Capsule Wardrobe Packing

I spent Christmas of 2010 in the ‘burbs of Chicago with my family. Husband Mike and I drove down together, but I flew back alone a week later, and since nothing BURNS ME like a $30 baggage check fee, I was determined to pack a carry-on only.

As I was madly cramming items into my rolly bag, I realized that I was creating a capsule wardrobe and one that would work quite well for non-family-centric trips. You’ve seen these outfits before, but since I’ve gotten a few requests for both travel and capsule wardrobe posts, I thought I’d wrap both into one!


Personally, I love a large and varied wardrobe. So much so that I responded to the first call for advice by asking Nubby Twiglet to guest post on how to work within the confines of a capsule. But packing for this relatively recent trip and for our voyage to Iceland back in August have proven to me that crafting a small, well-edited wardrobe from simple, chic pieces can be fun and satisfying. (Temporarily!)


Recently, I’ve written about my views on packing effectively, but just to reiterate a few of the high points:

  • Pick a color scheme: If you’re traveling for more than a couple of days and attempting to pack light, you’ll need to bring interchangeable pieces. Picking a simple color scheme – generally black, white, gray, and a color – will allow you tremendous versatility in a small group of items.
  • Try everything on: This is especially key in a capsule because you NEED to know how the various items will work together. Create a distinct outfit for each day you’re away from home, try each outfit on, and write down the items involved.
  • Pack easy fabrics: Unless you are required by law to wear a linen dress or button-down shirt, pick and pack items that won’t wrinkle or crease. Jersey, knits, anything with spandex.


Here’s a quick inventory of what I took with me for my week in Chicago:

Gray knit dress
Black knit dress
Washable polyester ocelot-print tie-neck blouse
Extra-long black tank top
Red tank top
Black-and-white-checked pintuck tunic
Gray boyfriend cardigan
Black knit moto jacket
Black ponte riding pants
Black leggings
Gray leggings
Straight leg jeans
Wedge platform booties
Flat black boots
Multicolor scarf
Leopard-print scarf
Red stud belt
Multi-strand onyx necklace

And here are the outfits in order of wearing:


This was Christmas Eve, so I knew we wouldn’t be doing tons of gallivanting. I felt safe wearing this flattering but slightly saucy outfit knowing that I’d either be at home lounging, or outside in my long coat.The wedge booties were perfect for this day, since we did relatively little walking.


Christmas Day is extremely casual at my parents’ house, so I wore a loose, unconfining tunic and my ponte riding pants. Again, the wedges were fine since we were indoors all day.


Plans for this day included shopping with The Budget Babe and hanging out with girlfriends post-dinner. This is a slightly altered version of an outfit I’d worn a month or so previously, so I knew it was a winner. The flat boots were a must since BB and I planned to walk … though we had to reschedule!


Lunch with a dear friend was the only thing on the docket, so I did the wedge boots again. I regretted it. Although these shoes look AMAZING and are fairly comfy, Chicago had quite a bit of snow and ice by this time and I longed for more traction! Lesson learned …


The Budget Babe and I met on the Magnificent Mile for our shopping date, and had a whale of a time. However, this wasn’t the best choice of outfit. I caved and swapped my flat boots for the booties, which was acceptable … but I generally prefer easier layers when shopping. Leggings and a tank make the BEST underlayers. I had plenty of other outfits in the chute, but somehow felt compelled to stick to this one. Durr!


Mom and I had lunch with my sister and I shopped  a bit on my own. Later on, went to the movies with my dad. Again, relatively little walking, so the wedges worked!


I insist on extreme comfort en route, so this was my outfit for the day of the plane ride home. And a good thing, too, since my flight got canceled, rescheduled, and massively delayed. All knit pieces, a cozy scarf, and flat boots kept me comfy for the entirety of that long-ass day.


  • This combination of grays, blacks, animal prints, and a splash of red were a bit dreary for my usually colorful tastes, but I certainly felt chic and pulled-together all week long.
  • Heavy reliance on knits meant I was comfy and wrinkle-free.
  • I wore the heck out of my jeans, and am determined to wear them more in non-travel life!


  • The wedge boots were a mistake. Period. I must remember that even traveling to see my parents for a non-touristy vacation will mean lots of walking.
  • I wish I’d picked patterned pieces that included more color. Although I think it really helped break up those dark neutrals to include some busy patterns, I MISSED color!
  • I wore those jeans three days in a row. I should be more mindful of which items are getting re-worn when.

When you travel, do you pack capsule wardrobes? What are your personal guidelines? Any tips for making a capsule seem more varied?

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  • LOVE the outfits with the trouser jeans…WELL DONE!!!!

