Monday, June 24, 2024

As a capsule wardrobe sceptic, I travelled with only a carry-on

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WORDS BY Mary McGillivray




Goodbye decision fatigue.

Many moons ago, in an age before TikTok and the Y2K revival, I hauled a 20kg suitcase across North America and Europe on my post-high-school gap year trip. It was the year of the ice bucket challenge and Ellen’s infamous Oscars’ selfie – the concept of the ‘capsule wardrobe’ hadn’t quite hit the blogosphere yet.


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But after months of sweating out my eyeballs as I dragged that suitcase across two continents, I vowed to never again travel with more than a carry-on. Call me a trailblazer. As it turns out the art of packing light can be elusive, even after almost a decade of practice. So when I booked a five-week European summer trip, I knew I was going to need to do some hefty planning

I don’t believe in the capsule wardrobe… unless it’s for travel

I’m not someone who believes in the capsule wardrobe for my everyday life (I like shiny things too much) but for travel, I’m 100 per cent behind the minimalist mindset. I made sure every piece I brought with me could be worn with every other item.

Yes, this was a little boring by week five, but the number of flights of stairs, trains, buses and planes I carried that backpack onto made it absolutely worth my mercenary packing approach. Steering clear of the ‘backpacker look’ (no hate but… not for me) was also important as I was spending my five weeks presenting a travel and history series, so I was going to be on camera a lot.

The original gap year

Let’s rewind: I’m a massive history nerd, so this year I decided to recreate an 18th-century Grand Tour itinerary and document it all for YouTubeThe Grand Tour was a travel tradition where posh British boys would trek across Europe to see all the important sites from history and hopefully come out the other end more ‘cultured’. It was the original gap year, if you will. Just with more horses and syphilis. 

My approach to packing stands in amusing contrast to the 18th-century men whose footsteps I was walking in. Many of them travelled with an entourage of servants (I wish) and enormous trunks filled with everything from bedding and a tea kettle to cups, silverware, tablecloths, medicine chests, a set of scales and pistols. 

As for their fashion, well, the Grand Tour’s first stop was Paris, where these blokes would have an entirely new wardrobe custom-made for them (again, I wish), including coats, cloaks, stockings and hats. Unlike my 18th-century gents, the goal of my carry-on pack is to have a travel wardrobe that is light, versatile and low-maintenance. For me, it also means clothes that are practical but don’t absolutely scream TOURIST with alarm bells and sirens.

Everything I packed for my five-week Europe trip

  • One pair of jeans
  • One pair of black suit trousers (doubled as comfy pants for the plane)
  • Two collared shirts (stay sun smart, girlies!)
  • Two tank tops
  • One T-shirt
  • One linen mini dress
  • Two cardigans/knits
  • One pair of linen pants
  • One pair of linen shorts
  • One vest
  • One set of PJs
  • One pair of sneakers
  • One bikini!!

If reading this list made you panic, breathe. It’s going to be okay. There were so many outfit options with just these basics, and eliminating decision fatigue before a big day of sightseeing and eating incredible food was a huge time-saver. (I’m unhinged and I even did the notes app hack from TikTok for outfit planning).

Most days I wore a combo of the tops and bottoms, layering up when I needed to. For the plane, I layered up a tee and my two cardigans to stay warm (low blood pressure girlies, where you at?) but the rest of the time I was mostly suffering through the Italian summer heat and giving my linens a good run for their money. I also chose PJs that could double as an extra tee and pair of shorts to wear out – which I ended up doing a couple of times! 

My main tourist giveaway however, was my one-day bag: a black Uniqlo bumbag (which I honestly like better than the viral crescent Uniqlo bag) but it was a necessary fashion sacrifice which I honestly didn’t hate. The bumbag is well and truly a style staple these days, and as soon as I saw locals in Amsterdam rocking them, my fears faded away. 

“Not like the other tourists”

During my trip following in the footsteps of the OG tourists of the Grand Tour era, I made an interesting discovery. As it turns out, wanting to set yourself apart from ‘other tourists’ is not a new thing at all. 

In 1871 an English writer named Augustus Hare complained about all those “other” tourists – specifically, those American tourists – crowding up the cities of Italy. He wrote that “nothing was more depressing to those who really value Rome” than seeing American tourists at the Colosseum exclaiming it will be a great building “when it is finished”. Ah, American tourist jokes. They literally never get old. 

Watch Mary’s The Grand Tour series here.

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