How & What to Put in your Minimalist Travel Capsule Wardrobe
I’ve probably written the digital equivalent of a novel on packing. But even armed with a near obsessive mental library of tips, hacks, and destination lists, I still found myself, 12 hours before a flight last December, scrambling to get everything in my backpack for a trip to Mexico.
Under that pressure (and a strong desire to catch a few hours of sleep before waking up at 5am), I realized just how time-inefficient my packing process was. Light, yes. Prepared, yes. But efficient? Not really. Especially when it came to choosing what clothes to pack. But after years of writing about packing, I had at least learned:
- Having go-to items on hand can speed up your packing process
- Clothes are the biggest variable in any packing list
Meaning: I needed a set of clothes I could quickly choose from whenever I was about to take a trip. They needed to be easy to mix and match, layer, and have options for any destination. In other words, I needed to build a travel capsule wardrobe.
What’s a travel capsule wardrobe?
A minimalist trend that began in the ‘70s, a capsule wardrobe is a wardrobe comprised of a limited number of clothes and shoes, refreshed at the beginning of each season. It’s the antithesis of fast fashion, relying on quality staples you can wear year after year, rather than having to frequently buy new clothes that quickly go out of date.
It has other perks too. By carefully selecting clothes as a set, it makes it quicker to choose outfits you always look good in. And by focusing on quality, timeless pieces, it’s meant to reduce the amount of time and money spent on fashion (a core principle some capsule wardrobes have gotten away from).
Since the trend began transforming closets, it’s been adapted for our suitcases as well. Similar to the original idea, a travel capsule wardrobe is an even more pared-down version of the original. It’s meant to make packing quicker and easier, since you’ll always have a set of trusty items you can reach for. At the same time, it helps travelers be more prepared and pack well.
How to build a travel capsule wardrobe
Capsule wardrobes have rules. Here are those rules, adapted for a travel capsule wardrobe:
- Choose 10 items or less: Limit your travel wardrobe, including shoes, to 10 items or less (more on that in a minute).
- Focus on quality. Choose timeless, quality pieces that don’t go out of style and work for most situations. For travel, you’ll want to focus on durable, quality fabrics as well.
- Choose a color palette. Center everything around a color (blues, blacks, greens, greys) with one or two statement pieces to add personality to your travel closet.
- Build two wardrobes: one for cold-weather travel, and one for warm-weather. They don’t have to be completely different (you might, for example, still use the same t-shirts) but you will swap out a few items.
- Limit your accessories, PJs, and workout clothes. Capsule wardrobes allow you to have as many accessories, PJs, and workout clothes as you’d like, but not the travel version. Aim for one set of PJs, one set of workout clothes, and a small number of accessories. One scarf, one hat, and three pieces of jewelry is a good number to aim for.
What to include (and how many items) in a travel capsule wardrobe
The internet tends to agree that 10 items – 8 pieces of clothing and 2 pairs of shoes – is a good number to focus on for a travel capsule wardrobe. It’s restrictive but, speaking from experience, totally possible. Here’s what a 10-item travel capsule wardrobe for women would look like:
- 3 tops
- 2 bottoms (pants/shorts/skirts)
- 1 dress or jumpsuit
- 1 cardigan/sweater
- 1 jacket
- 2 pairs shoes
As long as you stick within the 10-item rule, you can adjust the specifics according to your needs or trip. For example, I might pack a skirt instead of a dress on a warm-weather trip. Or, for cold destinations, I’d pack 2 tops and 2 sweaters, instead of 3 tops and 1 sweater.
To help you get a sense of what a women’s travel capsule wardrobe would look like IRL, I’ll next cover four different example wardrobes – a warm and cold weather wardrobe for travelers on a budget, and the same for a more premium wardrobe – and clothing recommendations. Then, we’ll dive into brands to look at when building your own wardrobe.
And if you’re keen on men’s brands make sure check out Mike’s ‘Best Clothes for a Men’s Capsule Wardrobe’ article here.
Warm-weather women’s travel capsule wardrobe examples
For warm weather travel capsule wardrobes, focus on pieces that are breathable and sweat-wicking. In terms of style, opt for pieces simple enough to work just as well for a night out as they would on the beach or trail. You’ll also want to include a layer or two for chilly plane rides, unexpectedly cold evenings, and rain. For shoes, go for a pair of comfortable sneakers and sandals — or swap one out for flats if you want to look a little dressier.
