Style Notes: Accessory Capsules

Everyone and their dog has heard about how a capsule wardrobe will streamline your life, make all your outfits ~cohesive~, and generally make you feel more stylish. But you don’t always have time or even want to replace your existing core wardrobe with other clothes. If you’re in that spot where you either enjoy your minimalist or personal uniform style dressing but want to feel more like you have Outfits over the course of a week, consider curating just an accessory capsule (or two or three).

That’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Sets of hats, bags, socks, jewelry, shoes, and other peripheral clothing items that mix-and-match with each other easily. Items that work together aesthetically and have similar formality, color schemes, and practicality. The idea is that accessories have a higher impact on your outfits in terms of wear rate. After all, while the average person may have dozens of tops, they probably don’t have nearly as many shoes or bags. So if one of your main personal style goals is to just have your outfits feel more aesthetically cohesive and actively styled, then it can be more efficient to initially update accessories rather than pants, shirts, skirts, and dresses.

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Aside from being easier to acquire and potentially resell if they don’t work out due to sizing or just personal preference issues, having a group of accessories that you can throw on completely randomly and still end up making any simple outfit feel put-together can be a lot less stressful than having to consider the whole head-to-toe deal every day.

It doesn’t need to be fancy, either. For example, here is the bulk of my ‘crunchy casual’ accessory capsule for warmer weather. It’s got bags, hats, and shoes that are compatible with each other in terms of color (more saturated tones), formality (casual!), activity (generally more active), and motif (nature/outdoorsy). So any simple tee+pants or dress base outfit where I wear with an accessory from each category will automatically have cohesiveness on those dimensions (as well as some nice pops of color) without me having to do a whole round of outfit calculus.

This particular set contains a Trader Joe’s canvas tote, REI Sahara Guide Hat in L/XL, embroidered baseball cap from the local garden supply store, Katha Diddel needlepoint frog purse from eBay, 90s style belt bag from Columbia, and a pair of Teva Terra Fi 5 hiking sandals in a very 90s celestial print 🌞.

It’s all more generally on the saturated side, with nature motifs and a bit of retro flair.

Is this the absolute height of fashion? Nope. But IMHO it does provide a dimension of fun to really simple athleisure or one-and-done dress outfits that gives them more of a distinct look (in addition to being practical!). As someone whose local minima in terms of outfit styling effort involves wearing the same dress in different colorways every single day, this does a lot to stave off the feeling of being “in a fashion rut” or just getting bored of base outfits.

Of course, you can easily have more than one accessory capsule to suit different seasons and levels of formality. I really enjoy the colorful camp counselor look, but on some days I want to feel a little more sophisticated and chic. Or maybe just traditionally witchy. Either way, in addition to the more colorful collection of bags and hats in sportier fabrics, I also have a neutral selection of items in natural materials appropriate for spring/summer that I like to throw on whenever I feel like an outfit could be a little more mature or dressy.

Madewell Oversized Shopper Bag, Cromwell Home block print tote, Brixton Joanna straw hat, Betsey Johnson “Daisy’d and Confused” purse via eBay, San Diego Hat company black paper hat, Birkenstock Mayari sandals. (My brown Birkenstock Arizonas also definitely go here, but I think they were too deep in the closet for me to bother digging out for this photo). All the straw here is less seasonally flexible than some of the bag sand hats in the other capsule, but I like to balance having more seasonal pieces just to mix things up (I enjoy feeling more in sync with the year/seasons by swapping out pieces) with 365 day items for some aesthetic consistency/grounding (as well as not having space for like, 50 purses).

The frog bag, in a pleasant surprise, actually works just as well in this set of items as the first! It definitely pulls it more toward a kitschy witchy vibe, but I’m into that.

The same Free People dress with the neutrals:

And a shortalls outfit, dressed up a bit.

Totally different vibe! Both of these capsules aren’t entirely limited to the items pictured (clearly, I am wearing a black purse in the shortalls outfit that wasn’t in the accessories family photo, and I certainly have more than one pair of shoes that work with each set). And pieces between the sets can certainly be styled together. But in general, when I’m now considering adding more accessories, I’ll consider whether they’ll easily fit into one of these groupings. I want new pieces to make it easier to get dressed and feel like myself, not harder. I think that if I didn’t have a public facing blog/Instagram and enjoy experimenting with different looks, at this point in my life I seriously might just rotate through dresses and overalls and just switch up accessories and hair.

