How to Create a Capsule Wardrobe for Travel
Jul 10, 2023
These are the timeless staples to bring on every trip.
Amy Louise Bailey is a freelance content creator and media specialist. Her work has been published in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Condé Nast Traveler, Bloomberg Pursuits, and Robb Report.
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Travel + Leisure / Brian Kopinski
In the fashion multiverse of constant newness, nothing feels quite as relevant as a well-curated capsule wardrobe composed of timeless staples. Think jeans, a white T-shirt, a blazer, a versatile dress, and a cashmere sweater; these are items that will serve you for years and can streamline the daily process of getting dressed. And while you're traveling, it’s important to add efficiencies wherever possible so you spend less time worrying about your clothes and more time enjoying the destination.
The key is to invest in high-quality pieces that will last you for years to come. Think tote bags, blazers, and other fundamentals – invest slightly more now and reap the dividends over the years, all while minimizing valuable time spent wondering what to wear.
Having a capsule wardrobe doesn’t necessarily mean wearing the same basic uniform on repeat – pieces you love can be styled creatively with different shoes, accessories, and colors tailored to suit different occasions. You can remix the same LBD (little black dress) from day to night simply by adding heels and an evening clutch. Once you have the foundations in place, defining your style becomes a simple process.
Ahead, see our top picks for building a capsule wardrobe for travel along with expert tips and the best brands to shop, from accessible options like Everlane and Quince, to more contemporary brands such as Vince and Theory.
Like a beloved Chanel bag that is passed down through generations (or sold for a premium at a vintage boutique), it is worth investing in high-quality staples that will stand the test of time. The better the quality, the more durable and refined the item is likely to be. We suggest looking for quality materials and construction, and if it’s not a brand you trust, check reviews online. Plus, buying one hero piece per category is a sustainable, space-saving option (and we certainly need that when we’re traveling with limited suitcase space!).
The whole concept of a capsule wardrobe is based on versatile, well-made staples, and that generally means neutral colorways and classic silhouettes. You can never go wrong with black, white, or neutral shades that can adapt to suit any ensemble and simple shapes that transcend trendiness. Nicole Wiesmann, Vice President of Design for Banana Republic, advises to “always keep it versatile with a few statement pieces.” Another excellent tip? Planning ahead. “I try on all my outfits before I pack to ensure I am bringing complete outfits, and I encourage my husband to do the same,” she says.
When building a capsule wardrobe for travel, look for fabrics that are wrinkle-resistant so you don’t need to worry about ironing or steaming your garments on arrival. Lyocell and Tencel are some of the best options. Also, cashmere and denim are great to pack since they rarely crease. It also depends on the climate. “When traveling, I check the weather five days before I leave and continue to check until the day I depart for the trip,” explains Wiesmann. “Weather may force you to change choices,” she adds. “If I see a summer week is turning to rain, I grab a trench for my carry on. For warmer or humid weather, I’ll grab linen pieces. I always pack a seasonless wardrobe with seasonal pieces layered in.”
Best T-shirt: Amour Vert Eleanor Paris Rib Tee
Best Jeans: L’AGENCE Marguerite Jean
Best Blazer: Cuyana Relaxed Blazer
Best Cashmere Sweater: Cashmere Shrunken Crew by Minnie Rose
Best Dress: The Ballerina Neckline Mini Dress in Good Linen
Best Swimsuit: Zimmermann Chintz Deep U-Trim One-piece
Best Wool Coat: Vince Classic Straight Coat
Best Sneakers: Koio Capri in Triple White
Best Boots: M.Gemi The Cristina
Best Sandals: M.M. La Fleur The Carter SlideBest Pumps: Gigi Black Patent Pump at Scarosso
Best Sunglasses: Celine Triomphe 01
Best Scarf: Quince Mongolian Cashmere Scarf
Best Hat: Sarah Bray Poppy Sun Hat at Aerin
Best Handbag: Louis Vuitton Capucines Mini
While your capsule wardrobe for everyday should contain the aforementioned essentials, it will look slightly different for an island holiday in a destination like St. Barth’s, where you’ll need to factor in swimsuits and coverups, or for a ski destination where you’ll need insulating layers and jackets. Seasonality is, of course, a vital factor when packing a capsule wardrobe for travel, but the below clothing categories are relevant for various destinations.
The beauty of this white T-shirt is the stretchy, ribbed fabric that doesn’t crease, making it the perfect addition to your travel capsule wardrobe. It has a slim fit, with an elegant wide hem around the crewneck collar, and the hem hits at the hip. It’s as fitted as a bodysuit, so it tucks into pants and skirts easily and serves as a great layering piece to have in your arsenal.