Quality doesn’t mean breaking the bank. For those of you on a budget, here’s what a summer capsule made up of items under $80 USD (all prices from here out are in USD) might look like:
- Shoes: Teva classic sandals ($50-70)
- Top: Woolly merino wool tank top ($40)
- Top: Everlane cotton tank ($20)
- Top: Everlane cotton t-shirt ($16-28)
- Dress: prAna Paulina Dress ($80)
- Bottoms: DUER shorts ($69)
- Bottoms: prAna capri leggings ($65)
- Sweater: Uniqlo Merino cardigan ($40)
- Jacket: Columbia rain jacket shell ($40-50)
If you have a little more wiggle room in your budget, expand your search to brands specializing in women’s technical clothing. While not necessarily built just for travel, they have the functional-fashionable qualities you’ll want in travel clothes. Here’s what a more premium summer capsule with items under $200 USD would look like:
- Shoes: Rothy’s flats ($145)
- Shoes: Soludos sandals ($65 – 90)
- Top: Everlane GoWeave cami ($68)
- Top: ADAY Shell Yes Tank ($68)
- Bottoms: ADAY Cut it Out Pant ($110)
- Bottoms: DUER shorts ($69)
- Dress: Everlane Japanese GoWeave dress ($98)
- Sweater: Betabrand cardigan ($80 -130)
- Jacket: lululemon Deep Inhale rain jacket ($128)
Cold-weather women’s travel capsule wardrobe examples
When building a travel capsule wardrobe for cold weather trips, you can reuse a few of the items from your warm weather capsule. But, of course, you’ll need to swap in some warmer layers, a heavier jacket, and shoes that can stand up to long walks in the snow (not the beach).
While you can build a winter wardrobe for travel on a budget, prepare to make your shoes and coat your “big ticket” items. You may end up spending a little more on those than you did for your summer shoes and jacket:
- Shoes: TOMS Boots ($100)
- Shoes: Keds lace ups ($30 – 75)
- Top: Patagonia cotton t-shirt ($39)
- Top: Woolly t-shirt ($50)
- Top: Everlane long-sleeve t-shirt ($16-28)
- Bottoms: Uniqlo legging pants ($30)
- Bottoms: prAna leggings ($75)
- Sweater: Muji sweater ($40)
- Sweater: Columbia sweater ($30-70)
- Jacket: Uniqlo puffer jacket ($70 – $120)
Especially for winter wear, spending a little more will get you pieces that (usually) hold up better to the environment and last longer. It also means you can tap into some very stylish, technical outerwear brands like Alchemy Equipment and Betabrand, who offer options outside of your standard puffy jacket for cold weather travel.
- Shoes: Sorel Boots ($120-300)
- Shoes: Soludos Sneakers ($120-130)
- Top: Western Rise t-shirt ($92)
- Top: Everlane Japanese GoWeave Tee ($68)
- Top: Woolly long-sleeve ($60)
- Bottoms: ADAY Leggings ($100 – 135)
- Bottoms: AT Slim Rivet Pants ($129)
- Sweater: ADAY Like a Boss sweatshirt ($125)
- Sweater: Patagonia crew ($99)
- Jacket: Patagonia Micro Puff Jacket ($250 – 300)
Women’s brands to look at for building your travel capsule wardrobe
Style is so personal and every woman’s travel capsule wardrobe will look a little different. And while the above examples hopefully gave you some inspiration and help in visualizing a woman’s travel capsule wardrobe, you probably won’t use our exact recommendations.
To give you some direction on where to find great pieces when building your own collection, below are some of the best women’s shoe and clothing brands for travel:
Best for: Shoes
It’s no secret that TOMS slip-on sneakers are great for travel. Comfortable, small to pack, and affordable, their classic sneaker will keep your feet happy as you wander new destinations. Plus, it’s more fashionable than your typical sneaker, and doesn’t scream tourist (the only downside is that they lack arch support).
For business trips or travel where you need to look fancier than normal, they also have flats and low boots that are just as comfortable as their sneakers. Plus, with dozens of patterns to choose from, it’s an easy way to add a little color or flair to an otherwise basic outfit.
