travel in style: versatile separates

Travel capsule wardrobe, neutral travel capsule
**Just a note: the collages shown here are meant to be representative of the kinds of clothing items that I’ve used when building my travel wardrobes. They may or may not be the actual pieces that I have or will bring, but all items shown will be listed at the bottom of the post.**

Perhaps you’re wanting to pack lighter for your next trip, or just more efficiently. Even if you’re not a carry-on traveler, there’s no frustration like having a suitcase full of clothing and “nothing to wear.” As with any capsule wardrobe, cohesiveness and versatility are key. You want to include pieces that can work for a variety of activities and venues, and you want most of the items to work with most of the other items. The easiest way to achieve this is to start with a foundation of one or two neutrals. My own preference is to go with darker neutrals (less likely to show dirt), but any neutrals will do.

But even I get tired of a wardrobe comprised entirely of dark neutrals. So…

Screen shot 2014-03-18 at 6.07.12 PM

Some color, texture and pattern can liven things up. I’ve found that choosing a “color story” (two colors than can be worn together as well as with your neutrals) helps retain cohesiveness. Above, I’ve chosen olive and a medium blue, and added some lighter neutrals in the taupe family. I’d suggest keeping your “interest” pieces for your top half, and keep your pants or skirts simple and day-to-night versatile.

Eileen Fisher stretch crepe pants dress up or down

It’s a concept that Duchesse has referred to as “tabletop dressing,” as most of the time you and others will mostly notice what you’re wearing on the top half.

Regarding dresses, my own experience is that they have always been under-utilized in my travel wardrobes. I rarely wear dresses as daywear at home, and have not found myself more inclined to do so when traveling. But I know that some of you prefer dresses, or at least wear them more than I do, so I will put together some travel wardrobe suggestions including more dresses in future posts. I will stipulate that we may have an occasion or two on this upcoming trip where a dress would not be overkill, and le monsieur is lobbying me to pack one. So I may have to find room in my final travel wardrobe. 😉

NEUTRALS: (top row, L to R) Jacket // Striped Top // Tunic // Sweater  (bottom row, L to R) Ankle Pants // Straight Leg Jeans // Sandals // Ankle Boots // Silk Pants // Skinny Jeans

ACCENTS: (top row, L to R)  Scarf // Striped Embroidered Tee // Floral Sweatshirt // Scarf  (bottom row, L to R) Jacket //  Blouse // Slip-ons // Sweater

Now I need your help. 🙂 I’ve received comments and emails asking about dressing for formal occasions while traveling. I’ll admit this is something I haven’t had to deal with so am asking you wise and well-traveled women….how do you pack light and still accommodate dressing for “formal” events??



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  1. Lovely combinations here, Une Femme. Very similar to my NYC packing. For a near-formal event while traveling, I shop in NY: I either buy something sparkly at a second hand store (a sequined tee, e.g.), or buy a truly fabulous piece of costume jewelry to wear with my basics. I’ve always done OK this way. xox

  2. My travel wardrobe often includes a black skirt. I have two: a black pencil skirt, worn with tights, for city restaurants and the like. It will usually go with whatever tops I am taking anyway, but if I know it will be needed, I often add a silk blouse. Alternatively, if I am going to a hot weather climate, I often pack a casual black skirt (the current one is from Athleta, made of the same sort of fabric as yoga pants, with a tiered, asymetrical hem) that I can wear when others might think about shorts or shorter pant lengths. Both of these items roll up for packing and don’t wrinkle.
    For more formal events, I have a longer EF dress, black knit, with an asymetrical hem that passes as long or short, which I wear with some sort of appropriate topper: silk shawl, evening sweater, etc. I never travel with good jewelry, but I’ll take along some blingy costume stuff. I can’t wear heels anymore, but I have some easy to pack and to walk in sparkling sandals that tuck in the sides of the suuitcase.

  3. My husband has one or two business trips per year that I attend. While not formal affairs, we do have dinners each night for which cocktail dress is the norm. We have an unusually long trip coming up this summer where I’ll need outfits for about seven evenings. My husband’s position is such that people notice what I wear, so I can’t get away with repeating outfits. Frankly, it is hard to pack light under the circumstances, but there are ways to lighten the load. I find wearing dresses to these evening events not only frees up space in my suitcase, but also is more comfortable. (Too often I’ve packed skirts and tops only to find out that what fit my waist at home is a bit too tight once I get to my destination. Must be the air in the planes. 🙂 ) I tend to purchase solid color dresses that I dress up with jewelry. And I almost always bring a scarf that I can use as a wrap if it gets cool. Key, too, is to limit myself to one or two pairs of kitten heels and one or two purses that go with everything, day or night. (I usually fail at this because I love fun shoes and purses. Fortunately, I can only wear a few styles of shoes, so that keeps me reasonably under control.) Most of my dresses are not cocktail dresses per se, so they can be dressed up or down with different jewelry and/or scarves as the occasion warrants.

