How to Build a Men's Capsule Wardrobe for Traveling
Updated: 1/7/21. This page is a living document, which I update with new items from time-to-time.
Dressing well should be easy for men, but most guys fail at it.
I’ve found a “capsule wardrobe” to be the best way to dress well, pack light, and minimize the time and money that I spend on clothes. When building a capsule wardrobe, think staples, not trends or, God forbid, travel clothes.
This page outlines how to build a capsule wardrobe as well as the brands and specific products that I recommend.
What is a Capsule Wardrobe?
A capsule wardrobe is a collection of basic clothing that will never go out of style. Each item in a capsule wardrobe should be functional and interchangeable.
Build a capsule wardrobe out of high-quality investment pieces. The items I recommend below are often more expensive than the “mall brand” or Amazon Basics equivalents. Many of the products below are made of technical materials and/or made in the US, hence the higher price tag.
A good capsule wardrobe is not cheap and disposable. Fast fashion has no place in your capsule wardrobe. Save up for any items that you can’t afford right now. In the meantime, use what you already own or buy affordable basics from Uniqlo.
You don’t have to replace your entire wardrobe all at once. Experiment. Figure out which brands fit you well and look good on you. Buy more from those brands. The capsule wardrobe below is what works well for me.
For more on capsule wardrobes, read How to Build a Travel Capsule Wardrobe.
My pant game is strong. For me, pants are an investment. I wear the same one or two pairs every day until they fall apart.
Then, I repair them if possible. For $20–40, you can patch up a pair of jeans and get another year or two of wear from them. Many higher end denim brands can arrange repairs for you. You can also check with local specialty denim stores.
Outlier is my go-to brand for pants and shorts. I wear the Slim Dungarees ($198) most days. They repel liquids and stains, dry quickly, and have just enough stretch. At 10 oz., the Slim Dungarees’ fabric is thinner and lighter than most jeans, making them easy to pack.
I prefer the 5-pocket jean styling of the Slim Dungarees, but Outlier makes chinos and other pants with similar properties. I also own a pair of their Futureworks chinos for warmer weather.
If you only wore the Slim Dungarees every other day for one year (they’ll last much longer), the cost/wear is just $1.08. Not bad for your go-to, wear-every-day pants. I've had my current pairs of Slim Dungarees and Futureworks for nearly three years. They both look brand new.
For casual shorts, I prefer the Outlier New Way Shorts ($120). The NWs are the short version of the Futureworks mentioned in the last section. As a bonus, you can even swim in them.
The Olivers All Over Shorts ($68) are my favorite gym and casual shorts. Unlike most athletic shorts, they’re understated without any huge logos or obnoxious colors. You could wear them to yoga then out to brunch without advertising, “I just worked out!”
The All Over Shorts are lighter and thinner than my previous pick, the Myles Everyday Short, which should help them dry faster after a swim or handwashing in the sink.
My default gym shorts are the Ten Thousand Interval Shorts ($58-68). However, the Olivers shorts are more versatile so I pack those and leave the Ten Thousands at home.
For men, pants are straightforward. You have two choices: jeans and chinos.
Shirts come in a greater variety of styles and fabrics. Your preferences may vary, but I'll suggest a few of my favorite products and brands below.
Weather permitting, Slim Dungarees and a t-shirt are my go-to travel outfit.
I used to be an American Apparel loyalist but, after they imploded and sold to Gildan, I switched to Next Level's tri-blend tees (crew, v-neck). You can find them for as cheap as $10 on Amazon. The Next Level shirts aren't premium or expensive. They're a workhorse shirt made of a durable-enough blend of cotton, polyester, and rayon that wears well and dries quickly.
Merino wool t-shirts offer better temperature regulation and anti-stink properties. However, they don't dry as quickly or wick sweat as well as a synthetic shirt. Most importantly for travel, you can re-wear them without having to wash them. Wool & Prince founder Mac Bishop wore his shirt for 100 days straight and will give you a free one if you do the same.