Best for: Shoes
When I did Peace Corps, everyone I knew was obsessed with their Teva sandals – and it’s easy to see why. They’re sturdy, comfortable enough to hike in, pack down easily, and are simple in design. True, they’re not the most fashionable – though they are making a comeback – but they are one of the best-looking functional sandals out there.
Best for: Shoes
If you haven’t heard of Rothy’s yet, watch out. They may be taking over a city near you soon with their recycled, “just as comfortable as sneakers” flats and loafers. While on the pricier side, they live up to expectation in terms of comfort and quality. For travel, grab a pair in a basic color or opt for one of their more vibrant styles (bright yellow, anyone?) to make a statement.
Best for: Shoes
How could you not love a shoe brand with the tagline, “inspired by our travels, made for yours”? Clearly, wanderlust-inspired shoe brand Soludos knows a thing or three about the kind of footwear our travel adventures require. Both comfortable and cute, Soludos’ sandals, mules, loafers, boots, and sneakers beautifully strike the balance between function and fashion. Just be sure to break ‘em in before your adventure.
Best for: Winter shoes
Like Teva, Sorel’s boots tend to lean more functional than fashionable – though they have some basic styles, like their low-heeled Chelsea boot, with a more street wear aesthetic. But when it comes to function, their sturdy, water and weatherproof boots are hard to beat. Their shoes will be your secret to spending a full day adventuring in even the shittiest winter weather. If you can afford the $100+ price tag, they’ll be a much-loved addition to your cold weather capsule.
Best for: Wool tops, pants
Both fashionable and functional, Western Rise’s clothing sits between outdoor wear and streetwear. “We believe the outdoors starts right when you leave your house,” says co-founder Kelly Watters, and their clothes reflect that.
Their women’s tees and tanks are stylish enough for everyday wear (sans athleisure aesthetic), but have the performance of active wear. Same goes for their AT Slim Rivet pants (noted as the best women’s travel pants by Carry HQ). These slim-fitting pants are made of a breathable, water-resistant fabric, and, unlike any other pants you own, are equally ready for biking through a quick rain drizzle and a day at the office. They’re a great option if you can only pack one pair of pants.
Best for: Wool tops
Breathable in hot weather, but insulating in warm, merino wool layers are versatile and an ideal fabric for travel clothes. They’re also comfortable, soft, and don’t get smelly as quickly as synthetics or cotton – meaning you can go longer between washes.
For quality wool tees, tanks, and long-sleeves, Seattle-based Woolly is a wonderful brand to stock up on all things merino wool, especially if you’re on a budget. Compared to most other merino wool brands, they’re more affordable but don’t shirk on quality or performance.
Best for: Tops and bottoms
Every item from technical clothing brand ADAY fits beautifully within a travel capsule wardrobe. Well-made, functional, and modern in design, they work for any season and situation. Personally, I live in their Crop & Roll leggings, whose shiny fabric makes them look more fashion-forward than your standard leggings and comes with a generous-sized side pocket.
Further, the fabric on all of their items is breathable, soft, and impossible to wrinkle. After many wears and washes over the past 6 months, both the leggings and their futuristic-looking Like a Boss sweatshirt have held their shape and color, making it worth the investment.
Best for: Bottoms (denim)
If you’ve ever tried to bike in super stiff denim, you know it doesn’t usually work out. DUER, however, has set out to solve this problem by giving us denim jeans and shorts that are more than a sturdy pair of good-looking pants. They’re actually comfortable enough to bike, walk, or run around town in. Which, obviously, is good news if you’re only able to bring one pair of travel jeans.
Best for: Jackets, bottoms, and dresses
Quirky, San Francisco-based Betabrand first hit the scenes with their “yoga work pants”. Exactly what you’d think, they’re pants that look like work pants but feel like yoga pants — every office worker’s dream, right?
But in addition to giving office workers of the world pants they can do lotus pose in (perhaps in one of those ergonomic swivel chairs), Betabrand has designed some pretty cool jackets, dresses, and tops that work wonderfully for travel as well. What’s more, their designs tend to be more eccentric and colorful than some of the others on this list, making it a good place to find a statement piece for your collection that also stands up to the rigours of globetrotting.
