Capsule Wardrobe: How To Pack For A Semester Abroad
There’s that scene in so many movies where someone has to get out of town quickly and throws a bunch of random clothes, still on hangers, into a huge suitcase, and then tries to force it shut.
I’m always confused by this scene. If someone is really coming to kill you right now, do you really need to pack a suitcase? Also, if you’re work involves safe cracking or fencing hot gemstones, shouldn’t you know to pack in advance?
I’m one of those people who gets a sick satisfaction out of packing a suitcase. I’m also one of those people who only travels with carry-on luggage. I never have to worry about an airline losing my luggage, and packing light allows me more flexibility when I fly. For example, I can chose flights with shorter layovers because I don’t have to wait for my luggage to be unloaded from one plane and then loaded on the next. On the ground it saves money too. Instead of having to hire a taxi to get to and from the airport, in many places it’s easy for me to jump on a bus or train. Also, it makes me less of a target for theft. It’s hard to lose track of just one suitcase.
When I travel for pleasure, my super minimal winter wardrobe consists of two pairs of jeans, one dressy skirt, one sweater, one coat, one scarf, two pairs of shoes, and four shirts. I can wash everything in the sink and hang it out to dry overnight and I always look tidy. This mini wardrobe works whether I’m traveling a week or a month.
Starting in September, I’ll be doing a semester abroad in Florence, Italy and I’ll be expanding on my mini travel wardrobe to accommodate for climate and already scheduled activities. That said, my new and improved wardrobe will still have to fit in one small, rolling, carry-on suitcase.
Weather in Florence from September through December is rainy and temperatures vary from highs in the 80′s to lows in the 40′s. So I’ll have to pack for all seasons. Instead of packing bulky winter clothing, I’ll layer my summer and fall clothes for added warmth when temperatures dip. By the way, since I live in sunny Los Angeles, this is pretty much how my regular wardrobe works too. Because I limit the number of bulky clothes that own, I can fit a greater variety of thin garments that I can layer in my tiny closet.
The biggest challenge is packing for a huge variety of events I’ve already scheduled. In addition to going to class every day, and doing all the walking through museums and touring through ruins associated with studying in Italy, I’m also scheduled to teach a class in London, attend a fox hunt and (fox hunt ball) in the Italian countryside, see an opera at La Scalla, and have business meetings in Florence, Paris, Rome and London, so everything I pack has to be not only versatile and practical, but cute and professional.
Here’s my basic wardrobe for three months of travel (updated on September 5, 2011 to reflect last minute changes):
White short-sleeved cotton ruffly blouse
White boat-neck t-shirt with 3/4 sleeves
White slim-fitting sweatshirt (Black zip-front hoodie)
Black and white striped short-sleeved t-shirt
Black and white striped long-sleeved t-shirt
Black with white stripes sweater
Gray and white pin striped blouse
Gray long-sleeved t-shirt
Gray wrap sweater (Nabbed by my mother for her own closet. I’m packing a gray with white stripes, long sleeved t-shirt instead. I know. I have a problem).
Black short sleeved t-shirt
Black long sleeved t-shirt
Black short kilt skirt
Black knee-length vintage lace skirt
Black knit dress with short sleeves
Black sleeveless knit dress
Black turtleneck sweater
Black 1940′s tropical weight wool jacket
Black boucle overcoat with mink collar
Black bermuda shorts (I’ve packed Levi cut-offs instead).
Pink flip flops
Black tennis shoes
The hardest part about choosing this wardrobe was not packing more striped shirts. I suffer from mimeophilia, or whatever the medical community calls an insatiable need to wear striped clothing.
I’m still considering whether or not I’ll need the nice pair of jeans, so if space in the suitcase gets tight, those might get left at home. I’m also considering swapping out one or both of the black sweaters for a black cashmere cardigan which can double as a jacket, and therefore is more versatile than a pullover.
I also feel like I’m bringing a ridiculous number of shoes, especially since Italy is the Mecca of shoe shopping, but there is a method to my madness.
My ankles always hurt for the first three days I’m in Europe while my body adjusts to all the extra ankle wiggling that comes from walking on uneven cobblestone streets. So, as much as I’d like to leave my boner-killingly ugly running shoes at home, they are coming with me because I plan on running for exercise and don’t need an Italy specific sports injury from running in the wrong shoes. Also, several of my weekend excursions include touring Roman ruins and hiking through the countryside, so my running shoes will double as hiking boots. That said, I’m bringing my oldest, most worn pair of running shoes with me so I can leave them behind at the end of my trip and have space for things I want to bring home.
Since the running shoes are so ugly that they pretty much destroy any outfit, I’m bringing a pair of black tennis shoes that are cute enough to mix and match with the fanciest garments I’ve packed, but are also super comfortable for every day walking. These shoes are also on their last legs, so depending on what these shoes look like in December, these may end up staying in Italy with my running shoes.