My colder weather accessories haven’t reached the same level of cohesiveness, but that’s something I’m working on. Part of it is that hats, gloves, and scarves aren’t a matter of survival in my part of California, so I just haven’t had as long to really consider those. But I’ve really enjoyed the outfits I’ve been able to put together from the more summery accessory capsules, so I’m looking forward to putting similar ones together for the cozy seasons.

Sample Capsules

I’ve put together some accessory examples unconstrained by my personal style preferences and storage limitations. I made a few outfit collages from the three sets using the same base outfit consisting of the Madewell (Re)sourced Sherpa Zip Jacket and Madewell Perfect Vintage Jeans in Lunar Wash. I do generally try to keep the majority of any example items to ones that aren’t obviously a bad purchase, but keep in mind that I primarily selected these for demonstration purposes and it’s not necessarily an endorsement on quality since I haven’t seen most of these in person. In regards to the jacket, I don’t know how warm that one is, but the main point was to find a white/ivory jacket of a fairly nondescript type. You could sub in a basic parka or coat as well.

City Casual

A relatively minimal and practical fall/winter set. But just because it’s not extra or colorful doesn’t mean that it can’t still make outfits feel more ‘finished’. After all, repetition and layering of related pieces is what usually makes outfits more satisfying.

This aesthetic was inspired by the techie crowd in downtown San Francisco that I always felt looked more put-together than me in my wardrobe of random freebie tees from college with the same pair of grubby boots 24/7. (I recommend at minimum rotating shoes even if only to let them air out!)

Everything is fairly sleek and modern, and mostly neutral with a bit of mint and muted blue. Nothing revolutionary, but I think just having two options within each category does a lot to keep everything from feeling super same-y when you consider that there are 5 categories (hat, scarf, shoes, gloves, bag).

To keep with a sleeker modern feel, even with items like the plaid scarf or mittens that have more of a traditional print (versus say, those squiggly bold geometric shapes that have been popular in recent years), they aren’t super textured or chunky styles, which tend to read a little more rustic when it comes to knits.

I liked the inclusion of the traditional prints, as it gives a kinda no nonsense or just more mature vibe versus if it was all solid or had more trendy prints like little smiley faces or mushrooms (think stuff from Urban Outfitters) or those doodly abstract faces. Not that the latter is bad, it’s just a different vibe.

Outfit 1

Icy winter whites! I feel like this is something I see more on Pinterest and Instagram than in IRL, but it doesn’t have to be a whole matching set and heels situation to work.

Outfit 2

I went with the newer heeled version of Blundstones and That Bag Silhouette All The People Biking in the Financial District have because I wanted to keep the looks a touch fashion/urban/modern rather than “just came from camp” flavor of casual.

Outfit 3

I am always going on about this on Instagram, but if you’re generally dressing in black/gray or black/brown and don’t want to get away from neutrals, but feel like your outfits are more drab or ‘background-y’ than you would prefer, embrace the full range of available color values and add some white! It’ll add so much depth super easily.

You always throw that hat in the wash or take 10 minutes to scrub down your sneakers once or twice a month if you want to keep them looking fresh. I’m sure it’s not just me who got it drilled into them growing up to not buy white stuff because it’s not practical, but really, if you’re using modern machine wash friendly fabrics it’s not that bad.

Outfit 4

I picked a plaid for the scarf that had a touch of orange in it specifically to coordinate with any brown leather pieces. The baseball cap I picked out actually has a tan leather strap to adjust the size, which is another nice detail although it doesn’t show up in the collages.

Outfit 5

Outfit 6

Storybook Adventure

Now, the exact same base outfit, but with a more whimsical and warm toned vintage inspired style. I was picturing things that wouldn’t feel out of place on a train murder mystery. Warm neutrals, traditional prints and folksy textures, and some fun hats.

To maintain a vaguely old timey vibe, I chose items that don’t have any sporty fabrics or overly modern looking knits, and opted for items drawstring, buckle, and lace-up closures instead of tons of zippers. I wanted to keep this one on the feminine side, so neither shoe is a traditional menswear/unisex option like plain oxfords or combat boots without the heel (although, both of these look like they should be comfortable!).

