Advice: Creating a Capsule Work Wardrobe


A few days ago I got an email from Feli who lives in Berlin and is about to start a new job at a design company. She wanted some advice on how to build a work wear wardrobe from scratch and on a limited budget. I decided to post my reply here on my blog, because I thought some of you guys might be in the same situation.

This is what Feli wrote me: Hey Anuschka, I recently graduated from university and just got a full-time job at a design company, which I will start next month. At my interview I saw that everyone there dressed in a smart-casual kind of way, heels, blazers, etc. In my everyday life I dress a lot more casual, I like my Doc Martens and Converse, so I am kinda anxious about what to wear for work. I just read your post on quality versus quantity for wardrobe planning and I definitely want to adopt the same approach, but right now I don't have enough money to buy a whole new wardrobe of high-quality clothes. Can you help me?" My reply:

Dear Feli,

congratulations on your new job! I'm glad you wrote me, because I will probably be in the same situation in a couple of months: new job with a different dress code than what I wear normally and not enough money to buy a completely new set of clothes right away. Of course, one solution is to buy lots of cheap stuff but that would be a waste of money if you eventually want to base your wardrobe on fewer high-quality garments. I have a couple of ideas for you.

Collect ideas for your new office look The first thing that you should do is decide on the general style of your new work wardrobe. Since you will be working at a design company their dress code is probably not super strict, so you definitely have some freedom to incorporate your own style and mix it with their 'office style'. One way to do this is to adjust your usual look to your new work environment's level of 'dressiness'. This way you can still wear a lot of your normal clothes as long as you combine them properly, i.e. by adding the right things (office-y items like some chic heels and a blazer) or leaving out very casual or edgy things (like frayed jeans or trainers). Make a mental, online or paper-based mood board if you want to. Think about which textures, colours and proportions you like that are also appropriate for your new job.

Check what you already have Go through all of your clothes and pick out the items that fit the general style you just decided upon. You will probably own quite a lot of tops that you can wear for your job; choose everything that's either simple or relatively elegant. You might have fewer shoes, bottoms and jackets than tops that fit your criteria, but that's ok because you can wear them a lot more often than your tops.

Create a capsule wardrobe The best way to make sure you have enough to wear is to create a capsule wardrobe, consisting of a minimum number of basics and key items that you can combine into lots of different outfits. Choose a certain time frame in which you don't want to repeat outfits. I would choose 3 weeks, so that makes 15 days for which I would need different outfits (items can of course be worn more than once, combined in different ways). Decide how many items of each category you need to create that number of outfits. The two things to consider here are how often you wash your clothes and how well your individual items can be combined. If you do laundry every week then technically you would only need five different tops, but you might prefer to have a couple extra. To get the highest number of outfit options out of your capsule wardrobe, aim to have more tops than bottoms, and make sure that your key items (shoes, bottoms, jackets) can all be combined with each other, i.e. most of them should have relatively neutral colours and patterns. For three weeks' worth of outfits (15 work days) I suggest having at least

  • 8 tops (tees or knits, depending on the season)
  • 3 pairs of shoes
  • 3 jackets (to wear as outerwear or over your tops)
  • 5 trousers/skirts

You will also need at least one bag; if you don't already own a classic one that goes with everything, make that a priority. Remember that the wardrobe you are building now is only temporary; you can always expand it once you have saved up a bit more money.

Note down missing items Check how many of the above items you already own; you might find that you actually already have most of what you need. But if there is only e.g. one pair of work-appropriate shoes in your wardrobe, you will have to go shopping :) It is probably best to stick to relatively basic colours and cuts for your capsule wardrobe (at least until you have a good stock of basics). Timeless essentials like simple heels, mid-heel ankle boots, a black blazer or a sleek skirt are always good investments, plus you can also wear them for other occasions. Carefully select every garment you buy and aim for the highest quality you can afford. If you have a budget of 200€ you can definitely buy 2-4 good quality mid-price items. Also, make sure that you have all those little extras like nude bras or short socks. Nothing is worse than being excited about wearing a new shirt for the first time and then noticing that it's way too see-through once you're at a work.

Plan in advance If you can, keep your work wardrobe in a separate area in your closet, just to make it easier to pick out outfits in the morning when you haven't yet established a routine. Create a little wear-to-work area in your closet's hanging space and on a near-by shelf and just mix-and-match with the items in there. The first weeks at your new job will be busy enough, so it's a good idea to plan a few outfits in advance. Simply note down some combinations or try them on and snap a quick picture for reference.

You don't need to spend lots of cash on clothes when you're starting a new job. In most cases, the thought you put into your wardrobe is worth more than a huge budget.

Click here to read A Minimalist Approach to Personal Style.