We’ve all been there: Standing in front of an overstuffed closet in the morning trying to put together the day’s outfit. But the cropped blazer that works with your high-waisted pants is stained. Nothing matches your new tweed skirt. The navy sheath dress feels too snug around your hips. And none of your boots—all black—look right with the brown pinstripe pantsuit. Before long, your bed is piled high with rejects, but if you’re going to make your train you’ve got to be out the door in the next three minutes, preferably fully dressed.
It was a familiar scenario for Francine Jay, aka Miss Minimalist, author of the best-selling The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Guide to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify. “My closets were ridiculously overpacked, but like a lot of women I felt like I had nothing to wear,” she says.
Today, Francine has a streamlined, or capsule, wardrobe of well-chosen essentials she loves. She has a total of 20 clothing pieces that include pants, skirts, dresses, tops and cardigans; five pairs of shoes; and one coat. She says she’s saving time, money, space and stress, while finding it a lot easier to look well-dressed.
“It’s ironic, but when you pare down and your closet holds only your favorite things, you always have something to wear,” she says. “A capsule wardrobe eliminates decision fatigue and gives you a jump-start each morning. You get yourself together effortlessly and when your morning begins with ease, grace and efficiency, that sets a wonderful tone for the rest of the day.”
I could never get my wardrobe down to anywhere near 20 items (and Francine wants to underscore that what works for her by no means will work for everyone). But the idea of a well-curated closet is a minimalist-happiness solution I’m ready to embrace. Right now, my closet and drawers are filled with random items bought on sale, many of them still unworn. So, to begin working toward a capsule wardrobe and address my shopping missteps, I’ve instituted the 14-day rule: If I don’t wear a new item—whether it’s a handbag, a pair of shoes, a dress or a T-shirt—within two weeks of purchase, it gets returned.
This means that I've recently spent lots of time in customer-service lines. I’ve returned a pair of wide-legged navy poplin culottes that wrinkle too easily and require at least 6 more inches of good-looking leg than I have. I’ve brought back wedge sandals with a 4-inch platform that are impractical for walking and treacherous for driving. A black satchel purchased at an online flash sale has been mailed back; it duplicates in size and function at least two other purses I already own. And, after putting on and taking off the strapless floral camisole dress I bought for 40 percent off at The Gap a half-dozen times in front of a mirror, I’ve returned that, too. Something about the cut just wasn’t working.
On the other hand, there are several things I’ve bought these past few months that have gone into early and regular rotation. They have a few qualities in common, which happen to align with Francine’s rules on building a capsule wardrobe.
1. They’re versatile
A black linen jumpsuit that I bought at The Gap (after I returned the dress) goes everywhere, dressed up with heels and a white-linen jacket to a dinner party; thrown on with flip-flops to the salon for a mani-pedi.
2. They’re comfortable
A new pair of black clogs with a 2-inch heel and a strap that holds them in place doesn’t pinch or rub even after a 2-mile walk with my dog Carlos. Yet they’re cute enough to wear with my favorite new wardrobe addition, a calf skimming low-high tent dress by Alice + Olivia that is comfy as pajamas but chic enough for a fancy lunch.
3. They fit my color palette
Blacks, grays, creams and whites for foundation pieces like pants and skirts with brighter hues of teal, turquoise and red for secondary pieces like tops, scarves and wraps, means everything matches. As Francine says, “Ideally, you should be able to get dressed in the dark and still look fabulous.”
4. They’re flattering
I know by now the lengths, necklines and shapes that work for me, and while I don’t want everything in my closet to look alike, better to strike out with new patterns and textures than something like those leg-shortening culottes.
5. They’re high quality
When you have only a small collection of clothing you love, you want each piece to last forever. And, as Francine puts it, “you’re investing psychologically in an item when you bring it into your life, so why not be selective? Plus, it’s a more eco-friendly way to shop. You’re not adding to landfills by buying things that are trendy and disposable.” High quality doesn’t have to mean expensive and you don’t need to be a fashionista to recognize it. You can feel quality. Avoid pieces with loose threads, scratchy seams and fabric that bunches up or doesn’t lie smooth.
I don’t yet have my capsule wardrobe nailed. But, I’m getting there. Most days, my bed no longer looks like a suitcase exploded on top of it. Packing for a trip has become a breeze. And, I’m spending way less time returning hastily bought shoes, bags and dresses.
You can see photos of every item Francine has in her closet, as well as in the rest of her Portland, Oregon, home in her e-book 100 Essentials: Simple Kitchen + Capsule Wardrobe + Minimalist Home, or check out other avowed minimalists on her website.
Shelley Levitt is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles and editor at large for Live Happy. Her work has appeared in Real Simple, People, SUCCESS and more.