I hate my sweater. It’s a perfectly fine sweater upon first glance: a classic navy wool-blend crew. But I’ve been relying on it a lot recently, and it’s showing the wear. Pills line the front and litter the undersides of the sleeves. I had high expectations for this sweater, an expensive designer purchase that, at the time, I believed was an “investment.” My anger at it exemplifies all of my issues with our culture’s current worship of the capsule wardrobe.
Two hundred years ago or so, most everyone had a version of what we now preciously refer to as a “capsule wardrobe” — a handful of dresses and coats, a few shirts, jackets and pants — all made of natural fabrics such as linen, wool or cotton, none of this fabric-blend nonsense. People spent more time caring for their clothes, and a greater percentage of their income on a fewer number of garments. Prior to the invention of the sewing machine in the mid-1800s, clothes were stitched by hand — the original made-to-measure.
Most trend pieces I’ve read in magazines about test-driving a capsule wardrobe have the same conceit and follow the same pattern. The writer selects 10 or so *new* pieces, and mixes and matches for a period of time — two weeks, a month, you get the drift. In my experience, a capsule wardrobe means coming to terms with the crappy quality of most of your clothes — feeling frustrated by this, yet resigned to assembling some sort of look daily out of the handful of neutral-ish pieces in your arsenal that have made the cut.
The founding principle of the capsule wardrobe is fewer, nicer things. But you can’t always equate cost with quality. In 2015, The Atlantic made a splash with an article titled “The Case for Expensive Clothes.” The next time you buy something, spend a whole lot on it,” writes author Marc Bain. “Enough that it makes you sweat a little.” Bain goes on to clarify that there’s really no way, though, to know if your hard-spent cash is actually going towards a superior product; that along the way, some workers were likely exploited and that the industry is rife with cost-cutting.
Morning hair, capsule looks, confused dog.
My “capsule” consists of more or less of the following pieces that, as of now, haven’t let me down: two denim shirts (OG Current/Elliott; vintage), a handful of 100% cotton jeans (my favorites are Golden Goose and The Row), a few sweaters (the best is Vivienne Westwood and the rest are blah), gray sweatshirts (who cares where these are from, they’re filler), linen tees of various origins and like, one pair of Isabel Marant Dicker boots that have been resoled many times. The criteria for making it into the capsule are strict: clothes must feel trend-less, must be able to withstand multiple wears and washes, and must mix well with others. The benefits of this system are that I can, in a few minutes, be ready to leave my apartment and head to work. There’s no dallying as I try on colorful, fanciful creations in front of a mirror; I know what I’m dealing with. It’s like eating oatmeal for breakfast every day: reliable, easy, boring.
I didn’t plan this capsule. It just kind of happened as my life rambled along. I moved from NYC to LA to Miami to NYC again (don’t do this), which caused me to shed a lot of possessions along the way. Living in hot weather climates for five years meant I had a limited quantity of fall and winter-appropriate garments that stood the test of time. Moving sight-unseen into a Williamsburg apartment with — surprise! — no closets meant that I didn’t really have room in my life for anything superfluous. I’m like Marie Kondo, but everything sparks meh instead of joy because I’ve been exposed to it all so often for so long.
Perhaps more interesting than what’s actually survived my scrutiny is what this mode of dressing has done to my brain and the way I look at clothing. Being of limited time and space has made me incredibly intolerant of inferior quality. Unfortunately, it’s hard to suss out whether or not a tee or a sweater or some jeans will actually withstand years of wear. Because if I am, like The Atlantic suggests, to invest my hard-earned cash on something, it better not start breaking down after a few months.
The longer I go without shopping, the more I wring my hands before purchases. My go-to pieces might be boring and a little shabby, but they also feel like trusted friends. That’s what’s confounding about this whole concept: either I’m bored or I’m drowning in a pile of stuff. What do you think of the concept of a capsule? Is it too limiting — or the ultimate goal?
Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.