Building a 10-piece business travel capsule wardrobe

Packing for a business trip can feel so overwhelming. Countless readers, coworkers, and friends have shared their struggles and frustrations. It’s tempting to bring everything in your closet just so you know you will be covered for any situation, but it’s not necessary (I promise!).

Case in point: recently I traveled to California with a co-worker. For a three day trip she checked her bag. Three days! She said that she can’t help it, she has to have an outfit for every possible scenario.

Here’s the thing. I feel like I have have an outfit for every possible scenario–it’s just that one outfit covers multiple scenarios. The same dress with cardigan works for the office, dinner out with colleagues, and the plane-ride home. I sleep in yoga pants and a tank top, which I could also use to work out. You get the idea–packing efficiently doesn’t mean feeling unprepared. It just means being smart about the items you choose.

One way to make your packing plan more efficient is with a business travel capsule wardrobe. A capsule wardrobe is built of a collection of pieces inspired by a similar color palette that can be worn together interchangeably. The base color can be a neutral such as brown, black, gray, navy, or taupe; or it can be a collection of colors, such as blue and yellow. After acquiring the foundation items – pants, skirt, suit jacket if needed – in your chosen palette, add coordinating tops, two pairs of shoes, appropriate accessories, and voila! Capsule business travel wardrobe. Of course, once you have your basic wardrobe you can add items to expand your options.

To make choosing your clothes for business travel as simple as possible create a capsule wardrobe of around ten pieces. For each trip pull from those pieces based on the scenarios you’ll encounter. If chosen correctly, these ten pieces will create upwards of forty combinations.

So much of what you choose depends on personal preference, but I typically recommend starting with the following for a business casual capsule wardrobe:

  • Three bottoms, any combination of pants and skirts
  • One dress
  • Four shirts
  • Two toppers (cardigans or blazers)

Does a capsule wardrobe mean all black solids?

Not unless you want it to be! If black is your favorite color for clothes then you can absolutely wear all black every day. I like color, so my capsule wardrobes tend to be more colorful (especially during spring and summer).

Here are some sample capsule wardrobes.

This warm-weather capsule is based on a palette of pink and yellow. As you can see, by adding pieces in coordinating prints and solids there are a variety of outfits that can be made.

This cool-weather capsule is based on navy and emerald. Layering in unexpected ways keeps you warm while offering a number of combinations.

Choosing individual items

Regardless of what your base color palette is for your capsule, or whether you prefer dresses, skirts, or pants, there are a few things you need to keep in mind when shopping for your travel wardrobe.

  • Anti-wrinkle. The last thing you want to do after you’ve been traveling all day is to spend an hour ironing your pants.. When searching for a slacks or a skirt, look for terms like “wrinkle free” or “no iron”.
  • Fit. Make sure everything you plan to travel in fits you incredibly well. If something is a bit too tight, or rubs the wrong way, or the snap is broken, you will notice it far more during an 18-hour travel day than during a normal workday.
  • Comfort. Not only should everything fit perfectly, it should be comfortable to wear. I have a pair of gray pinstripe slacks that fit me perfectly, but because they don’t have any stretch in them they just aren’t comfortable to travel in. If you are going to be sitting in a plane for four hours, what you’re wearing must be comfortable. Look for knit items in fabrics such as ponte or jersey for skirts, tops, and dresses; and make sure any suit separates have some stretch.

Readers, do you use a capsule wardrobe? What is your base color?

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  1. I pack the same thing every week: black or gray pants, two tops, a dress, a cardigan, yoga pants and a T-shirt and running shoes. On the plane I wear a third top, the black or gray pants I didn’t pack and a second cardigan. Sometimes I bring a second pair of work heels if I’m feeling fancy, but I usually wear the same work shoes all week. I also keep an extra set of toiletries and makeup in my emme bag that I just don’t ever unpack. It takes some practice, but it gets easier to figure out you don’t really need that much crap. It also helps to realize that no one really cares what you’re wearing as long as you look professional.

  2. Megan and I have similar strategies. For an upcoming 8-9-day trip to Japan, I plan to bring/wear (other than underwear, jewelry, scarves, and a waterproof windbreaker) two pairs of trousers, a skirt, a dress, a cardigan, a blazer/jacket, 8-10 plain-colored tee shirts or wrinkle-free blouses, and a pair of yoga pants. I will bring one pair of dress shoes, one pair of sneakers, and a pair of sandals (and/or flip flops). I wear the yoga pants and the blazer/jacket on the plane. I pack in a soft-sider with a should strap and do not check a bag. Having a color scheme and a lot of wrinkle-free clothing is key. Scarves and interesting necklaces dress up t-shirts well, too.

  3. My issue is sweat—if it’s summer travel, I’m going to need a different shirt (and maybe jacket!) for each day. I also try not to wear the same pants each day. Do you all wash your clothes while on the road?

  4. xJane- I look for clothes that I can wash in hotel sinks- quick dry clothes from Patagonia, Ex Officio etc. Shirts from these brands, and others like them, can be worn with shorts and business attire. I don’t pack fancy soap, I believe soap is soap, and just use the hotel freebies.

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