Tips for maximizing the visual interest of a capsule wardrobe

may 2020 10x10 header

AKA “How to build a capsule wardrobe that isn’t boring”

This post will cover tips for putting together a set for wardrobe challenges, travel packing, or a primary capsule wardrobe so that you don’t hate yourself after a week because it feels like you’re wearing the same two outfits on repeat. It isn’t just about wearing loud pieces, but how to select even casual styles so that the outfits don’t come out too repetitively.

I’ll also go over how I chose my items for an upcoming 10×10 wardrobe challenge, and share a customizable spreadsheet that can be helpful in outfit planning.

Of course, you might enjoy the ease of wearing a personal uniform or sticking to familiar outfit formulas. But over a few years of participating in these sorts of challenges, I find that a lot of people end up dropping out halfway through because they get bored with their picks.

This does require that your entire closet has enough variety in it that you can pick an interesting subset of it. But if you’re generally happy with your closet variety to start with, considering the following while pulling from it will help make the most of your capsule.

I was inspired to make this post due to the “full cycle” Theme WAYWT challenge on reddit and @petraalexandra’s May 30×30 challenge on Instagram. I’m also going to go ahead and share all the outfits, since I seized the opportunity of diffuse lighting from today’s cloudy weather to pre-photograph everything.

may 2020 capsule variety

For context on this specific set, I am very fortunate on many accounts: I’m working from home and the spring weather here is very pleasant, usually with highs of upper 60s to mid 70s outside and lows in the 50s. I’m probably not going to end up wearing most of these further out than our apartment building’s patio deck, but it is what it is. I also have a few virtual events I’m attending that I’d like to have fun dressing up for.

I’m only covering the travel capsule bit from a fashion standpoint. I have done a how-to-pack post at some point, but honestly for more activity and travel-oriented tips, I can’t recommend anything more than this guide from r/femalefashionadvice.

Elements of clothing that can add variety

The idea here is not to maximize the range of every one of these elements. A capsule that did that would probably end up looking totally random! But instead you can pick 1-3 things to diversify, and then keep the other dimensions of your mini capsule cohesive.

A classic example is the all black wardrobe that has avant garde silhouettes in a variety of fabrics. You could stick to one or two variations on an outfit formula (e.g. button down shirt + pullover sweater or cardigan + trousers), but really go all out on print mixing and colors. Whatever speaks to you (or works with what’s in your closet)!

These apply to all types of clothes and definitely isn’t an exhaustive list!

“vs” is shorthand for “consider the spectrum available spanning…”.

  1. 🎨 Color
    1. particularly color VALUE (aka how light or dark the shade is)
  2. 🧶 Fabrics
    1. Heavy/sturdy vs lightweight/airy
    2. High texture vs smooth
    3. Shiny vs matte
    4. Luxurious vs rustic
  3. 🎀 Formality
    1. Lounge vs smart casual vs dressy vs formal
    2. going-out vs officewear
  4. 💃🏻 Silhouette
    1. Length
    2. Relaxed vs fitted
    3. Drapey vs crisp
    4. It’s not just about length and loose vs tight. Consider shape of particular elements: necklines, sleeve length and style, pants/skirt rise
  5. 💥 Visual interest
    1. Prints!
    2. Buttons? Contrast zippers? Ruffles? Metallics? Embroidery? Patch pockets? Can you wear a belt with it?
    3. Style – Add a little something distinctive. Mix some prep with punk, or add items with an outdoorsy bent to your casual basics, etc.

As always, the following are all “in general” and “things to consider”. There’s always some ways you could deviate from rules of thumb and make awesome outfits. Again, you don’t have to do all these things. Pick and choose. If you do a couple of them, that should be plenty!

I noticed that basically all my example pictures include jackets or other layering pieces. You definitely don’t need to set things up so that EVERY outfit will be layered. The idea is that you’ll have a mix – after all, having every outfit with a cardigan would be more samey when only working with a handful of items – but you want to at least make sure that most of  your base items can work with the outer layers.