If I’m working with a smaller set of things, I want to avoid including pieces that make me go “oh, that would work with this aesthetic, as long as I style it with ______”. It’s great to understand what you like enough to know how to incorporate pieces that aren’t 100% there on their own of course, but if you’re curating a capsule like this where the whole point is to make it a throw-on-and-go situation, you want to avoid anything that would make you pause in the mirror and say like “hmmm this isn’t quite hitting the mark”.

Outfit 1

I mean does this have some good academia aesthetic vibes or what? But the modern jacket (versus say, a wool coat) keeps it from feeling too costumey if you’re not about committing to the Rachel Maksy or Darling Desi lifestyle.

Outfit 2

I remember when these sorts of captain/train conductor hats were trendy in the early 00s and they seem to be making a resurgence. I was too chicken to wear one the first time around even though I thought they looked cool (I was also like, 10, and did not like hats or any accessories in practice) but I’m interested in seeing how I could style them this time around. Perfect example of choosing to engage in trends that easily fit into your personal style, in this case the whole vintage storybook thing.

Outfit 3

Depending on hair and makeup styling this sort of outfit can go from ‘chill, but clear style choices were made at some point’ to all out ‘tiktok/reel with cinematic editing showing an impossibly chic woman boarding a streetcar en route to the used bookstore and cafe’

Outfit 4

Outfit 5

Outfit 6

Winter Brights

And last but not least, some fun in an all-colorful, all the time set. More on the modern side with the fleece and sleek boots, but more playful than the first capsule with the candy colors and trendier belt bag and boot.

Unlike the previous two capsules where the color scheme was simply ‘cool or warm tone neutrals (pick one) with an accent color’, this has more variety. There isn’t any item that’s a solid neutral color! But I think these work because the colors all fall into the area between pastels and brights. So for example, both yellow items aren’t the most yellow shade of yellow you’ve ever seen, as they both have more white mixed into them. And the whites and greys that are incorporated are all pretty neutral.

There are also no orphaned colors (every color appears in at least two items), and a bunch of the items are colorblocked, so they can coordinate with more than one piece. It might feel like going with all solid colors would be the easiest route, but I find that mixing in some thoughtfully chosen colorblock or printed pieces both makes it easier to pair items and you’ll of course get that extra pop of visual interest.

One more concept that I find helpful when making sets that have more than one ‘colorful color’ is the “one/ton/none” styling rule of thumb from Amy Smilovic (founder of Tibi – I don’t agree with all her tips and you have to keep in mind her content is ultimately meant to sell her brand, but she is so good at coming up with catchy names for styling concepts!). In general, outfits will feel intentional if there are ‘none’ (no) colorful/accent colors, just one pop/accent color, or ALL THE COLORS (‘ton’).

This fits in with the idea of the visual rhythm of the outfit, or where your eye is directed. You don’t want to make it confusing.

  • (“none”) So a monochrome look has a even visual rhythm,
  • (“one”) with one contrasting color either there’s a clear focal point to the look or if your accent color is sprinkled throughout the look, it’ll pull your eye through the outfit with a more even weight.
  • (“ton”) And if there are different colors but everything is a different color, they balance each other out in visual weight and the whole thing just reads as ‘yup, that’s a maximalist/eclectic outfit!’.

With the latter, choosing a palette that still has some underlying elements (undertone, saturation, etc) tying it together can also help, but that’s getting into another topic.

Outfit 1

I should have made a separate collage to demonstrate this, but in regard to the one/ton/none concept, you can picture that if this outfit had not fully committed to the colorful options in all the categories it would not look as intentional. Imagine this but the hat and gloves are gray or black, and the sneakers were plain white. Not bad by any stretch, but also it’s just, yep, that’s a yellow backpack and a lilac scarf, not a whole LOOK.

Of course, I’ve put together these examples to show maximally curated and styled options. If you’re not aiming for that, having two pieces that you enjoy in an outfit without feeling pressure to make the whole thing look Instagrammable is totally fine! Encouraged, even. Life’s too short not to wear that beret or yellow bag if it makes you happier than a neutral one, even if you haven’t got the bandwidth or desire to go all-out on the whole styling thing.

