Capsule wardrobe basics for beginners


A really good mix and match wardrobe gives you maximum impact from a minimum number of items of clothing, potentially making it both extremely thrifty and extremely stylish. However, if you’ve never put a capsule wardrobe together before it can be very difficult to know where to start.

Don’t worry, I’ve got your (beautifully clothed) back.

Here are the five basic rules that will have your wardrobe looking great with very little effort. Once you have more experience and confidence you can start bending the rules, but for now just follow along with them and see how easy they make everything.

RULE 1: Fit for purpose

Your capsule wardrobe needs to suit your lifestyle, and fit around everyday or common events in your life. Most of us have a five day working week, and a weekend off where we are more casual – it makes sense for most people to concentrate on building a capsule wardrobe that will suit a 5-day working week.

[By the way, if you’re someone who has no dress code at work and you wear similar things at the weekend, or if you’re a stay at home parent, feel free to expand your capsule wardrobe to have enough clothes for a 7-day week.]

TOP TIP: Start where you already are. Do you own any particular garments right now that you wear a lot? Do you have one favourite item? What exactly makes you like them so much? If they’re fit for purpose (usually meaning appropriate for the workplace) and make you look and feel great, that’s a good place to start building from.

Although a well-chosen capsule wardrobe can be very versatile, it’s not realistic to expect it to take you all the way from weeding the garden to having high tea at The Dorchester. Keep the level of ‘formality’ in your capsule collection roughly the same for most garments, tailoring it to the tone of however formal your weekday work might be, and then you’ll easily be able dress it up or dress it down with bags, shoes, jackets and accessories to suit most occasions.

That’s most occasions, but not all. For example, if you’re a ‘smart casual’ kind of person most days and you’re invited to an ultra-formal event, realistically you will have to fish out a sharp suit or a cocktail dress from elsewhere in your wardrobe. And that’s okay. Other advice about capsule wardrobes might not tell you about this bit, but it is the truth.

RULE 2: Separates give you more options

A good capsule wardrobe gives you plenty of opportunities to mix and match your clothes. To get the greatest amount of versatility, make all your clothing separates, i.e. tops (blouses, shirts, tees, jumpers, sweatshirts) and bottoms (trousers, skirts, jeans).

If you want to add in a dress or a jumpsuit, limit the number to one or two. Any more than this will greatly reduce your ability to mix and match, and create different looks. Generally speaking, dresses are a bit more versatile than jumpsuits because you can sometimes put a top over a dress and get an extra outfit by making it look like a skirt instead – best done for Autumn or Winter wardrobes as the layers add warmth. For practical reasons you won’t want to do this with a jumpsuit (imagine needing a toilet break and having to take off a jacket, and then a top, and then undoing the jumpsuit itself…don’t even go there).

The exception to the dress rule is with some of this season’s more fashionable strappy or pinafore dresses, which went down the runway with various tops and blouses underneath them. If in doubt though, stick to separates.

To get even more options, choose a few extra-versatile single items

Here are a few examples:

  • Pick a cardigan that can also be worn buttoned up as a jumper, giving you an extra top
  • Some button-front shirts can be worn open over a tee or cami, as a semi-casual extra jacket
  • Many tops can be worn tucked into trousers or skirts, as well as left out to hang over the waistband
  • Some trousers such as chinos can have their hems rolled up to vary their leg length
  • Bags with adjustable shoulder straps can be worn as cross-body or shoulder bags

Some accessories can be extra versatile too. Look for necklaces with spacer chains so that you can wear them longer or shorter to suit different necklines. You can get more than one look out of most scarves as well. A skinny scarf can be worn casually looped around your neck, tied androgynously like a man’s tie, knotted into a girly bow, or worn as a hairband or belt.

RULE 3: Pick a theme or a general style

A loose general theme just makes it so much easier to start picking out individual items, and to make combining the clothes feel simpler. It needs to suit your personality and your personal style, and remember too that it needs to be fit for purpose as mentioned in Rule 1.

The three main themes for women’s clothing are usually something along the lines of ‘formal’, ‘feminine’ and ‘relaxed’. Which one are you closest to? Formal usually means tailoring and smarter shoes and bags, feminine might mean lots of skirts and softer fabrics, and relaxed might mean denim or sportswear. If you can’t pick one of these pretty much right away then your personal style might be a mix of two of these (I tend to look and feel my best in things that are both feminine and relaxed, for example).

