I Don’t Care If They’re Chic: Capsule Wardrobes Stress Me The Hell Out


Wherever you go on the internet these days, especially if your interests include things like style, career, or ‘spending money in more intelligent ways,’ it’s hard to avoid the phenomenon of the capsule wardrobe. Everyone, from CEOs to startup gurus to fashion editors, seems to be in love with the idea of a very narrow, very curated, very quality wardrobes, full of a few staples and mix-and-match pieces that allow the wearer to fit their professional style needs and look stylish on a moment’s notice. Its appeal and efficacy are obvious, and even here on TFD, we’ve had many discussions on the subject, as recently as yesterday morning.

And that makes sense, because as I mentioned, so much of the capsule wardrobe is tied up in its financial savviness. Yes, it may mean that you invest up-front in some quality items, but that usually translates to replacing things much more rarely, and having to buy many fewer items overall, because they were all strategically chosen to go with everything else. People who are busy and in need of streamlining one more element of their personal life/routine — and that is essentially all of us — could most likely benefit from embracing it. I’m included in that demo, of course, but I just can’t get on board.

No matter how much my love of #NeutralLife dictates my shopping (buying mostly-neutral clothing items so, at the very least, I know that most things will match), I can never actually whittle things down to capsule-level, nor stop myself from buying things that absolutely don’t fit at all, because they are lovely and wonderful and I want to wear something totally un-neutral sometimes.

In short, the capsule wardrobe stresses me out, even though it should make perfect sense for my life and overall style.

And the reasons for this are basically twofold: one, the capsule wardrobe as a concept is often tied up with a more overarching theory of human productivity, and two, the routine and cohesion of a capsule often translates to a cold kind of chic (very much in the Parisian sense, for that matter).

To the first point, I really, really resent this techy, self-help mantra of productivity & efficiency as noble human objectives. I don’t want a four-hour work week. I don’t want to read endless articles on Medium about how my love of browsing Twitter is keeping me from world domination. I don’t want to cut an (actually fun!) form of expression from my life, in the form of diverse and interesting clothes that reflect my mood and the day’s activities. Like, yeah, I could probably add a solid work day’s worth of productivity to my week if I were to pre-pack myself five identical meals to heat up every night for dinner (or just cut the shit and started eating soylent green), but that would be incredibly depressing. Cooking a delicious, if slightly inconvenient, meal for dinner each night is a huge pleasure. So is one day wearing a navy top, trench, and skinny jeans, and the next wearing a red a-line shift dress. Yes, there are always things we can cut out of our life to make room for more #riseandgrind and inbox zero-ing, but what if those things are what make life unique, artful, and joyous?

And to the second point, because joy is a big factor, the calculated chic of the capsule (which, again, Inès de la Fressange would swoon over) is simply not me. As much as I’d like to pretend that I’m the kind of woman who can emerge, dewy, from her perfect eight hours of sleep and slip effortlessly into one of the Everlane sweaters she possesses in triplicate, I cannot be her. My routines are messy and my look is rarely “she woke up like this, but she also must have woken up in a stylist’s office, because she looks goddamn flawless.” I don’t have the no-makeup makeup look down. I don’t have the perfectly-organized closet. I don’t have the attention span to wear the same thing every day. It’s a kind of chic that one can appreciate while understanding that one is definitely not it. And that’s fine.

Which is perhaps the part of the capsule phenomenon that stresses me out the most. Whether on a personal finance site or a flawless female executive’s Instagram, the overall implication with this wardrobe choice is that it is somehow better in a quantifiable sense, aspirational in a way that we all should be aspiring to it, or at least capable of doing it if we really tried. The third option, that you might want to be more curative about your wardrobe without narrowing it down to one cohesive look, is almost never explored. One can be just as judicious about their purchases while eschewing minimalism, having several distinct aesthetics in their closet, or changing their tastes on a whim depending on the side of the bed you woke up on.

As much as there may be, to many people, a purity of work and balance to be found in streamlining and curating their life, there is also a good deal of motivation and creativity to be found in the opposite. For me, I value inspiration, ideas, and excitement much more than I do routine, efficiency, and practicality. My inbox will always be a bit messy, my wardrobe will never be perfectly-reduced, and my working style will always vary depending on the day — and that’s a good thing. Minimalism, the KonMari method, and hyper-efficiency don’t really work for me. Because, if we’re taking the clothing as an example, the fact that I feel like a totally different person each day depending on the look I’m going for and the style I’m inspired by means that my creative life feels always evolving and surprising. If I’m flitting around my neighborhood errands in a floral skirt, I will feel and think totally differently than if I’m visiting Marc’s sporty-chic family in an oxford, jeans, and loafers. I want both, and I think the tradeoff in efficiency is totally worth it.