Best for: Tops and dresses
There’s a lot of love for Everlane, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this brand of affordable and timeless apparel is already on your radar for closet staples. But perhaps less often talked about is how great their clothing, and specifically their Japanese Go-weave collection, is for travel.
The dresses and tops in this collection are made from a comfortable and wrinkle-resistant fabric that won’t get messed up in your luggage. The styles, like most of Everlane’s clothing, are simple and easy to dress up or down, giving them the versatility you need for one-bag travel.
Best for: Tops, bottoms, dresses, skirts
Although prAna sometimes gets pigeonholed as a yoga brand, they’re much more than that. Their line of versatile, comfortable, and sustainably made clothing is meant for any adventure – whether it’s travel or yoga, rock climbing or beach lounging.
With a focus on classic designs made from fabrics that can stand the rigours of any activity or adventure, prAna’s line of clothing has that fashion-function balance we want in travel clothes. When building a travel capsule wardrobe, they’re one of the better brands to look at for travel dresses, fashionable outerwear, and quality, sub-$100 leggings.
Best for: Jackets, outerwear
For a long time, outdoor and athleisure brands picked up the slack when women didn’t have a ton of options for travel clothing. But even with the influx of brands like ADAY and Everlane, sometimes mainstay outdoor brands like Columbia are still the best brand for the job.
This is especially true when it comes to warm down-jackets that are easy to pack down for cold-weather travel, or lightweight layers to block wind and rain in warm climates. With 80 years of experience creating outdoor apparel, Columbia knows how to make a damn good jacket. Plus, compared to other outdoor brands, Columbia can often be more affordable for budget travelers.
Best for: Jackets, sweaters, and tops
Like Columbia, Patagonia is an outdoor clothing brand but also a tried and trusted source for quality outerwear and clothes that can withstand the elements. From their ultra-lightweight Micro Puffs to waterproof rain shells, you can trust that Patagonia has you covered. Additionally, they have a standout collection of sweaters and sweatshirts, fleeces, and everyday tops–many of which have a vintage Californian aesthetic that pays homage to their Ventura roots.
Further, Patagonia has a strong commitment to sustainability, community, and their employees (my Ventura-raised dad always tells stories of Patagonia closing shop “because the surf was great and they wanted to let their employees get out and ride”) so you can always feel good buying from them.
Best for: Leggings and jackets
Whatever stereotypes you have of lululemon and their almost cult-like following, you have to admit: their clothes are well made. As an athletics brand, breathability, four-way stretch, sweat-wicking fabrics, and comfort are the core of every design. Style-wise, lululemon leans more towards athleisure than athletic, and their designs are stylish enough that you’d actually want to wear them in an everyday scenario.
For travel, they’re one of my go-to brands for cute jackets and (of course) a basic pair of leggings. And if you’re wondering if their yoga pants are worth the price point: yes, they are. I’ve worn mine at least once a week for the past three years, and brought them on countless trips. They’re only finally beginning to show signs of wear. All that lulu-love is well earned.
Best for: Sweaters
Japanese brand Muji has received acclaim for their affordable travel pillows, eye masks, and travel slippers, but did you know they also make clothing? Although not specifically designed for travel, their clothing line is almost entirely basic, essential items you can pair with anything. In other words, perfect for a travel capsule wardrobe. When colder weather rolls around, keep an eye out for their affordable but well-made wool sweaters.
Best for: Wool tops, down jackets, pants
Uniqlo is like a godsend for merino-wool aficionados and down-jacket lovers on a budget. Like many of the other brands on this list, the Japanese brand Uniqlo creates fashionable streetwear essentials with technical fabrics – but at a much lower price point.
Compared to a more expensive brand, Uniqlo’s clothing will wear down faster (for example, my Uniqlo heattech leggings stretched out after six months, but my Patagonia ones lasted five years) but overall, their clothing – and their down jackets in particular – are surprisingly good considering the price point.
Will you try a travel capsule wardrobe?
Whether you currently travel with one bag or are trying to downsize, a thoughtful travel capsule wardrobe can help you travel with less while always having what you need. So let us know, will you try it? And if you’ve already attempted travel with a capsule wardrobe, what have your experiences been?
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