How to build a capsule wardrobe 2023 - according to style experts

Here's how to build your own capsule wardrobe - from what to buy and how to style it

items included in a capsule wardrobe
(Image credit: Future)

A capsule wardrobe feels like an intangible goal. It's a term loved by the fashion industry, but what does it actually mean and how do you go about building one?

A capsule wardrobe has long been thought of as a minimalist or stripped-back wardrobe, but in actual fact, at its core, it's simply just about ensuring that all your clothing works together. While many stylists may tell you a capsule wardrobe has to contain certain wardrobe essentials such as the best jeans, a well-tailored coat or the best cashmere sweater, it's important to think about your own personal style when compiling yours. Think about what underpins your current wardrobe. If you're someone that lives in jeans, then an edited selection of denim will likely form the basis of your capsule wardrobe, but if you live in dresses, then your capsule wardrobe will look very different. 

In this feature, we will look at the varied basics in a capsule wardrobe and then how to tailor this to match your style. If you've got a closet that is currently bursting, we've also got some tips for how to organize your closet and strip it back to help you build your capsule wardrobe. While there's no fixed number of items, there is an element of curation required. Making a capsule wardrobe will allow you to get dressed more easily, spend less money and make smarter shopping decisions, and who doesn't want that? 

What is a capsule wardrobe?

"I would interpret a capsule wardrobe as any set of items you wear a whole lot", says wardrobe consultant and stylist, Dr. Anne Hamlyn (opens in new tab), of Dr. Dress Me. "Jeans, knitwear, a blouse, a jacket, a skirt or dress, that can be relied upon, mixed and matched, dressed up or down and enhanced by more creative and individual additions that bring you pleasure and make you feel alive and confident and uniquely you in the world." 

The idea of a capsule wardrobe has always centered on key items that you must own like a white shirt or the best blazer, but these items don't necessarily take into account body type, personal tastes, or lifestyle. In reality, there is no mathematical formula to a capsule wardrobe, and injecting your personal style does play a vital role. That said, there are some key tips you can follow.

Dr Anne Hamlyn agrees, "If you want to live a subsistence sartorial life made up of 20 items because a uniform makes you feel safe and sorted that’s totally fine, many people just want to get dressed with minimal fuss and not think about it anymore, but there’s not much creativity, pleasure or risk in that. That’s only the beginning. Most people who come to me want to express something with their clothes that’s uniquely them." 

A capsule wardrobe is about grounding your wardrobe in relevant basics, making sure you purchase clothes that will work with existing items in your wardrobe so that you can maximize their wear, and most importantly, end up with a closet of clothing you enjoy and feel good in. 

“Think of a capsule wardrobe as a shortcut - it gives you something to build a look from, which can save you time and headspace when you’re getting ready. And if you shop smart, you’ll build a collection of key pieces that will stand the test of time and give you fantastic cost-per-wear. [A capsule wardrobe] can also be built upon with the addition of extra pieces which might be a little more trend-led or occasion appropriate” says fashion stylist, Karen Williams (opens in new tab) - and having dressed everyone from David Beckham to Beyoncé, she should know. 

Items from Zara demonstrating a capsule wardrobe

(Image credit: Future)

What does a capsule wardrobe consist of?

This is the tricky bit. Your capsule wardrobe will largely depend on your lifestyle, personal taste and body type. We will break down a few key style personalities and what those capsule wardrobes might look like, but overall, all capsule wardrobes will include a combination of the below... 

  • T-shirts and tops: V-neck, round neck, boat neck (depending on your style)
  • Winter coat: Tailored, casual weekend (eg. puffer)
  • Casual jackets: Leather, denim
  • Spring/Autumn coat: Trench coat
  • Jeans: Smarter and more casual styles, black and blue denim
  • Dresses: Midi dresses, maxi dresses, pinafore dresses, shift and A-line styles, floaty boho iterations for summer days and sweater dresses for cold winter eves.
  • Skirts: Leather skirt, denim skirt, maxi skirt, A-line skirt, pencil skirt, pleated skirt
  • Trousers: Smart/tailored trousers, relaxed fit, evening trousers 
  • Sweaters/cardigans: A mix of more fitted and oversized pieces
  • Shoes & Boots: Flats, trainers, plimsolls, Chelsea boots/ankle boots, knee-high, evening shoes, sandals
  • Something for special occasions: Whether that's an LBD (little black dress), a classic wrap dress, a chic jumpsuit, or silk palazzo pants
  • Bags: Crossbody, tote bags, evening bags, rucksack, weekend bag

How many items should be in a capsule wardrobe?

