Tips For Building A Travel Wardrobe

travel in style: building a travel wardrobe

Travel wardrobe starter kit

My Travel Wardrobe Starter Kit™.  😉 Yes, you CAN travel comfortably and stylishly.

In comments on Monday’s post, several readers remarked on those people who seem to use “comfort” as a rationale for downright sloppy attire. While I don’t want to be the Fashion Police or come down too harshly on those who either don’t give a donkey’s ear at all about appearances or perhaps are dealing with challenges in life that make choices about what to wear insignificant, I do think there’s a cultural zeitgeist here in the US that makes no distinction between our private and personal lives, and renders people incapable of judgement about what’s appropriate to wear (or share) in public. I blame reality TV. 😉 The result is people who think nothing of doing their grocery shopping in pajamas, or traveling in old gym clothes, all in the name of comfort.

I’m assuming if you’re reading this blog, you’re not one of those people, so let’s talk about how we can put together travel wardrobes that are comfortable, yet appropriate for just about any venue.

Knits are a traveler’s best friends. They move with you, don’t wrinkle (usually) and can often be chameleons, going from casual to dressy with a quick change of accessories. I tend to favor separates that can be combined a multitude of ways. Above, I’ve featured some building blocks (based on transitional season travel) that will take you just about anywhere where “smart casual” is appropriate. This collection would be representative of the kinds of pieces I’d start with as a foundation; yours may be different. I’d add perhaps a piece or two with color/pattern, and maybe some interesting design details. I won’t forget scarves and accessories of course, to change up the look and dress simple pieces up or down.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and the straightest line to building a cohesive travel wardrobe is to start with one or two neutrals. They don’t have to be black, but unless you’re heading somewhere tropical, I’d really advise keeping your bottoms (skirts and pants) on the darker side (black, chocolate, navy) because lighter fabrics will show dirt more quickly. It’s just that simple. Speaking of simple, I often find that keeping cuts and styles very clean and basic provides more versatility. A simple black or navy pair of pants can go from day to dinner with a change of top, shoes and accessories. An unfussy cardigan can be layered underneath a jacket if the weather suddenly takes a cooler turn. Layering is key. Leave the bulky, voluminous pieces at home. A few lightweight layers really will keep you just as warm as one heavy one, and you can add or subtract as weather requires.

Let’s talk fabrics. Some of the best fabrics for travel have names like viscose, modal and tencel. While these are technically “man made” fibers, they are made from natural materials such as cellulose (think wood pulp), which have the same breathability as cotton though they are lighter and often have less water retention, meaning they dry faster. We’ll ease into modern microfiber polyester, which often has a silky texture and isn’t your grandmother’s sweaty polyester. A lot of modern performance fabrics that wick moisture away from the body contain some polyester. If natural fibers are non-negotiable for you, check out silk and linen jersey knits, both of which are lighter than cotton and will dry faster. Lightweight wools (especially Merino wool) and cashmere can be excellent travel companions.

I don’t keep a separate wardrobe for travel, but rather keep travel in mind when shopping for my everyday pieces. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but do look for fabrics that are washable, with enough heft to stand up to some wear and tear, and that construction seems solid. Some of my favorite brands for travel-friendly clothing are Eileen Fisher, Adea (for wonderful lightweight layering camisoles and tops), J.Crew (sweaters and cardigans especially). Many love Chico’s Travelers clothing. Covered Perfectly (Misses/Plus), Gap and Lands’ End (lots of styles offered in Misses/Petites/Plus/Plus Petites) all have some very workable options. Karina Dresses are very travel friendly, especially for those who prefer dresses to pants.

Do you have favorite brands or pieces for travel? What are your strategies for putting together a travel wardrobe?

Pieces pictured above…Top row L to R: J.Crew (similar) // J.Crew (similar) // Eileen Fisher (similar) // Alexander McQueen (similar). Middle row L to R: J.Crew (similar) // Eileen Fisher (similar) // Eileen Fisher (similar) // Eileen Fisher (similar). Third row L to R: Eileen Fisher (similar) // Eileen Fisher // Eileen Fisher (similar). Shoes: Aquatalia by Marvin K (similar) // Arche (similar)

Below, more options for travel wardrobe building blocks.

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  1. February 26, 2014 / 3:35 am

    I keep two travel outfits, a navy poncho and leggings and black leggings and a huge jumper, they are both warm, comfy and stretchy, so I can curl up on the seat which is my main requirement as I have terrible back and need to be able to curt my legs up and around to survive a long flight.

  2. Baker
    February 26, 2014 / 3:38 am

    I keep a minimal closet. I look for pieces that fit the philosophy and criteria discussed in Monday’s post.The “travel wardrobe starter kit” is great for travel and as a capsule wardrobe for staying put. Is it possible for you to provide identifying information for the pieces?