You can also look to the catwalks or street fashion to refine your theme or style if you like. Some of the latest trends include Victoriana / gothic, tweeds, luxury sportswear, or modern punk, and the military trend is back as well. Take your time and have a browse around one or two respected magazines or fashion blogs for one or more of their seasonal trend reports.

If you’re a beginner the style to avoid is ‘eclectic’. That’s usually the fast track to looking like a dog’s dinner and having to start all over again.

After you’ve chosen your theme, one of the easiest ways to start picking out your individual capsule wardrobe garments is by starting with the trousers and skirts that fit the theme, and then moving on to choosing the tops. This isn’t compulsory, it’s just a place to start that seems to work well for most people. Give it a try. It’s easiest if you start with plenty of very simple shapes, and then add in a few style-led or more striking items of clothing.

Make it seasonal too. Don’t forget to consider your level of comfort and the temperature that feels best for you in the current season when you’re picking out clothes. Are you hot or cold at work? Get the correct level of warmth with the right sleeve length, fabric thickness and number of layers.

RULE 4: Remember the laundry effect

What the majority of capsule wardrobe articles don’t take into account is the effect of what you’ve worn on previous days. In real life, more and more items are going into the laundry with each passing day during the week – leaving you with fewer and fewer options as you head towards Friday.

If you have a typical 5-day capsule wardrobe with 5 tops and 5 bottoms, by the time you get to Friday you will probably only have one set of capsule clothes left to you, and they had better look good! Every single blouse or sweater needs to look great with every single trouser or skirt. Picking a general theme for your capsule wardrobe really helps with this, and so does being smart with your choices of colours, shapes and patterns (see the style tips in the next article).

***The acid test: A really good capsule wardrobe also allows you to take any specific combination of top and bottom, and style it up or style it down to create at least two different looks using your other jackets, shoes, bags and accessories. That could be masculine versus feminine, or smart versus casual, or whatever else you like. With practice you might be able to make three or four different looks with the same shirt and trousers.***

RULE 5: Stuck? Use this simple equation

There’s a simple ‘equation’ for a 5-day working week that you can use to get a good level of variety into your capsule wardrobe looks, whilst still keeping it really easy to mix and match. Try these numbers out after you’ve picked your theme, and see how it goes.

  • 5 skirts / pairs of trousers: Choose 4 or 5 of them in your base colours (more about colours later)
  • 5 tops: Tops 1 & 2 in light neutral colours, top 3 in a mid-toned colour (neutral or accent), top 4 in a base or second accent colour, and top 5 with a pattern or print
  • 2 or 3 jackets: At least one in a base colour
  • 1, 2 or 3 bags: At least one in a base colour and big enough for all your work stuff
  • 2 or 3 pairs of shoes: At least 2 in a base colour
  • 2 or 3 accessories: 1 or 2 necklaces or scarves containing accent colours, and 1 plainer one containing a base colour

This formula is by no means set in stone, but I’ve found that it works really well and saves loads of time shopping and styling. You can vary it a little to suit your personality and body shape if you like though, and the next article contains some tips to help with that.

To give you a better idea of how it works, the picture below is an example of a thrifty and real capsule wardrobe collection that follows the simple equation I’ve just outlined. I’ll be writing all about it in a separate article and then giving examples of multiple outfits you can make from it, so come back for that if you’d like to know more.

capsule wardrobe full mix and match Penny Golightly


A quick note about colours

Base colours are the workhorses of a capsule wardrobe, and they often include basic colours such as black, navy and charcoal grey but you can vary them to suit your skin tone, personality and capsule theme. Light neutral colours are usually colours such as white, cream or off-white, and you can also get mid-toned neutral colours such as taupe, medium toned greys, and faded denim.

Accent colours are a bit more fun, and can include pastels, brights, and deeper jewel and earth tones. You can also include metallics as accent colours, particularly when it comes to accessories. There’s more information about choosing and styling different colours, shapes and patterns coming up in the next article.