Because Florence has a rainy fall, I am packing two pairs of nice shoes, so I can wear them on alternate days and always have a pair of dry shoes to wear to business meetings. My producing partner is the queen of carrying her nice shoes inside her purse and then doing a quick wardrobe change from her comfy walking shoes before meetings, but I don’t want to have to carry damp tennis shoes with me, especially to events like business lunches, so I’ll rotate between wearing my boots and black flats.
My normal, everyday wardrobe is also black, white and gray, but I like to wear colored accessories. I initially planned on packing the red version of my pointy-toed flats, but then grudgingly decided against them. Since I am a huge klutz, I know I’d somehow manage to scuff my red shoes on the plane to Italy and then spend three months searching for red shoe polish to cover the damage. As every shoeshine stand around the globe has black polish, I decided to go with the shoes that are convenient to repair.
If I do get desperate for colored shoes, I can always resort to wearing my pink flip flops. Since I won’t know what my living arrangements are until I arrive or what the bathroom situation is, I’m packing these as my “shower shoes” in the event I have to walk from my room to a shared bathroom down the hall. Also, there are some bathrooms you just don’t want to walk in with bare feet. I’m also going to use these as sandals on really hot days, even though this will immediately peg me as a tacky American tourist, because who else wears shower shoes on the street?
Due to my klutziness and the cobblestone streets, heels + Europe is a terrible combination for me. As you can see from the worn out interiors of my black flats, I wear these shoes, that are ten years old, all the time because the are so versatile. Not only are they comfortable, but the pointy toe makes them seem dressy enough for cocktails.
Yes, the boots will take up too much room in my suitcase. But I love them and they’ll be good for giving my skirt and dress-based outfits added warmth in cold weather.
Most of the clothes I’m packing are knits because they take up very little room in the suitcase. They also do not require an iron, and can be de-wrinkled with a spritz of water or a steamy bathroom. Although a classic button down white shirt would look great with every other garment in my travel wardrobe, my button down is staying in my closet at home, because I don’t want to be bothered with ironing.
My usual work outfit is a little black dress. I own eleven. I’m bringing two knit dresses from my collection. The first is an A-line, t-shirt dress with short sleeves and a scooped neckline. The second is a sleeveless, faux wrap dress, with a v-neck. Both dresses are hemmed to right above my knees. I chose these dresses not only because they are easy to pack and washable, but because they are easy to dress up and down to create many different looks. Instead of packing a pencil skirt, I’ll just layer a shirt or sweater over the top of either dress. I can also wear either dress under either skirt to give me an additional layer for cold weather, and two more options for tops. Finally, I can wear my shirts under either dress. When I wear the scoop neck dress over the cotton blouses it looks like I’m wearing a bib-fronted dress, not separates. Sweet!
The only item in my capsule wardrobe that isn’t really a basic item that can be found in any store, is my wrap sweater. Wrap sweaters have been around for years, but everyone in Los Angeles wears these open, so they look like something post-menopausal ladies in Phoenix buy at Chico’s. Not a good look. I didn’t buy one for the longest time, because I didn’t understand their magic. Then one day while rooting around on YouTube I found a bunch of mesmerizing demos like this one:
Neato huh? It’s pretty obvious why this is a great item to have in a small wardrobe whether traveling or not. (I’m on the hunt for another wrap sweater, used, and in black or green, for my regular wardrobe). The important thing to know about these sweaters is that they are not all created equal. Depending on how fat you are, not every style will work for you, so shop around until you find a wrap cardigan with the right proportions for your shape for maximum styling choices. Although you can wear a wrap sweater on its own as a shirt, I prefer to layer mine over another thin shirt and use it more like an accessory.
Here’s the part of travel wardrobes that most people fail to mention packing–underwear and pajamas. My super ninja travel wardrobe trick is to pack a selection of sleepwear that I can also use as exercise clothes, but in a pinch, can also wear as part of a casual outfit or layered under street clothes for warmth.
Here are my secret, ninja wardrobe extenders:
Red yoga top with built in bra
Green jogging tank with built in bra
Black tank top
White tank top
Gray tank top
Two thermal waffle weave shirts (I’m bringing only one).
One pair of knee length thermal knickers
One pair of black knit yoga pants
One pair of gray cotton yoga pants
One pair of black flannel pajama pants
A weeks worth of bras and undies (not pictured)
I’m considering leaving the black and gray tank tops at home because I’ve got plenty of tops I could sleep in, but if it’s a hot September, it will be nice to have them.
In addition to my shoes I’m bringing a very limited selection of accessories for both practical and aesthetic reasons:
Striped headband/neck cowl
Dusty Rose pashmina shawl
Paisley wool shawl
Reversible gray cashmere scarf (I’ve packed black angora yarn instead. If I want a winter scarf, I’m going to have to make one for myself)!
