How I Made My First Capsule Wardrobe

How I Made My First Capsule Wardrobe

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My friend Nessa is a clothes whisperer. Like for real. She came to my house, spoke gently to my clothing, and found the style hidden within.

This was not an easy task. I’d been kicking around the idea of creating a capsule wardrobe for some time, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger and get ‘er done. I already had a small collection of clothing that I’d slowly whittled down over my years of minimalist conversion, but I just couldn’t grasp exactly how to go about creating one of those lovely little capsule wardrobes I saw online.

If you’re not sure what a capsule wardrobe is, check out Project 333 and Unfancy, minimalist blogs written by fashion-conscious folks much more expert than I. Or suffice with my laymen’s definition: a capsule wardrobe is a minimalist wardrobe designed to be worn for one season. Most capsule wardrobes have about 30-40 pieces total (piece = one piece of clothing). Note: undies, workout clothes, and pjs don’t count.

Even though I understood the principles of a capsule wardrobe, I still couldn’t make it a reality in my closet. Thus, I did what any fashion-challenged person should do: enlist the help of a fabulously-dressed friend. Enter Nessa.

I met Nessa one year ago when she moved to my little Dayton, Ohio suburb. Our kids went to the same preschool and we  both belonged to the same moms group. What I noticed immediately about her was not that she had three kids (that’s pretty much protocol around here) or that she rocked the baby carrier while hustling two toddlers into preschool (again, protocol). What I noticed was her style. Girl always looked fabulous. Baby carrier and all. I was miffed. How did she do it? The rest of us dropped our kids off in the suburban mom uniform: yoga pants, tennies, and hoodie (alternating with fleece, depending on the weather)–while Nessa consistently looked like a candidate for US Weekly’s “Who Wore It Best?”

Over the past year, I’ve gotten to know Nessa and discovered that, besides being fashionable, she’s also a super nice person. I also uncovered her fashion secret: a capsule wardrobe.

When I told her I wanted help with my clothing, she first asked me to start paying attention to how I felt in my clothes, noticing which outfits I liked and which seemed like “a silent backdrop to my day” (that’s an exact quote from her email response to my fashion-help plea… love it!).

So I paid close attention to my clothes for one week, and even this small step was amazing. I dressed better. I reached for the clothes in my closet I typically reserved for “going out” and wore them on what I considered “normal” days. I noticed that I often wear clothes I don’t really like, because I feel like I should only “dress up” for “occasions.” (Sorry for the excess quotation marks, but a big part of my capsule wardrobe process involved re-thinking how I label the day-to-day events of my life… more on that later.)

True story: one day I put on a casual cotton dress I’ve literally worn hundreds of times, walked around for about 10 minutes, then went upstairs and put the entire outfit in my donate box. Why? Because I was paying attention to my clothing, I realized I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t like the way the dress fit on my waist. I could never tell if I needed to pull it up or down. It was quite a shock to realize I’ve never liked that dress. And I’ve worn it for years.

So when Nessa showed up after my week of clothes-attention, I was already in the process of sloughing off the unloved parts of my wardrobe. I actually thought she didn’t have her work cut out for her. I was already a minimalist, and my wardrobe wasn’t large. How hard could it be to make a capsule wardrobe for me? Ah, pride cometh before the fall…

What Nessa made me realize was that, although I didn’t own many clothes, I didn’t own a “wardrobe,” in the true sense of the word. My clothes were individual pieces that connected along predetermined lines. For example: these leggings go with that shirt or I wear this dress with those tights or I wear this t-shirt under that sweater. My clothes were one-hit wonders–they didn’t work well for me because I didn’t understand how they connected. Nessa made those connections.

She laid all my clothes on my bed and had me sort them into three different piles–love, donate, and off-season. When were were left with just the seasonal loves, Nessa got to work sorting them into categories (dresses, tunic tops, bottoms, t-shirts, etc.) and asking hard questions, like, “Would you wear these leggings with that dress? Why not? What else would you wear with this sweater? Could you wear this dress to work? To play with your kids? To the store?” I actually started to get a bit stressed with all the questions–and I had a great deal of sympathy for my own clients!

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Nessa hard at work, making sense of my wardrobe. 

But what Nessa was getting at was the idea that my clothes had connections beyond what I was already seeing. I typically wore my clothes in very distinct contexts: that dress for teaching, these leggings for organizing, those jeans for date night, etc. Nessa showed me that I could wear dresses to the park (gasp!) or dresses with jeans (another gasp!) or tunic tops for playing with my kids (my world is so rocked I can’t even stand up…).

Are these pants essentially different? Nope, not at all.

She helped me get over some weird neuroses I had about some of my clothes, such as a pair of black skinny jeans I’d bought specifically for teaching, and thus would never wear except in what I considered a “professional” setting. She held the black jeans up to another pair of jeans I wore regularly.

“How are these different?” she asked.

“They’re not,” I had to admit.

“You can wear these anytime,” she said. “They’re jeans. You can wear them with a dress.”

I used to think of my clothes on a basic love-me-love-me-not level: Do I like this shirt or not? Do I like these pants? Yes or no? It’s similar to asking someone if they like a character in a movie: Do you like Katniss? Do you like IronMan? These are surface-level questions. Anyone can answer them.

Nessa questions forced me to look deeper, at the level of analysis and synthesis. She wasn’t asking if I liked my clothes, really. She was asking how my clothes connected to each other, how they overlapped and enhanced each other. It’s like asking how Katniss and Ironman are similar, yet different. How the two characters’ strengths could complement each other if they joined forces to fight one bad-ass enemy. It’s a deeper way of looking at clothing. (And perhaps my English teacher-ness is showing too much in this analogy!)

By the time Nessa was done forcing me to think really, really hard about my clothes, I had a capsule wardrobe of 29 pieces:

  • 6 tunic tops
  • 4 sweaters
  • 4 pairs leggings
  • 2 pairs jeans
  • 1 skirt
  • 2 dresses
  • 6 tops
  • 4 tanks

I donated 10 pieces and put 13 off-season pieces away to incorporate for upcoming seasons.

Ooh – my pretty capsule wardrobe! I love you, I love you!

Nessa also re-organized my closet so that all of my 29 pieces are visible. I used to keep hanging clothes in the closet and folded clothes in a dresser. Now when I get dressed, I can see everything that is an option, allowing me to see the connections more clearly.

Do I love getting dressed everyday now? Yes.

What I wore the first day after Nessa left: tunic top with black jeans. She was so proud! 

Do I regularly get compliments on my outfits? Yes.

Should Katniss and IronMan joins forces to make a kick-ass movie? Absolutely yes. Script is in the works.

Rose Lounsbury is the Dayton, Ohio area’s up-and-coming professional organizer. She also regularly wears tunic tops with jeans, now that her friend Nessa showed her this is possible. After blogging about her own journey toward a minimalist lifestyle, Rose was inspired to start Less, a minimalist-minded professional organizing company. If you’d like Rose’s help with an organizing project at your home or office, please call her at 937-626-9030.

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