Here are some numbers for the combinations you can get from different item types, not taking into account if say, a shirt or dress can be worn two ways, or for different accessorizing and hair/makeup styling.

Layering options get an extra option for an outfit excluding a layering piece, so those will add up to 11. These also assume that the layers are purely fashion layers. I always assumed that in the spirit of things, functional outerwear is not included in the counts for wardrobe challenges. Still, even if you do count true outerwear, the concepts are the same.

No layering

4 tops * 4 bottoms * 2 shoes = 32 combos (or 16 without counting shoes)

5 tops * 3 bottoms * 2 shoes = 30 combos (or 15 without shoes)

(4 tops * 3 bottoms *  2 shoes) + (1 dress * 2 shoes) = 24 + 2 = 26 combos (or 13 without shoes)

5 tops * 4 bottoms * 1 shoe = 20 combos (actually a pretty good contender if your shoe choices wouldn’t be that impactful! I think it’s generally recommended to rotate shoes though for the longevity of the shoe and your own foot health.)

One layering item

3 tops * 4 bottoms * 2 layering options * 2 shoes = 48 combos (24 without shoes)

One top can be worn as a layering item with 2 tops

(4 tops * 4 bottoms * 2 shoes) + (1 layering top * 2 tops * 2 shoes) = 32 + 4 = 36 combos (18 without shoes)

Two layering items

3 tops * 3 bottoms * 3 layering options * 2 shoes = 54 combos (27 without shoes)

Even if you say that 15 of the combos don’t work or are too similar, that still puts you at 39 combos, more than any of the no layering options. Even if more don’t work and you still end up with 32 options, I’d wager that the outfit options will still have a greater feeling of variety due to the depth added by the layered options. (Plus, realistically it’s harder to come up with fully compatible top and bottom sets if you’re trying to incorporate more varied silhouettes, fabrics, etc).

Two layering items, one top cannot be layered

(2 tops * 3 bottoms * 3 layering options * 2 shoes) + (1 top * 3 bottoms * 2 shoes) = 36 + 6 = 42 combos (21 without shoes)

Two layering items, one top can’t be layered, 1 bottom only works with 1 of the shoes

At this point I would personally consider this too much of a headache to manually calculate, and I would just write out all the options on a spreadsheet and then delete the ones that don’t work to see what’s left. You can find an example of said spreadsheet here

With a dress and one layering item

(3 tops * 3 bottoms * 2 layering options x 2 shoes) + (1 dress x 2 layering options x 2 shoes) = 36 + 4 = 40 combos (20 without shoes)

With a dress and two layering items

(3 tops * 2 bottoms * 3 layering options * 2 shoes) + (3 layering options * 1 dress * 2 shoes) = 36 + 6 = 42 combos (21 without shoes)

With a dress and two layering items, 1 top doesn’t work with 1 of the layering items

(2 tops * 2 bottoms * 3 layering options * 2 shoes) +  (1 top * 2 bottoms * 2 shoes) + (3 layering options * 1 dress * 2 shoes) = 24 + 4 + 6 = 34 combos (17 without shoes)

I’ve always found 30×30 or even 20×20 capsule wardrobe challenges too nebulous. From tracking my item wears, I find that I wear 40-50 items in any given month including shoes and accessories so this doesn’t feel like it has much of a point to it. I’d rather do it by way of 2 10×10 sets and 2 5×5 sets. Plus, you’ll probably have a few items overlapping in those and could still come out under 30.

For any two items in a given category (tops, bottoms, outerwear, shoes), I try to make sure they don’t have more than 1 of the same elements in {color, fabric, silhouette}. For example, if you have navy jersey culottes, don’t also pick a navy jersey maxi skirt.

Do any tops tops work tucked and untucked, or do they all require a particular styling?

