The Ultimate Guide: How to Build a Capsule Wardrobe

Want a minimalist capsule wardrobe? This guide is perfect for beginners and will teach you how to build a capsule wardrobe in three easy steps –complete with a free printable capsule wardrobe checklist, tips, and examples. Start today, and you can have a simplified wardrobe in just a few hours!

In this post, I cover:

Today I’m sharing my simplified, streamlined process for building a minimalist capsule wardrobe. It also includes a free, printable capsule wardrobe checklist, tips from my years of experience, and capsule clothing examples.  

Before I teach you how to build a capsule wardrobe, let’s quickly cover what a capsule wardrobe is, its history, and its benefits.

What is a capsule wardrobe?

If you’re new to the concept, you may be wondering what exactly is a capsule wardrobe. 

A capsule wardrobe is simply a collection of clothing composed of thoughtfully curated, easily interchangeable items designed to maximize the number of outfits that you can create.  

Essentially, a capsule wardrobe allows you to create a variety of different looks with a small selection of clothes.

The history of capsule wardrobes

The term capsule wardrobe dates back to the 1970s and came from Susie Faux, the owner of a London boutique called Wardrobe. According to Faux, a capsule wardrobe contains a few essential and timeless items, such as skirts and pants, that you can supplement with seasonal pieces. 

The concept took off in 1985 with designer Donna Karan’s first capsule collection called “Seven Easy Pieces.” The collection included a bodysuit, skirt, tailored jacket, dress, something leather, a white shirt, and a cashmere sweater and was designed to take a woman from a day in the office to an evening out.

Today, capsule wardrobes seem to be having something of a revival due largely due to an increase in public interest in reducing the fashion industry’s environmental impact and greater demand for brands with sustainable and responsible manufacturing processes.

Benefits of a capsule wardrobe

There are so many benefits to having a capsule wardrobe! Here are some upsides we’ve experienced first-hand.

  • You’ll have less decision fatigue. I was worried having fewer clothes would feel too limiting, but as it turns out, having fewer options makes it significantly easier to decide what to wear. My capsule also helps me get more creative with my wardrobe compared to when I had hundreds more items hanging in my closet. 
  • Capsule wardrobes are better for the planet. Purchasing fewer clothes has significantly less impact on the environment. Less clothing means fewer chemicals in our water and oceans, less clothing in landfills, and a smaller carbon footprint. 
  • You can afford nicer stuff. When you stop buying clothes you don’t need, you have more money to invest in timeless, high-quality pieces that will last multiple seasons —or in many cases, years. 
  • You’ll reclaim hours (even days) of your life back. Think of all the time you’ve spent buying clothes over the last few years: shopping (online or in-store), trying on, and making returns or exchanges. Then think about how much time you’ve spent managing the clothes in your closet (tailoring, organizing, and purging) and fretting out what to wear. When you have a minimalist capsule wardrobe, you spend considerably less time on all those things, leaving you more time and energy to focus on other, more important things. 
  • You’ll reduce unnecessary stress and overwhelm. Clutter increases cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. By downsizing your wardrobe, you clear physical clutter from your home, and your closet suddenly becomes a more open and calming environment. Also, getting dressed is stress-free when you have a wardrobe of clothes you love, know how to wear, fit you well, and make you feel confident. 

How to Build a Capsule Wardrobe:
Your Simple 3-Step Guide

Step 1: Declutter your wardrobe

The first step in building a minimalist capsule wardrobe is removing things from your current wardrobe that you know you are ready to part with. Doing this allows you to clear the clutter so you can focus on building a capsule wardrobe with pieces you love.

Donate, sell, or recycle things that:

  • Don’t fit 
  • You don’t like
  • Are duplicates or very similar in color and style to something else you own
  • Don’t work with your skin tone or body type
  • Are stained or damaged beyond repair.

Then clear some space in your closet and organize what’s left into categories:

  • Bottoms (non-denim trousers/pants, skirts, and non-denim shorts)
  • Denim (long and short)
  • Tees and tanks
  • Tops and blouses
  • Sweaters
  • Dresses and jumpsuits
  • Coats and jackets

IF YOU LIKE CHECKLISTS… Grab my free capsule wardrobe checklists before continuing. I have one-page and two-page versions, depending on how big or small you want your capsule to be.

Step 2: Choose your core capsule pieces

Once you’ve done your initial edit, it is time to choose clothes you want to incorporate into your capsule wardrobe from what you have left. 

When doing this, look for quality basics that are both functional and versatile. A functional piece of clothing is practical, useful, and suits your current lifestyle. A versatile piece of clothing easily pairs with other clothes, can be styled in different ways, and worn in different contexts.

When evaluating items for their functionality, think about the item’s fabric, weight, physical attributes (like length, silhouette, and sleeve style), and how easy it is to clean and maintain.

