Capsule wardrobe for working from home

Why having just five work outfits per season can be a lifesaver and, surprisingly, a style definer.

Illustration by Sabrina Newsome

When the first lockdown struck our city of London last March, we were incredibly stressed. Toilet paper shortages, questions about international travel (my partner and I both have family abroad), and our carefully planned June wedding coming apart at the seams. I should mention how lucky we are to have our health, support networks and secure jobs which allowed us to work from home — blessings for which we give thanks every day — but nevertheless, the last thing I wanted to worry about was my work wardrobe.

I introduced a drastic “set it and forget it” solution to keep the limited RAM in my mind free to process other challenges. I picked one outfit per day — so a Monday outfit, Tuesday outfit, etc. — and wore it each day for the entire season (with a wash happening every Sunday, I should mention). I have done capsule wardrobes before — where a limited number of versatile pieces are chosen and rotated for a season — but this time I kept it even more limited and focused on attire that was suited for video conferencing.

Remarkably, no one noticed the lack of variation in my work “uniform”. It might seem dull, but so many other things were happening that not having to think about clothes was a godsend. Being limited to five outfits forced me to pick practical, flattering favourites so I felt comfortable and professional without having to think. I also found ways to introduce variation, which I will detail below.

It’s a wardrobe routine I have found so helpful that I expect I will stick with it post-COVID times (here’s hoping they will be here soon), but in the meantime, and with another lockdown hitting our city and many others, here are my tips for creating a capsule wardrobe uniform especially suited to working from home.

Define your style and fit

Consider your work environment. Is it corporate and muted or creative and relaxed? List out the words you want to be associated with how you look. I work in a creative field in tech, so the dress code is casual, but as a designer I still want to look somewhat put together. My words are minimal, clean & relaxed.

Try on clothes for fit, but rather than standing in front of the mirror, pull up a chair and sit. I have dresses that were my go-tos on days when I would be presenting in the pre-COVID times (thus standing most of the day) but are restricting to sit in for 10 hours and don’t work to their full potential when only seen from the waist up on calls.

Without judgement, check your body shape for cuts that flatter and positively accentuate your features. I am pear-shaped and curvy, so V-necks and tops that softly come in at the waist suit me well. I always feel comfortable in black; I have a black cardigan and jacket which are slimming but pair them with a lighter neutral top to add a little interest and colour. Style-wise, I shop at Cos for structured, well designed neutrals and Athleta for basics — since lockdown, Athleta has been my primary go-to.

Pick a seasonal uniform

Now pick a uniform for the season, which at least here in London is highly likely to be spent entirely working from home. I have a ranking system for the clothes I buy: without overthinking, I rank pieces on a scale of 1–10 (gut feel on overall fit, style, comfort, cost, etc.). If it does not get a 9 or 10, I don’t buy it. To pick your capsule wardrobe uniform, you are looking for the 9s and 10s in your closet which align to the style criteria you listed above.

I would encourage picking more neutral, layerable pieces, but this is entirely up to you. My system is to pick an outfit per weekday, but this might be overly repetitive for you. You can pick more outfits, say six or seven, and work your way through them. Regardless, it should be a small number. A capsule wardrobe allows you to reuse items — for example, a black tee worn with a chunky cardigan one day and structured jacket the next — but for simplicity (and out of laziness), I prefer having one dedicated outfit per day.

Lay your outfits out on a bed or where you can see them all. Check and see if they align to your style. You also want cohesion without being overly repetitive. For example, I would alternate dark and light outfits, dresses and blouse / trousers combos, etc. Consider your needs and moods; do you have something suitable for when you are presenting? How about options for temperature fluctuation?

Once chosen, you want to actually line up your outfits in your wardrobe in order and keep them as clutter-free as possible. We fortunately have a wardrobe in the bedroom and a small one in the study — I use the small study one for my seasonal capsule wardrobe and the bedroom one for storage of the other seasons (I rotate clothes out around four times a year). My uniform for this season consists of the following:

My five day winter work from home uniform (plus a black blazer at the back)
  • Monday: White sweater with black leggings because it’s cosy yet classic, which helps me through the Monday grey morning blues.
  • Tuesday: Black V-neck with grey cardigan and black leggings. Tuesday is one of my longest working days, and the layers give me flexibility if it gets warm or cold.
  • Wednesday: Charcoal pullover with black leggings.
  • Thursday: Dark green V-neck with black cardigan and black leggings (similar logic to Tuesday).
  • Friday: Relaxed light colour pullover with black leggings and optional black jacket. This look is more relaxed as it is nearly the weekend and I don’t have too many meetings, but for the couple I do have (which happen to be with stakeholders), I can pull on my trusty black blazer to look the part.

Yep, I wear leggings every day right now, guilt-free. I own three pairs and invested in very high quality ones which last ($100 each from Athleta). I find these are the perfect work from home middle ground; they cinch my stomach without being restrictive but are comfortable to move in and not embarrassing if I happen to stand up on a call. When I pull them on, I now feel ready for work — at the end of the day, I make a conscious effort to switch to lounge clothes to go into “home” mode. When we eventually are allowed out of our homes, I will likely swap these for a couple pairs of high quality jeans (I tend to go dark and skinny), but for lockdown living leggings are perfect.

I took this approach further with my workout uniform. I have a set of five identical, high quality, all-black workout outfits and one pair of black running shoes. It’s flattering, effective and, when trying to get my workout on, helps me feel like more of a badass (no pretty pastels for me, thanks). I’m no longer tempted to buy trendy workout clothes, which is not where I personally want to spend my money, and it helps me avoid pre-workout outfit dilemmas (which might just give me enough thinking time to justify skipping the workout). Consider which other parts of your wardrobe, such as your workout attire, you can simplify and minimise.

Find your statement

By keeping my wardrobe simple and neutral, I can have a lot more fun with accessories. Choose special accessories which still fit into your style guidelines — scarfs, headbands, earrings and necklaces are well suited for video conferencing. Again, you will want to edit these down. Pick items which are both comfortable to wear and high quality. For video calls you can be a little bolder (dainty necklaces are less likely to show up on screen).

I have a few pieces that are distinctly mine and I wear them frequently. Rather than feeling repetitive, they give me a more distinct personal style and I often get compliments on them. I plan these much less; they are displayed on a stand (I keep jewellery I don’t wear frequently tucked away) so I can grab and go based on my mood that day.

In lockdown I have kept a very minimal beauty routine. I keep hair styling and makeup to the bare minimum, focusing more on skincare. But I do use a red tinted lip balm (Fresh Sugar Lip Balm in Berry), which has been great on camera.

Final thoughts

I am a big fan of routines and rituals. They can seem mundane, but they free me up to focus on the things I’m passionate about. Having a rotational work uniform has given me confidence, removed stress and helped give me a better defined style. As an added bonus, because I’m naturally a shopaholic, keeping my wardrobe so simple has forced me to cull mindless shopping (or at least, to send it back if it doesn’t meet the 9+ scale AND suitably replace a current uniform item).

I hope that this provides an effective toolkit for you to create your own work wardrobe and experience the many benefits of not having to think about what to wear for your work calls today.

UX Designer living & working in London. Currently team lead at Google, previously with Amazon, the Guardian and the BBC.