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A capsule wardrobe is nothing new. The term was coined back in the 1980s by Susie Faux, the West End boutique owner who introduced her clients to minimalist brands like Jil Sander, while Donna Karan popularised the idea in the USA in ‘85 with her Seven Easy Pieces. In 2014, Unfancy founder Caroline Rector reinvigorated buzz for the concept when she posed the idea of a 37-piece capsule, just as Marie Kondo’s decluttering method was shaking up wardrobes the world over. The notion of a refined and utilitarian collection of basic clothing, of creating the maximum number of outfits from as few items as possible, is a familiar one.
Now, though, its appeal is greater than ever. With the current cost of living crisis forcing many of us to recalibrate our relationship with fashion, we're being prompted to step off the fast-moving carousel of disposable trends. With heavier burdens weighing on our minds, functionality is often the biggest draw when choosing what to wear each day.
"People are starting to rethink their relationship with clothing, more time is being spent organising and decluttering as well as learning how to create a streamlined wardrobe," says personal stylist Eunice Abe. Donating, selling or gifting items that no longer fit into your life is a great way to save them from landfill but the aim isn’t to mindlessly purge your wardrobe and start anew. It's about whittling it down to a selection of thought-out pieces which will help you to resist the pull of passing trends.
"Building a capsule wardrobe made up of core items not only helps me shop less and re-wear my pieces over and over again," Eunice says, "but also to not shop impulsively for the 'next best thing' to wear." I feel the same way. Pre-pandemic, I felt an involuntary urge to shop whenever I saw a new look on Instagram but since rotating a steady collection of around 15 pieces, from crew-neck knitwear and plain, long-sleeved tees to straight-leg jeans and my trusty Birkenstocks, I’ve found it easier to put some distance between what I tell myself I want and what I really need.
At the core of a capsule wardrobe is the idea that its contents transcend passing trends but of course, it will mean different things to different people. If monochrome and minimalism isn’t your flavour, a capsule wardrobe bursting with print and colour is just as valuable — so long as each piece can be worn in multiple ways. Fine-tune your wardrobe so that you’re wearing what you own as much as possible so that each piece stands the test of time and serves a functional but joyful purpose in your life. What it looks like is up to you.
Below, we’ve found the best pieces for a traditional capsule wardrobe, from straight leg jeans to plain white tees.
The Plain White Tee
If you can avoid spillages and stains, the plain white tee is your hardest-working piece — just ask James Dean, Brigitte Bardot and Pam Grier. We're teaming ours with black blazers, gold jewellery and flared denim, but it works with just about anything, from slip skirts to high-waisted shorts.
The Straight-Leg Jean
Jeans silhouettes fluctuate — goodbye skinny, say hello to the wide leg — but the straight leg remains a constant faithful, no matter which way the trend pendulum swings. Levi's has a fantastic size range while Re/Done's repurposed pieces are a great sustainable option (for more sustainable denim options, check out our guide).
The Black Turtleneck
From Audrey Hepburn to Steve Jobs to the stereotypical Parisian or beatnik-inspired creative, the turtleneck has stood the test of time for good reason. Layer yours under white workwear shirts and crew-neck knits or wear tucked into straight-leg denim.
The Crew-Neck Knit
The crew-neck knit is a timeless classic with a neckline that lends itself to different necklace lengths. Don't feel wedded to camel if it's not a colour you'd choose to wear, but do explore the cut's styling possibilities: we're wearing ours with big collar blouses and turtlenecks while it's chilly, and over slip dresses come spring.
The Everyday Shoe
Lace-up leather shoes or loafers aren't for everyone, but if a smarter style works for your wardrobe, the styling solutions are endless. We enjoy them paired with a colourful sock and tailored trousers, with patterned tights and a mini skirt, with a black sock and a mini dress, and with straight-leg jeans and a turtleneck for a more sophisticated look.
The Cross-Body Bag
Handbag trends fluctuate, from XXL totes to itsy-bitsy micro bags, but our daily walks around the park have hammered home the benefits of going hands-free. Make sure it fits all your essentials — hand sanitiser, keys, phone — and check the fastening is secure enough to make you feel comfortable. LOEWE's Puzzle Bag is a perennial classic but brands like COS and Uniqlo also have an impressive selection of cross-body bags at an affordable price point.
The Oversized Button-Down
Whether you nab a vintage linen number from the men's section of your local op shop or go for a crisp new one, an oversized button-down shirt will last forever. Wear over turtlenecks or layered underneath oversized knits in winter and over swimsuits and loosely tucked into Bermuda shorts come summer. White is definitely the most common choice here, but don't be afraid to get playful with colours and prints.
No matter your style of choice — hiker, thigh-high, or heeled – there's a boot to suit everyone. Heritage labels like Blundstone's can be relied on for pairs that survive years of wear and tear, while contemporary labels such as Nii Hai make dance floor-ready boots that are interesting and comfortable.
The Tailored Trouser
Thanks to a slew of contemporary brands, tailored trousers have thrown off their stuffy and restrictive connotations. Totême makes some of the smartest and sleekest pieces in a wide range of fits, while Acne's pleated ever-so-slightly cropped versions are tempting us away from our trusty denim. Go suited and booted if you please, but a tailored trouser looks as good with a white tee and statement jewellery as it does with a crew-neck knit.
Whether you want to emulate the styles of the '80s with exaggerated shoulder pads or keen to adopt a more modern and streamlined style, there's a blazer out there for you.
The White Sneaker
Box-fresh and chunky, retro-inspired, or sustainable and designer options; however you get your kicks, there's a sneaker for you. And the best part is that there's really no trick to styling this perennial classic.