The author is fully naked at the time of this writing.
How much time did you spend thinking about what you’re wearing right now?
It’s a funny question— even I have trouble being totally honest —but chances are, it’s more than a few minutes a day. I think of at least three things each and every time I open up a dresser drawer:
- Am I dressed for the weather?
- Am I dressed for everything I’m doing?
- Do I look fashionable/presentable?
Finding clothing that simplified this daily mental conundrum became a passion project. Mired somewhere between buzzwords like wrinkle-free, breathable, quick-drying, odor-resistant, ripstop, and travel-friendly was a single wardrobe I could use on any trip, for any occasion, anywhere in the world.
This is a travel wardrobe, a backbone for adventuring anywhere and doing anything. It’s also more than that for me; formal choices are gaps being filled so that this wardrobe can cover everything in my life, the work in between the adventures.
At the core of the Minimalist Wardrobe, there are a few goals:
1. Stay Clean
I am cutting down to the absolute bare essentials for a daily wardrobe, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with ever smelling or looking grundgy. Part of minimizing what you own is sacrifice, but your cleanliness shouldn’t be on the table. Staying clean allows you to interact with other people, keeps you healthy, and keeps your clothes lasting longer.
The answer to any question about odor is that I tested extensively to make sure that the fabrics I chose are appropriately stink-free, that any clothing intended for use more than once between washings can handle it, and that everything is hand-washable every night, if you’re so inclined.
2. Stay Classy
I’m not a fashion guru, but I care about first impressions. As a professional, meeting a client or meeting a new contact requires me to look decent. I also find that, from a travel perspective, dressing well affords you leniency for things like sitting in coffeeshops to work, sitting near an outlet to charge, or being given the benefit of the doubt during something like a bag inspection or a border crossing.
When it comes to my basic items, I tried to avoid any brand logos that scream “American.” A simple black shirt, some simple pants, logo-free travel shoes and an eye for “classic” looking pieces makes most of my outfits innocuous.
If you’re a business mogul, you’ll probably need more dress clothes. If you work at a law firm, a couple of ties isn’t going to do it for you, obviously. My life, however, has me dressed business-casual; only the occasional wedding has me fully formal.
3. Travel Light
The final goal is the most important. I want to travel as light as I can for as many circumstances as I can. Extra socks, extra underwear, extra T-shirts, extra anything is eliminated. This wardrobe should be just what I need, and no more.
Everything fits into an Arcteryx Index 10+10, which in turn fits into all my bags and acts as a second “messenger” style pack for extra storage, or a quick shopping trip while I’m traveling.
The Minimalist Wardrobe
Here’s everything I wear:
- Two pairs of pants
- Two pairs of shorts
- Three T-shirts, one short-sleeved and two long
- Three dress shirts
- Two pairs of briefs, one pair of boxers
- Five pairs of socks
- One Handkerchief
- One fleece jacket
- One winter jacket
- One rain jacket
- Two pairs of shoes
Additional Hiking/Biking/Adventure Clothes:
- Two old T-shirts, long-sleeved
- One pair compression shorts
- One pair biking shorts
- One pair rain pants
- One pair rain mitts, waterproof socks
- One flannel
- Extra fleece
- Puffy Jacket
- Cycling shoes, hiking boots, water shoes
- Sun hat, cycling hat
- Winter gloves, hat
I wear two pairs of pants and two pairs of shorts, rotated based on what I’m doing.
The staple of my wardrobe is definitely the Prana Stretch Zion Pants, and I wear them 90% of the time. I reviewed these pants last April, and after three more months of near-constant use, they still look new. These pants check all the boxes; for me, the subdued brown matches everything else I own perfectly. The fabric is highly abrasion-resistant, and scrambling through ice and rock on hiking trips has done nothing to scratch or tear them anywhere.
The seams are all double-sewn for durability, and the reinforced belt loops stand up to hanging an occasional nalgene while rock climbing. There’s also snaps near the bottom so you can roll them into capris when the weather gets warm. I’ve traveled weeks in these, bike toured in these, snowshoed in these, commuted, climbed, danced, and everything else.
