Your Capsule Wardrobe Is Actually Elitist

Look, I love clothes just as much as the next person. I can’t help but succumb to the fashion industry’s relentless marketing designed to make us feel unsatisfied with what we have. 

Thanks to globalization, our consumption has become increasingly frictionless. We’re buying much more than what we need, leading to barely worn clothes ending up in landfills or getting shipped to developing countries—such as Ghana—where our waste is out of sight, out of mind.

There are growing concerns about fast fashion companies’ shoddy labor records and lack of transparency. Their sluggishness to reform has propelled the rise of sustainable fashion influencers on social media. Sustainable (also called “slow”) fashion is an umbrella term for a movement that strives to mitigate the consequences of our unchecked spending habits. Its proponents urge shoppers to buy less and direct their money to socially responsible companies.

In the year or so since I tumbled down the rabbit hole of sustainable fashion, one particular point of obsession among these bloggers sticks out to me: the capsule wardrobe. Instead of haphazardly adding new pieces to our wardrobes, the idea is to own a limited number of items that you love and can style in multiple ways. If you must buy a new item, then some people encourage the “one in, one out” rule to maintain a balance.

The idea of a mixed-and-matched wardrobe has been around since 1985. Though it wasn’t called a capsule closet, American fashion designer Donna Karan curated a collection of seven pieces for women juggling childcare and a 9-to-5. In 2010, the capsule wardrobe waded into the mainstream consciousness when fashion blogger and writer Courtney Carver created Project 333. The goal is to challenge yourself to wear 33 items for three months and then rotate the pieces depending on the season. “You can remove a significant amount of stress from your life simply by reducing the number of items in your closet,” Carver states on her blog, Be More With Less

Since Project 333’s debut, anyone who identifies with the sustainable fashion community has taken the idea to be gospel and spun derivatives out of it, then proselytized to the masses who, God forbid, still wear acrylic sweaters from Old Navy.

A quick Google search for “capsule wardrobe ideas” will generate 12 million results. Whether you’re looking for the original Project 333, or the beginner-friendly 10×10 capsule, someone will have it planned out. Since Project 333’s debut, anyone who identifies with the sustainable fashion community has taken the idea to be gospel and spun derivatives out of it, then proselytized to the masses who, God forbid, still wear acrylic sweaters from Old Navy. 

I admire and support the shift toward responsible consumption and ethical manufacturing. Yet as I’ve realized after diving into the sustainable fashion blog-o-sphere, the capsule wardrobe has been homogenized and commodified into the next “it” topic. Though it was founded on the principles of re-styling your clothes and resisting ever-more ephemeral trends, slow fashion influencers are generating more trends and drawing unspoken rules about how to be sustainable. The question of accessibility persists as well, as the price tags on an “ethical” piece of clothing could cost up to a quarter of your monthly rent.

At its core, my biggest gripe about capsule wardrobes is the numbing sameness from one blogger to the next. Most of the pieces on a capsule checklist boil down to cookie-cutter replicas of neutral-toned T-shirts, sweaters, trousers, dresses, and trench coats. Somewhere along the way, a white tee and jeans became more than a basic formula but the pinnacle of slow fashion chic. Wearing these unimaginative outfits is the self-assurance that you’re unassociated with the bright, ostentatious lure of fast fashion and its pitfalls. No, these people vehemently believe they will never go out of style as if such a possibility ever existed.

Naturally, the content creators peddling the same clothes are rather homogenous in disposition. In many of the pictures and videos, you see relatively young, white, skinny, suburban women around 5’6” gazing off-camera with a subtle but confident curvature of the lips. Look how effortlessly chic I am. You wish you could be me. The whiteness of it all is striking (their squeaky-clean Vejas can temporarily blind you). Well, not quite. There are also the beiges, oatmeals, heather greys, taupes, off-whites, and soft creams that make you wonder if their primary schooling skipped over the color wheel. Over on the Reddit forum r/ffacj, the shitpost counterpart to r/FemaleFashionAdvice, its users have affectionately termed the aforementioned neutrals “greige.” 

