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The Foolproof Formula for Living Out of a Carry-On

My method is simple

04.10.17

I have written at great length on why traveling with a carry-on suitcase is the superior choice for various scenarios including Paris Fashion Week, a summer trip to Spain and, now, a week-long, part business/part casual stay in Sonoma, Napa Valley and San Francisco.

My method is simple: I pack in outfits, or rather do: X dress for Monday, Y shorts and Z T-shirt for Monday night; X pants and Y sweater for Tuesday, Z jacket, X T-shirt and Y jeans for Tuesday night and the list goes on. But lately, I’ve found this formula to betray me. When you’re trying to fit as much stuff as possible into a carry-on, you want to think: least amount of clothes to yield highest number of outfits. This means packing shit that can be re-worn and staying away from one-time-use dresses or jackets or dramatic sweatshirts with tails that really have no place being packed anyway.

The thing is, I hate the idea that I would just pack a bunch of shit into a suitcase that I think I like, that I might possibly want to wear, only to find, when I reach my destination and am all unpacked and ready to change, I’m singing the frustrated-girl theme song: I have nothing to wear. I am a fickle woman who wants to experience the entire range of human emotions, so it’s hard to say what I will want to wear in the future based on what I want to wear right now. Such a profound problem, right? Someone at Harvard should be working on this case study. But I digress — you have to be meticulous. To pack the right kinds of things and to know yourself well enough to know you’re a volatile battery who sometimes, even after spending a full night in the charger, wakes up at 30%.

The easiest way to do this is to pull from the foolproof items in your wardrobe — the reliable silhouettes that make you feel great no matter when or why you wear them. That’s a button-down and some form of bottom for me, so for California I packed:

4 button-down shirts

1 pair of jeans

2 pairs of shorts

1 loudmouth mini skirt (zebra-print)

I assumed I would do some form of physical activity every morning so I added:

3 pairs of leggings

1 sweater (and I managed to wear two on the plane)

2 T-shirts

For the vacation portion of the trip, spent in wine country, I added:

3 dresses

1 pair linen pants

1 light tweed jacket (I wore a utility jacket on the plane)

There were also:

4 pairs of shoes

According to my mathematic estimations, the number of garments listed above would yield anywhere between 19 and 32 completely different outfits depending on how ambitious I planned to be and whether I considered a simple shoe change a completely different outfit (I did). But I would only be away for a week, and would at most require three outfits per day (athleisure included), which meant the maximum number of outfits I needed to hit was 21.

In the end, I hit 18 (only 16 are documented because the bookend looks are travel days), but feel absolutely confident I could have lived at least another ten days out of that suitcase.

So, in conclusion: I have a lot more stuff than I need in my closet.

When I’m forced to work within tight boundaries, I am often more creative and thus better outfits emerge.

Slow fashion is still important; clothes are not one-and-done produce. They’re made to be worn and re-worn. Over and over again.

And finally, maybe intentionally “living out of a suitcase” could be the new dream.

Update: Lots of questions about what kind of suitcase I use — probably would have made sense to include a photo but what do I know about making sense so on and so forth. This is the suitcase. (A good time to get fancy luggage is when you’re registering for your marriage, law degree, celebration of life, etc.)

Photos via Leandra Medine.

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  • Elli rvs

    I love your travel/suitcase posts! please could we see (or at least have descriptions of) the travel outfits? these are the ones I need help with!

    • Leandra Medine

      ooooooooooh good feedback. I wore the same outfit there and back: a pair of the jeans, one of the sweater, a utility jacket + another sweater around my shoulders and a pair of very dramatic furry slippers which I thought would come much more in handy than they did.

      • Elli rvs

        ace, thanks!

  • Pandora Sykes

    TBF this is actually a lot of clothes. I reckon you are savvy about a) bulk b) toiletries and hair tools and c) cameras and books. That’s where my wide load accumulates

    • Leandra Medine

      Oh yes, I just take the camera attached to my phone and 1 book (in this case newly released old essays by Joan Didion) – I also forgo hair tools mostly and just bring a defrizz serum + hairbrush. What do you take?

      • Harling Ross

        what defrizz serum !

        • G De Siena

          What newly released old Didion essays!

          • Leandra Medine

            South and west!

        • Leandra Medine

          Bumble and bumble defrizz

    • Hellbetty666

      I hear this. When I’m packing for festivals, I can keep my actual outer garments to a minimum, but then I add socks (OTK socks are space munchers), pants and a spare bra (big knockers means big bras!), and I have to sit on my case to close it!

    • Kris D

      Same. Even if I decant/depot where possible, and get tiny versions of everything (contact lens solution, toothpaste, etc.) in total, it all inevitably takes up a lot of space.

