Legend has it that a London boutique owner named Susie Faux came up with the term “capsule wardrobe” to describe assembling a few essential, timeless items of easy-to-combine clothing. Donna Karan brought the idea across the Atlantic in the 1980s, and the concept has undergone a recent revival on blogs and in fashion media as a minimalist approach to dressing.

Like any wardrobe item, the idea itself needs a bit of updating, says Carolyne Spencer, a Seattle-area stylist. Most capsule-wardrobe acolytes own around 35 pieces, but Spencer suggests expanding the focus to encompass both a reflection of personal style and a manageable closet.

“The idea is to curate the pieces you really love, to reflect your lifestyle, so the clothing is something you actually wear,” Spencer says.

If your waking hours are spent at work 70% of the time, with family 20% and at events 10%, your closet should reflect those numbers, Spencer says. For example, there’s no need to have 35 pairs of heels when you only wear them three or four times a year, she says.

Later this month, Spencer and her sister Alex Phillips, a decluttering expert with Streamline Seattle, will teach a class in building a capsule wardrobe at The Works education space in Seattle. The siblings make quite the team: Phillips helps empty closets of unnecessary items, while Spencer assists people with filling them again — this time, with the right pieces.

“If you have random clothes, it’s harder to get dressed in the morning,” Phillips says — particularly before you’ve had that first cup of coffee. “For a simpler life and wardrobe, it’s best if all the clothing goes together and is easy to wear.”

Why you should wear your own work uniform

The initial step? Removing pieces that take up space.

The first items to go should be those that are broken, stained or have holes, Phillips says.

Then, especially with bulky apparel such as sweaters, Phillips suggests considering whether a piece is “paying rent,” or earning the cost of storage.

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A suit you wore to an important interview or a dress that represents an emotional milestone can be particularly hard to get rid of, Phillips says. In the Northwest, we sometimes keep clothing that’s just impractical for chilly, wet weather.

Whenever someone says, “Should I keep this?” they’re often asking for validation to toss the piece, she says. “To me, it’s all about owning things that support the life you live, rather than the life you’ve previously lived or hope to live,” Phillips says. 

At the same time, if your tie or jewelry collection isn’t taking up much room, don’t sweat it too much.

After you’ve purged, you should be left with your most frequently worn pieces. Then, you’ll add to these a core collection of basic items, Spencer says: “If you work in an office, invest in your work clothes.” In other words, there’s real value to ensuring you have more than one blazer, in case a kid’s sippy cup spills en route to day care.

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When considering a favorite shirt, pair of jeans or jacket in your drawers, “allow yourself to think, ‘I wear this all the time, and it’s OK to buy more of these,’” Spencer says. Buying the same T-shirt in 10 colors is fine — better to be a little boring than to rifle daily through 30 “fun” blouses you don’t love, she notes.

The essential pieces, or base layers, tend to be jeans or pants, T-shirts, a jacket, and, for women, heels or flats. A streamlined man’s closet could contain shoes in basic colors — usually neutral tones that allow for easy pairing, such as black, gray, navy and white.

Work Wardrobe

A starting point

Though one size does not fit all, stylist Carolyne Spencer recommends these Seattle-area work wardrobe basics.

Blouses or button-down shirts, neutral tones: 5–7
Pants, jeans or khakis/chinos: 4–5
Blazers: 1–2
Jackets/coats: 3–4
Shoes: 5–6 pair
Dresses: 3–4, if applicable
Shorts: 1–2, if applicable
T-shirts/tanks: 5–6
Sweaters/sweatshirts: 5–6

Seattle’s work environments are usually casual, Spencer says, so keep in mind how rarely you need a presentation-ready dress or suit. It’s fine to have just one hanging in the closet, in a neutral tone. Easy-transition clothing that allows you to go from lunch hour to happy hour is great, but should reflect your work environment. You don’t want to look ready for a semiformal date at noon.

Spencer suggests enhancing the minimalist or capsule wardrobe with thoughtfully chosen pieces. Shopping for unique or special clothing should be approached as if “picking out fabric for curtains or a sofa,” she says. “Don’t buy a random pattern or fill your wardrobe with blouses from the 50%-off rack.” Take time to shop, choosing high-quality fabrics and details you love.

Focus on the fashionable and stylish, comfortable and functional, Phillips says. If you’re at a desk all day, a pair of tight pants won’t do, nor will uncomfortable shoes if you’re on the move.

The final result? Taking the stress out of Monday-morning dressing for work, while boosting confidence.

More tips

Keeping a minimalist closet

Find pieces you can wear to work and can do double-duty for date nights, running around with the kids or even a casual weekend.

Clothes you think you are “supposed” to own won’t get used.

Don’t buy items that bear obstacles to ready wear. For example, clothing that fits poorly, requires a tuck-in to wear well, or has too-long sleeves that must be rolled up.

— Carolyne Spencer, stylist