That being said, the Prana Stretch Zion Pants aren’t dressy enough for professional engagements. I use the Aviator Chinos from Ministry of Supply when my day includes less free time, and as a rotation pair on extended trips. The Aviator Chinos aren’t quite as bombproof as the Zion’s, but they’ll definitely outlive your cotton slacks. These pants are moisture-wicking and highly breathable, and defend well against stains, spills, and unexpected weather.
I rely on the Aviator Chinos for just about everything you’d possibly expect to do in dress pants, and a bit more. As a test, my buddy Jim and I wore these for a few weeks straight through every type of activity, from bike commuting to weekend camping trips. These pants felt effortlessly comfortable through our sweatiest, dirtiest, roughest activities and washed up quick in the sink for another 24 hour gauntlet.
I especially loved these for all-night formal dances and weddings, where everyone shows up classy but ends up inebriated, flailing wildly to the hits of the 90’s and drenched in sweat. It’s nice to be the only one who’s still comfortable at the end of the night.
My running shorts are the Mountain Hardwear Refueler Shorts, but I cut out the wicking liner with a pair of scissors to save weight. This pushes these to just a few ounces of lightweight fabric, and they’re loose enough that they never bind, no matter what contortions I’m doing. I use these as a bathing suit, exercise shorts, and pajamas on hot nights, and they dry fast enough to be cleaned in between activities in just an hour or two.
My everyday shorts are the Prana Mojo Shorts, which occasionally see double-duty as a bathing suit but are most often used for hanging around and hiking. I wouldn’t rock climb in these, as they’re a little bit more binding than I like, but they do the job for most of my adventures. They pack down small and are dry in minutes, and are durable enough that I don’t ever have to baby them.
For everyday shirts, I only wear Merino Wool. This isn’t your grandmother’s wool sweater; merino wool is lightweight, comfortable, and itch-free.
It’s also highly antibacterial, meaning repeated use doesn’t mean smelling like you live in a van down by the river. That’s because, unlike your cotton and polyester, merino wool comes from a living, breathing sheep that relies on its coat for moisture management, temperature regulation, and skin health. Wool fibers don’t absorb moisture, so they never feel clammy and heavy, even when soaked. I’ve gone tubing in merino wool and found it warm and comfortable when I took an unexpected dive into the rapids on the Deerfield River.
Wool also outlasts cotton if you take care of it; it won’t shred to bits in the wash after ten cycles, and it won’t break and de-thread along seams. My wool clothes last much longer than my cotton clothing used to, which justifies the high price for me.
I use the Wool & Prince Crew Neck T-shirt, the same fabric as the one I tested earlier this year. It’s perfect even in the hottest weather, including the dry heat of Las Vegas and the wet, humid Northeast summer we’re experiencing now.
For days that aren’t boiling, I use the Ibex 17.5 Nelson Long Sleeve Tee. It’s pricy, like most wool shirts, but it’s an investment. A nice, high crew-neck collar and a butter-smooth finish make this the perfect shirt for looking clean and sophisticated every day of the year. I wear black because it goes with everything, won’t stain, and dries faster in the sun.
Finally, for especially cold days, I’ve got an Ibex VT 1/2 Zip Sweater, which layers perfectly over any of my other shirts, including a button-up.
I prefer Ibex over Smartwool, since I’ve found the quality of stitching is top-notch and the wool itself is much less itchy. Your mileage may vary, but spending an extra $10-20 for one of the premium wool brands usually pays off in dividends in quality, longevity, and comfort. I will say, though; cheap Fox River wool socks seem to last a lifetime.
For dress shirts, I need a bit of variety in case I’m working 5 days a week.
My first two shirts are simple cotton dress shirts. The white one is a Patagonia button-down I picked up used, and the other is a Polo Ralph Lauren dress shirt I got as a birthday gift. These mostly live in my closet, only coming out of hiding for internships, weddings, funerals, and dates. Not shown is a Ralph Lauren dress jacket and a pair of silk bow-ties, one grey and one red.