Price at time of publish: $60
L’Agence has some of the most comfortable and flattering jeans on the market, available in multiple shades, shapes, and textures. These are perfect for travel since they have the brand’s durable “super stretch” denim that is comfortable enough to wear on planes, trains, and long car rides, while maintaining their structure.
Price at time of publish: $245
Everyone needs a classic black blazer in their wardrobe and this iteration from Cuyana is one of the best on the market, with a flattering, versatile cut, and excellent composition. It’s a trans-seasonal piece, made from a luxurious blend of virgin wool, viscose, and elastane, and it can be worn open over jeans and a tee, or done up as a double-breasted blazer with the accompanying sash belt.
Price at time of publish: $348
We love the fit of this cashmere sweater, which is slim enough to comfortably layer under jackets and coats yet relaxed enough to wear without feeling too constricted. It has a slight crop, so it’s perfect for wearing with pants as is (no need to tuck) and it’s available in 14 colors from soft pastels to classic navy and black.
Price at time of publish: $265
This LBD could work just as well paired with fresh white sneakers for a concert or a night out as it would accessorized with heels and a chic mini bag. It’s made from the brand’s revered good linen fabric, which has a decent amount of stretch and breathability, perfect for warmer climates. The ballerina-style neckline is flattering on the decolletage, and it has a slight fit and flare style with a mid-thigh hem.
Price at time of publish: $325
Whether you’re going to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, or the Hamptons, one thing you’ll definitely need is a stylish swimsuit. This classic Zimmermann one piece has a shapewear-like effect, accentuating the bust with a sculpted bodice and cinching in the waist. It’s a style that can also double as a top paired with denim shorts or linen pants. The Australian-born brand also has a gorgeous collection of beach dresses and coverups that are perfect for resort destinations.
Price at time of publish: $310
A high-quality wool coat is a wardrobe staple you’re likely to wear on repeat during the cooler months, and this tailored, timeless Vince coat is something that could live in your wardrobe for decades. Although it comes at a higher price point, it’s a piece that is made to last, with an insulating wool blend and sturdy construction that is sure to withstand the elements of urban life in the winter.
Price at time of publish: $795
Each season brings new shoe trends, but certain styles will always be relevant: classic ankle boots, strappy sandals, sleek pumps, and fresh white sneakers. When packing, keep in mind that shoes generally have the most weight and bulk out of any item, so opt for pairs that are lighter and easier to fit in your suitcase (i.e., leave the platforms at home).
Fresh white sneakers are always in style and are useful for any season, paired with a flowy dress in the summer, or with jeans and a coat in the winter. This leather style from Koio is as clean as they come, with no visible logos or colors – just a classic style in plain white which pairs well with everything.
Price at time of publish: $295
M.Gemi’s Cinzia Due was recently named the best dress shoe of 2023, and the same classic aesthetics with quality features can be found throughout the collection. The Italian brand’s most popular leather boot style, The Cristina, is as elegant as it is comfortable for strolling around cities all day. It’s flattering on the ankle with a secure fit, and it has a 2.2-inch heel that adds a bit of elevation.
Price at time of publish: $398
M.M. La Fleur
These buttery soft leather sandals become more comfortable with wear. They have a classic silhouette with a slight cap heel, a wide leather strap, and a square toe. These are perfect for wearing with maxi dresses at resorts where you need something that isn’t too tall, and they also look great paired with capri pants or even jeans.
Price at time of publish: $225
A classic pointed-toe pump will never go out of style, and these will look just as good paired with dresses for a night out as they do with denim or a suit. We love these sleek stiletto pumps from Scarosso, made in a glossy patent leather with a 3.3-inch heel.
Price at time of publish: $390
Accessories can add a touch of flair to any outfit. A simple linen dress for a day in Lake Como? Channel the dolce vita vibe with a silk scarf. A classic swimsuit and coverup? A wide brim hat will complete the look. And, for everyday, a good pair of sunglasses is essential, ideally in a black acetate. Another must-have is a well-made leather handbag to hold all your daily essentials.
Nineties-style oval sunglasses continue to be the biggest trend in the eyewear world, and this classic style from Celine is one of the best versions available, with a medium size that suits most face shapes and the brand’s iconic logo embossed in gold along the arms.
Price at time of publish: $462
A simple scarf in a neutral color is a great thing to pack for cooler destinations, and we love this luxuriously soft Mongolian cashmere version from Quince, available in seven different colors.
Price at time of publish: $50
This elegant Sarah Bray hat at Aerin instantly elevates any summer outfit and maintains its shape while traveling. It has an interior elasticated band, so you can adjust the fit to suit your needs, and it makes any simple dress or coordinating set look resort-ready. We love the wide brim and thick grosgrain ribbon.