View this post on Instagram

025 — I’m really happy with how this drawing turned out! 😊 Monochromatic outfits are my go-to. I am a really lazy dresser so it’s just easy for me to grab things that are similar colours. Plus I find them quite soothing. Lauren Winter wrap top, thrifted skirt from Japan, Vere Verto bag, Bared sneakers, handmade earrings from Japan (I love them!). #slowfashion #ethicalfashion #whatiwore #fashionillustration #ootd #sustainablefashion #minimalstyle #dailyoutfit #illustration #portrait #selfportrait #ipadpro #procreate #melbournefashion #illustrationartists #melbourneartist #fashionillustrator #fashiondrawing #ethicalstyle #30wears #slowstyle #fairfashion #thegarmentcommunity #10x10friends #ethicalootd #capsulewardrobe #secondhandclothes #ethicalfashionrepresentationmatters #petitefashion

A post shared by Viet-My (@vm.wears) on

A button-down shirt that works three ways: by itself, under a sweater, or unbuttoned over a thinner top.

A dress that can be worn as a duster, or combo cardigan/dress

View this post on Instagram

Happy new year 🎉. I hope 2020 is your best year yet! . . We spent last night with friends…bowling, eating and playing games until midnight. It was a lovely way to say goodbye to the year and the decade and to ring in a new one 🧡 . . The most sustainable piece of clothing is the one you already own so in the spirit of sustainable fashion and buying less this year, today’s outfit consists of items that I have worn together before but in a different combination. Swipe to see how I’ve worn it before and let me know which one is your favorite 1️⃣ or 2️⃣ . . Full disclosure: I only wore this outfit for about 2 hours today during a New Years early dinner. The rest of the day has been spent in comfy pants and a sweatshirt. . . Outfit: @eileenfisherrenew sweater and vest (worn as dress) Old belt Thrifted boots . . Image description for accessibility: I am standing in front of a light grey wall and wearing a long green vest belted with a tan belt over a tan sweater with brown suede boots.

A post shared by gillian // sustainable fashion (@uncomplicatedspaces) on

For dresses and tops, pick ones that work with your layering pieces (i.e. avoid ending up with all statement sleeves). For dresses, can be layered under a skirt or over one of the tops.

Bottoms that don’t flare and create a loud break in the outfit (e.g. a stiff circle skirt or wide leg pants) tend to work with a wider variety of layering options. Wide hem bottoms I find tend to look good with outerwear that has a similar length to the pants/skirt.

You can use socks to vary the silhouette of bottoms and shoes.

If you only have one layering item, having it contrast with your tops colors will provide more visual variety.

View this post on Instagram

Really really good shit went down for me wearing this outfit. I wonder which piece is the lucky one. ◇Turtle Neck: Value Village $2.49 ◇Necklaces: Gifted (Hot Topic) ◇Red Snake Print Jacket: Goodwill $5.99 ◇Checkard Pants: ThredUp $3.99 ◇Bag: Amazon (Gifted) ◇Snake Skin Boots: DSW $39.99 TOTAL FIT: $52.46 #affordablefashion #whowhatwearing #ootd #ootdfashion #fashionblog #fashionaddict #fashionpost #fashionlover #fashioninspo #lookbook #styleblog #WIWT #dailylook #outfitpost #TodayImWearing #outfitlook #InMyCloset #thriftshopping #preloved #goodwillfinds #goodwill #thrifty #sustainablefashion #slowfashion #thriftlife #thrifter #valuevillage #savers #anotheroutfitpost #sharemystyle

A post shared by 4MyForm|Thrifty Budget Fashion (@4myform) on

Add a contrasting bag or accessory like a headband or statement earrings that can go with most outfits.

For each of the dimensions to vary, try and distribute it among the different categories of items. For example, if you’re varying fabric weight, check that it’s not all airy tops and crisp bottoms. If you’re varying color, don’t forget to include some color or at least lightness variation in bottoms.

Including a shorter skirt or dress basically gets you double the options, since you can add tights! Same idea for shoe+bottom combos that can showcase a sock.

For more notes on this sort of thing, check out my post where I analyzed recurring elements in Miss Louie’s capsule wardrobes

Example 10×10

Here’s what I put together for a 10×10 (or rather, 10xN, it remains to be seen, but I have at least 12 outfits prepared) for the beginning half of the aforementioned 30×30 challenge happening for May.