    • une femme
      February 26, 2014 / 5:56 am

      Hi Baker, I’ve added those links near the bottom of the post.

  3. Toby Wollin
    February 26, 2014 / 4:06 am

    We just got back from ten days in London, where the weather was crazy every day. What worked for me in the windy, damp, rainy, (temps in the 45-50 range) weather? Slacks for sure. Warm tights (both sweater and modal from Target, believe it or not). Knit tops. Scarves. A terrific WOOL waterfall cardigan I got at Ann Taylor Loft that went with everything. I took a lightweight raincoat which got worn a couple of times, but the champion of the entire trip was my red and black wool coat — spring weight, really — which I could wear over the cardigan and which was long enough to keep me warm all the way down to my ankles.

  4. February 26, 2014 / 4:22 am

    Last week I traveled, and my wardrobe did not contain a smidge of Tencel or viscose — I have totally different reactions to how those fabrics interact with my body. For me, wearing something like a Karina dress to travel would be crazy-making (the one I bought felt like it was made out of swimsuit fabric and showed every ripple). So most everything I brought was drapey and linen except for a cozy sweater. I looked interesting, everyone was nice to me (thanks dude who gave me that BART card with $8 still on it) and I had fun with my clothes. Anyway, my point, let me get to it — I think you can make a travel capsule wardrobe out of anything, it can have fun colors and prints, and you don’t have to wear special fabrics that you wouldn’t wear in day to day life. Just make sure you pick favorites that you don’t mind wearing a couple of times, make sure everything mixes and matches, and you can go on a five-day trip with 7 main items in your bag and be fabulous. It might be different, of course, if my day-to-day wear was a business suit that I needed to get out of and be comfortable, but that’s a whole different kind of life!

    • March 13, 2014 / 7:27 am

      Agreed. I love colour and patterns. Just because I’m travelling I’m not willing to give those up.


  5. Susan
    February 26, 2014 / 5:15 am

    I finally took your advice and purchased an Eileen Fisher silk jersey top. I don’t know, considering how many EF pieces I have, why I had resisted. It is a wonderful top! I bought the long sleeved version, but will be buying the sleeveless top soon. The fabric feels great against my skin and the top looks dressier than the viscose versions.

    Yes to knits for travel. I have great knit pants that zip (not elastic waists, but I have those in black too) in black, brown, and navy.

  6. February 26, 2014 / 5:26 am

    I like to think I am a comfortable-but-far-from-sloppy traveler. Knit skirts, neutral tees, a blazer or cardigan and a scarf to break up the color. Walking booties, of course! If we’re going to the Bahamas, lightweight dresses and sunhats. Love that fleece cardigan by Bobeau.

  7. February 26, 2014 / 5:59 am

    I so agree with you on all your points and very much enjoyed this post which coincided with one of mine – if you get a chance, please check it out! Post is “Degrees of Comfort”

    Be well!


  8. February 26, 2014 / 6:47 am

    I have just pared down this year’s travel wardrobe. I am travelling to Paris and visiting relatives in the far north of Scotland (Shetland). I have chosen grey as my neutral and will be wearing my Eileen Fisher pants and cardigan with a blue silk top. I will be gone for 9 weeks (5 in Paris and 4 in the UK) The transition March-May is tricky because temperature can vary a lot. I am following your posts so that I can carry less and arrive wherever I need to go looking relatively stylish and comfortable.

  9. Kate Budacki
    February 26, 2014 / 7:16 am

    Sue, I recently retired and find that your travel wardrobe works well for retirement. I do some volunteer work, and come and go, and I like to be pulled together wherever I go. These pieces that I had from my work wardrobe are now my uniform. The suits are gone, and I am comfortable all the time. BTW, I really like that scarf. McQueen? Hmm.
    Kate B

  10. lasallepal
    February 26, 2014 / 7:17 am

    Excellent ideas! I traveled to Paris last October and took mostly E.F. clothes in addition to a few other pieces I either knit myself or had forever. Since, our trip was organized by Viking with an extended stay in Paris, my husband and I did not need to worry about suitcases. We each brought one larger suitcase and we carried on our tech bags. I had on my heavier boots for the plane ride and actually got an entire E.F. outfit rolled up in the tech bag in the event my suitcase went missing. The outfit did not have any wrinkles when I unrolled it. Luggage arrived safely, so I feel I got an extra outfit.

    E.F. packs so well and even her sweaters are so light weight they do not wrinkle. I did purchase a small, travel size, duo voltage steamer at Target (paid cash fortunately) and it worked like a charm for the few wrinkles that did show up. The steamer was inexpensive and I ended up using it more for my husbands shirts. It was so small it fit into my purse. I carried the plugs needed for my Apple computer as I do not travel with my iphone.