Ultimately, one can embrace the best parts of themselves in very different ways, and not all of us should be aspiring to minimalist perfection. Not all of us should be looking to reduce our habits, style, and joys down to their most pure and simple essence. For some people, that’s a wonderful, smart way to live. But it is very much not for everyone, and it’s certainly not a professionally or morally better way to live, it just happens to emphasize and place value on aspects of life that someone else may not. What works for Zuckerberg might not work for you, just like what works for me would almost certainly not work for Zuckerberg.

My wardrobe is decidedly un-capsule, and I’m okay with it.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Mj D’Arco

    thank you so much for writing this! i feel very much the same way about a capsule wardrobe.. most days i like my gray scale, clean line dresses, but then there are time where i wanna go all coachella to just go food shopping (shiny fake tattoos and hippie braids included), and other times where i wanna dress like a lululemon yogi… capsule wardrobes are too limiting, and i would want to wear anything other than what’s in it

  • jdub

    I read about them all the time and for a split second I consider trying it– and then I remember how much I love throwing on some gross grubbies when I feel like garbage, and there’s no possible way I’d give that up. I’m way too all over the map to commit to ~oNe LoOk~ for all times of the day.

  • The problems I have with capsule wardrobes are:

    1) You’re going to be constantly doing laundry (especially when it comes to traveling, I see all these articles about bringing three tops for two weeks of traveling, and you’d have to do laundry like four times to have clean clothes). It costs me $3.25 per load of laundry where I live, if I have to do laundry twice a week that comes out to about $26 dollars a week, $312 a year on laundry. 🙁

    2) You’ll probably find you don’t have the right clothes for a wide variety of situations. For example if I have a week’s worth of long sleeved tops for winter, tank tops for hot weather and T-shirt for in between, that’s already 21 tops, and that’s not including fancier blouses, work out gear, and rattier T-shirts to do yard work in. I’m not sure there’s a limit to what comprises a capsule wardrobe, but nearly 30 tops seems like too many.

    • Mary Harman

      The laundry issue is so real. I recently did some serious paring down in a marie kondo frenzy. I *definitely* have noticed increase in ease of figuring out what to wear simply by removing the clothes I don’t wear, and the clothes I don’t wear very often. I’d definitely recommend a ‘somewhere in between’ option. But even so, I do feel like I cycle through things at a rate that would be unreasonable if I didn’t have a washing machine in my residence and/or if my husband wasn’t obsessed with doing laundry. I can’t imagine having to walk to a laundromat once every 5 days and shell out that kind of cash for the sake of simplicity.

      All the pieces have to fit together right. The ease of picking out an outfit does not always outweigh the pain of pumping quarters into a dryer twice in a week.

    • RocketGrunt215

      Unless you’re getting sweaty or spill on yourself, you can wear clothes more than once before you wash them. Your body isn’t so disgusting that you need to soak your clothes in soapy water because they touched your skin for a day. My rule is that I wear everything at least twice but no more than four times before I put it in the wash. My clothes stay in better condition for a lot longer that way, and no one can tell the difference.
      Edit: underwear and socks are an exception to my rule. Those get changed every day.

      • My experience with traveling has always involved a lot of rain, and I usually pack an extra change of clothes because between the rain and spills I often need to change once more than I would hope. Everyone’s mileage may vary, depending on how active their holiday is, how much they sweat, how messy they eat, but it sounds like you either wear dirty(ish) clothes, find a laundromat several times while on holiday, or don’t take the “only three tops” route.

        • RocketGrunt215

          I did a poll of my Facebook friends to make sure I’m not some kind of garbage monster. Turns out most people I know don’t wash their clothes after wearing them only once, people who have been in places with water shortages are super annoyed by anyone who does, and I’ve never set foot in a laundromat before.

    • Tobi

      I’ve been doing a capsule wardrobe for just over a year now (I have between 35 and 40 pieces each season) and I usually do laundry about every two weeks. I also work in a business environment and dress pretty shabby on weekends. You don’t realize how little you need until you give it a shot!

  • Hell No

    Also it’s f’ing stressful and overwhelming to me to even consider narrowing down my wardrobe to so many pieces! Like you, it’s more logical to aim for overall cohesion in neutrals, silhouettes I know work for me, etc.