Black 1970′s wide leather belt
Small ruffled black leather cross-body purse
Lavender silk flower hair clip
Gold silk paisley pocket square
Vintage black lace collar and matching cuffs
Brown, black, gray, and yellow striped ribbon belt
Orange cashmere-lined leather gloves
Red wool beret
Black and white striped ribbon belt
Vintage rhinestone bird pins
Vintage gold and mother of pearl necklace
Four pairs of black tights (not pictured)
Straw boater hat (Foldable cloth sunhat, not pictured)
Prescription sunglasses (not pictured)
Wrist watch (not pictured)
I’m not a huge fan of pashmina shawls worn as work apparel. They look too much like a car blanket for my taste, so I never bought one when they were all the rage in the late nineties. For the record, I would also never buy myself anything dusty rose colored. That said, my dusty rose colored pashmina shawl that I got for free from a girlie clothes swapping party is my favorite travel accessory. It’s warm but not bulky, so I can cram it into my handbag. I can used it instead of the plague blankets they hand out on airplanes to keep warm. It’s thin enough to look nice knotted as a muffler, but big enough to use as a headscarf to cover my head and shoulders when I’m touring holy sites. I suppose I could knot it into a halter top or wear it as a wrap skirt, too, if I got really desperate. It goes on every trip with me, this one included.
I’m packing the wool paisley shawl as a prettier alternative to the dusty rose colored pashmina to give my mainly black wardrobe a boost of color and pattern.
The gray cashmere scarf is the only cast and crew gift I’ve saved from a movie. It’s old, and moth-eaten, but it’s sooo soft and warm.
I inherited the black belt with it’s large 1970′s buckle from my father and have worn it week after week for the last twenty plus years. Since it doesn’t have holes, it’s super adjustable. I just pull the tongue through the buckle until it’s the length I need it to be. I can wear it low with my jeans, or around my natural waistline to belt a sweater, skirt, or dress.
I rescued the flower hair clip from the costume department trash bin while working on a play earlier this spring. When worn in my hair, the flower is so big that it works more like a fascinator or a small hat, than a barrette. I can also wear it on my lapel like a corsage or clip it to my handbag. In general, I’ll use it to inject a little humor into my plain, dark clothes.
It took forever to find a travel handbag that didn’t look super casual. I finally found this black leather Cynthia Rowley handbag at a consignment store. It cost $65, which is expensive for me, but I’m so happy with this purchase. This bag is the perfect handbag for this trip for so many reasons. The best thing about this bag is the long metal chain strap that allows me to wear this handbag as a cross-body purse. Since purse-snatching is still an immensely popular activity in Italy, a cross-body purse is practically a travel requirement, and this bag gets extra credit because thieves can’t cut through the chain strap with a utility knife on the fly. Additionally, as you can see from the photograph, the strap can be doubled to turn the bag into a shoulder bag or tripled to turn this into an edgy evening bag. The zipper-edged ruffles are not a detail that I’d normally look for, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well this bag coordinated with styling details on several of my garments.
I bought the gold paisley silk pocket square when I was a sophomore in high school. It cost $1 at Goodwill. It’s obviously one of my favorite accessories because I’ve had it for so long. I mainly wear this as a neckerchief or hairband, but I also wear this tied around my wrist as a bracelet or tied to my purse as decoration.
I’m bringing my black lace collar and cuff set to wear with my sleeveless black dress. The vintage lace is so show-stopping, that it fools people into believing my off-the-rack knit day dress is some sort of couture evening dress. This is what I’m wearing to the opera and to any semi-formal or cocktail parties I attend.
I have a lot of ribbon belts. They take up no space, can be used as a luggage strap in an emergency, and are a nice way to inject some pattern into my wardrobe. The black and white ribbon belt has clear plastic buckles, so I’ll be wearing this one through the airport metal detectors.
I bought the orange gloves on my very first trip to Italy. In Europe they have glove stores where gloves are sold in exact sizes like shoes, instead of the one size fits nobody gloves that are sold in America. I can’t even explain how pleasurable it is to wear gloves that fit my hands perfectly. I love these gloves because the are super cute but also very warm and practical.
Yes, my beret is a double decker beret. Why have just one level of distain and pretension when you can have two? Like the gloves, I bought this as a fashion accessory, but will mainly wear it for warmth.
My long-sleeved striped shirt actually started life as a striped mini dress that barely covered my butt, so I cut 10 inches out of the bottom of the dress to turn it into a shirt, and turned the surplus fabric into a little cowl neck collar or headband.
I’m bringing the little rhinestone bird pins to add some sparkle to my clothes for evening and to hold my wrap sweater in place.
The mother-of-pearl necklace is simple and elegant, but it’s not bling-y enough to cry out to be stolen. With the exception of the turtleneck sweater, it looks nice with all my tops, even the sweatshirt!
Check back in September for packing updates. Somehow I also have to fit 14 books, my laptop computer, my knitting projects, and all my toiletries into my carry-on luggage. Wish me luck!
Do you have any tips, comments or suggestions about packing lightly for long trips? Please share your genius in the comments section!