  • Honestly, when I pack a capsule wardrobe, it’s like, hmm, black jersey. OK, black jersey! OK, maybe a pair of jeans. More black. I do think about styling up a little if I’m going to a meeting, but on family visits or dance trips all bets are off. This weekend I spent the entire weekend wearing a black godet skirt with dance shorts under and various layered Target t-shirts. And my purple sweatercoat and boots. I think I must have looked interesting, because random people seemed to want to talk to me a lot.

  • Velma

    I was a backpacker and VERY light traveler in my youth–and I live to regret it every single time I decide to take a little more for air travel. Yes, there are times that I feel a little less fabulous while traveling than I might at home, with my full wardrobe at my disposal, but those moments pale next to BAD experiences lugging a big bag or guarding it overnight in some airport. Better to have less, and fewer worries.

    So I always travel with a tiny capsule wardrobe–often black/gray + accents of some bright color for winter, and brown + turquoise for summer. I wear a heftier pair of shoes (boots, walking shoes, oxfords) on the plane, and pack only one alternate pair (sandals, cute flats, low pumps). I usually bring at least one or two scarves/shawls and “statement” necklace to liven things up.

    Works fine, and I even sort of enjoy it. This has become my preferred MO even for road trips–keep it simple.

  • Kara

    I love those jeans! What brand are they?

    • Sal

      They’re Talbots Heritage Fit Straight Legs!

  • Katharine

    So where you’re from, you wear your shoes inside? Or is that just for the outfit shots?

    I have such a weird interest in these tiny little cultural differences. In Ontario, most people take shoes off indoors (although I’m finding more and more people have a basket of slippers (!) to offer guests), but in Scotland, nobody seemed to, and everyone gave me odd looks when I automatically removed mine at the door.

    • Sal

      It depends. Some people prefer that you remove your shoes when you arrive, some don’t care. I VASTLY prefer to keep my shoes on even indoors.

      • Francesca

        Interesting about Ontario. Could it be a bit of the Asian influence? I’m Asian, currently living in the US Southeast, and our family doesn’t wear our shoes into the house. We don’t expect our guests to do the same, and most don’t. I don’t really mind because we have hardwood floors so they’re easy to keep clean. However, I have a friend from Jamaica who always takes her shoes off at the door when entering our house, even when other guests don’t. Must be a part of their culture too?

  • Packing fills me with anxiety, especially in winter! I generally just pack a few different plain shirts and a lot of different cardigans, and just change those every day! Throw in a few brooches, a skirt, a pair of jeans, and I’m done! But, I’m also usually not in love with the outfits themselves, they are usually a bit boring!

  • Love this post. I too try on everything. I also bring more shirts than bottoms. Two shirts for one bottom. In the winter I limit shoes to two pair in luggage and wear the bulkest shoe on my feet.

  • I usually check a bag, because I can’t stand dealing with a carry on. I usually pack dresses, cardigans and leggings or tights that I can mix and match.

    • JB

      Amen to that! In my youth I used to be carry-on only because I worried that my checked luggage would get lost. But schlepping an extra bag all over airports and then not knowing if there will be enough space in the overhead bin – THAT is much more stressful to me. Personally I think airlines should charge extra for using the overhead bins, since that’s where the space is most limited, rather than for checked luggage. There’s all kinds of space down below!

  • I just got back from a couple of weeks in Europe. I packed fairly lightly and learned a lot about my wardrobe and how much I really need! I have a very full wardrobe, which I’ve spent too much on over the last few years. Recently I decided to cut back on reading so many style blogs because I fear they influence me to shop more, which I can’t afford at present.

    While on vacation in the UK and France I took 1 x jeans, Leather Jacket, Wool skirt, 6 long sleeve tee shirts, 2 x thermal tops, 1 hip length down coat, a couple of thin bright scarves, 1 pair earrings, 1 pair leather boots, 1 pair Asic Sneakers, 1 x bright green wool sweater, 2 x tights. That was all I wore in 2 weeks. I washed my tops at the end of the first week.

    I realized I feel quite stylish with a leather jacket, skinny jeans, boots and a nice scarf. That I can mix that up with different tops, or change my scarf. I learned that I don’t need much at all. Those 2 weeks in Europe made me realize I need to stop shopping and just enjoy what I already have.

  • Thank you for the tips! Although it’s a good 2 years away, I’m already starting to plan what to bring on my trip to England. Everything needs to be built around excellent walking shoes/boots (any good suggestions?), and I’m think leggings will be the way to go for pants. Now I need to work on the tops…

    BTW – I specifically switched to a Delta credit card, just so I could get free luggage for my trip. Extreme? Perhaps. But paying for luggage makes me stabby!