  • Mary

    Obsessed w everything now wondering what type of suitcase you use

  • Sarah Crowe

    I know you talked so much about what was in this carry on, but what is your carry on of choice? It takes the right bag to fit all of this!! xx

  • Jean

    All this def did not fit in a carry on in my opinion.. specially rosie assoulin pieces.. they’re quite hefty and long. False title..

    • Ma

      If you know what you’re doing it definitely fits! It’s a matter of knowing where to put stuff on the bag – for instance, shoes always go on the sides, even when they don’t look like they’ll fit (they always do)

      • I became an accomplished packer for my spouse when he was a road dog. He learned by repacking on the other end. Roll everything. Packing for cold is about the same; wear the boots and the sweaters on the plane (now and then they still have room to hang your coat up front).
        At one point, I went away for a week, packed in the bag I used as a diaper bag when we traveled with the kids.

    • Leandra Medine

      The pieces I brought are all pretty flimsy/lightweight fabrics and packed pretty well. Definitely more difficult to pack carry on when you’re going somewhere cold. Wish I had forced my husband to take one of me at airport, my mistake!

  • ANNIE

    What brand of carry on luggage do you swear by? Need to know! All hands on deck for this one as I am looking for the perfect carry on right now…

  • Natty

    I love the message here. Less is more to a thoughtful consumer. Well done!

  • estheresther

    Take it from someone who actually lived out of a suitcase for months (happens when you move via plane but don’t stay long enough to justify cargo shipping)… it gets boring

  • Suzan

    I love these kind of travel wardrobe breakdowns so much! They’re like capsule collections. I love organized stuff in general. So wholesome.
    So thanks Leandra for letting us sneak a peek!

  • Gracie H

    I like leandran

  • Erika Galan

    Love this.. Have to revisit the next time I head to Sonoma <3 P.S. FARMHOUSE INN <3<3<3<3<3

    Also, would love to read more about the talk you gave in San Fran!

  • Samantha Lee

    I always travel with only a carry-on so much as I can help it. It’s so FREEING. To help with the “will I want to wear this a week from now” question, I plan each outfit and try on every single one (with correct bra and shoes included) to make sure they each work and that I’ll be comfortable wearing them. I really want to try the 10×10 challenge to help spark some creativity in my closet too.

    http://www.wonderlandsam.com

  • Sarah

    These combos are spectacular. you always look good, but I find these looks like things I can actually pull off. Maybe it’s because you’re in my state. Whatever the case, I’m very inspired. Thank you.

  • Adrianna

    A couple of months ago I managed to pack for three countries and three different types of temperatures in a carry-on – including a puffy parka for the Arctic Circle. (Temperatures in humid 60s, 30-40s, and -10 degrees fahrenheit)

    I sat on top of my suitcase and prayed it wouldn’t burst every time I packed.

  • I only ever travel with a carry on, and a little one at that because I use a backpack and quite a lot of the cheaper airlines are very strict. I definitely use a similar formula for packing clothes, but I’m not sure I could fit quite as many in!

    – Natalie
    http://www.workovereasy.com

  • Andy

    i’m going on a short trip next week and will definitely try this! where does all your skincare go though? (thats my bulk!)

    • Leandra Medine

      In a small pink pouch inside a handbag (more like a tote) – computer goes there too

  • me

    Every time you travel anywhere from now on, please do a post just like this !

    (p.s. Thanks for the pix, Abie : )

  • starryhye

    Packing only a carry-on is so stressful to me! I find that I can eliminate a lot of my travel anxiety by just saying “screw it” and packing a big suitcase to check. I like options!…Even though you and I both know I’m going to wear the same 5 pieces all week long :/

  • joan

    Loved this especially as I have a bunch of trips on horizon and also only do carry-on. I would love to see more packing posts with different people’s lists!

  • Kathy Wang

    I’m a student @ Harvard and we actually ARE working on this case study — in real life during every weekend jetsetting trip 😉

  • i once interviewed a really cool journalist that traveled only with this tiny little red carry on (for WEEKS at a time) and it totally changed my life. this just solidifies that so TY LEANDRA

  • pamb

    I think I need to see a picture of how you pack the clothes in the suitcase. Just got back from Spring Break with my family. Three suitcases for 4 people, and we even did two loads of laundry!

    • Leandra Medine
      • pamb

        Kind of… I think what would be interesting is a shot standing over the suitcase with every layer (see me telling you what to do, lol :0) So base layer is xx, next layer is xx, assuming the Chanel and Rosie pieces were near the top…

        Did you end up having to do a lot of ironing?

        I think packing is a skill that you have definitely mastered!