When evaluating the versatility of a garment, consider how easily it can be mixed and matched with other pieces, colors, and patterns, and whether you can wear it to different events or in different seasons.

You will build your capsule for the current season and focus on one category at a time. It’s easier and more efficient to focus on what you need now. You can pick favorites, eliminate duplicates, and identify what’s missing more easily when you look at everything together.

Bottoms

Bottoms are the foundation of an outfit. They’re the easiest starting point whether you’re building a capsule wardrobe or a simple outfit. We’ll focus on non-denim bottoms first.

Tips for choosing capsule wardrobe bottoms: 

  • Choose bottoms that fit well, are comfortable, and can be worn with multiple tops, sweaters, jackets, and tees. Keep in mind that neutrals will be more versatile than bold prints or bright colors. 
  • While some bottoms can be worn year-round, you will probably have different bottoms for different seasons. For example, lighter, more flowy trousers for warmer seasons and heavier trousers for the colder seasons. Focus on the bottoms you’ll need for this season, and hang onto some to revisit when the seasons change.
  • If you have several bottoms in a similar color and style, keep the best one and donate or consign the rest.

Here are some key capsule bottoms to consider: 

  • Black seasonal trousers
  • Lighter colored seasonal trousers (white, off-white, beige, or taupe)
  • Cotton or linen shorts (for summer)
  • Knee-length skirt, midi skirt, or maxi skirt (These lengths will be more versatile than a mini skirt.)

BOTTOMS: Pull a small selection of bottoms you love and hang them in the space you cleared in your closet. Store away any you won’t need this season to revisit in the coming months. Note any gaps in your denim collection that you might want to add to your capsule and add them to your checklist.

Denim

Denim is the other key foundation of your capsule wardrobe. When I get dressed, the first thing I decide on is denim or no-denim, which is why I like to tackle these two categories first.

Tips for choosing the best denim for your capsule wardrobe: 

  • Have a few different washes. For example, a dark wash, medium wash, light wash, and black or another neutral color will give you maximum versatility and allow you to dress up or dress down the tops you pair them with.
  • Find the brands and styles that fit you best. If you don’t have a few pairs of denim jeans you love, I highly recommend going to a few stores and trying on as many as possible to figure out what brands, styles, inseams, rises, and washes you like best. If you can afford a pair or two of premium denim, I find they’re worth the investment. They keep their shape and fit significantly better than cheaper denim made with lower-quality fabric. My favorite premium denim brands include JBrand, Citizens of Humanity, Abercrombie, and One Teaspoon.
  • Ditch the duplicates. If you have multiple pairs of a particular style or wash, keep only the best. Donate or sell the others if they’re in good condition.

Here are some denim options to consider: 

  • Dark skinny jeans or straight-leg denim (Citizens of Humanity high-waisted skinny jeans are my personal favorite)
  • Medium-wash mom jeans
  • Light-wash wide-leg or destroyed denim (I also really like Abercrombie jeans because they’re good quality, fit well, and most styles come in curvy, petite, and tall.)
  • Black, white, or beige/taupe denim
  • 1-2 pairs of denim shorts 

DENIM: Pull out the long and short denim you love and regularly wear. Make sure you have a few different washes and eliminate any very similar pairs. Hang them in your closet next to your bottoms. Note any gaps in your denim collection that you might want to add to your capsule.

Tees & tanks

Good neutral tees and tanks are another capsule wardrobe essential. Look for t-shirts and tank tops that can be worn alone and layered under tops, sweaters, or jackets. Short sleeve tees are more versatile than long sleeve since they can be worn year-round and layered under other items during cooler months. If you have several t-shirts in the same color, keep the best 1-2. Donate or recycle the rest, depending on their condition. 

Here are some core tees & tanks to consider: 

  • White tee
  • Gray tee
  • Cream or beige tee
  • Colored tee
  • Graphic tee
  • Black tee
  • White tank
  • Beige or cream tank
  • Black tank

TEES & TANKS: From your t-shirts and tanks, pull a small selection in a variety of neutral colors. Don’t forget to note what you’re missing or need to replace. 

Tops & blouses

Now that you’ve chosen your core tees and tanks, let’s move on to tops and blouses.

Look for tops and blouses that easily mix and match with the bottoms you’ve chosen, and that can be dressed up or down with shoes, accessories, or a jacket. Sleeveless and short-sleeve tops that you can layer under a chunky cardigan, blazer, or jacket in cooler months will be the most versatile since you can wear them in all seasons. Neutrals are generally more versatile than busy prints and bold colors —but of course you can one or two of those, too!

Here are some core tops and blouses to consider:

  • Nice short-sleeve top (maybe with a v-back that can be worn both in the front and back)
  • Silk or linen tank 
  • White button-down
  • Seasonal button-down (e.g. light cotton or linen for spring/summer and thick cotton or flannel for fall/winter)
  • Denim or Tencel shirt
  • Silk blouse

TOPS & BLOUSES: Select some nicer tops and blouses that are both practical and versatile, noting any gaps or tops you might need.