  • I used to work for NWA, during which time I travelled the globe for free but could only bring carry-on because I had to fly standby. Packing became very methodical, which was a huge relief after years of STRUGGLING. (My biggest fear was always that I wouldn’t have the right thing, and you know what: Sometimes I didn’t, and that’s when you focus on the joy of the trip instead.)

    A few things I’ve learned as a clothes horse on a tight leash:
    – Bring classic basics in neutral shades: jeans, shirtdress, tank, cardi, trench, striped tops.
    – Don’t bring anything you don’t love. You won’t wear it.
    – Accessories are key. Statement necklaces, scarves, etc. can transform said basics and give them nine lives.
    – Fill up your suitcase with everything you think you need, then edit.
    – Jackets, wraps, and cardigans will save you in bad weather AND make even the simplest outfit look pulled together
    – Invest in a super-cute pair of comfy shoes. You never want to look like a tourist and you never want to get blisters while walking around Paris.

  • Mrs.M in MI

    I would like to think I do pretty well with capsule wardrobes. I packed for a week in Tennessee last March in a kid’s LLBean backpack and large purse! (It helped that I could borrow outerwear from the friend I was staying with, but I can’t wear her clothes.)

    I know that everyone tells you to pack dark neutrals, but as a color devotee I can’t do that without spending my vacation depressed. My capsules are red/white/blue and navy/pink/green.

    I pack one bottom (pants/skirt) for every three days and a top combination (shirt + tank, etc.) for every two days. Add two pairs of walkable shoes (one pair light and compact) and one of my “magic” silk cardigans from Ann Taylor that can be cozily warm or breezily light.

    My other trick is to wear as many clothes on the plane as I can. That can mean wearing boots, jeans, tank, tee, collared shirt, and cardigan (luckily I’m always cold), but that also means that my bag has a skirt, a tee, and a pair of flats in it. All the more room for souvenirs!

  • I’m loving your posts about packing and traveling. I am going on a 9 day trip (7 of which are a cruise) and I am eating up all the suggestions and information! Keep it up.

  • modgrl

    those booties are killer. sorry they didn’t work for the family vacation.
    if you are a size 6 and ever want to get rid of them, I would be happy to take them off of your hands. I have been stalking them on ebay.

  • I have to say, when I read your comment about wearing the jeans three days in a row, I had to go back and look, because they didn’t register the first time, other than looking well put together. 🙂 I am an extremely light packer, and wouldn’t think twice about wearing the same pants three days in a row (if I could, that is; I seem to spill more when I am away from home – and laundry facilities!).

  • Tiffany

    Too funny, I think your capsule wardrobe has more items than my entire wardrobe!

  • missjulied

    This is a timely post because I am starting my prepacking for a 10-day trip to Turkey (leaving this weekend). The weather is pretty horrible, but it’s no worse than what I have at home (Seattle), so I’ve got the tools.

    We’re flying through Heathrow, and I’m super freaked out about their high luggage loss rate, so I’ve decided to try to go carry-on only. Here’s what I’m working with so far:

    Wear on the plane:
    – dark blue jersey tank dress (just above knee length)
    – Gray long sleeved t-shirt
    – Black leggings
    – Black waterproof knee-high boots
    – Black fleece zip-up top
    – Gray raincoat (heavy-duty, but stylish)
    – Another pair of shoes. Converse maybe?
    – Skinny jeans (can tuck into boots, or wear outside or with other shoes)
    – Black insulated sport tights (super-warm, can be worn with dress on really cold days)
    – light gray long sleeved turtleneck
    – black wool long sleeved undershirt
    – black/charcoal striped long sleeved t-shirt
    – pink cashmere cardigan
    – black lightweight drapey cashmere sweater
    – costume jewelry: long necklace in pinks/purples/oranges/creams, probably another one too (need to decide)
    – purple scarf/shawl

    Other than gloves, socks, unders, etc, is there anything obvious I’m missing?

    The trying all the outfit combos on in advance is a great idea! I’m going to do that for sure this week!

  • Eleanorjane

    Scary Closet – I do hope you’ve remembered the ‘leggings aren’t pants’ rule! I don’t want to see your bits outlined in loving detail! (If you’re meaning leggings under tunic tops then go right ahead…)

    Awesome capsule wardrobe, Sal. I struggle with shoes too as most of mine are heeled and that just doesn’t work for travel. I often end up buying more sensible shoes while I’m away.

  • I was just thinking about blogging my recent trip to the Bay Area during which I REFUSED to check a bag because of fees (which would have cost upwards of $50 round trip).