The plaid shirt, however, is worn on a regular basis over one of my other shirts. This is the Better Button-Down from Wool & Prince, and it’s anything but a regular button-down. Made from worsted merino wool, it’s remarkably durable and good-looking, not floppy like most wool shirts. It also never stinks; I wore one almost daily from January to April without managing to cause so much as a wrinkle. As part of a marketing campaign, the boys over at W&P wore this shirt for over 100 days straight, smashing through their Kickstarter funding and making the best travel dress shirt I’ve tested to date.
Full disclosure; I am a product tester for Wool and Prince. You can come to your own conclusions on bias, but I’m happy to endorse them!
3. The Sock Drawer
“Three pairs of underwear?! You disgusting slob!” -Everyone I talk to.
In all seriousness, I’m most often rotating between just two pairs. Why would I do this? Why?!
There’s an idea ingrained in modern fashion that every individual needs to own at least 2x as many pairs of underwear as there are days between laundry cycles. In reality, hand-washing underwear can cut your number down to just two pairs. Again, here, I use merino wool for the itch-free and stink-free comfort I need when I might be sitting on a train for 72 hours. Shown are the Smartwool Briefs, but I’ve actually since switched to Icebreaker Men’s Anatomica Briefs, and the two are pretty comparable.
I’ve occasionally been stuck wearing a single pair for days on end. Airport layovers and train rides can make even cleaning clothes in a sink impossible, since these take a few hours to dry. However, the odorproofing still held up, and they stayed comfortable, and I felt -dare I say it?- CLEAN when I finally got around to changing them. I’m not advocating to stop wearing clean underwear, but I don’t think it’s possible to find a better pair for the worst of what you might face.
The extra ExOfficio Boxer Brief also remain. The merino is still better at managing odor, but on the absolute hottest days, these briefs manage just a bit more comfortably. I might be fine with a wool T-shirt when it’s 101º, but that doesn’t fly downtown.
My socks are a revolving door of whatever I haven’t put holes in. Surprisingly, the winners here are the SmartWool Phd® Toe Socks, which have managed to out-live everything else, including the legendary Darn Tough socks from Vermont. That said, they’re also 40% nylon, which is more durable than pure Merino Wool, which means they need to be washed a bit more often to keep from getting stinky.
Merino wool socks definitely keep my feet healthier and happier, and none of my shoes stink. I won’t use anything else anymore.
Finally I have a pair of Ibex Woolies Long Underwear. So I’m obsessed with swaddling myself in wool, so what?! These get worn 7 months out of the year in the Northeast, from September to May. If I could wear them in the summer, I would. Ibex lasts longer than Smartwool here, which developed holes in the seat after about 300 days of wear (still, admirable).
I’m a cyclist. Outerwear matters.
For rain gear, I use the EMS Helix Anorak and some Gore-Tex 2.5 layer Rain Pants. The EMS Shell is the cheapest 3-layer Neoshell jacket I can find, which is more breathable and stretchier than Gore-Tex. It’s head and shoulders above every other rain jacket material aside from eVent, and I’ve tried most. Investing a bit more into a rain shell is the difference between getting wet after 20 minutes or staying dry after three hours.
I also use a Rab Ventus Pull-On Wind Jacket for 3-season riding. I always pick something high-visibility when it comes to my cycling gear, because not getting hit by a car matters more to me than looking cool.
For cold weather, I use a Patagonia 1/4 Zip Fleece that they actually don’t make anymore, and an Arcteryx Atom SV Hoody that has served me well for two winters now. I always choose fleece and synthetic insulation for my outerwear because it’s warm even when it get wet. Down is superior for warmth and packability, but it’s useless and soggy if you end up caught in an unexpected snowstorm overnight.
I also have an older Patagonia Synchilla Snap-T that I use as a “campfire” fleece, since I don’t care as much about a stray ember melting a hole in it. I’d be bummed if I melted a hole in one of my nicer jackets. When the temperature gets down to -20ºF like it did last winter, I might break out all three at once.
For dressier engagements, a classic L.L. Bean Wool Jacket in charcoal looks good and will last longer than I will. Also, wool!