If you aren’t feeling very confident about putting strong colours and patterns into an outfit, you might prefer to start by keeping them mainly to your accessories to minimise the possibility of clashing. You’re only going to wear one of this type of accessory at a time, so you can make them as different from each other as you like.

Quick tips for accessories

‘Accessories’ as described here for the purposes of the capsule wardrobe are worn at the neckline and the main colours in them need to be visible from a slight distance. Not every outfit will need an accessory like this, and some outfits actually look better without them. It’s up to you whether you prefer necklaces or scarves, or a mixture of both.

They can be used to give a pop of colour at the top of an outfit, or to harmonise and give balance to a particular combination of clothes. For this reason it’s best for beginners to buy the capsule wardrobe accessories last of all, after first choosing trousers / skirts, tops, shoes, jackets and bags.

They’re an easy way to keep up with changing trends, or to express some personality. For something a bit more fashion-y, you could have a large pair of earrings as one of your accessories this season, as long as they’re easily visible and not hidden by your hair.

Quick tips for jackets

For the purposes of the capsule wardrobe, jackets include tailoring such as blazers plus things like cardigans. For this coming season, you could include something like a lightweight bomber jacket or a shearling waistcoat as well. It only includes what you’d wear indoors, and not things like winter coats or biker jackets.

You will probably find that you end up reaching for one main jacket most of the time, probably one in your favourite base colour, but it’s good to have at least one more in different colour to keep things interesting. Ideally, your main jacket should go with at least 70% of your outfits if you only have one in a base colour.

Finally, if you work in a very formal environment, your jackets could be part of a trouser suit or skirt suit. This usually makes mixing and matching a lot simpler.

Quick tips for bags

Regardless what certain fashion magazines and blogs may tell you, your main bag needs to be suitable for your typical working day rather than a tiny scrap of a thing that will barely hold a lipstick and your house keys. It needs to be big enough to hold your stuff, whether that’s a laptop and a water bottle, or a book and a notepad, or whatever.

If you’re using public transport it needs to go over your shoulder so you can use it hands free, and it also needs to fit to your body without sticking out too much (think giant backpack in the face or extra wide tote bag corner in the ribs). Forget grab bags and clutches for work, you’ll want to bin them the moment you start fumbling for your mobile phone or travelcard.

Short on funds? Pick just one bag in your most commonly used base colour, and it should go with pretty much everything. You might already own something like this, and most of us naturally default to using just the one main work bag anyway. Otherwise, it’s nice to have another work-sized bag in an accent colour to keep things interesting, and maybe a clutch bag for after work drinks.

Quick tips for shoes

For the health of your feet, you need more than one pair of everyday shoes. Sorry to be gross but feet sweat, and it can take longer than overnight for it to dry out of your footwear. So that’s a minimum of two pairs of shoes in everyday base colours, and it’s nice if you can get a third pair in an accent colour too.

Choose your shoes after buying your skirts / trousers and your tops. Ideally, every shoe should be able to be worn with every skirt or pair of trousers in your capsule wardrobe for maximum versatility.

If possible, vary all the colours and shapes for your footwear. When it comes to colour, some shoes have different colours on their trims or soles, but don’t worry too much about that if there isn’t much of the contrasting colour and the overall style fits well with the theme of your wardrobe. If you’re short of funds, just stick to two pairs of everyday shoes in your base colours and look for plain and comfortable styles.

Don’t forget to consider the heights of different heels too, and how that might work with different trouser lengths. If in doubt, keep the heels of different shoes to roughly the same height.

Now you know the basic rules, we can move on to putting it all together with panache. Come back tomorrow for my example capsule wardrobe for the coming season, and why I’ve picked each individual item.

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  1. I have picked my palette, tans and browns with touches of plum. It is mostly casual or semi-casual as I am retired. I need a warm palette especially as I have acquired quite a crop of freckles over the summer. I will have to rummage in my wardrobe but I think I can assemble a core selection.

  2. Well, a lot of work to do. First, separate all the items into 4 seasons. Then, try to mix and match those items together to do some genuine outfits. It will take me ages to find some ideas and reduce this wardrobe. But it is best to take it easy as I am a real beginner. How can I define a style ? what kind of style ? I want to look pretty and match the outfits together well and feel comfortable. Wish me luck.

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