mix and match tops and bottoms to create 12 separate travel outfits plus 2 dresses. That’s enough for 2 weeks without wearing the same outfit twice.

Layer the jacket or sweater over the top, and you have 26 outfits. Plenty of clothes to choose from, right? Now add accessories, and you’ll be able to create even more looks and be quite the stylish traveler.

I use this method for long trips. I'm not a dress girl, so I just swap out the dresses for an extra layer and add a multi-purpose sarong. One extra set of underwear, an extra bra, and an extra pair of socks round out my clothes (remember the wash one-wear one principle).

This all fits in my small carry-on which needs to be under 15 pounds for my home airline. My tech gear goes in my personal bag, along with my 3-1-1 bag and other toiletries, and I'm set to go for weeks on end.

Comprehensive carry-on package

This  15-piece travel capsule wardrobe offers plenty of clothing options for those nervous about traveling carry-on only or for those who need―or just want—more choices. (No judgment...honest!)

  • 6 tops
  • 4 bottoms
  • 2 long-sleeved tops/jackets/sweaters to layer
  • 3 dresses
  • 3 pairs of shoes

This makes at least 27 outfits with tops, bottoms, and dresses, no layering pieces.

But check this out…add one of the top layers, and you have double the amount of outfits!

Now just think of the number of looks you can have if you consider how you can mix that second top layer in. I need my slide rule (small joke for those old enough to remember what a slide rule is).

Add accessories, and you've got even more great options to create different looks.

Are you done yet?

Nope. I always suggest adding one little somethin’ to boost your comfort level at the end of a long day. It may be a photo from home, a nice piece of lingerie, or your favorite bath bomb. 

My somethin’ is comfy clothes for the hotel room. My wide-leg bamboo pants and t-shirt are nice and soft. I wear them on the day I’m washing everything else, and the shirt doubles as my nightgown.

Both can be washed in the sink and dry by the next evening and if I have to sneak down to the lobby for, I don’t know―maybe some late-night ice cream (hey…it’s vacation!)—I have enough clothes on to be respectable.

You Can Do It!

I know…you might be feeling a bit anxious now.

Many people panic a bit when they first start assembling a travel capsule wardrobe at the thought of not having everything with them.

So, here’s how to get started.

Tips for creating your stress-free travel capsule wardrobe

Thinking your capsule through will take more time than just tossing your “one outfit a day” in the suitcase. But you’ll be super happy when you aren’t lugging around more than you’re actually using.

Here are some tips for creating your capsule:

  • Start at least a week before your trip.
  • Lay out the bottoms you want to take.
  • Lay out all the tops that would match each bottom. Think about what you can layer to create warmth rather than taking bulky items.
  • Lay out the dress(es) you want to take.
  • Lay out the accessories that will match most of the items.
  • Now create outfits one at a time, including shoes and accessories. (For example, take one bottom and try each top to see what goes with what.)I suggest trying them on just to make sure you’ll be happy with the outfit and will wear it.

    Just because the items in your travel capsule are simple and functional doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be attractive. You don’t need to look like a backpacker from the 1960s!

    But beware! Now is not the time to introduce the “new you.” Traveling isn’t the time to suddenly decide to be the person who tucks your tops in or starts wearing shorts if you’re a dress person. Stick with outfits you know you look good in and are comfortable in, or you probably won’t wear them.

  • Take a photo of each outfit you’ve put together to help you remember what goes with what when you’re on the road.
  • Then pack it all up.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I really take all this on the plane with me?

The amount you can take on the plane depends on your airline’s carry-on policy regarding the weight and size of your bag. Check first with your airline. Then you’ll know how much you can take on the plane and how much you’ll need to check.

Won’t everyone notice I’m wearing the same things?

If you’re traveling with others, you may think they notice you’ve worn something before. Trust me, most people don’t notice.

What they WILL notice is how you’re pulling a lightweight, small suitcase and looking so put together while they’re struggling with carry-on bags too heavy to lift into the overhead and suitcases that they can barely heft onto the trolly.

They’ll be wondering how you look so amazing with so little luggage.

But I don’t have this many clothes that all go together

Of course! Not many of us do. And we can’t all afford to go out and get new things.

Suitcase packed with a travel capsule wardrobe of blue, white, and yellow travel outfits.If you’re new to traveling and only travel once every year or two, the first step is to start with what you have, and if the budget permits, just supplement with something new. Maybe a plain pair of slacks or a nice black T-shirt, and perhaps a new scarf with colors that will the clothes you do have all together. Plain pants and a black t-shirt will go with everything!

If you travel a lot, start curating a wardrobe as you find items that work for you.

After all my years of travel, I have a separate set of basics that form the capsule wardrobes I only use for trips. It contains four long-sleeve Merino tops, my black lightweight hiking pants, a beloved pair of jeans I save for travel, a sarong, and some gauzy tops I’ve picked up from Chico’s over the years.

I use the Merino tops in my winter travel capsule wardrobe and the gauzy tops in my summer travel capsule wardrobe.

I’ve also found a jacket with zip-out sleeves, so I can zip out the sleeves and just wear a vest, or I can zip the sleeves back in for a coat.

Then, I can zip this jacket into a weather-proof shell, or I can just wear the rain-shell over my regular clothes if it’s raining, but not cold. I can wear this whole thing on the plane and be ready for whatever weather I run into.

These kinds of clothes that do double or triple duty are the kind you want to keep your eye out for and then hang on to for your travels.

When I get home from a long trip, I will admit that it gets a little boring. I’m tired of my travel clothes, and I’m happy to pack them away.

But when it’s time to travel again, and I open my travel box, I’m so excited to see them because I associate them with all my wonderful travels. I know how great it is to focus on the trip and not what I’m going to do with all my luggage.

Conclusion

Packing causes the most stress for travelers when they think about their next trip.

But by embracing the art of the travel capsule wardrobe, not only do you lighten your load, but you also pave the way for a smoother, more enjoyable trip.

Just think…no more luggage hassles, zero over-the-head heaves, and no frantic hotel room fashion shows for you. You now know how to curate pieces that reflect your style and are practical and adaptable to various climates and occasions.

Remember, it’s not just about the destinations we visit but the ease and style with which we do so. So, whether you’re globetrotting across continents or indulging in a weekend getaway, let your travel capsule wardrobe be your trusty companion.

It’s time to bid adieu to the stress of over-packing and say hello to the freedom of traveling light, chic, and effortlessly cool.

Bon voyage, my stylish friend. 🌍✨

🧡 I'd love to be able to provide you with more useful tips to make your travel a big success, so I invite you to sign up for Coffee & Compass, my weekly newsletter that provides travel tips, links to the latest blog posts, and other travel info from around the internet. You can sign up right here.

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