It’s fun to roll my eyes at the neutral tones, but these influencers and their outfits that scream only one way to look stylish are inhibiting the slow fashion movement’s popularization. It’s no secret that their outfits are predominantly inspired by the dressing patterns of Scandinavian designers and, as I like to call it, the Mythical French Girl. Scandinavian fashion has always been known for its no-frills nature, but the collective idolization of the “French Girl” style confounds me. Why are we still pretending that the French Girl aesthetic isn’t a marketing tactic? I get that France is a global fashion powerhouse, but this fact only undermines the slow fashion movement’s intention. Although these influencers are not creating new styles to copy, the steadfast adherence to redundant silhouettes, shapes, colors, and sizes morphs into an ideal that’s about looking stylish above all else.

Achieving this ideal is also about denoting status. Sustainably-made clothing is prohibitively expensive for the average person because it’s difficult for these companies to achieve economies of scale. It makes perfect sense for these companies to sponsor influencers, but the mediascape is now dominated by sponsored posts that are more concerned with telling you to shop their items than slowing down. The situation only feels more capitalist when slow fashion influencers position themselves above the average consumer as a champion of ethical shopping and styling.

If these influencers truly wanted to better the planet, they would cancel their partnerships and shop their closets instead.

As the underpinning philosophy of capsule wardrobes is owning less, influencers are also encouraging their followers to “declutter” their wardrobes down to the necessities—and replacing them with “ethical” alternatives. Some influencers sugarcoat the unnecessary consumption by calling it an “investment,” because you’re buying higher-quality pieces that can last longer. When bloggers describe their capsule outfits as “classy,” “chic,” and “timeless,” and then proceed to advertise a $300 cashmere throw that doubles as a veil of exclusivity, how is the focus still on sustainability? Elle Magana, a blogger pursuing sustainability and social justice graduate certificates, sums up the contradiction on her blog Sustainable Amore, “You cannot shop your way into sustainability.” If these influencers truly wanted to better the planet, they would cancel their partnerships and shop their closets instead.

Again, I’m not trying to undermine the commitment to enacting change within the fashion industry. Fast fashion companies’ links to excess and abuse won’t phase out anytime soon—and, alarmingly, sustainability efforts are slowing down according to a 2019 report by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. With the popularity of minimalism and the “Marie Kondo method,” it’s easy to lose sight of simple ways to shop consciously and feel like your efforts need to be far-reaching. For sustainable fashion advocates to bolster the credibility of their core values, the movement’s pioneers need to address the huge gulf between influencers curating a trend and ordinary consumers trying to make more intentional purchases. 

Instead of telling people to declutter their wardrobes, influencers can share more tips on re-styling an item, how to repair clothing, and alternatives to donating or landfilling them. A 2015 study found that, on average, an item is worn seven times before it is thrown away. Even donating your old clothes to Goodwill is not as ethical as you might think; thrift stores are overflowing with fast fashion garments while the donations keep piling in. The problem has become so severe that some stores are beginning to refuse fast fashion donations

In pointing out the downsides of shopping secondhand, you might think I’m bolstering the legitimacy of capsules. And maybe that’s fair, but the trendishization of capsules shows how quickly a noble mission can get sucked into the whirlwind of capitalist-driven consumption modes. We need to recognize the social media landscape of slow fashion influencers for what it is: predominantly privileged folks promoting further consumption under the guise of advancing environmental sustainability and ethicality. 

At the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with downsizing your wardrobe to better suit your lifestyle. If you want to create a capsule wardrobe out of an intrinsic desire to live more sustainably, then, by all means, you should. For the average shopper, rather than taking the all-or-nothing approach to dressing sustainable, it’s more meaningful to reconsider purchases and re-evaluate what effects social media may have on your relationship to stuff. For one,  I’ve unfollowed accounts that tickle my shopping impulse and shifted my Pinterest boards to restyling items I own. As the hyped LA-based clothing brand Reformation states, “Being naked is the #1 sustainable option.” They claim to be the second, but not shopping is the real solution.

Dress for yourself, not a neutral-donned mannequin counting each and every purchase. Purchase with purpose instead of chasing after a minimalist mantra. 

Article by Linda Li.

Art by Anna Wershbale.

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