  11. February 26, 2014 / 7:20 am

    I love what you chose. For those who think they cannot afford Eileen Fisher, check out eBay and sales. The cost per wear on EF is excellent! I would not wear more than a one inch heel, at most, both because of my fussy body and because uneven streets risk turning an ankle. I also might swap dark charcoal tops for the black ones if they are not the same brand as the bottoms, to avoid mismatched blacks. Finally, I second the merino wool recommendation. Wool does not retain odors!

  12. February 26, 2014 / 8:57 am

    I take one of those down jackets that can fit in a tiny zip case (Duchesse pictured one yesterday in her post). It even gets cold in summer in Paris.

  13. Noel
    February 26, 2014 / 8:59 am

    We’re going to Istanbul, Greece and Italy in May, we’ll be out 23 days – part cruise on a sailboat and part land trip on our own. We both need to carry our laptops with us – maybe just one for both of us and some work-related items, so a carryon will be a must, plus a separate suitcase.

    For clothing, I decided to go with navy blue and black slacks, as well as white and off white – 4 slacks. All washable in a sink. All our hotels have ironing boards. On top, plenty of lightweight tops, in navy, black and a couple of pops of color, plus scarves. I have an EF black dress for evening, I can also wear it during the day with sandals and a colorful scarf. I have an anorak in case of wet weather, but I’m hoping for cool nights and warm, but not hot days. Hope that’s not wishful thinking. What I don’t have is a pair of closed shoes that I can walk miles and miles in over cobblestones. I’m still looking for the right shoe that will look good with light slacks or dark.

    Also not sure of what purse to bring. I was able to fit all my outer clothes into a carryon, but not my underwear nor cosmetics, so a small suitcase will be enough. I’ll also bring a small duffle bag folded in the suitcase in case I happen to do some shopping in Italy, I’ll be able to rearrange things and bring whatever I bought home.

  14. February 26, 2014 / 9:28 am

    Yes! Like you, I make sure that my normal wardrobe is a capsule wardrobe and is travel worthy. I’m comfortable in what I’m wearing as it reflects me. It is also quite easy to create a smaller travel capsule from an existing normal capsule.

    I personally like the clothing from Dress Barn – it fits my coloring and style. I have a very small waist and large bust, so my clothing choices are limited. I’ve found that the Royal Robbins brand of technical clothing fit the curvy girls a little better. These have princess seaming, adjustable waistlines on the pants (meaning I can take it in). Many of the RR products have a tailored look to them. One of my favorite pieces is a white 3/4 sleeve button down shirt from RR. It has a tailored look, but with roll up sleeves and a hidden pocket. I wear it in the city, I wear it on the hiking trail.

    As far as strategies go – I take two neutrals, saving the dark neutral for formal and the lighter neutral for fun. I make sure I take one button down (worn open or closed), one fancy top, at least one shell/tank (layering or alone), and a 3/4 sleeve tee. I also bring a dark sleeveless dress that I can layer. Add in a couple of sweaters/jackets and done. Add accessories and a bag that converts to a cross body bag.

  15. sybes1
    February 26, 2014 / 1:36 pm

    Susan I’ve learned so much about how to travel fashionably and comfortably by reading your blog. Thank you so much! I find that I’m gathering a travel wardrobe — one for Europe and one for Hawaii. Eventually my wardrobe will be like yours, I think…..clothes not just for travel but for everyday wear.
    I made the mistake of buying lots of clothes while working my corporate medical job–with pieces that I bought a good 13 years ago. Now in retirement they are both obsolete and ill-fitting (you know how we change over the years …..).
    Many of my new purchases have been from REI–lightweight puff jacket and vest that are poly filled, not down. They dry faster than merino…..

  16. pink azalea
    February 26, 2014 / 1:49 pm

    Thoughtful post and a practical approach to travel wardrobe planning. Last year I bought a black nylon Baggallini Hugger backpack to use instead of a handbag whenever we travel. I wear it like a cross-body so contents are easily accessible and I can be hands-free for rolling luggage, shopping, climbing stairs, etc. Large enough, yet I’m able to wear it underneath a rain jacket, loose-fitting cardigan, etc. Like many, my core clothing pieces like pants and shoes are black so the bag goes well with them.

  17. February 26, 2014 / 3:57 pm

    Great advice, thank you. And I think there is a lot we can blame on reality TV!

  18. Maggie Fieger
    February 26, 2014 / 7:57 pm

    I first saw your blog last spring when I was preparing for my first trip abroad to Paris in the fall. I found that your suggestions were really good for clothing. My favorite thing was a pair of JJill stretch straight leg pants – wear them here at home and love them. I didn’t even have a dozen pieces in my travel wardrobe and we actually broke my cousin’s washing machine! I am also older than you (62) and curvier but also short and have found your suggestions invaluable. Thank you!

