With a year like 2020 behind us, we’re looking ahead to 2021 as a much-needed reset. This extends to our wardrobes, too. Enter the capsule closet — a curated, minimal collection consisting of versatile wardrobe staples that you can easily mix and match — that has taken over since the pandemic took hold.
The concept is nothing new. In fact, the term “capsule wardrobe” was first coined by former London boutique owner Susie Faux in the 1970s — referring to a collection of essential clothing items that don’t go out of fashion and can easily be paired with seasonal pieces. But as we collectively navigated the highs and lows (well, mostly lows) of 2020, I noticed that it was catching on more than ever; not only did I personally turn my current closet into a capsule wardrobe but, according to my feed, so did many of my peers. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, this past year was the perfect opportunity to declutter our wardrobes — the first step of building a curated closet — but also to completely rethink how we dress.
“We’re spending an abundance of time in our homes, and with the immense multitasking our new normal requires, getting dressed has become a secondary thought for many of us,” says Kate Bellman, women’s fashion managing editor at Nordstrom. “Despite that, we still want to look polished and feel our best, and capsule wardrobes can make it easier to put head-to-toe looks together.”
As we go through this new year, the concept will only continue to get more popular, thanks to both a growing collective interest in sustainable shopping habits as well as our basic psychological needs. Read on to learn more.
Why Are Capsule Closets So Popular Right Now?
2020 caused a major shift in how we view and consume fashion. The new decade kicked off with the world in literal flames, bringing more attention to the climate crisis of which the fashion industry is a major contributor. While the sustainability movement in fashion has been gaining traction for years, the pandemic accelerated the overall idea of consuming less. Given that creating a capsule wardrobe typically involves Marie Kondo-ing your current collection and rebuilding it with pieces you’ll cherish for years (or even decades) to come, it’s no wonder that the practice took off.
"The classic foundations offer both longevity and versatility, which are perfect for our new lifestyle."
Kate Bellman, women’s fashion managing editor at Nordstrom
Charlotte Warburton, the founder of tbc, a London-based styling agency that focuses on minimalism and essential wardrobe staples, believes that the pandemic has been a moment of realization for fashion lovers. “Although it’s nice to dabble with trending items, what we actually wear day-to-day and need are the basics for our wardrobe (and our lives). We need to buy better and collate a stronger collection of essential wardrobe styles that actually last with wear.”
This doesn't mean leaving fashion trends behind altogether, but, rather, that we’re only opting for the ones that suit our current at-home lifestyle and mindset. “While many are embracing the capsule wardrobe in the traditional sense — classic, versatile pieces in a sophisticated, neutral palette — many customers are also building their wardrobe simply based on the items that bring them joy," says Bellman. "For example, many are testing out the romantic trend with statement-making floral tops, voluminous sleeves, or high necklines — perfect for the new above-the-keyboard digital world.”
It’s known that what we wear can influence our psychological state. Vice versa, how we’re impacted by what’s happening in the world can influence what we choose to put on. With the pandemic making it impossible to ignore fashion waste any longer and causing many to lose jobs and financial stability, shoppers are being more thoughtful about their consumption and spending. “We’re already fraught with anxiety and, most importantly, uncertainty,” says fashion psychologist Dr. Dawnn Karen. “What we’re now dressing for is safety, sustainability, and functionality. Safety and functionality are paramount, and with that comes sustainability by default, because we’re not shopping.” Not as much as we used to, at least: “We’re being much more conscious of our impact on the environment.”
Our wardrobe needs have changed, too, with many currently working from home and staying indoors on the weekend. “Our relationship with clothing has evolved beyond I’m wearing this because I have to go to work, or I have to go to brunch, or I have to go visit my parents for the holidays,” she adds. “Now, we’re wearing something because we want to feel good in it. We want to improve and illustrate our moods.”
Karen also credits “repetitious wardrobe complex” — the idea of repeating outfits or a color/color scheme, a central part of a capsule closet, to increase productivity and maintain your mood — to the rise of the trend. Simply put, having an edited closet of essentials, and wearing the same things on repeat, takes the day-to-day stress out of getting dressed. (Sounds about right to me, who has worn nothing but crewnecks and jeans for the past year.) While this method of simplification also worked in a pre-pandemic world, back when we worked in offices five days a week or had a slew of IRL events to attend, for many, it took losing that to realize that it’s the same 10 (or, according to Warburton, 27 pieces) things that they wear on repeat.
"We’re now dressing for safety, sustainability, and functionality."
DR. DAWNN KAREN, fashion psychologist
Karen adds that the act of creating a capsule closet has its own benefits, too. “Decluttering and reorganizing can give you a sense of control,” she says. “It grounds you in a world that is fully, fully ungrounded.” And with no sense of normalcy to come for the foreseeable future, the capsule wardrobe trend isn’t going to fade out anytime soon. “We don’t know what’s happening tomorrow. On a micro-level — near us, right in our vicinity — or at a macro-level, just seeing the news, we’re being impacted. A way of gaining some sense of control is to declutter and reorganize our closets.”
Are Capsule Closets Here To Stay?
Will we see capsule closets continue to take off? According to Bellman, yes. Even before “COVID-19” or “quarantine” were part of our daily vocabulary, the fashion industry itself has already been pivoting “We have absolutely seen a shift towards investment pieces; however, the shift aligns seamlessly with current fashion trends over the past few seasons,” she says. “Fashion has been celebrating the familiar with elevated essentials such as a luxe cashmere sweater, a polished white shirt, or a timeless trench, to name a few. These classic foundations offer both longevity and versatility, which are perfect for our new lifestyle.”
Warburton has seen this shift in her clients, who turn to her to scale back and rebuild their wardrobes: “I’ve found them looking to refresh, strip back, and reset; collating a collection of clothing that they actually wear and being more conscious about where they’re spending money, investing in items that will last.”
"The pandemic has been a reset button to the industry that was very much needed."
Charlotte Warburton, founder of tbc
Bellman agrees that the pandemic has sparked a larger movement in how we dress and shop. “People have been using this time at home to clean out, refine, and build their perfect wardrobe. While many are embracing a capsule wardrobe, people are spending more time in their closets overall and are further defining their style by curating the pieces and aesthetic that work best for them. Whether that’s investing in a few key versatile pieces or building upon their favorites, we can expect the trend to continue on.”
There has also been a widespread change in how we approach fashion and consumption as a whole, with sustainability at the forefront. “I believe the pandemic has been a reset button to the industry that was very much needed, especially when it comes down to the likes of fast fashion,” says Warburton. “It has made us realize what we actually need and wear. I hope in the post-pandemic world we all might just be a little more conscious of how and what we spend our money on within the industry.”
Karen echoes that. “I don’t think it’s going to be about how many clothes you can buy, but more about where you get your pieces from. Who is the brand? What conscious aspects does it have to offer — is it ethical manufacturing [or an equally sustainable aspect]?” she says. “I do think we’ll be more eco-conscious in the future, post-pandemic.”
Ready to create a capsule wardrobe of your own? Check out our guide to building a sustainable collection here.