Items

may 2020 10x10 items

Tops

  1. Cream gigot (aka leg-o-mutton) sleeve crew neck waffle knit top (Free People “Tasha” thermal)
  2. Dark green velvet v-neck button-front camisole (Madewell)
  3. Cream linen v-neck button-front camisole (BP)

Layering

  1. Dark gray drop shoulder longline cardigan (H&M)
  2. Cream cable-knit cropped cardigan (Free People “Moon River” cardigan)

Bottoms

  1. Dark green pleated wide-wale corduroy trousers (Topshop)
  2. Light wash straight leg jeans (Madewell curvy petite “Perfect Vintage Jean”)
  3. Black faux leather fitted mini skirt (Free People)

Shoes

  1. Black lace-up pointed toe patent leather boots with cuban heel (Marc Fisher)
  2. Black sandals (Birkenstock “Mayari” sandal)

Accessories

These are not counted in the 10 items

  1. Half-hoop earrings (Forever 21)
  2. Green velvet braided headband (Anthropologie)
  3. Light blue satin headband (Anthropologie)
  4. Snake fishnet tights (Leg Avenue)
  5. Black leather strap watch (Timex)

My process for choosing items

Started with the idea that I wanted to do high contrast color cardigans and tops, so I picked out the camisoles and cardigans.

Since the camis are the same cut, for the third top I chose a statement sleeve top.

For bottoms, jeans and cords with a tapered leg were easy to pair with the cami+cardigan and blouse I already picked. I added a mini skirt for silhouette variety (it also goes with more shoes than most midi skirts). I have two minis, and the other is green cord so I went with faux leather to have more fabric variety.

For shoes, I went with a streamlined boot in a punchy material (as opposed to another black pointed toe boot in a minimal style, or any of my pairs of chunky combat boots) that I knew would look nice with relaxed fit cuffed pants.

To complement that, I wanted a lighter shoe, which left me with either black suede strappy pointed toe flats, tan platform clogs, red block heel sandals, or black Birkenstocks. The flats seemed a little too thematically similar to the boots, and the platforms make the clogs a little finickier to pair when it comes to proportions. I figured the red block heel sandals were not very realistic of a choice (I usually limit them to formalwear) and wouldn’t go well with very casual outfits, so I just went with the plain black sandals.

Variety in chosen items

According to the categories in the first section of the post. In general, my capsule focuses on variety in fabrics and color value, whereas the silhouettes are not terribly exciting. I have a few statement elements (big puff sleeves, fishnet tights) but overall I don’t think it’s super attention grabbing since the palette is pretty muted.

I also didn’t do much with hair and makeup styling since I photographed these all in one morning.

Color

Not exciting, but there’s a good range of values across color categories. I think an accent color crossbody purse (maybe a goldenrod color, or red-orange) would have been great.

The dark gray, black, and dark green kind of bleed together, although part of that is the poor lighting and photo quality – I think the green shows up more distinctly in person.

may 2020 10x10 palette

swatches from Coolors

Fabric

ALL THE FABRIC. Nearly every item is different. Waffle knit, faux leather, patent leather, linen, wide-wale corduroy, velvet, thin fuzzy knit, cable knit, denim.

Formality

Some casual (basic jeans, birkenstocks), some more for going out (velvet camisole, leather skirt), some in the middle (who decided that a gigot sleeve waffle-knit thermal needed to exist?). But none really that are officewear.

Silhouette

This is basically a re-enumeration of the “how I chose items” section 🤔

  • Tops are camisoles which layer well + statement long sleeve top.
  • Pants are similar silhouettes but one is more drapey.
  • Skirt is short, so I could also use tights.
  • Two very different cardigan fits (drop-shoulder duster vs cropped). One cardigan can be worn open or closed.
  • Shoes are same color but simple sandals vs heeled tall-ish pointed toe boots.