Price at time of publish: $250
Let’s caveat this by acknowledging that, like any designer item, it is an investment, but if you are looking for a forever handbag that is sure to polish any outfit, this Louis Vuitton style is an excellent option. The top-handle style is in fashion right now, but it’s also timeless, and the leather is of the highest quality, sure to serve you well for decades to come.
Price at time of publish: $6,350
Using only the finest materials and tailoring techniques, Vince is a go-to destination for building a capsule wardrobe. It has elegant essentials for both men and women, like classic Oxford shirts, cigarette pants, structured blazers, and silky slip dresses. It also has buttery-soft leather bags and a high-quality shoe collection including loafers, fresh white sneakers, sandals, and heels. Another draw is that it is available in an extended size range, going up to 3X.
Renowned for its sustainable basics, Everlane is always a reliable retailer for seasonal separates. In the summer, you’ll find a variety of dresses, blouses, shorts, and skirts available in a range of neutral color options, and in the winter, there are cashmere sweaters, wool coats, and parkas. There are also shoes, bags, hats and leather goods in wearable, versatile styles.
For affordable men’s, women’s, and children’s essentials look no further than Quince. We ranked it as one of the best linen brands for its extensive range of coordinating linen sets, flowy dresses, and classic pants. But it also has a stylish edit of cashmere and leather staples that are incredibly good value.
For wardrobe staples that infuse the latest fashion trends in a wearable way, look no further than Scandinavian brand, Bite Studios. Everything is made from organic, low-impact materials with exceptional tailoring. Some of our top selects include the sleeveless turtleneck, the signature tee, and the pure wide leg denim.
Whether you’re looking for a coordinating linen set or a bombshell dress for an occasion, Reformation has a wide variety of stylish staples at a reasonable price point. We love the mini bags, the mesh Wesley flats, and the best-selling Jessi linen dress.
There are different variations, but generally this rule refers to packing five tops, four bottoms, three dresses, three pairs of shoes, two bags, and one of each of a few destination-specific items (e.g. a swimsuit for somewhere warm or a scarf for somewhere cooler). The idea is that you’re not aimlessly loading your closet into a suitcase – you’re packing versatile pieces that pair well together that can be worn for different situations throughout your trip.
It all depends on the individual garment – check the specific instructions written on the label, and if there are none, look up what the care recommendations are for particular fabrics online. Many will be dry clean only, some hand wash cold, and some can easily be tossed in the washer and dryer (like cotton or denim).
With so much luggage getting lost at airports lately, I personally always take enough to survive on in a carry-on (and I'm particularly partial to Tumi’s 4-wheeled carry-on). But for checked luggage, it's best to keep shoes separate from clothing, and put a plastic bag or garment bag around anything you don’t want to get damaged (in case your toiletry bag leaks or you encounter any other spill-related situations). The queen of organization, Marie Kondo, has an excellent method of maximizing space with her famous KonMari fold (a rolling technique that also minimizes creasing) and advises using packing cubes.
Travel + Leisure contributors are shopping, fashion, and lifestyle experts who draw on personal experience and market recommendations to curate the best products for shoppers. This article was written by Amy Louise Bailey who has a decade-plus career in the fashion and luxury lifestyle industry, and for this article, she spoke with experts from leading retailers and designers including Nicole Wiesmann, Vice President of Design for Banana Republic. She also spoke with luxury travel expert and founder of Indagare Melissa Bradley for her perspectives.
Love a great deal? Sign up for our T+L Recommends newsletter and we’ll send you our favorite travel products each week.Best T-shirt: Amour Vert Eleanor Paris Rib TeeBest Jeans: L’AGENCE Marguerite JeanBest Blazer: Cuyana Relaxed BlazerBest Cashmere Sweater: Cashmere Shrunken Crew by Minnie RoseBest Dress: The Ballerina Neckline Mini Dress in Good Linen Best Swimsuit: Zimmermann Chintz Deep U-Trim One-pieceBest Wool Coat: Vince Classic Straight CoatBest Sneakers: Koio Capri in Triple WhiteBest Boots: M.Gemi The CristinaBest Sandals: M.M. La Fleur The Carter SlideBest Pumps: Gigi Black Patent Pump at ScarossoBest Sunglasses: Celine Triomphe 01Best Scarf: Quince Mongolian Cashmere ScarfBest Hat: Sarah Bray Poppy Sun Hat at AerinBest Handbag: Louis Vuitton Capucines MiniPrice at time of publish:Price at time of publish: Price at time of publish:Price at time of publish:Price at time of publish: Price at time of publish:Price at time of publish: Price at time of publish: Price at time of publish: Price at time of publish:Price at time of publish: Price at time of publish: Price at time of publish:Price at time of publish: Price at time of publish: