What Is A Capsule Wardrobe? blog graphic

There are tons of benefits to a capsule wardrobe. AND there are tons of myths, misconceptions, and rules (plus a lot of guidelines that sound a lot like rules). So I wanted to take a moment and walk you through some of the basics of “what is a capsule wardrobe?”

At its heart a capsule wardrobe is a math problem played out in clothing. 

The basic math of a capsule wardrobe:

The very simplest math of a capsule wardrobe can be boiled down to: 

X tops * Y bottoms * Z shoes = Q outfits 

For example: 7 tops * 3 bottoms * 2 shoes = 42 outfits. 

Every outfit needs a top, a bottom and a pair of shoes to be complete. You multiply your tops, by your bottoms, by your shoes to get the number of theoretical outfits you can achieve from this pile of clothes.

That’s the very basic math of “what is a capsule wardrobe?” 

The art is melding the math with your personal style to maximize the number of usable outfits. Capsule wardrobe math gives us theoretical outfits, the art of personal styling gives us usable outfits. (This is why having help helps.

A brief detour into building snack baggies

Let’s use an example that doesn’t involve clothing. 

Imagine you’re packing snack baggies. You have 7 types of apples, 3 types of carrots, and 2 types of grapes. Each bag needs one type of apple, one type of carrot, and one type of grape. How many varieties of snack baggies can you make? 

7 types of apples * 3 types of carrots * 2 types of grapes = 42 varieties of snack bags 

That is the math of snack baggie making. Now for the art. 

Let’s say you have strong apple preferences. You love Green Granny Smith Apples and most other apples with practically anything, but you only like Gala Apples, Pink Lady Apples, and Golden Delicious Apples with two of the carrot types and one of the grapes. 

This changes the math it means you have: 

4 types of apples that you like with most things * 3 types of carrots * 2 types of grapes = 24 varieties of snack bags 


3 types of apples you are a little pickier about (Gala Apples, Pink Lady Apples, and Golden Delicious Apples) * 2 types of carrots * 1 type of grape = 6 varieties of snack bags 

For a TOTAL of 30 varieties of snack bags that you actually like and wear, I mean, eat… That’s 12 fewer snack bag varieties than the original theoretical 42 types of snack bags.  

So you have a couple options. You could: 

  • Optimize: swap out the Gala Apples, Pink Lady Apples, and Golden Delicious Apples for apples that you like with more carrot/grape combinations. Or…
  • Accept: you’ve done a pretty good job maximizing the number of outfits, I mean, snack bags, you have. Go about your life with your snack options.

What is a capsule wardrobe?

A capsule wardrobe is a tightly curated collection of clothing.

A capsule wardrobe maximizes the number of outfits from the smallest number of clothing items. 

Successful capsule wardrobes also maximize the percentage of outfits that fit your style, fit your lifestyle, and that you like to wear.

It also might help to think about this like an input-output ratio. You want to put in the fewest items of clothing, to get out a maximized number of wearable outfits. 

This input-output optimization is where the potential of capsule wardrobes gets very unintuitive very quickly. 

The explosive math of a capsule is simple multiplication to create a mind blowing number of options.

The beauty of a capsule wardrobe is in the optimization potential. In an optimized capsule wardrobe every item goes with every other item – this makes the possibilities astonishing. You don’t need an endless wardrobe to have a plethora of options. 

Starting with a 12 piece capsule wardrobe: 

We worked with the example of a 12 piece capsule made up of 7 tops, 3 bottoms, and 2 pairs of shoes earlier, so let’s keep building on that.

Remember: 7 tops * 3 bottoms * 2 shoes = 42 outfits. 

And remember from the snack baggie example, we want a significant number of those outfits/snack bags to be varieties we like and will gladly wear/eat. 

Let’s start experimenting with the number of items that we include in our wardrobe. 

If we were to remove a pair of shoes: 7 tops * 3 bottoms * 1 shoes = 21 outfits. This dramatically lowers the number of outfits we have access to. 