  19. Ellen
    February 27, 2014 / 6:26 am

    All of those clothes in your capsule are already part of my wardrobe, except for the blazer/jacket (it is not something I need in my everyday life, nor would I wear one that severe). My feet do better in flats. Because scarves are very useful and take no space, I usually pack one and wear one, and mine are much wilder than that (and they come from Target so if they get left behind somewhere, I don’t feel bad about it).

    Tencel, when wet, gets weird, although it returns to its silky state when fully dry. Many rayons wrinkle badly, and some never wrinkle at all (rayon, modal, viscose are all similar fibers). Test it before packing to be sure. There is nothing worse than having your 2nd pair of pants shrivel up because you got caught in the rain. I’ve been a fan of The Gaps basic black pants for a long time. They are totally synthetic, never wrinkle, seem not to get dirty, ever, and have a lot of stretch so they are comfortable to sit in for long stretches, and they never get baggy. They come in 4 leg styles and in 3 leg lengths if you order on line; online they are also available in up to size 18, at least. The store only carries the regular lengths. This is not my favorite every day wear, but they are terrific travel pants.

  20. February 27, 2014 / 10:34 pm

    I agree Susan, sloppy people tend to use the word “comfort” as a lame excuse for lack of care. Your post is spot on, and most helpful for any prospecting traveller, great content and well written!

  21. tamerabeardsley
    March 4, 2014 / 12:22 pm

    My dear I LOVE this post and I couldn’t agree more with your opening paragraph! So well said!

    I think proper travel packing is an exercise in finding the perfect balance of creativity and function. A wonderfully performing travel wardrobe is always a must for me to fully enjoy my journey.

    I so appreciate gleaning wisdom from your fashion outlook and travels! Thank you for sharing! I’m off to see Monday’s post!


  22. March 5, 2014 / 10:31 am

    Hello my dear friend, If i am travelling to a place I am not going to get bargains ( my favourite type of shopping) then I take plenty clothes I take whole outfits with accessories and all.
    But if I travel somewher where there are charity shops, thrift shops, etc then I travel just with my undewear and a tooth brush, lol and hope come back with 25 kilos of clothes

  23. Jennifer Miller
    March 10, 2014 / 12:27 pm

    Very helpful post and I so enjoy your blog………new follower. I didn’t notice anything “formal” in your packing list. We will be returning from Wales to NY (mid-May) on ship and have 3 formal dinners! I am not a formal type of person. Short of buying a gown, what does one do for formal dinners? Does EF translate well to formal with proper accessories? Thank you for your help.

  24. March 12, 2014 / 7:24 am

    These are some great tips! I always end up bringing more and not wearing much of them when I travel. I’m bookmarking this page 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    Mrs Jack Of All Trades

  25. March 14, 2014 / 9:07 am

    We are going on a 2-week trip to the UK and Paris in July and I think my favorite part of travel planning has been day-dreaming about what I’m going to pack in my own capsule wardrobe. I will be combing through your archives for ideas!

    I recently made a travel outfit Polyvore (voila: that included pants by Karen Kane, mostly because they were called “wrinkle resistant travel pants.” Do you have any experience with that brand? I’ve never worn them.

    I also ordered some Eddie Bauer Travex pants because they are lightweight and wrinkle-resistant, but I’m wondering if they look too outdoorsy for what is essentially an urban (if not urbane journey?

    I may also bring a pair of leggings pants from Uniqlo, at least to wear on the plane, as they are so comfortable and can be rolled up to pack.

  26. Misirlou
    April 19, 2014 / 11:17 am

    What a great capsule! I am headed to London next week with No. 2 son and you’ve just saved me the anguish of trying to decide what to pack. A few tweaks and I’m good to go!

  27. August 29, 2014 / 10:40 am

    I just saw this post, and I love it. I’m working on my wardrobe, and my goal is one in which 80% of my clothes are appropriate for all aspects of my life – work, travel, casual (dressing for my job is quite casual, fortunately). The rest will be more dressy things to wear when needed, and exercise/yard work/around the house only things that I can’t seem to do without.

    I went to Italy in October a couple of years ago and packed everything I needed for 2 weeks in a carry-on bag. Two skirts, two pants, 4 tees (variety of sleeve lengths), 2 cardigans, 2 pullover sweaters, 2 tank tops, 1 dressy shell top, 2 pair shoes. Accessories of course – 2 scarves, tights, a little jewelry. I carried one small cross-body purse and a small backpack to use on the plane to keep my book and a few necessities that I wanted for the long travel time. Everything was light weight for layering and easy packing. It was wonderful to travel so light and have a lot of outfit options. The best part is that even the things I bought just for the trip fit into my current wardrobe. Now I imagine my perfect travel wardrobe when I shop and everything works together!

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