Why a 12-piece travel wardrobe? I’ve found that for most types of leisure travel, this number of items will allow one to travel with carry-on luggage for 2-3 weeks, and be covered for almost all venues (barring fancy dress events like weddings). If you don’t mind checking luggage and/or prefer more variety, these 12 items* can still be the cohesive foundation to which you add more choices.
In general, travel on the “shoulder seasons” (spring and fall) can mean dealing with widely varying weather conditions and temperatures, sometimes within a few hours! Our weather experiences traveling in Europe in the spring have ranged from cold, wet and blustery (40’s F) to unseasonably warm (100’s F). I rely on lightweight layers, and have built this travel wardrobe based upon the kinds and styles of pieces that I would pack. The items above are intended as examples and suggestions and as much as possible I’ve used pieces that are currently available. I’ve included a skirt here even though I usually no longer pack them, as I’ve learned from previous requests that many of you do. If you prefer dresses, you could also swap out for some of the pants/tops.
Over the years, I’ve learned from trial and error what works and doesn’t. As always, let your preferences guide you, but I’ll share the thought process and my guidelines for selecting a travel wardrobe.
First, a few general strategies:
- Knits are usually your best bets for travel. They’ll be comfortable when sitting for hours in transit, easy to layer, won’t need pressing, and often are easy to hand wash and line dry. I tend to stick to non-bulky and narrow cuts (NOT tight, though). They’ll layer more easily, and are easier to move around in. (If you’ve ever had a flapping sweater or billowing sleeve get caught in a turnstile, you know what I’m talking about. 😉 )
- Fabrics that breathe will be more comfortable. Look for wool, cashmere, linen, viscose, tencel, rayon (though this can wrinkle), and blends that have a decent percentage of any of these. Cotton is comfortable, but can be heavy and take a long time to dry if you wash or get caught in a downpour. I tend to avoid high percentages of synthetics such as polyester, though your preferences and mileage may vary. Many synthetics have come a LONG way in the last decades, and I’d never say never. Weave and fabric quality may be as important as composition.
- Think about wardrobe cohesion; you’ll want most tops to work with most bottoms (try everything on in as many combinations as you can think of), and the ability to layer the tops if needed for warmth. Two ways I achieve this are to build the base of the wardrobe around two neutrals (black and navy in this case) and stick to one silhouette (e.g. long-over-lean, fitted-over-flared, etc.).
- I generally follow a 2-to-1 tops-to-bottoms ratio when planning a travel wardrobe. Some people do 3-to-1; it’s just a matter of what you’re most comfortable with.
- For most venues, “smart casual” will be as dressed up as you need to be. Simple separates in neutral colors will look most polished. I always pack a lightweight jacket or structured cardigan; thrown on even over jeans and a tee it makes an outfit look pulled-together.
- Use tops, scarves and accessories to add color. I try to go with no more than two or three coordinating colors in addition to my neutrals. Though it’s certainly simpler to build a wardrobe using only neutrals, when I’ve done that in the past I found myself craving a bit of bright, warm color and pattern, so have tried to work those in here.
- I can’t rave enough about Eileen Fisher’s stretch crepe pants for travel. They are lightweight, comfortable in a wide range of temperatures, washable (and will usually dry overnight) and available in several styles and a few colors. I’ve shown the ankle length style above which I prefer once weather warms up, but they are also available in full-length and even wide leg styles. Especially in black, they can dress up sufficiently for an evening out at the theater or a nice restaurant.
- For cooler conditions, the ponte knit pants are my top pick, either skinny (my faves) or straight leg.
- In all but the hottest and most humid weather, I travel with at least one pair of jeans. It’s a matter of personal preference, but I live in them at home, and find them easy to style when traveling. I usually go with one each dark indigo wash and black, slim fit and not distressed.
- I find darker bottoms are just more practical for travel as they are much less likely to show dirt. In warmer seasons, I’ll opt for looser cuts and lighter fabrics.The concept of “tabletop dressing” works well for travel too.
- If you prefer skirts and dresses to pants, think about comfort and ease of movement. Again, knits are ideal, and you may need to factor in hosiery. I’ll address travel footwear in a separate post, but skirts add another dimension to those choices.
- I’ll bring a range of light- to mid-weight pieces, with the idea that the tops will be able to layer as needed. If you’re anticipating some warmer days, a linen tee or two might be good choices. Linen is lighter than cotton, and will also dry much faster.
- I’ll always bring one light- or mid-weight cashmere cardigan. Even in warmer months, it’s nice to have on the plane. I choose cardigans that can be zipped or buttoned closed; this allows them to be worn effectively as a mid-layer if needed. (I love no-close cardigans at home, but find they aren’t the best choice for travel.)
- I bring a tunic length sweater and/or top to wear over the stretch crepe pants.
- When mixing prints, remember that graphics (stripes, dots, gingham) mix with florals or animal prints. So when choosing printed tops I stick to graphic prints, and for scarves go with animal and floral prints, or solids. Again, it’s about maximizing what pieces can be worn together.
- Knit jackets (non-bulky) are a great travel choice, but even a woven jacket in a tropical weight wool can be a workable option. Remember that you may need to layer that jacket under a raincoat or outerwear.
- I’ve found that especially in warmer weather, a lightweight collared shirt helps me to feel a bit more polished with fewer layers. I usually travel with one in linen, but the one I’ve included at top is a soft crinkled cotton that doesn’t require ironing to look presentable (and it’s available in other colors as well).
(Shoes, bags, accessories and outerwear will be covered in separate posts.)
You’ll want to check average temperatures in advance when planning travel, then double-check the actual forecast at your destination right before you leave and make wardrobe adjustments as necessary.
Look for upcoming posts on footwear, luggage and more in the next few weeks. Do you have any specific travel or travel wardrobe questions you’d like for me to address? Any tips of your own to share? You can see all of my previous travel wardrobes here.
*When I calculate my 12 items, I’m not counting shoes, hosiery, underwear, accessories, outerwear, sleepwear or those pieces I refer to as “underpinnings” like the silk camisoles and tanks I wear most days as a base layer. Even so, I’m able to fit everything easily into my carry-on luggage.
Build your travel wardrobe…
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