After some trial and error, I landed on Outlier's Ultrafine Merino T-Shirt ($120). As you may have guessed from the price, I only own one. However, it's perfect for long, transcontinental flights and for reducing the total number of shirts that I bring on the road with me.
The downside of merino is that it's expensive and 100% merino tees often develop holes because they're so light and delicate. Do not skimp on merino. You'll be buying a shirt that turns into Swiss cheese after a few wears.
The Outlier shirt is the only 100% merino shirt that I've owned that hasn't developed holes over time. Other brands sell merino blends with nylon or polyester mixed in for durability.
For long-sleeved shirts, I favor henleys, work shirts or shirt jackets, and oxford cloth button downs if I need to dress up.
If I had to pick one button-down for my travel wardrobe, it would be the the Wool & Prince Button-Down Blue Oxford ($108). W&P's shirts are 100% merino wool but still feel light because they're relatively thin. I haven't had any issues with durability, though I don't wear button downs as often as I've worn merino t-shirts.
For more formal occasions, the Ministry of Supply Apollo Men's Shirt ($125) is my go-to dress shirt, which means I wear it to every wedding that I attend. The Apollo looks like a twill shirt but has the benefits of technical clothing with extreme stretchiness. The stretchiness allows for a full range of motion, even when your shirt is tucked.
First, read Snarky Nomad's in-depth guide to men's underwear and the best existing options. You will want something that fits comfortably, breathes, is lightweight (for packing), and dries quickly.
In short, don't buy cotton underwear.
After getting a free pair at a trade show, Terramar became my underwear brand of choice. Their value option is the Terramar Men's TXO Silkskins 6" Boxer Briefs ($15 for 3). At $5/pair, they are half of the best price for Uniqlo AIRisms, the usual value choice.
After years of wearing Smartwool, I now wear Darn Tough. My Smartwool socks tend to wear out near the bottom of my Achilles tendon, which may be because of my heel shape and wear patterns. Your mileage may vary.
Darn Tough are also made of merino wool and are comparably priced. Try both brands and go with what feels best to you.
I recommend the Hiker Micro Crew Midweight Hiking Sock ($23) for a heavier, warmer sock in winter and the Heady Stripe Micro Crew Lightweight Hiking Sock ($21) for something a bit lighter.
For dress socks, I wear Outlier Megafine Merino Socks ($25), which, again, are excellent but expensive.
For no-show socks in the summer, you can't beat the pricing on Uniqlo Low Cut Socks (3 for $10). All of their socks are one-size-fits-all which may be an issue if your shoe size is especially large or small.
Pack in layers, not in bulk.
Don't pack a coat unless you're going to a truly frigid climate. Only bring a jacket that you are willing to wear most of the time on your trip. I mostly avoid cold weather when I travel, so I rarely need more than a light jacket. Luckily, I live in the Bay Area and have several, from cardigans to hoodies to a lightweight puffy jacket.
For everyday wear, I prefer a shirt jacket that can be worn either as a shirt or as a jacket (over a t-shirt or henley). Outerwear differs wildly by style and purpose. Versatility is key for a capsule wardrobe.
For colder weather, I wear my Uniqlo Ultra Light Down Jacket ($70) which can be packed into a small bag that comes with it.
For rainy weather, I have a Patagonia Torrentshell Rain Jacket, ($129) which also packs into itself.
A capsule wardrobe requires a shift away from cheap, disposable clothing to high-quality, investment pieces. Keep it simple, and you’ll look better and pack lighter.
This post reflects my personal preferences, but I hope that it gave you some ideas on what to buy and some new brands to explore.
If you have any other recommendations to share, send them to me. I have way too much fun trying to refine my capsule wardrobe.
Disclosure: Some of the links on this site are affiliate links. If you sign up or buy something through an affiliate link, I make a small commission at no additional cost to you. I use these products and highly recommend them. If you think my recommendations can help you, use them. If not, don’t.