Capsule Contradictions

How Minimalist Dressing Misleads Women

'Empty Nest,' Louise Bourgeois, 1994. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.
‘Empty Nest,’ Louise Bourgeois, 1994. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

IN A 1975 EPISODE of ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ Mary advises her spendthrift (and – unpopular opinion, maybe – fabulous) friend Phyllis on keeping to a budget.1 Mary shows Phyllis her own monthly expenses, an exchange that leads Phyllis to ask what Mary would do if she saw a gorgeous coat that cost more than twice her monthly clothing budget. Phyllis describes the coat in so much detail that one wonders if it’s a theoretical garment or one Phyllis has her eye on. (It’s camel, leather-trimmed, and fits perfectly.) Mary insists she just wouldn’t buy it until saving up, case closed. It’s only when Phyllis gets to the part about the coat’s original price being hundreds of dollars higher that sensible Mary admits that she would splurge.

Mary and Phyllis illustrate two enduring stereotypes of female consumption: the greedy woman who craves the latest trend, and her frugal counterpart, who carefully budgets. But a crucial thing is different in 2017: Clothing these days is cheaper than it used to be,2 and consumers spend proportionally less on it.3 This on-the-surface neutral fact has had a huge, if complicated, impact on fashion. There are, of course, the labour and environmental concerns raised by the proverbial dress that costs the same as a latte. And there is a cultural shift: Now that having a varied, up-to-date wardrobe has ceased to be a luxury for the few, the wealthy have needed to find other ways to distinguish themselves through dress: minimalism.

Minimalist fashion has emerged in implicit response to a myth: that overconsumption has become increasingly widespread, available not just to ladies of leisure, and that women’s hunger for the next new thing is filling landfills. The expression ‘fast fashion’ implies something more than affordability. It suggests a consumer who can’t pile the novelty items into her cart, real or virtual, quickly enough. Because it would be overtly cruel and snobbish to fault women on budgets (which, with stagnant wages and precarious work, is a lot of us) for trying to look presentable, the financial necessity of cheap clothes gets left out of the cultural conversation about inexpensive tank tops.

What’s chic, as always, is to be rich. But wealth is now signalled by standing apart from the Black Friday hordes (remember to post to Facebook about how you’re instead going skiing that day), or the 9-to-5 plebs who seek bargains for sport. Relatability, however, is also in style, so we’ve landed on a narrative of sorts: A (young, rich, photogenic) woman who used to buy All The Stuff, but who has learned the error of her ways, and now invests in a few choice, trend-indifferent items from upscale, and therefore ethical, shops.

It’s called the ‘capsule wardrobe.’ Brands and lifestyle bloggers encourage the sort of woman who might go in for clean-eating ‘bowls,’ and who apologises for having had overly plucked eyebrows in the early 2000s, to embrace it. Women are urged to ‘curate’ our wardrobes, paring them down to a few select items. But maybe we don’t own the right ones? Capsule dressing requires ‘basics,’ which any given woman may or may not already own, and thus tends to come with a list of suggestions, often described, confusingly, as ‘essentials.’

In a piece called ‘You’re doing the “capsule wardrobe” wrong,’ Kelly Dougher traces capsule dressing from its Seventies origins (with Susie Faux, a London shop-owner4 ) to the present: ‘[T]he capsule wardrobe,’ argues Dougher, ‘has sneakily been repackaged as a new vessel for our society’s obsession with consumerism.’5 Tips on how to shop less are somehow, she observes, shopping lists of their own. What gives?

The new minimalism sends a paradoxical message to women, that we should both feel ashamed for buying so much stuff – or such cheap stuff, as though the two are the same – and that we need to solve our materialism by caring more about what we own, and spending more on each item. Minimalist fashion, in all its pricey asceticism, is about exploiting women’s discomfort with our enjoyment of stuff.

This is, to be fair, a response to an ambivalence some women genuinely express. Caroline Joy Rector, of the capsule-wardrobe lifestyle blog Un-Fancy, explained the impetus for her project as follows: ‘I’d noticed that I had a bad habit of going shopping when I needed to jolt myself out of a bad mood.’6 Meanwhile, art director Matilda Kahl told Ad Age that after switching to uniform dressing (that is, wearing the same thing every day, ‘I no longer spend time on choosing clothes nor do I get self-conscious in meetings, which would happen occasionally before.’7

Where women are concerned, then, minimalist clothing advice is aimed at tamping down on overabundant desire. Rather than taking your inspiration from that awesome scarf on the woman at the coffee shop this morning, you’re to restrict yourself to sensible basics. Are you A Woman? You require The Navy Blazer, The Pencil Skirt, and so forth, and be sure to pay full price for each. Which brings us to the capsule’s cousin: the Basic Essentials list. (Think Goop’s ‘Ten Investment Pieces You’ll Have Forever,’8 which, in fairness, suggests a camel coat not unlike Phyllis’s ideal.)