When it comes to numbers, there are no set rules and a capsule wardrobe can consist of anything from 10 pieces to 80.

“The rule of owning just 40 pieces might work for some people, but maybe it’s 80 that works better for you - there’s no perfect number that everyone should be aiming for. Take your time with it and don’t feel pressure to do one big purge of clothing and start from scratch, it’s overwhelming and expensive,” explains Anna of The Anna Edit (opens in new tab).

Some schools of thought suggest that 50 items is the maximum you should have in a capsule wardrobe. This rough estimate works because you should be realistic about how many items you will wear over a given period of time. The idea of a capsule wardrobe is to make your clothes work harder and smarter. By the time you've finished curating, you should be wearing everything in it, and do you really have time and occasion for more than 50 items?

Remember you may also wish to create several smaller capsule wardrobes to work for different seasons and occasions, for example, you may have a winter capsule wardrobe and a spring capsule wardrobe; you may also decide to have some pieces kept aside specifically for a capsule wardrobe for travel or borrow from other seasons accordingly. 

The items you need in your capsule wardrobe

Your capsule wardrobe basics are the building blocks of your wardrobe. These are the pieces that underpin all the trend-led pieces you might inject within a season. They are the staple styles that hold your wardrobe together. Your building blocks might include an array of well-cut jeans, tailored trousers, a sharp blazer, and the best leather jacket; alongside a failsafe evening dress and your party-ready jumpsuit. These are the items you might want to invest a little more in as you are likely to wear them on repeat and they're the pieces that always make you feel good. 

The exact makeup of your personal capsule wardrobe we will go into a little later, and while it's governed more by taste and lifestyle, some may find an over-50s capsule wardrobe differs slightly. But first, let's look at the possibilities. 

Cos, Karen Millen, M&S models wearing various tops

(Image credit: Cos, Karen Millen, M&S)

The tops you need in a capsule wardrobe

When it comes to choosing the right tops for your capsule wardrobe many of these decisions will in large part be down to your particular body type and the silhouette of top that works best for you. 

If you have a larger bust, you will be more likely to opt for a scoop or v-neck over a boat or high neck top as it helps to balance your proportions. Likewise, if you are a pear shape, you may want to emphasize your shoulders to balance out wider hips, meaning that puff sleeve heads or a shoulder-padded top could work best for your figure. 

The types of tops you need in a capsule wardrobe include: round/scoop neck, V-neck, Breton top, camisole, wrap top, sweatshirt.

Ted Baker, Cos, River Island models in various knitwear

(Image credit: Ted Baker, Cos, River Island)

The knitwear you need in a capsule wardrobe

You might automatically associate knitwear with bitter winter months, but must-have knitwear styles for your wardrobe can play an important role in your capsule wardrobe all year through. While there are some styles you might only pull out on the iciest of days, lightweight cotton knits make a great basic building block in spring and summer months. The exact shape of knitwear you opt for, like with tops will depend on your body type. If you're looking for the most versatility stick to neutrals and block color styles that will remain timeless. 

The types of knitwear you need in a capsule wardrobe include: Breton striped sweater, cashmere sweater, fitted roll neck, cable knit sweater, V-neck sweater, loungewear hoodie, sweater dress, short cardigan, long cardigan.

shirts for a capsule wardrobe

(Image credit: M&S, Lilysilk, Omnes)

The shirts and blouses you need in your capsule wardrobe

When it comes to the best shirts for your capsule wardrobe there are a few different silhouettes to consider. Opt for classic styles from quality brands to ensure these pieces last. Inject your capsule wardrobe each season with new trend-led prints and colors to refresh your look, but always make sure you have the building block basics covered.

The types of shirts you need in a capsule wardrobe include: White shirt, silk blouse, pussy-bow blouse, statement collar shirt, denim shirt and striped shirt.