A Mountain Khakis Peaks Flannel Shirt rounds out my warmer layers, but it’s anything but a normal flannel. A blend of wool, polyester, and lycra performs like your favorite active-wear piece, like a softshell disguised as a button-down. I love this shirt for biking, hiking, snowshoeing, and traveling, because it goes day after day without wrinkling or smelling, and it’s nice and cozy. I don’t mind sweating in it because it’s quick-drying, and a bit of stretch means the shoulders won’t tear when I lean down to pick up a heavy pack.
High-quality buttons, exceptional detailing, and dashing good looks make this piece one of my favorite “finds” because it instantly replaced three or four cotton flannels I had kept as around-the-house pieces. It’s a lot easier going minimalist when the few items you do own do the job of several.
I own four pairs of shoes, though I probably need five.
For running and hiking, I use the Brooks PureConnect 2 Running Shoes, and I’ve probably put a couple hundred miles on them. They’re zero-drop, which is good for my ankles and calves and my mid-foot strike, but they’re also nice and cushioned to protect my joints. I love these sneakers, and I’ll get a pair just like them when they wear out.
For snowshoeing, I admit I’m not psyched to need pair of boots in my quiver, but the Garmont Zenith Mid Hiking Boot works with a wide toe-box and durable Vibram sole. I wear them about fifteen times a year, so they should last until I die.
I converted to barefoot shoes after several foot surgeries left me with a lot of muscle that needed rebuilding, but I’m a convert now. I use the Vivobarefoot Gobi as a dress and casual shoe, since the more they wear in, the more it looks like I intended it. I’ll probably have to add another pair of dress shoes for weddings, as these are starting to look more casual than dress. Finally a pair of Vibram Fivefingers sees use as my camp shoes, water shoes, hiking shoes, travel shoes, and long-walks-in-the-city shoes. I wear these whenever my girlfriend is going to be distracted enough not to berate my absent fashion sense.
This stuff makes up my everyday clothing, but I do admit to having a little mesh bag with some other stuff. Gloves and a hat for winter hiking, bicycle shorts, gloves and shoes, my old pair of Vibrams for the ocean so my current ones don’t smell like an aquarium, and two old wool baselayers that got a hole or two from other hikes and tours make up the “non-minimalist” side of my wardrobe. I don’t have stacks and stacks of T-shirts, but I do have more than a single carry-on bag worth of stuff.
Point being, regulate your personal choices by what makes sense for you. I can’t restrict my lifestyle because owning more than two shirts feels heretic to the word “minimalism.”
How It Feels To Be A Minimalist
I’ve been keeping to this wardrobe since April of this year, and I’ve addressed problems like laundry and wear-and-tear as they’ve come up. I had some ambition to keep everything matching, but as you can see from the socks, sometimes purpose outweighs aesthetics.
I definitely spend less time thinking about what I’m wearing. Waking up every day and grabbing a black shirt, my brown pants, and a pair of shoes is so unexpectedly satisfying. I have started working minimalism into my identity, too, ridding myself of worries or thoughts that revolve around material goods. I know, I know- this whole post is material. But honestly, by making one smart choice instead of fifteen mindless purchases, I find I’ve better prepared myself for daily life and removed a whole theme of consumerism from my life. I don’t buy something just because I see it in the store, I wait until my one T-shirt or pants needs replacing and then I get one specific thing. Brilliant!
Minimalism isn’t for everyone, and I don’t dare suppose to say those who own several of each item for dressing up are wrong. If anything, I’ll defend your right to look good to the death.
For me, however, I’m content with keeping that part of my life simple, and the joy in connecting with others on a parameter other than what I’m wearing is it’s own reward. As long as my first impression is classy, I’m fine with the occasional person mentioning “Didn’t you wear that yesterday?” And honestly, it happens less than you think.
My girlfriend Kelley doesn’t mind much and you bet she’d tell me if I smelled; she subconsciously shed herself of about half of her wardrobe over the last three months, so I think minimalism might be contagious. So, try it! Put your extras in storage and live minimally.
Jim, the lucky bastard, inherited most of what I used to wear.