  • Anja

    Leandra, may I ask where the bag from the outfit of night 6 (in the back, on the chair) is from? Regards from Berlin.

    • Leandra Medine

      Yes! The big tote? It is Nancy Gonzalez

  • nidhicat

    I’m blown away by the amount of things you fit in your carry-on…I’m actually traveling to NYC for the first time as a real! adult! this May and I was wondering if Team MR has any suggestions for newbies to the city – what should I pack for a week in NYC? If you were visiting NYC, what would you pack?

  • Marta Millere

    Love this! I’ve found that button-downs are really versatile: they work really well over t-shirts, dresses and by themselves.
    What I find most difficult is how wrinkled even the most carefully packet garment looks 🙁 I’m always asking for irons at hotels, my friends find it really odd.

  • Basil

    One thing I learned is – no matter how short the trip, always bring at least one spare top and bottom. I learned the hard way in my first weekend away with my husband, where I just decided to take the jeans I was wearing and as we arrived, I got out the car and they ripped all across the butt. We then had to spend ages trying to buy me trousers. Not the best start to the trip ..

  • Hannah Betts

    Agree with Pandora. Plus three (one worn) pairs of shoes and a tweed jacket would be the limits of my carry-on. Can we see you engaging in your laws-of-physics-defying packing?

  • Wendy Dewar Hughes

    That’s a lot of clothes! Years ago I travelled around Europe for a month with a backpack. I took one shirt, one sweater, a pair of jeans and a pair of cords (it was fall), a sleeveless leotard that doubled as a swimsuit and the dressy top with a skirt, one flowy cotton skirt, a pair of walking shoes and a pair of sandals, a couple of T-shirts, and a stretch dress that doubled as a nightgown and a beach cover-up. I included a few pairs of underwear and a couple of pairs of socks, plus toiletries, towel and washcloth, and a jacket. Everything washed and dried quickly and easily and I never missed having a lot of choice. Who does when you’re on the Algarve or the Côte D’Azure?

  • Elizabeth Van Schaick Armstron

    I am going to Scotland for 8 days at the end of June, and I have been pondering and pondering what to bring. Any site-specific advice would be welcome. At first, I thought “it will be summer…” (i.e. shorts time)… but I was counseled that “summer” does not mean quite the same thing in Scotland. I have been told it can be cold or blustery and partly rainy. I have been told “layers” by numerous people. I have been told it is more like Maine in the summer. I am imagining it could be like Iceland, where (at least in the fall when I was there) the local weather conditions change five or six times a day. The “everything fully mix-and-matchable’ point seems like the best start. It’s a bit confounding, because: 1. I want to remember to choose for comfort and not take risky or impractical items, BUT I don’t want to look completely schlumpy casual or thoroughly sporty. I want to look a bit put together/sharp, with a little pop… but not overly structured. 2. I want to be prepared for various situations from tourist sites, churches, museums?, local pub to outdoor walks… I want to have realistic yet on-trend items for ‘touristing’… BUT I have no desire to get overdetermined with the utility/military/cargo/olive green phenomenon. 3. We probably will not be going to an upscale dinner place unless my husband and I make a point of escaping for one, so no need for cocktail dress plus accoutrements BUT I do feel I should bring a dress of some kind that will survive packing and preferably can do double/triple styling duty. (just got BCBG short knit mosaic print crewneck dress). 4. Shoe options?!?!?! (beyond one sneaker, one nice flat). 5. Are traditional jean jackets in or out now?
    Taking only a carryon only would be a great idea… IF the trip were only four days… and btw, sorry (not sorry), not spending $615 for a suitcase. But I am looking for an attractive backpack.

  • HELP. I’m going on a trip in May: 6 days to NYC and 2 weeks on a cruise around Europe. Do you think it’s possible to travel with just a carry on?

    • Heather Chambers

      If the cruise will have laundry facilities, absolutely

  • Kris D

    Some things that also work for me as far as this goes is I also decide on a “travel palette” in advance. For me what works is to lay out some initial ideas on the bed, then start culling/arranging them. I usually build around black and grey, then throw in pieces with a chosen accent colour – maybe olive, coral, navy – whatever seems to suit, but it ends up being things I can layer or mix very freely so that I can accommodate any change of mind. Then I add in some light, smaller items – an extra scarf, necklace, perhaps an extra clutch that lies flat and is easily packed, so that my bigger shoulder bag can stay in the room on longer days out. And I love your Brics bag! I have red Brics duffle-type bag; it was a great investment – it’s several years old now and it just doesn’t die.

  • tiabarbara

    Leandra, I thought you’d like to know (read as: be proud of me pls) that I packed my 2 week European holiday inside a carry on.