Sweaters

Having the right sweaters will add warmth and a layer of interest to any outfit. They’re also key transition pieces. Toss one over a summer slip dress with a pair of boots, and you’ve got a totally new outfit for fall.

You will likely have different sweaters for different seasons —lighter, flowy sweaters and cardigans for warmer seasons and thicker, chunkier knits for the colder seasons. Having a couple of neutral sweaters in different weights is all you need each season. For warmer months, you likely only need 1-2 light knits or an everyday cardigan. During colder months, you may also want 1-2 midweight sweaters and a chunky knit. 

Here are some key capsule sweaters to consider:

  • Light knit
  • Everyday cardigan
  • 1-2 midweight sweaters
  • Chunky knit 

SWEATERS: Select a few practical capsule sweaters suitable for the current season. Put away your out-of-season sweaters to revisit in the coming months. Don’t forget to note any sweaters you might need to purchase for a well-rounded capsule.

Dresses & jumpsuits

There are two categories left, and they’re usually the quickest to get through. Don’t quit now!

Tips for choosing the best dresses for your capsule wardrobe: 

  • Color and sleeve-length matter. Look for neutral dresses that are either sleeveless or short-sleeved, and that can be layered under a cardigan, blazer, or jacket. You’ll get the most use out of these since they can be worn through different seasons. 
  • Identify the dresses you can dress up and down. Length is important. I love midi-length dresses because they are flattering and can more easily be dressed up or down than a “little black dress” or long dress.
  • Solids tend to be the most versatile. But a floral or fun print can also earn a spot in your capsule if you can wear it a few different ways. 

Here are some key capsule wardrobe dresses to consider: 

  • Black, sleeveless midi dress
  • Light linen dress (for spring/summer)
  • Maxi dress (good for spring through fall) 
  • Classic mid-length a-line dress 
  • Sweater dress (for fall/winter)

DRESSES & JUMPSUITS: Select a few dresses that are practical, versatile, and seasonally appropriate. Put aside any out-of-season dresses you love to revisit in the coming months. Write down any dresses (including color and length) you might want to add.

Coats & jackets

Having the right coats and jackets will carry you from season to season and add a layer of interest to whatever you’re wearing.

Tips for choosing the best capsule coats and jackets: 

  • Keep versatile, seasonal favorites. Identify the jackets you can wear the most that work in the current season and beyond. Put the coats and jackets you won’t need this season in a separate area of your closet to revisit in the coming months.
  • Consider the weight and color. When it comes to outerwear, weight, and color are incredibly important. If you live somewhere with four very different seasons, you’ll need a variety of weights, but usually only a couple per season. Neutrals will always be more versatile than prints and bold colors, although a neutral plaid blazer can work with a lot, too!

Here are some key capsule wardrobe jackets and coats to consider: 

  • Versatile blazer 
  • Denim jacket
  • Neutral lightweight jacket
  • Lined, midweight jacket
  • Leather jacket
  • Fleece jacket
  • Heavier winter coat

COATS & JACKETS: Select a few jackets and coats that are practical, versatile, and seasonally appropriate. Put aside any outwear you want to revisit within the next 4-6 months. Make note of any jackets, coats, or blazers you need to add.

A note on shoes 

When it comes to footwear, you don’t need excessive amounts, but having a variety of shoes will allow you to create more outfits with fewer clothes. 

Your next task is to create 10 go-to outfits with the pieces you’ve selected from each category. More shoes will make this process easier and expand your outfit options, which is why I like to wait until the end to pare down the shoes.

You’ll probably gravitate towards the same 3-5 pairs of shoes and repeatedly put back the same pairs, making it easy to know which ones you want to keep and which you don’t.

Here are some essential shoes to consider for your capsule: 

  • Neutral or white sneakers
  • Nude heel
  • Neutral everyday flats (like a ballet flat, loafer, or mule)
  • Flip flops
  • Strappy sandals
  • Structured, supportive sandals (like Birkenstocks or Teva)
  • Athletic sneakers
  • All-weather boots

Step 3: Create 10 everyday outfits

Now that you’ve edited your wardrobe and picked out your core capsule pieces, the next step is to create 10 (or more) everyday outfits with the garments you’ve put back in your closet. 

I include this step because having some pre-planned, everyday outfits will make you feel exponentially more comfortable with your smaller wardrobe and also save you so much time and mental energy when getting dressed. 

If you’re tired, take a long break or come back and do this step in a day or two when you’re feeling fresh. But whatever you do, don’t skip it. 

