I’m definitely not a fashion expert, but after wearing what fits into a backpack for eight months, I feel like I have a good handle on managing a minimalistic wardrobe that blends well into urban Europe. (Here I define “blends into urban Europe” as being initially addressed regularly in the local language, after which my verbal stumblings inevitably identify me as not a local.)
In most ways, I think very little about clothes now. I only have about four outfits total, so I’m generally just pulling on whatever is clean. However, I follow a few principles to keep it simple and packable.
1. Catching and Releasing
I’m not too fond of clothing shopping (okay, I actively dislike it), but when my only pair of trousers start to fray irreparably (sob) or I switch climates, I generally end up at a thrift shop to replenish. I buy used clothes when possible because it’s cheaper, easier on the environment, and makes parting with it later psychologically easier. (Stopping by the charity bin to donate our extra stuff at the end of each stay is a ritual now.)
Whenever I’m deciding whether to acquire something new, I ask myself:
- What is this going to replace?
- Does this match almost all of my existing clothes?
- Is this going to be practical in a variety of climates?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, but I still really want the item, then I ask myself whether I’m willing to release it at the end our stay.
For example: I bought sandals at a thrift shop for the equivalent of a few dollars, wore them while I was in Cyprus, and put them into a charity bin right before we flew to Stockholm. These sandals would have been useful in Costa Rica in a few months, but because of our limited backpack space, I’m just going to trust that I’ll find something else that will work when we arrive.
We’re doing the same with thrift-store-acquired scarves, mittens, and thermal layers in Iceland; no need to bring these to the USA or Costa Rica, but they are completely worth the “rental” money for a month of no frostbite.
We switch climates frequently enough that layering is essential. On a few particularly cold days in Croatia, I wore about half my wardrobe all at once!
Here are some of the useful layers that help extend the climate range of my wardrobe without requiring speciality clothes:
- Tights that can be worn with skirts/dresses in moderately chilly weather or under jeans/trousers in cold weather.
- Tank tops and t-shirts as layers, when it’s too cool to wear them on their own.
- Sweaters and thermal fleece that be worn under my cool weather coat to transform it into a cold weather coat.
3. Prioritizing Comfort
Since I have so few pieces of clothing, I end up wearing them all pretty frequently. This has lowered my tolerance for owning anything uncomfortable. Since I walk a bunch, this is particularly true of footwear.
As much as we try to buy items used, depending on the country and culture, second-hand isn’t always easy. For example, I bought these boots new in Lyon, France after lots of fruitless searching for used ones.
I try to not get too attached to my possessions… but I love these. I can wander in them for hours and hours (tested many times!) and my feet and back still feel fine. They have rubber soles, which means they work well in snow and ice. I’ve worn them almost every day for seven months, and they are still in good condition.
(Finding comfortable, practical women’s boots in Lyon, France was a serious challenge for me, even when I stopped trying to find used ones. Most of what I found was super-fashionable and entirely impractical for long-term walking. If you happen to have this particular challenge, I recommend Exo Shoes.)
4. Not Thinking about Clothes Too Much
As I was writing this, it really struck me what a modern-day, first-world topic this is. Four whole outfits? In many times and places, that’s a wealth of clothes.
Even in the modern-day, first-world environment that I’m currently inhabiting, I like to remind myself that what I wear isn’t particularly important. In general, everyone is too busy thinking about themselves to really spend much time thinking about me. This extends to my clothes as well.
Nothing I own is at the height of fashion. It doesn’t seem to matter.
I repeat outfits every three or four days. No one seems to notice.
Whatever I wear, the world goes on.
These are all of the clothes that I currently own.
- Three tank tops (generally worn under long-sleeve shirts, since our recent itinerary has us chasing cool weather)
- T-shirt (ditto to above)
- Three long-sleeve shirts
- Simple dress that can also be worn with tights or over jeans in cooler weather
- Pair of jeans
- Pair of trousers
- Knee-length skirt
- Two pairs of tights
- Vest-like sweater
- Impractical sleeveless shirt that pretty much breaks all my rules since it isn’t particularly useful for layering and I haven’t worn it since France. Oops.
- About five of each of underwear/socks, plus three bras
- Ankle boots
- Extra-warm scarf *
- Gloves *
- Thermal fleece jacket *
* Warm stuff that I bought at the Red Cross in Iceland and will leave at the Red Cross in Iceland
- Swimming suit
- One necklace, one ring, and two pairs of earrings