Outfit 2

Outfit 3

Outfit 4

(I realized that I meant to have the turquoise sling bag here instead of the backpack, please pretend I did that)

Outfit 5

Outfit 6

Okay, “sure, but what happens when you go indoors?”, you say. Doesn’t all that just get tossed over a chair but for 1-2 hours a day? I say 1) that’s true, but if you’ve chosen really excellent shoes, those do so much to anchor the aesthetic of an outfit and that’ll carry with you all day and 2) If you’re going to need a bag, scarf, etc anyway then why not start and end your day looking like the best most fully realized version of your sartorial self?

You can definitely also apply this concept to all-day accessories like jewelry, belts, watches, and hair accessories and even encompass hairstyles, nail, or makeup looks. I kept it to outdoor accessories just for scoping purposes, but as an example, I personally tend to rotate through the same 3 hairstyles (space buns, messy bun, down/with hair clips) and a few makeup looks that aren’t terribly complicated, but having a few different head silhouettes going on throughout the week keeps me from getting sick of wearing different colorways of of the same dress every day.

I don’t think I’ve scaled these proportionally, but just to give an idea, here’s how I’m picturing the base outfits for each of the three styles could look. Nothing too extra for the base layer, but I’d still say these all look great and telegraph their particular aesthetics.

All that to say, if you’re in a place where you feel like your wardrobe could use a little zhuzzing up but would prefer to stick to more low-key items for your tops/bottoms/outerwear, you can inject SO MUCH personality and create a more intentional feel to outfits with some carefully curated accessories.

A lot of advice on how to pull your wardrobe together will suggest revamping to have everything within a cohesive color palette or adding in some more sharp/dressy items, but that’s difficult and expensive (okay, shoes and bags are definitely not cheap, but you probably only need two shoes and two bags at minimum versus like, five pants, you know?) and more of a commitment especially if you have two or three styles that you’d like to wear in any given week, and not everyone even wants to look more ~chic and smartly dressed~, just more like themselves. So just some tips to consider, whether you see yourself in this paragraph or you have happily color coordinated your clothes and want to add depth using accessories without adding complexity when you’re picking out your daily look.

I’ll end with some tips and formulas for putting together accessory capsules that I used when putting the above examples together as I know some people find that helpful, even as a starting point rather than something to militantly implement.

  • Each item should work with every other item! This level of coordination isn’t realistic for your whole wardrobe, but it’s important for accessory capsules to do their thing and make the outfit look styled without you having to actually fiddle around with styling it each day. Every single combination doesn’t have to be the best thing you’ve ever seen, but none (or very very few of them) should result in you making THE FACE when you check the outfit out in the mirror. You know, the one where you scrunch your face up cause something feels off.
  • On that note, you should LOVE every single item. Again, not something realistic for an entire wardrobe that needs to function for a billion activities and seasons, but very helpful with this particular curation strategy. If you have drastically different things happening in your life, don’t try to make one accessory capsule work for all of them. It’ll be easier to have separate ones that are better suited to different seasons or activities.
  • Yes, you can totally have pieces that you use in more than one accessory capsule. You’re not trying to like, create and inhabit separate personas, just make it easier to put on an outfit that is practical and will get you some of that fashion aesthetic you’ve been craving.
  • I had at least two items in each category (aside from watches), and within each category, the two pieces are very different, either from color, silhouette, fabric, formality, etc. Cause otherwise you might as well just have one piece if they’re too similar (from a style point of view. Of course there is laundry to consider).
  • In capsules where there aren’t tons of colorful colors (even the neutral ones still have like 5 or 6 shades going on), varying the color values across each category will make your outfits feel a lot more diverse over time, and you’ll not feel as bored with rotating through 2 or 3 pieces of a given type if they’re more distinct.
  • Including some print or colorblocked items will help make outfits feel more coordinated, as well as just add some visual interest. It doesn’t have to be all out liberty print florals or argyle, even something like choosing a boot with a contrasting sole or a sneaker where you’ve swapped out the laces can work toward that.

Is accessory capsules something that you’re already doing, even subconsciously? Would you rather go about a wardrobe refresh via updating your main clothes or picking out some accessories? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re in the process of doing a wardrobe refresh but are finding things overwhelming, even if you feel like you know how the process is supposed to go, I’d love to help! I offer personal style coaching packages that can be customized to your needs, as well as a-la-carte Pinterest board analysis if you just want someone to get you started by highlighting outfit formulas and styling details that you can use to then curate and style things on your own. Check it out over on Personal Style Coaching.

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