    I forced myself to pick a color scheme and stick with it. I will never be as fashionable out of town with a limited wardrobe and many trips full of inefficient overpacking taught me that lesson. I brought one purse, two pairs of flats, and a pair of tennis shoes. I should have brought a pair of boots and more rain gear cause it was cold and wet. But sticking with the color scheme was smart.

    I love how you strategically layered! I think that is a wise use of space.

  • Miss Sal,

    Do you have any more advice or article/post recommendations on packing lightly?

    I’m taking a study abroad trip in mid May to Paris (London, for a day), Barcelona and Madrid. We will basically be walking 12 hours a day so comfy/versatile shoes are a must. I also need my shoes to be light weight. And I want to be fashionable too. We’re going to a few designer’s show rooms because I’m traveling for my International Retailing class!

    So I need help. Please!

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  • 1. check weather forecasts, any planned activities (the opera, hiking, rafting, etc.) that may need special clothing, and choose your shoes first – pick clothes after that, since you will be spending a lot of time on your feet.

    2. to add more color to capsule wardrobes – first, pack large, thin scarves that can double as tops, skirts, etc. – you get the color without taking up much space. secondly, you can take as many colors as you want, just make sure they all go together….for instance you can choose two
    complementary colors. then, if you want, you can mix them with newts.
    for example: aqua and tangerine (complementary colors) plus khaki, olive drab and black (newts). you can go monotone newt, monotone color, two or three newts together, newts accented with one color, or tangerine and aqua in one look. you can add even more colors with scarves/jewelry/other accessories – with this look you might choose lemon, lime, paprika, hot pink, and so on.

    you can also go with a triad (3 color) mix, an analogous mix (various versions of the same color), split-complementary (3 colors), or rectangle (4 colors). again, you base your capsule around colors that go together, then add newts as you see fit or desire. all these schemes are explained here using a color wheel:

    plus you can search the web for more color theory info. if you’re a fashionista type who loves color, any time you spend learning color theory will be amply rewarded. and if you love color, you’ll love learning color theory! steph

  • Z

    I wish I still had my best ever capsule wardrobe. It worked for 4 months in Peru, in summer / early fall there, sea level to 12,000+ feet. I had:

    1 pair sandals
    1 pair tennis shoes
    1 pair boots
    1 pair jeans
    1 pair khaki pants
    1 no wrinkle dress, long sleeved, breathable
    1 no wrinkle skirt, breathable
    2 T shirts that went with the skirt and pants
    2 pullover sweaters, in different colors, that went with everything

    Key was that the dress was magenta, and one of the sweaters, purple; the skirt was mostly black but had both magenta and purple in it, all the clothes were somehow related to each other in this way. It was very little but somehow it all worked and all seemed different. The sandals and boots both worked with the skirt and dress, so dress and sandals were completely different from dress, boots, and sweater. Etc.

  • MelD

    I love that others have pointed out that a capsule wardrobe doesn’t need to be black all the time! Even at home I find myself choosing warmer colours as the weather improves, as wellmas lighter hues.
    One of my best summer capsules involved khaki, deep pink and pale yellow with a touch of orange – I wouldn’t have thought it would work but I had a fine net-like T that combined them all and Inworked around that fornsome great outfits using few pieces.
    I have loved this concept of capsule wardrobes since I first saw one about 1975 that I still see in my mind – oh the platforms, wide-leg white trouser suit
    and bright jewellery!
    BTW here in Switzerland most people expect to remove shoes, too, at home or when visiting… houseproud?

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  • Mander

    I just wandered across this post, as you do on the internet. What I really love is that knit moto jacket. Where did it come from? I’m quite a lot larger than you so it’s probably not available in my size, but I covet it anyway!

    Jackets are always hard for me for some reason. I never seem to find ones I like.

    • Sal

      Ach, it was from a little family-owned shop in a suburb of Chicago about two years ago, I’m afraid. But many retailers put them out in the fall, including Torrid if you’re a plus gal here in the states.

  • Great experiment with excellent results!! I have had a couple of outfits over the years that have proven to be excellent capsule wardrobes – took one for several months in Europe and one for a 2 week holiday in Hawii. I wanted one for a week of corporate business travel but couldn’t find what I wanted (had to fit in a carry on; not repeat a combination; and dress up or down depending on the occasion.) I had one made and it became the prototype for my business. I did also make the same discovery about wanting that pop of colour but that is an easy fix with a couple of complementary pieces. Cheers, DN

  • Elizabeth

    I just came across this post and fell in love with the tunic – the shape looks lovely on you ! can you please tell where did you get it ?

    • Sal

      Oh Elizabeth, I thrifted it many years ago. Sorry!

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