    My best source for dresses has been Ann Taylor and Nordstrom. Both places have great sales, so I don’t invest a ton of $$ in outfits that may be worn just a few times. Through the years, Chicos has been my starting place for costume jewelry, so I have a pretty good collection from which to choose. Good sales there, too.

  4. Yes, my travel wardrobes are mostly skirts, and perhaps one pair of trousers. With leggings for casual daywear if it is cold. Basically gore skirts in a very packable knit.

    Sometimes semi-formal (work) events might require some kind of jacket.

    Oh pseu, those slip-ons are Josef Seibel Caspians! I may have written here about how comfy and sleek my Caspian laced trainers are – They look like they’d be too thin-soled to walk for hours, but the sole and insole are actually extremely comfy and supportive. I’ll be looking for the slip-ons! Red ones. Great for walking and cycling.

  5. I like the paler colors of olive, lavender and white added to the basic blacks. Lovely set of really versatile pieces. When I travel, usually for work, can you believe I pack only knit dresses. I wear them with comfortable boots in the winter and sandals in the summer. I roll them in a ball, no wrinkles, and ready for action!

    blue hue wonderland

  6. I love your approach to packing. It all looks so cohesive and you have got some wonderful colours to add interest to the basics.
    I would suggest a wrap dress in a jersey or bamboo one you can roll up without wrinkles. I have one in black that does exactly that…a great statement necklace or a scarf can change the look to dress it up or down.
    You must be getting excited as the days pass and your departure date gets closer!

  7. Interesting selections. I find examining your style — which is very different from mine — to be instructive by its contrast. You choose items and ensembles that would never occur to me, but are very attractive.

  8. If you are traveling to a “cool in the evening” destination, do you bring a nicer coat-jacket for nights as well as the utilitarian/rain style for day touring? I have not really found something that is suitable for both…..

    1. Suz, that Eileen Fisher jacket in the Neutrals collection at top is the one I’m planning to bring. If I need another layer over the top of that, I’d use my outerwear piece. I’m going to do another post on outerwear options, so stay tuned. 🙂

  9. Even though I’ve traveled many times with just a carry-on, often for weeks at a time, I still find your posts on the topic to be very helpful. I’m much less disciplned and systematic than you are, so I appreciate the reminder and the inspiration to leave the wildest cards behind . . . .

  10. I’m with you, don’t wear dresses except to work sometimes, and out at night. However, I do bring one good one when I travel, because it is the best way to pack light but not get caught out under dressed. And since, for me, fancy dress adds to the fun of good dinners, I don’t want to disappoint myself by only having 80% of the fun in place:).

  11. Right now touring Edinburgh I am carrying only neutral, blue and mauve which I hope will see me through until mid-May. Unfortunately, hiking boots for my walk in Cornwall and chargers/converters are my heaviest items. My Eileen Fisher outfit has now seen me through several occasions. Another brand that I am carrying is Chalet.

  12. I am desperate for some ideas of what to wear in Paris for 3 weeks in July for an over 50. I am very warm to begin with!

    1. I’m going to be in Paris in July as well, although only for 3 days. Also wondering about dressing comfortably while remaining chic — other than bulky running shoes and fanny packs, are there any Tourist Clothing dead giveaways that should be avoided? I’m mostly planning to bring solid colored or simply patterned T-shirts, capri pants, a scarf or two, a knit blazer and the like, and hoping that will let me blend in.

  13. I find it interesting to read the varying interpretations of the term “formal dress.” I immediately thought of the traditional floor length gown with bling type of formal. Others did not. Which begs the question, what do your inquiring readers mean when they refer to formal dress occasions?

  14. I say bring a black dress (silk shantung is always nice, and lightweight), a big glittery necklace, red nail polish, small clutch, and black heels and you should be ready for any formal event!

  15. I keep a timeless black bias cut long silk skirt, weightless,because it’s ideal to dress up traveling,with a black top and some bling.Shoes are becoming trickier though.Don’t want to look like Liza on Oscar night.

  16. I have had to this. We went to Glyndebourne with friends. I sent my husband’s measurements to a friend in London to rent him a dinner jacket & etc. He brought his own black shoes. I packed a long full silver skirt made of some sort of rip-stop nylon fabric that folds up into a 9″X6″ square (it’s been over 10 years & I still wear it), silver sandals (no heels when picnicking outdoors), & a purple silk tank. I could have fit it all into a legal envelope. I did sigh over the other women’s dresses, but traveling for 2 weeks with 3 children, we didn’t have a lot of room to spare (no, they didn’t go to the opera with us).

  17. Formal wear while traveling? Black with some sparkle! Chic and simple! Good posture, great conversation and a sense of humor!

