I used to have a stuffed closet. I actually had two closets. Packed to the gills.
I had so so many pairs of jeans. A zillion tshirts. Formal dresses. Thrift store finds for any occasion, no matter how unlikely. Costumes from every costume party I’d ever attended (and I’ve been to Burning Man). And then there were the boxes and boxes of jewelry. There were clothes I wore until they fell apart and other pieces I wore once or twice…or never.
This is the way most of us are — and this is why it’s so hard to pack light.
Living out of a bag for months at a time has changed the way I dress.
Embrace the capsule wardrobe
The capsule wardrobe is trending pretty hard right now. I’m rarely on trend, but I absolutely love this one.
The idea of a capsule wardrobe is to pull out the clothes you’ll want for a season. Choose pieces you love, that fit you well, and more or less match each other.
Then you put all of your other clothes away. I live in a condo, so they get relegated to the closet in my office. Maybe yours will go into the spare room, basement, or a storage unit. The point is to get them out of your face.
Then there’s no more worrying about what to wear in the morning. No guilt over the things that are too tight right now or that piece that just never seems right. No stressing over whether or not something really matches. Just clothes you like, ready to go.
In a few weeks or months when the weather’s changing and you’re getting tired of your capsule, you go shopping in those clothes you put away. Pieces you forgot about are there waiting for you. Things that didn’t quite fit before fit again. You put together your next capsule and repeat.
Now, after a few capsules you’ll have a better idea of what pieces you’re realistically never going to wear again. You’ll also know what pieces you could really use. You’ll buy less and be happier with what you have.
Less is better when you’re traveling
When we’re packing, we’re always worrying about the unlikely events. What if it snows? What if I get invited to a formal dinner?
I’m going to let you in on a secret: it’s okay to be unprepared.
If you have wet socks for one day or aren’t quite dressed to the nines, you’ll survive. You’ll still have fun, even.
There are very few times when buying something won’t be an option. You can pick up an extra shirt just about anywhere in the world, most of the time at the same chain stores you have at home.
If you’re traveling for long enough, it’s inevitable you’ll buy things on the road. It’s one of the fun parts of going abroad. I’ve also swapped plenty of items with friends on the road when we just couldn’t bear to wear the same things anymore. My sister and I swapped all of our clothes when we met up halfway through our study abroad.
You also don’t want to buy special clothes for traveling. If you’re wilderness camping, sure, you might want performance gear. But nothing is going to make you feel like a dweeb faster than wearing those zip-off pants in public.
Unless you wear Tevas and moisture-wicking fabric normally, you’re not going to want to wear if when you’re on the road.
What to own and pack
Once you’re working with the capsule wardrobe, there’s a ceiling to what you might pack. The most you’ll need to bring for any trip is your capsule for the season, plus maybe an outfit for a special occasion and a bathing suit.
Owning versatile pieces is the key to successfully packing for a trip or putting together a capsule wardrobe, but you don’t have to buy something special. If you find a cool reversible dress that’s great, but there’s no need to buy special things. Sticking with a few colors you really like and a single ‘look’ makes what you already own more versatile.
This is what I’d pack for two weeks or a season:
This might be a flimsy sundress, cut conservatively, or made of heavy material, all depending on the weather and where I’ll be. Jersey dresses are so comfortable and easy to pack. A necklace and flats are enough to pass muster at most semi-formal occasions, from a work dinner to a garden wedding. My favorites are from Loft and Boden, since they have modern classics that are conservative enough for the office while still fitting in at the bar.
A knee length skirt
Somehow a knee length skirt seems dressier than something shorter, making this a work for any occasion. I tend to alternate between A-line and pencil skirts. Loft and even H&M offer these in cotton blends that you can easily roll up for storage and wash by hand.
Sometimes I’ve only brought a single cardigan and regretted it. If it’s likely I’ll end up wearing my sweater every day I know I’ll need to bring two or a sweatshirt.
Black jeans will pass as slacks for almost any occasion. Real denim holds up better than stretchy jeans that lose their shape if you don’t put them in the dryer.
I’m of the belief that a button-down goes with anything. A crisp shirt goes pretty far to making black jeans ready for an important work meeting. Hang the shirt in the bathroom while you shower to get it wrinkle free after you’ve rolled it up for packing.
All of my button-downs have been stolen from my wife, which means they’re probably all from Uniqlo.
Tank tops or t-shirts
If you don’t wear special wool or wicking shirts normally, you don’t need them when you’re traveling.
How many days will you go without being able to wash something in the sink or do laundry? That’s how many shirts you need. Same goes for panties and socks. The right number is probably four.
This is my one exception to my rule that you don’t dress differently for traveling. I would never wear leggings as pants at home, I’ll pair them with a long sweater or under a skirt on a chilly day. Leggings are also what I wear to sleep in a hostel or under my pants if it’s cold enough.
I love scarves. They add color, dress things up, keep me covered, and keep me warm. You can buy a scarf anywhere on your travels, so there’s really no reason to pack one if you want to buy a souvenir.
When I bought my silk sleep sack, the reviews boasted that people would wear it as a head scarf, bathing suit cover up, a skirt, and a top. I’ve owned it for nearly 10 years now and I’ve done all of those things.
I don’t always travel with a blazer, but it works as a light jacket or to dress up my outfit for work meetings. Uniqlo makes machine washable blazers and I have a great one from Modcloth that’s made of sweatshirt fabric.
I can’t live without comfortable shoes, so I’m stuck bringing sneakers or loafers. I like ballet flats that take up no space and are appropriate for just about any occasion. If I’m staying in a hostel I’ll toss in a pair of flip flops, too.
Usually my glasses are my only accessory, but it’s amazing what a necklace can do to make an outfit seem put together. I’ll usually bring one or two necklaces: a classic and then something fun and trendy. If your glasses are funky enough, you don’t need anything else.
In addition to my backpack, I just bring a tote bag. They fold down to nothing and fit anything I need. And there are so many fun designs.
Yes, I own more than just a single one of each of these. I have a couple dresses I rotate — and in the summer I’ll often have two or three dresses on rotation. There’s no need to ruthlessly cull your closet, especially of clothes you love.