Tips for creating your everyday outfits: 

  • Get inspiration from Pinterest. Pinterest is a great source of inspiration because you can search for outfit ideas for the clothes you already own. Pin outfits you love and have all (or nearly all) of the pieces for. If there’s something you don’t have, see if there’s something you can substitute instead.  
  • Take photos. As you create outfits you like, document the details. Take a picture to store on your phone for you to reference in the future. I created a “Capsule wardrobe” folder in my iPhone photos app to be able to pull up these photos quickly. If you’re a pen-and-paper gal, you can also write down the details of each outfit on the back of your capsule checklist.
  • Start with one pair of bottoms. I recommend starting with one pair of bottoms or denim and seeing how many outfits you can make with your capsule tees, tops, sweaters, and jackets. 
  • Don’t forget the accessories. Shoes, jackets, and accessories are key parts of an outfit and can really expand your options, so don’t skip these details.
  • Identify the gaps. During this process, you may identify gaps and items you need that you didn’t earlier. If so, write them down and plan to purchase that item within the next couple of weeks. 
  • Look for weak links. During this process, if you find that one of your core pieces will only work 1 or 2 ways, consider if it’s worth keeping. Chances are, this item will not work as hard for you as something else might. See if this item can be eliminated, swapped out for something else, or replaced with something more versatile.

CREATE YOUR OUTFITS: Create your everyday outfits using the tips above, then pare down your footwear. Donate or sell the ones you haven’t incorporated into any outfits and don’t need for functional purposes, like snow or rain boots. 

What to do with what’s left

Now that you’ve selected your capsule pieces and hung them back in the closet, you might be wondering what to do with what’s left. 

This is probably the hardest part of building a capsule wardrobe but resist the urge to add items back simply because you like a particular garment, paid a lot of money for an item, or feel like you’ve hardly worn something. 

You’ve done so much work to simplify your clothes. Give yourself a few weeks to get comfortable with your new, smaller wardrobe and truly experience the benefits. 

Here’s what to do with what’s left: 

  • Donate or sell what you can ASAP. Separate the items you feel comfortable donating or selling and try to move those items out of your home within the next few days. 
  • Move everything else out of sight. Put all other items in trash bags or cardboard boxes and move them to the garage, basement, or the back of a closet. If there’s something you miss during the next 30 days, feel free to reclaim it and add it back to your wardrobe. 
  • Get rid of everything you haven’t missed after 30 days. Donate, sell or consign anything still left in the bag or box after a month.  I’m guessing you’ll be surprised how few things you miss. 

If there’s something specific you feel particularly drawn to, by all means, add it back to your wardrobe. But I challenge you only to add items back that you truly love and can wear at least a few different ways.

More capsule wardrobe articles you might like:

If you haven’t already, make sure to grab my free capsule wardrobe checklist above. I include a one- and two-page format depending on how minimalist you want to be, plus core capsule pieces you might want to include.

If you have any questions along the way,  leave them below in the comments, and I’ll be sure to reply.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I build a capsule wardrobe from scratch?  

You can build a capsule wardrobe from scratch, but using the functional and versatile pieces you already own is certainly more economical and environmentally friendly. I find many people can create their first capsule wardrobe with about 80 percent of the clothes they already own. The remaining 20 percent are essential items purchased to fill the gaps.

How many clothes should be in a capsule wardrobe? 

A capsule wardrobe can have as many or as few clothes that work for you, but commonly they have anywhere from 30-50 pieces. 

The capsule checklist I’ve put together has room for 44 items, including shoes and accessories, but you can always have more or fewer than that.

More important than the number of pieces is having the right clothes — functional and versatile pieces that fit you well and easily mix and match.

Can a capsule wardrobe be trendy?

Yes! Your capsule wardrobe can certainly have some trend items if they align with your taste and personal style. I wouldn’t say I’m trendy, but my capsules have a foundation of classic pieces with a couple of new, on-trend pieces each season.

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Author: Elle Penner M.P.H., R.D.

I'm Elle, Registered Dietitian and minimalism-obsessed mama with a thing for simplifying, particularly when it comes to clutter, calendars, and family meals. Favorite things include carbs, cooking, kid-free workouts, and high-waisted yoga pants.

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    • Hi Valda,
      I don’t have a list for male clothing at this time but hope to have one in the near(ish) future!

  • Hi Elle! I am a new subscriber, looking to build a capsule wardrobe. This may be a silly question, but I need a little clarity on the tank tops. Next to tank tops you have them numbered ie white (1) black (2). Does that mean 1 white tank and two black? Nothing else on the list was numbered except tanks, so I wanted to ask.

    Thanks so much for your wonderful content!

    • Hi Kailyn! Sorry that’s actually a typo in the sample checklist. I initially had them listed as Tank 1, Tank 2,… but then decided to put colors instead. You can have one color of each, or however many you feel you need. For items you need multiple of, just note that on your checklist! Hope that helps. 🤗