  18. I’m an Aussie and I rely on a Sacha Drake dress or two for more formal events when I travel. They are beautifully feminine, made of a jersey that can be rolled up into a ball and still emerge on the other side without a wrinkle, and always attracts compliments. Each dress is coded on the website to what type of body it suits best. Her convertible dresses are fabulous for travelling as you can get more than one look out of each and she has a terrific array of clothes that can be used in different ways e.g. her turnaround wrap tunic. I also love her wide leg seamless pants (so comfortable). The quality is great and I’ve had a lot of my pieces for years. Come to think of it, I now have an embarrassingly large array of her garments 🙂

  19. I go with my husband to quite a few out of town dinners, receptions and such. These days I see very few women wearing pants to events such as these (unless they are specified as casual). For that reason, I pack dresses for these events. Mostly black dresses in several different styles. I only pack one dress if traveling abroad, but several if traveling in the United States. Scarves and jewelry are the accessories which can make the same dress look like a different ensemble.

  20. You always have such great choices. I can’t wait until I travel to Paris next month! I’m going nuts trying to decide if I will be too cold or too hot with the choices I have made so far in my clothing. Plus, we are splitting our days in Paris with four days in Amsterdam. I’ve never traveled for 2 weeks with only carryon. EEK!

    It’s hot and polluted this week in Paris, so maybe we should just stay in Los Angeles, eh?

    May I ask, how do you normally get from the airport to your hotel? We used a shuttle service last time we were there, but that was 13 years ago! David Liebovitz recommends Bee Shuttle.

    Thanks for any advice.

    1. I always use Les Cars Air France – they are open to everyone, not just Air France customers, and I have found them much better, quicker and easier than the RoissyBus. And way cheaper than a taxi. There are several routes, so you need to be sure you know which one to take. I don’t like the RER – it can take forever, is rather grungy in places, and I have not always felt completely safe on it.

  21. I an in Hawaii at the moment for 5 days to attend my nieces’s wedding. I gave never packed so much! There are a few events so I need more tops than I would normally bring. I never wear dresses and currently don’t own a shirt. So my base is black slim trousers. For a dressy rehearsal dinner I have black base an embroidered kimono. For the wedding I bought a fabulous jacket in Sydney’s Chinatown that didn’t break the bank & that I will wear again. Some jewellery, sparkly kitten heeled mules and I am done.

  22. It depends on how formal the formal events are. If I can wear an Eileen Fisher black dress with dressy clutch and heels, I pack that. If it is truly black tie, and especially if there is more than one black tie event, I throw a couple of extra tops and changes of underwear in my small carry on bag and check the big suitcase. I’m not adverse to checking luggage, although it is more convenient to avoid the risk of a delayed bag.

  23. Oh I do so enjoy your posts! Am always looking for more hints on successful packing. I agree with Alison from Australia – Sacha Drake clothes are fantastic. I have the “Turnaround Tunic” and the “2 way reverse wrap dress”. As their name suggests, they can be worn 2 ways – as a boat/round neck, or V-neck. The cut and drape of all Sacha Drake clothes is magnificent. After 6 years, I still can’t believe how beautifully these garments drape. The material is an excellent quality and weight. The clothes just don’t wrinkle…nor do they seem to get old. They are also unbelievably comfortable. No fidgeting with these items. Once you put them on, they just flow with you – and look as fresh at the end of the day (or 36 hours of flying), as they did when you first put them on. Machine wash, or rinse them out in a hotel sink and hang to dry – they don’t need ironing.

  24. Packing for dressy events has certainly been on my mind lately. Some of our Music and Markets tours involve more elegant evening events than others… and the Aix Easter Festival, coming up, will have us out 5 or 6 nights in beautiful theaters and concert halls. My standby through the years has been a black dress, with different jackets, shawls, scarves and jewelry for each evening – I’ll do that again for Aix. And I have a great little black and white jersey dress that takes up NO room – can be squished into a little ziplock! Will tuck that in for some variety. Will probably wear the same kitten heels each night. Getting excited just thinking about it!

  25. Love this post and these discussions. For the record, if I were attending business dinner events every night, and one of the women attendees wore the same dress or slacks a few times (or even every night!), perhaps accessorized different ways, I would think “What a fabulous and resourceful woman who probably has many better things to do than to shop for closets-full of dresses and overpack just so she can look completely different each night and make a better impression on people.” Not a criticism to anyone who thinks otherwise…. just an honest opinion, that I would value the resourceful and savvy-traveler woman over the clothes horse, any day!

  26. I too bring a dress, one of those rollable knit jersey ones. I find it very useful and I don’t feel so ‘”practical tourist-y” when out in Paris with our local friends. They are usually from boutiques as I need them cut longer for my height, and for some reason the dept store brands are so short.

  27. It is very helpful to me to think of a “colour story” for a travelling wardrobe. I tend to think “this outfit” and “this outfit” which makes for a bulging case especially as I don’t travel much, your experience and ideas are great to spin-off from.