Very, Lucy & Yak, Everlane models in jeans

(Image credit: Very, Lucy & Yak, Everlane)

The jeans you need in a capsule wardrobe

Curating your jeans collection for your capsule wardrobe does require some thought. Notoriously tricky to buy, finding the best jeans for your shape can be a nightmare. But, once you do, we advise you exercise some brand loyalty, as it will, in the long run, make your life easier. 

It's also good to remember that when it comes to jeans shapes, not every shape will work for you and that's ok. Like to feel sculpted and shaped? A high-rise waist is what you're after. If you're balancing out a larger bust, look for a wider leg. Meanwhile, everything from kick flares to full flares will draw the eye away and down your body. 

When it comes to how many jeans should be in your capsule wardrobe, there really is no set number. If you live in jeans, you may want two or three of the same cut so you don't wear pairs out too quickly and can rotate. Equally, think about what colors of jeans you need. Lighter blue washes are always seen as more casual, deep indigo without any distressed elements can be worn smartly, but very black jeans will always be the smartest. 

When it comes to buying trend-led jean shapes, these can be injected as and when and are unlikely to form part of the building blocks of your capsule wardrobe. For these pieces, look to straight-to-market brands for cheaper options rather than investing in branded styles. 

The types of jeans you need in a capsule wardrobe include: straight jeans, flared jeans, skinny jeans, ankle cropped jeans, kick flare jeans, dungarees.

Seasalt, John Lewis, Mango models wearing various skirt

(Image credit: Seasalt, John Lewis, Mango)

The skirts you need in a capsule wardrobe

Having a selection of skirts in your capsule wardrobe will help you to maximize your tops. Essentially, building a capsule wardrobe is all about getting good basics together that you can mix and match as this increases the number of possible outfits you can create. 

A bit like with jeans, you want to make sure you've got your basics covered, but after that, you can look for more trend-led iterations to mix up your wardrobe. 

Opting for neutral block colors will always be more versatile, but if you love color and print, you should certainly add these into your building blocks too. And of course, whenever looking to purchase new items, make sure they go with at least three existing pieces in your wardrobe. 

The types of skirts you need in a capsule wardrobe include: Leather skirt, denim skirt, slip skirt, pleated skirt, tulle skirt, maxi skirt, pencil skirt, knitted skirt, midi skirt. 

Zara, Whistes, Warehouse models wearing various trouser styles

(Image credit: Zara, Whistes, Warehouse)

The trousers you need in a capsule wardrobe

Curating the best trousers for your capsule wardrobe is not too dissimilar to sourcing the right jeans. You'll want a selection of styles that work for different occasions and pair them with the existing separates in your wardrobe. The exact cuts you opt for will depend on your body type, but when looking to gather a selection of building blocks for your wardrobe, there are a few key shapes and styles that are useful to have. When you find a great fitting pair of trousers, it's a good idea to get a couple of pairs, as brands change styles regularly and you won't want to be left disappointed. Opt for more neutral hues that will work with lots of items, injecting color and trend-led styles as and when. 

The types of trousers you need in a capsule wardrobe include: Tailored trousers, tuxedo trousers, leather leggings, wide leg trousers, cargo trousers, pajama trousers (not for sleeping in). 

Mango, M&S, AllSaints models in various styles of dresses

(Image credit: Mango, M&S, AllSaints)

The dresses you need in a capsule wardrobe

Dresses are the simplest way to feel put together. While a wardrobe of separates requires some styling, the best dresses and flattering jumpsuits are a full good-to-go outfit - just add shoes and jewelry. When it comes to building your capsule wardrobe of dresses, consider your body type and the shapes that suit you. If you're looking for dresses to highlight an hourglass shape, look for fit and flare or belted silhouettes. Want stylish dresses to hide a tummy? High-waisted styles or ruched iterations will look fantastic. Learn how to wear a wrap dress - to nail one of the most universally flattering fits, while the best shirt dresses always look smart. You might also want to consider the best shapewear under a dress to help sculpt and smooth your silhouette. 

The types of dresses you need in a capsule wardrobe include: Shirt dress, midi dress, little black dress, slip dress, knitted dress, leopard dress.