20 Pieces 20 Outfits: How to build a versatile capsule wardrobe for college

Before I get into today’s post I want to say a huge THANK YOU to everyone who nominated me for the Bloglovin’ Awards this year! INTO MIND is one of the finalists in the Best Life Improvement Blog category, which is super exciting! If you want to vote, click here.

Now, let’s talk about college wardrobes! I’ve gotten lots of requests for this one and although my own college/university experience ended almost 3 years ago, I still remember how tiny dorm closets are and how hard it is to fit everything you could possibly need for a whole term/semester into one (or several) suitcases.

That’s why in this post I’ve collected all of my best tips and techniques for building a small, but super versatile wardrobe, or in other words: a capsule wardrobe.

If you’re a new reader, here’s a quick recap of that idea: A capsule wardrobe is basically just a small-ish wardrobe of 20-40 pieces that suit your style and lifestyle perfectly and that you can mix and match to create a ton of different outfits. Creating a capsule wardrobe takes a little more work initially because you really want to consider what type of things you’ll need clothes for and carefully select all of your pieces, but once it’s done you’ll never again have nothing to wear and getting ready in the morning will be super quick and easy (= a major plus when you’re a college student ;))

The image at the top is an example of what a 20-piece college capsule wardrobe could look like (scroll down to the end of the post to see 20 outfits that you can create with those 20 pieces), but bear in mind that your perfect college wardrobe may well be completely different to mine, your friend’s or your room mate’s. And that’s because, above all, your wardrobe should be tailored to your unique personal style…. which brings me to my first point:

Why heading off to college is one of THE best opportunities to rethink your style

One huge factor that keeps people from trying new things and dressing how they like, is a fear of how their friends, family or co-workers will respond to their new look. Whether that fear is warranted or not is a different story, but as a freshman or new grad student you’re in a pretty unique position, because guess what: nobody around you knows how you usually dress. So if you’ve been stuck in a rut of jeans and neutrals, but really have been yearning for dresses, patterns and bright colours: now is the time to go for it!

And even if you’re a sophomore/junior/senior: A new school year is always a fresh slate and a chance to reinvent yourself.

As a student, you don’t have to worry about following a company dress code yet, and that alone makes your college years the perfect time to experiment, try on different hats and really hone in on your personal style.

Before you put together your capsule wardrobe, take a bit of time to figure out how you want to dress this school year. And then think about how you could implement that look using the clothes you already own and perhaps a few new additions, if your budget allows for that. If you like, you can even put together a little mood board to reflect the overall look you are going for, to give yourself a visual to refer back to whenever you need outfit inspiration.

If you need more help in the style department or want to revamp your look from scratch, check out this post or the INTO MIND workbook.

5 tips for building a versatile college capsule wardrobe

1. Get super specific about what types of activities you’ll need clothes for

Being in college equals being super busy. You have classes, seminars and meetings to go to. You may have a part-time job, play a sport or be a member of a club or several. You’ll apply for internships and attend interviews, company events or conferences. And of course you’ll go to parties, tons of social events and between that you also have some studying to do :) To make sure you take all of your different activities into account while building your wardrobe, try this:

Write a list of every main activity or occasion you’ll need clothes for this semester/term, roughly what type of clothes you want to wear and an estimate of how many times a month or week you’ll wear an outfit for each.

Your list could look like this:

  • Studying/class - Comfy daytime clothes (flats, jeans or A-line skirts) - 7x a week
  • Assistant job at XYZ institute - Smart casual (regular clothes, but no jeans or sneakers) - 1x a week
  • Interviews and conferences - smart/professional (suit or blazer-skirt combo + brogues or simple pumps) - 3x this term
  • Parties, nightlife - casual, but slightly more dressed up (no sneakers or jeans, simple camisoles + skirts) - 3x a week

Having a super clear profile of your lifestyle like this will not only make it so much easier to choose practical, wearable pieces for your wardrobe, it will also help you get the distributions right and keep you from filling up too much valuable closet space with things you’d rarely get to wear during the term.

2. Use your favourite outfit formulas as the starting off point to build your wardrobe

An easy way to put together a basic structure for your capsule wardrobe is to use outfit formulas as the starting off point. Choose a couple of different ones, for example “Boyfriend jeans + tank top + boxy jacket + brogues” and “ Flared skirt + t-shirt + ankle boots", and then figure out how many versions/pieces of each “ingredient” you want to pack. For example:

  • boyfriend jeans - 3
  • tank top - 4
  • boxy jacket - 3
  • brogues - 2
  • flared skirt - 3
  • t-shirt - 5
  • ankle boots - 2

The idea here is that by having different versions of each ingredient in your wardrobe (for example in different colours), you can mix and match them in tons of different ways. For this example, if you only bring 2 versions for each ingredient of a 4-piece outfit formula (i.e. 2 pairs of boyfriend jeans, 2 tank tops, 2 jackets and 2 pairs of brogues), you’ll have 16 different outfits to choose from. To see lots of examples of outfit formulas and learn more about how to use them, click here (Spring/Summer) or here (Fall/Winter).

For more thoughts on how to choose how many pieces to pack per item type, skip down to Tip 5: Get rid of laundry bottlenecks in this post.

3. Build your wardrobe around a colour palette

A fool-proof strategy for making sure your wardrobe is as mixable as possible is to build it around a cohesive palette of colours that all go well with each other. Check out this post for a complete guide to selecting a versatile colour palette.

4. Choose pieces that are super easy to care for

No one likes doing laundry in college and if you are like most people, you’ll put off having to lug all of your dirty clothes across the halls (if you’re lucky) or across campus (if you are unlucky) for as long as possible. To simplify the process and make it as hassle-free as possible you need clothes that are low-maintenance. Avoid taking anything that needs to be dry-cleaned, hand-washed or is super delicate. And: Since you probably have to pay for every individual laundry cycle, it’s a good idea to also avoid anything that needs to be washed separately or with a special type of detergent.

5. Get rid of laundry bottlenecks

Another laundry-related tip that you can also use in conjunction with the outfit formula technique! ‘Running out of clothes' usually happens not because you literally have no clean clothes left, but because you are missing one crucial component, most often underwear or t-shirts, i.e. pieces that need a wash sooner than the rest of your clothes. That’s why, to prevent laundry bottlenecks, it can be helpful to think not in terms of ‘How many different t-shirts/jackets/pairs of jeans should I bring?’, but more specifically ‘How many times do I want to wear a t-shirt/jacket/pair of jeans between laundry cycles?'. For example, let’s say you’ve decided you want to do laundry every two weeks. If you know you want to wear a t-shirt for about 7 of those 14 days, and they'll need to be washed after every wear, make sure you bring at least 7 t-shirts. At the same time, if you can estimate you’ll want to wear a skirt four times in two weeks and can wear them twice between washes, you technically only need two skirts. The same goes for things like outerwear, shoes and pants/jeans: Feel free to bring as many as you like for variety, but if you need space, these are all pieces you can get away with packing less of.