A 15 piece capsule wardrobe – example #1:

What about adding that pair of shoes back in, and adding 3 new tops to round out our capsule wardrobe to 15 items of clothing? 

10 tops * 3 bottoms * 2 shoes = 60 outfits. That gives us 18 more outfit options from 15 pieces of clothing. That’s good but not great. Let’s try something else. 

A 15 piece capsule wardrobe – example #2: 

What if we go back our original 7 tops and 2 pairs of shoes, but add another bottom? 

7 tops * 4 bottoms * 2 shoes = 56 outfits. That’s one extra piece of clothing from our original 12 items, but an additional 14 outfits. That’s a very high leverage additional piece of clothing, so let’s keep it. 

Now our 13 piece capsule wardrobe has 7 tops * 4 bottoms * 2 shoes = 56 outfits. 

Notice we just have tops, bottoms, and shoes, we haven’t added in any outer layer like jackets or sweaters. So let’s add in one jacket and one sweater. 

Now we have a different 15 piece capsule again: 7 tops * 4 bottoms * 2 shoes * 2 outer layers (our sweater and our jacket). 

That gives us all the outfit permutations of our tops, bottoms, shoes, and outer layers: 

7 tops * 4 bottoms * 2 shoes * 2 outer layer = 112 outfits 

PLUS the outfit options without an outer layer: the 56 outfits from just styling the tops, bottoms, and shoes together. 

For a TOTAL theoretical outfit count of 168 outfits. From 15 pieces of clothing. 

That is significantly more outfits than the 15 piece capsule wardrobe of 10 tops * 3 bottoms * 2 shoes = 60 outfits. 

And if your capsule wardrobe is well designed, the majority of those 168 outfits will be outfits that you love to wear and that fit your style.

Troubleshooting your capsule wardrobe:

This is why my first suggestion when you’re bored of your capsule wardrobe is to add one or two new pieces. 

If one or two new pieces of clothing doesn’t significantly increase the number and variety of outfits in your capsule wardrobe, one of two things is usually happening. Either…

  1. You need to choose higher leverage items of clothing to add (remember the 108 outfit difference between our two 15 piece capsule wardrobes). 
  2. There’s a disconnect between the theoretical number of outfits your capsule produces and the actual number of outfits your capsule produces that you like to wear and that fit your style. Try building your wardrobe to your true-to-you personal style rather than your fantasy style.

Wrap up point #1: large capsule wardrobes (think 30+ pieces) aren’t usually optimized capsule wardrobes.

An optimized capsule wardrobe with dozens of items of clothing can quickly give you theoretical outfit numbers in the tens-of-thousands of outfits. That gets overwhelming quickly.

Often the phrase “capsule wardrobe” is used when the speaker is really referring to a small highly curated wardrobe – but not an optimized capsule wardrobe. 

Key point to remember: you don’t have to have a capsule wardrobe. (Here’s a post all about deciding if a capsule wardrobe is worth the effort for you.)

If you don’t want this highly optimized capsule you don’t have to have one. Which brings me to wrap up point #2.

Wrap up point #2: a capsule wardrobe is not the solution to every style problem.

As much as I love capsule wardrobes, they aren’t the solution to every style problem. 

Some people don’t want a capsule wardrobe. Some lifestyles don’t lend themselves to a capsule wardrobe. And that’s ok!

You might find you want a small core capsule wardrobe that you can turn to during lazy mornings or busy times of life. Or you might find a uniform is more your style than a capsule. You also might find you prefer having your go-to outfit recipes and just focus on having clothes that fit those recipes. Or you might really like putting together and styling outfits each morning. 

Those are also all great personal style tools to turn to. 

And don’t forget, if this is overwhelming but still enticing, reach out and see if working together is a good option. I love helping people build their capsule wardrobes starting with what’s in their closet and expanding or adding items as needed.