The Foolproof Formula for Living Out of a Carry-On

I have written at great length on why traveling with a carry-on suitcase is the superior choice for various scenarios including Paris Fashion Week, a summer trip to Spain and, now, a week-long, part business/part casual stay in Sonoma, Napa Valley and San Francisco.

My method is simple: I pack in outfits, or rather do: X dress for Monday, Y shorts and Z T-shirt for Monday night; X pants and Y sweater for Tuesday, Z jacket, X T-shirt and Y jeans for Tuesday night and the list goes on. But lately, I’ve found this formula to betray me. When you’re trying to fit as much stuff as possible into a carry-on, you want to think: least amount of clothes to yield highest number of outfits. This means packing shit that can be re-worn and staying away from one-time-use dresses or jackets or dramatic sweatshirts with tails that really have no place being packed anyway.

The thing is, I hate the idea that I would just pack a bunch of shit into a suitcase that I think I like, that I might possibly want to wear, only to find, when I reach my destination and am all unpacked and ready to change, I’m singing the frustrated-girl theme song: I have nothing to wear. I am a fickle woman who wants to experience the entire range of human emotions, so it’s hard to say what I will want to wear in the future based on what I want to wear right now. Such a profound problem, right? Someone at Harvard should be working on this case study. But I digress — you have to be meticulous. To pack the right kinds of things and to know yourself well enough to know you’re a volatile battery who sometimes, even after spending a full night in the charger, wakes up at 30%.

The easiest way to do this is to pull from the foolproof items in your wardrobe — the reliable silhouettes that make you feel great no matter when or why you wear them. That’s a button-down and some form of bottom for me, so for California I packed:

4 button-down shirts

1 pair of jeans

2 pairs of shorts

1 loudmouth mini skirt (zebra-print)

I assumed I would do some form of physical activity every morning so I added:

3 pairs of leggings

1 sweater (and I managed to wear two on the plane)

2 T-shirts

For the vacation portion of the trip, spent in wine country, I added:

3 dresses

1 pair linen pants

1 light tweed jacket (I wore a utility jacket on the plane)

There were also:

4 pairs of shoes

According to my mathematic estimations, the number of garments listed above would yield anywhere between 19 and 32 completely different outfits depending on how ambitious I planned to be and whether I considered a simple shoe change a completely different outfit (I did). But I would only be away for a week, and would at most require three outfits per day (athleisure included), which meant the maximum number of outfits I needed to hit was 21.

In the end, I hit 18 (only 16 are documented because the bookend looks are travel days), but feel absolutely confident I could have lived at least another ten days out of that suitcase.

So, in conclusion: I have a lot more stuff than I need in my closet.

When I’m forced to work within tight boundaries, I am often more creative and thus better outfits emerge.

Slow fashion is still important; clothes are not one-and-done produce. They’re made to be worn and re-worn. Over and over again.

And finally, maybe intentionally “living out of a suitcase” could be the new dream.

Update: Lots of questions about what kind of suitcase I use — probably would have made sense to include a photo but what do I know about making sense so on and so forth. This is the suitcase. (A good time to get fancy luggage is when you’re registering for your marriage, law degree, celebration of life, etc.)

Photos via Leandra Medine.

Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

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