Visual interest

Shiny (patent leather, velvet) vs matte (linen, denim), buttons on both camisoles, midsize earrings, fair amount of layered combos available. No bling or prints unless you count the snake pattern on the fishnets though.

Creating Outfits

Started with one outfit in mind then did “change 1 item each time” for an additional 3-4 outfits. After running out of steam on that, I made a matrix of each top x bottom combo and filled it out so I’d at least have one outfit for all of them. I also checked that shoe and bottom pairings were not exclusive (i.e. made sure to wear the birks with something other than the jeans).

may 2020 10x10 outfit planning simple

I just did a simple table as above, but if you really wanna visualize your full tensor of outfit combos, you can do a table like this.

may 2020 10x10 wardrobe planning fancy

And to save you all that copy and pasting or array-referencing, I’ve created a google spreadsheet template HERE that you can make a copy of for your own use.

capsule wardrobe planner spreadsheet

Outfits

(click the collage to view it full size in a new tab)

May 2020 10x12

My photo setup is still not well-lit, but at least it’s consistent.

Casual princess sleeves

I’ve worn this before with dressier flats, which I think I prefer because it’s less of an outfit mullet. But I still like this as a fun but easily wearable option.

May 2020 10x10 1

Matchy-matchy

The jumpsuit effect here was pretty fun, and I always love a good monochrome outfit with lots of interesting textures. Here the velvet top and wide-wale corduroy felt really luxurious! This would be a fun going-out look with a moto jacket once we can actually go out again.

May 2020 10x10 2

Minimalist

This feels like the type of thing I’d have had on a Pinterest board circa 2014. Minimalist but ~a little edgy~ from the faux leather skirt. Not my go-to nowadays, but still nice to have in rotation.

May 2020 10x10 3

Transition weather

I love “sweater and sandals” weather in spring and fall! The dark velvet is a bit moody and wintery, but the light cardigan and light wash jeans brighten things up.

May 2020 10x10 4

Fuzzy around the edges

Props to people who come up with catchy titles for all their looks. For this one the base outfit is more dark and edgy, but is softened on the outer layer by the cream cardigan. I think it works since the base outfit is more on the polished side rather than grungey side.

May 2020 10x10 5

A little dark drama

The inverse of the previous outfit: the base items are light and casual, and the peripherals are darker and more dramatic.

May 2020 10x10 6

En garde

A swashbuckling pirate inspired outfit. A bit costumey for me and I’m not sure I’d wear it to the office, but good fun.

May 2020 10x10 7

Slytherin chic

These tights are it. I really love how the effect from a distance is like I have leg tattoos. (If I were hardcore enough to get tattoos, ones like this would definitely be considered). Sooo many outfits I feel look three times cooler if the wearer has tattoos, but I don’t actually have any that I’m sure of enough to actually get, so in the meantime we have these tights, a more tasteful version of those halloween tattoo sleeves.

Anyway, I wore a lot of dark green and black with edgy details, which when paired with the swoopy cardigan felt very generic-background-deatheater.

I’m wearing the green headband here but it almost doesn’t show up at all 🧐

May 2020 10x10 8

Coven calling

Swapped out the top for the gigot sleeves, which results in a more generically witchy look.

May 2020 10x10 9

Relaxed and rustic

This one has all slouchy items, for a relaxed vibe. The belt adds a little structure, but overall I love the texture from the linen top with all the draping in the trousers.

I always feel a little bit cottagecore/hobbitcore in this outfit formula, since the button down cami reminds me of a waistcoat when layered under a cardigan.

May 2020 10x10 10

I’m just wearing all the combinations of tops with this skirt

but it’s a (faux) leather skirt, so it’s interesting.

May 2020 10x10 11

Lady of the lake

Very similar to the “a little dark drama” outfit. The linen top is swapped to dark green velvet, but overall I think it maintains a similar level of casual vibes due to swapping the boots for sandals. Adding the pale blue headband injects a little more lightness as well. I really liked all the cool toned colors here.