  • Olivia

    “I want both, and I think the tradeoff in efficiency is totally worth it.”

    This totally resonated with me. My style oscillates between boho-inspired and 1950’s pin-up lady, with a good helping of that all-neutral, “black-and-white-striped-shirts-are-a-staple” thing. It used to bother me so much that I didn’t have a singular “look”, that I couldn’t decide on one style and focus on building an image. But it’s been quite freeing to embrace all these different tastes. I’ve realized that maybe I do have a “look,” it’s just something much more unique because it’s made up of all these things I like.

    Additionally, having clothing of different styles means that I’m able to put some away when I get bored with the same ten pieces I’ve been wearing for the last five months. I’ll wear long flowy tops for an extended period of time, then exchange them for pleated skirts and vintage button-ups for a while. It really helps to curb my impulse spending.

  • Charlotte Dow

    I am HERE FOR THIS. This is exactly the reason I was so against wearing a uniform in school. Sure, it would’ve made some parts of my life easier, but I liked the chameleonic aspect of having a lot of style choices. It’s just one of the ways I express myself, which was important now and important then.

  • Winterlight

    I read something years ago which talked about having different capsule wardrobes- some were sorted by color, some by occasion (casual, work, evening) but it wasn’t just “Buy that one perfect tee for $200 and a $400 pencil skirt and you’ll never need another work outfit!” nonsense that leaves out the realities like laundry and spilling red wine on your $200 tee- which is now a cleaning rag because that stain didn’t come out.

  • Keisha

    Exactly this!!

  • Julia

    The idea is really appealing to me, but I love having options and, as you said, feeling like a different person depending on what I’m wearing.

    Agree regarding the productivity/efficiency point to – choosing what to wear and playing with your look can be a joy!


    The Career Kitchen

  • EllaDulcie

    Oh lordy. I am so grateful for this piece – I am constantly reading closet purge and capsule wardrobe articles… And then having anxiety attacks.

    I have actually donated a crap-load of clothes recently, and a lot of my clothes fall in the same range of colours, but I need the variety that a slightly larger wardrobe affords. Plus, with my weight constantly on the move, I’d have to buy the same wardrobe over and over in a different size. Too horrid.

  • This article definitely resonates with me, and not just about clothing. Minimalism is so…trendy right now, and it’s something that people seem to get almost snobby about, or look down on people about. I think with anything, everyone sort of picks their poisons. I think the awareness that we collectively own too much stuff is a good thing, and I like everyone and trying to be more mindful. But there are certain things about me that won’t change because I don’t WANT to change them. I can pare down my possessions, but I won’t cut down my art book collection. I’ll try to eat healthier, but I’m not going to give up rice krispie treats. Just like anything, these trends are presented as extremes, where there is a right and wrong way, and that’s just not how life is lived.

  • Sarah P.

    YESSSS I loved this post from the moment I read the headline. I completely agree with your sentiments- the hype is way overdone and just like any other trend, it’s not for everyone, and no one should feel any lesser for not jumping on the minimalist bandwagon. I too, have struggled with embracing the capsule wardrobe and failed miserably. I refuse to purge my admittedly excessive wardrobe and get rid of many quality items just to say I have a [insert the magic number] -piece wardrobe and feel chic. I know I’d look back and regret getting rid of that tank top that sure, I didn’t wear once a week but also felt it was worth keeping around for certain days and the moods that accompany them. PREACH, Chelsea!

  • Veronika

    I so feel you, especially on the capsule wardrobe thing being 1) tied into this weird cult of “productivity” (I don’t want to spend time thinking what I wear so that I can work more WHAAAT) 2) being used to sell you things, even if they are very nice and pricey things. The narrative about a lot of ethical/capsule inspiration is that you can live this wonderfully perfected existence if only you buy one or several more things that express that aesthetic. F**** that.
    Reducing the clutter in your life is supposed to enable you to focus on the important stuff, like being creative, doing new things, spending resources on stuff that makes you happy and the world a better place instead of shopping, in short – having more FUN! I am actually doing a capsule/shopping ban experiment right now to help curb my thrift/shopping addiction, and it is a great tool for that. Do I look like the Instagrammers? No way Jose. Have I resisted shopping for 2 months already? hell yeah!
    So thanks Chelsea for your rant 🙂
    Btw I blog about this stuff at moreintentional.wordpress.com.