Capsule wardrobes: Making them work

I was a bit tough the other day on the capsule wardrobes that you see in the media, but for good reason. They don’t quite work in real life.

However, with a few tweaks and a little thought they can be made into a more realistic system that’s a lot more workable. I started out by looking at Gok Wan’s 24-piece capsules from his Fashion Fix programmes, and compared it with a few other systems.

I think, on balance that the Fashion Fix version is the best basic idea to start with, but as much as I like Gok, it needs some major caveats and fixes to drag it into the real world.

The Fashion Fix capsules are designed to look good on TV, and the numbers look good when they’re laid out in rows for pictures. I understand all that – you need a format for the telly, and there are probably budgetary concerns and so on. They tend to contain:

  • 1-2 jackets
  • 1-3 cardigans or waistcoats
  • 3-4 tops
  • 1 pair jeans
  • 1-2 pairs of trousers
  • 1-3 skirts
  • 1-3 dresses
  • 1-3 belts
  • 2-3 bags
  • 4-5 pairs of shoes
  • 1-3 scarves or big necklaces

The main problem is that with an average of four tops and two dresses, you can’t get through a week without doing stacks of laundry. I’m quite an active person, so I usually need to wash things like that every time I wear them, so I’d completely run out of clothes in a maximum of six days.

Some of the clothing combinations towards the end of that wouldn’t necessarily suit my lifestyle on those particular days. I need more practical options.

There’s an illusion of choice, but in real life that ‘choice’ only exists on day 1 or day 2 – what’s been worn is then taken out of circulation and is no longer an option. You’d constantly have to be doing small loads of washing.

Main problem: simply not enough clothes to give real choice and get though a week of laundry.

The second problem is that capsules tend to look best in mags/on TV when the laid out clothes  have a lot of contrast and colour variation between the garments and accessories.

In reality, if you’re going for the maximum number of combinations within that capsule, at least half of your combinations are running the risk of looking a bit strange because they’re just too contrasty.

The practical rules of colour theory still apply in real life, where tone on tone colours are normally the most flattering. However, some people personally find a lot of contrast fun and if that includes you then just go for it and enjoy yourself.

Main problem: contrast looks good on paper or a screen, but you can overdo it in real life.

The third problem is that so many capsules seem to be catering to a fantasy lifestyle. Everything is brand new, and either high fashion or businesslike. Four fancy pairs of six inch heels do look amazing when they’re grouped together (a bit like Christmas to a lot of us), and will give you that TV-ready look, but in real life most of us don’t have to be on the telly all day and we don’t get taxis everywhere.

Likewise, everyday outfits that call for special undergarments such as control knickers are utterly stupid – I want to be able to eat, drink and breathe normally, thanks.

Main problem: An excess of uncomfortable, impractical clothes and shoes.

The fourth main glitch is that capsule wardrobes seem to promise the earth. At first glance they seem to have every eventuality covered, from formal occasions to casual, and also seem to offer almost-unlimited permutations of mix and match outfits.

In reality, your options for very dressy occasions and very relaxed occasions will be extremely limited, so you’ll have to lower your expectations or buy extra clothes. Anyone who has a formal job and is very casual during their time away from work would be better off having two different sets of clothes, for example.

Main problem: Gives rise to unrealistic expectations, not quite as flexible as it first looks.

So, to drag it into the real world, and make it workable, some BIG changes need to be made to the concept. For example:

  • You need a lot more tops, and/or dresses to make it practical, and put genuine choice into the clothes that remain clean by the end of the week.
  • You need to find a workable level of contrast, so that combinations are flattering but they still retain a level of interest. This is tricky to achieve without ending up looking overdone, or resorting to very plain clothes and then cheating on the number of accessories.
  • It must fit a realistic version of your lifestyle, with the right proportion of formal to casual clothes for you. Your everyday clothes need to look nice, agreed, but they must also be comfortable or you’ll subconsciously stop using them and they will be a wasted purchase.

To sum up: a flashy TV or magazine-based capsule wardrobe can’t do all the things it promises to do. It can’t cater for the dressiest of occasions, and not every combination of clothing is going to look good.

However, in a real life capsule wardrobe each item does need to justify its existence. As a rough rule of thumb, to give proper value for money, anything you include should look good in at least three different outfits.

With that in mind, I’m going to put together a capsule this weekend that should keep me going for the whole of September without getting bored. Watch this space.

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  1. I’ve always wondered about the practicality of capsual wardrobes, for pretty much all of the reasons you’ve laid out. However I’m currently looking to completely revamp my wardrobe/style, so will be watching your experimen with interest for ideas and inspiration.


  2. Hello Maggie Bob, how are you? Thanks for dropping by! Maybe give me a few days to get the hang of this capsule wardrobe fashion maths business – then you can learn from my mistakes. No idea how this is going to work out if I have to avoid duplicating outfits for a month. Let’s wait and see.

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