As Nikki Ogunnaike has pointed out in Elle, these must-own lists have scant relationship with what any individual woman actually wants or needs to wear: ‘But really, can you tell me why I should own ballet flats before I turn 30 this January?’9 Elle backtracked from Ogunnaike’s well-put but not especially commercially-friendly point, publishing a clothes-to-own-by-30 guide a couple months later, complete with ballet flats.

The big lie behind these checklists is that there are ‘timeless’ items in the first place. It’s not that every garment goes out of style, but that there’s no way to know which will or when. A quick way to see this is to glance at timeless-classics lists published a decade ago.10 While the text version doesn’t much change in that timespan – boots, white shirts – the photos tell another story. Jeans you were called to ‘invest’ $200 in circa 2005 – and this is assuming they still fit – will look anything but modern today.

As minimalism has caught on as a trend more generally,11 post-2008, the term has come to connote both the number of items and a particular aesthetic: the kind of gray-scale uniform that looks fabulous when displayed with blond wood floors and white walls, but that seems, once you’re wearing it (at least in my personal experience of, well, wearing it) like you’re in the same grey T-shirts that did nothing special for you as a sixteen-year-old.12

It’s good and well to make the case that you can keep wearing clothes that have gone out of style. Plenty of us do! But that’s not a case conducive to selling thousand-dollar trench coats. And it’s absolutely worthwhile to care about labour conditions in garment factories and the environmental impact of discarded clothes, concerns that sometimes weave their way into minimalist rhetoric. But is that what’s really going on when women are instructed to ‘invest’ in beige belted jackets that seem far more practical than they are?

Consider Ralph Lauren’s ‘Forever Pieces’ collection.13 (What could be more timeless than eternity?) Among the ‘five smart staples’: ‘the white pant,’ e-commerce-speak for white pants. The notion that this, the world’s most stainable garment would last ‘forever’ requires tremendous suspension of disbelief.

Minimalism’s critics regularly point out that stop-shopping tips all too often amount to advice to buy more than you would otherwise.14 The go-to example of this is of course Marie Kondo’s reminder to chuck what doesn’t ‘spark joy,’ a strategy all but guaranteed to end with having to buy all new T-shirts. Like diet advice, minimalist clothing tips have a way of encouraging a vulnerable audience to fall deeper into the hole from which they seek to escape. Some sort of French paradox is meant to ensue, where by spending thousands on a handbag, you wind up saving money and turning into an overall less materialistic person.

We see this most clearly with how capsule wardrobes are marketed differently at men than at women. Cladwell sends different messages in its ‘capsules for women’ and ‘roadmap for men’ sections. Men get this message: ‘Tell us what you’re like. We’ll tell you what to like.’ Women: ‘Have too many clothes and nothing to wear?’ Women will get help ‘reduc[ing] the clutter in your closet.’ Men: ‘A personal style guide that takes the guesswork out of clothing.’

The implied male recipient of minimalist clothing advice is a bumbling bachelor who for whatever reason doesn’t have a woman in his life available to make sure he goes out of the house looking like a reasonable adult. He finds shopping tedious, and so needs a checklist. For women, the problem being addressed is excessive enjoyment of shopping, and, secondarily, time sunk into in choosing what to wear each day.

A vocalised dislike of stuff is a way for a man to assert that he’s an adventurous sort who won’t be tied down. The stuff-averse man15 – think Mark Zuckerberg, proudly sticking with those grey T-shirts,16  but also everyday dudes who make a point in shuddering when the word “mall” is uttered – is setting himself apart from femininity (as manifested in men or women) and bourgeois responsibility. It doesn’t matter if he devotes his leisure time to rock-climbing or world-saving (and note that the protests that got the world revved up involved women wearing new pink hats). It’s enough for a man to announce a preference for ‘experiences,’ and his female interlocutor will find herself squirming, wondering if maybe the fact that she finds shopping non-torturous makes her a terrible person.

Perhaps because it’s so dead-set on selling us clothes, the new minimalism conveniently sets aside why women might be disproportionately inclined to go clothes-shopping, addressing the shopping, rather than the underlying (supposed) pathology. Is it really a callous, frivolous female indifference to labour conditions and landfills? Women need to look put-together to look professional, whereas certain men, in some settings, can be taken more seriously if they look a bit scruffy.17 (The flipside here is that men who enjoy clothes and shopping are often stigmatised for this gender-non-conforming behaviour.) Faced with fewer outlets for self-expression or status attainment, we turn a bit more than the dudes do to our own physical self-presentation. And because it would be rather grim not to, we often find ourselves enjoying the process.

If buying (or just browsing) clothes makes you happy, it doesn’t follow that you’re shopping yourself into debt, or are unable to leave your home, so packed has it become with leopard-print rompers. Liking stuff doesn’t necessarily mean purchasing tons of it, or that what you purchase is, on the whole, purchased new. As with all appetites, the desire for stuff exists at a whole range of intensities, and is only a problem if it’s a problem. Practice saying, “I like stuff,” if you do, and doing so with the confidence of someone who knows that the ostentatiously stuff-averse are consuming just as much as you are.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s first book, The Perils of ‘Privilege,’ comes out March 2017.

Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art (










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  14. See my previous article: