If you read a fair amount of lifestyle blogs or fashion blogs, you’ve probably come across the “capsule wardrobe.” While this might feel like a very modern, minimalist response to consumerism and fast fashion, the concept of the capsule wardrobe dates back to the 1970s.
For those of you new to the capsule wardrobe, it’s a very classic (and frankly French) approach to style. Ideally, you build up a wardrobe with just a few high-quality, timeless pieces that mix and match. Each season, you switch to a new “capsule,” although some pieces might overlap. Your accessories can be trendy, but your clothing should all be classic. Eventually, you only need to buy a few things–or even nothing!–each year.
I spent my first three years out of college living out of two large suitcases, more or less. While I bought new clothes during my time spent abroad, at the end of each job, I had to fly back to South Carolina with only two suitcases, each weighing no more than 50 pounds. I mastered the art of mixing and matching my clothes to make new outfits. I developed a very critical eye for both what I could add to my wardrobe and what I should purge from my wardrobe.
Once I moved to Ohio, and I bought my darling antique dresser, I quite inadvertently developed my own “capsule wardrobe,” just with two seasons instead of four. My dresser and my closet only hold half of my clothes, so the other half are tucked away in a single storage box and a second closet.
In fact, the only pieces missing from my fall/winter wardrobe are a black cardigan and white button-up shirt. I’m otherwise quite content with three pairs of jeans, three pairs of leggings, one pair of black slacks, two 3/4-sleeved dresses, four blazers, a good selection of 3/4-sleeved and long-sleeved shirts and sweaters in black, white, and gray, and my collection of solid tanks/tees for layering.
I ended up with a small wardrobe because of limited space. But according to the women who blog about their own capsule wardrobes, they do so as a reaction to owning too much. They are overwhelmed by their clothes and yet still feel like they have nothing to wear. Embracing the capsule wardrobe is their solution to their closet woes. And they’re hardly alone.
What is the cost of fast fashion?
The average American woman buys 52 new items of apparel per year.* Most of that is spent on fast fashion, that is, cheap clothing that won’t last long. As Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed, summarizes:
As clothes have become cheaper, our clothing consumption has gone through the roof. In 1930, the average American woman owned an average of nine outfits. Today, we each buy more than 60 pieces of new clothing on average per year. Our closets are larger and more stuffed than ever, as we’ve traded quality and style for low prices and trend-chasing. In the face of these irresistible deals, our total spending on clothing has actually increased, from $7.82 billion spent on apparel in 1950 to $375 billion today.
But the true cost of fast fashion isn’t the billions of dollars we spend on excessive clothing.
The true cost is the 12.7 million tons of clothing Americans throw away each year.
The true cost is the 168 million child workers worldwide.
What if our capsule wardrobes weren’t about us?
What if we changed our shopping habits not to become more fashionable, but more ethical?
What if we minimized our wardrobes not to make our lives easier, but more sustainable?
What if we stopped putting ourselves first, but instead prioritized the global community?
I don’t claim to have all the answers or to have made all the right choices, for the right reasons. This year alone I’ve bought at least one dress and three skirts in the “fast fashion” category.
But I know I can make better decisions about what I buy, and if you’re reading this, I think you can, too.
So where do we start?
Danielle Vermeer is a blogger who has truly encouraged me to think twice about 1) how much I buy and 2) what I buy. She’s written a great guide on buying ethical fashion on a budget. For more tips about shopping and upcycling, or to learn more about the hazards to garment workers across the globe, check out her ethical fashion tag.
Back in 2013, my friend Christina challenged herself to wear only 7 garments for an entire month. She chose two pairs of shoes, two long-sleeved shirts, one tank top, a pair of jeans, and a skirt. Undergarments and outergarments didn’t count. Instead of limiting your wardrobe to 33 pieces in 3 months, have you thought about going a step further, like Christina?
I totally realize that your circumstances might not be conducive to only wearing 7 garments in a month. For example, when Christina did her challenge, I was living alone and used coin-operated washers and dryers. I would have spent a fair amount of money and wasted a lot of water washing just my clothes. I was also working part-time at JCP and needed some variety in my work wardrobe. But now that I do my laundry with Dan’s, with our own washer and dryer, and I work from home? I could easily only wear 7 garments for an entire month.
But her thoughts on what is a NEED vs. a WANT are truly worth a read. It’s so easy to think we need new clothes when we really don’t. Even for special occasions, the sort of circumstances when we rationalize only wearing something a few times, we can be more conscious of how much we buy. I’ve worn the same pair of gold wedges now to four weddings in two years. I wore my favorite sundress for my 26th birthday, to my cousin’s wedding, and for my own wedding rehearsal.
Finally, consider this from “The True Price of Fast Fashion” at Bust Magazine:
So should we spend our dollars only at small businesses and avoid the cheap, often-exploitative brands altogether? It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s still idealistic and financially inaccessible for most. Elizabeth L. Cline, in her 2012 book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, proposes some solutions to worker exploitation and overconsumption, such as teaching proper mending and laundering techniques, sewing one’s own clothing, buying vintage, and shopping at local stores. Cline also suggests “shopping less and with more intention.” In 2013, the average American bought 70 pieces of clothing a year—more than one piece a week. But instead of buying four cheap tops each month, we could spend that cash on one well-made shirt by an indie designer. It’d require a shift in the way we think about our wardrobes, but it’s not an impossible goal.
If you’ve ever lived with me, you know how fastidious I am with my laundry. Because of that, even my forays into fast fashion are still in good condition. A few wardrobe pieces date back to my high school days–and my 10-year reunion will be next summer.
Final Thoughts on Fast Fashion and Capsule Wardrobes
This post isn’t meant to claim moral superiority, to set hard & fast rules about shopping, or to shame anyone who uses a capsule wardrobe. It’s to admit my own self-centered thinking about my wardrobe and to encourage EVERYONE, including me, to shop more intentionally.
Our individual choices might not matter that much, but, together, we can make a difference.
Believe it or not, I actually got the inspiration for this post from the monthly prompt at The Circle link-up! I didn’t actually write about my 5-10 essentials…
*I have quoted two other articles that state the number is higher. The claim that we buy 60 or 70 articles per year is 1) from different years and 2) don’t include supporting data in the article. I decided to cite 52 even though the data is from 2011 because the article breaks down the data to come up with that number.