May 2020 10x10 12

I could go on, as you saw earlier I haven’t nearly exhausted all feasible combinations of cardigans, tops, bottoms, and shoes. But I’m leaving off here because I only had so much time to take pictures, and I’m also pretty sure no one actually wants to follow an Instagram account with only 10 items for months if it’s solely an ootd dump without additional interesting commentary.

This is pretty close to what I’d describe as my typical style, but for my next mini capsule I’m going to go for a really different style, probably sci-fi inspired since I had so much fun with the techwear theme WAYWT on reddit. But we’ll see! I need to get the next wardrobe round-up post out first.

Takeways

I always think that I am ride-or-die when it comes to warm earth tones, but on accident this one ended up cool toned and it looks quite nice! I do wish that the greens were more saturated or had photographed properly, but I enjoyed how serene the whole thing looked.

When it comes down to it, I think fabrics and colors are what I’m more interested in with my own clothes rather than exciting and new silhouettes. It’s just easier to stick to a few tried and true outfit formulas and to have interesting versions of them rather than figuring out proportions constantly. (Also, it’s just easier from a shopping perspective since it’s more common to find, well, common cuts of items.) It’s alright with me! I always feel so enriched when playing with different fabrics and colors.

This is not the first time where I’ve thought that an accent color crossbody would really add to some outfits. Currently all my bags are in neutral colors. I’ll keep an eye out for options here that I can use once things open up again.

This was pretty easy for me to put together and I really liked all the looks. I had a heck of a time with my first 10×10, especially towards the end when I was just pulling leftover items together. I remember agonizing trying to put that one together, so it’s a nice change that I feel more fluent in my own closet and understanding how to style things.

Would I want to wear this for three months straight? Heck no. I like playing dress up too much to stick to a small capsule, even if it’s seasonal. But if I had to (in a context of pleasant spring temperatures and not having to be office appropriate), it’s still a pretty fun set to have.

Have you ever done a 10×10 or other wardrobe challenge? What was your strategy for picking items?

7 Comments

  1. “For any two items in a given category (tops, bottoms, outerwear, shoes), I try to make sure they don’t have more than 1 of the same elements in {color, fabric, silhouette}. For example, if you have navy jersey culottes, don’t also pick a navy jersey maxi skirt.”

    This tips goes directly in my wardrobe ressource ! I actually took some time during quarantine to map out small-ish (seasonnal) wardrobes that I would enjoy, but I end up with 2 crew neck cashmere sweaters in different colors, 3 flowy viscose wrap dresses in different colors, etc…
    Because I base those hypotetical wardrobes on what I already own, and tend to stick to “tried and true” if I have to buy something and am in a hurry.
    For instance I only have 2 pants that I can wear at the office, both are wool tailored high waisted pants that I love, so my mind immediately goes to buying those in a different color (worse even, the ones I own are navy and black and I am thinking about heather gray for the third…).
    This also explains why, to me, variety in outfits means variety in tops and dresses, and wearing pants A+top A and pants B+top A is very boring, because pants A and B pretty much look the same.
    I am very sheepish when it comes to bottoms in “not dark” colors and I will go and find inspiration on pinterest now, to try to make it more “normal” in my head.

    Great food for thoughts yet again, thank you very much. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Keep in mind this is all targeted for the case where you feel quite restless about your wardrobe options or are struggling coming up with a temporary small item set! If you’re happy rotating through the black/navy/gray trousers then there’s no reason to force yourself to try a different cut. (And tbh if you are shopping in an emergency then tried-and-true sounds like a better strategy!)

      I own the same midi skirt in 5 colorways, but none of them are white/cream/pastel because I know that (at least when not social distancing) very light bottoms will pick up dirt easily from the bus/train. But it’s at least varied from a lighter brown to solid red, and that feels interesting enough for me even without the full spectrum!

      As a former dark-pants-only wearer I can empathize that it does take a while to get used to the idea of even midtone bottoms. Making a Pinterest board is a good way to start getting into it though if you’ve decided branching out will help you make better use of your wardrobe!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s