Capsule Wardrobes and Croissants: Style Tips for Studying Abroad

This summer, I studied abroad in Paris for five weeks learning all about French literature, art, history, and culture. In honor of Paris Fashion Week beginning next week, I thought now would be the perfect time to share what I learned about creating a fashionable but travel-friendly capsule wardrobe for an abroad experience! Unfortunately, stuffing every item of clothing you own into a suitcase (with a 50-pound weight limit) just isn’t feasible— but have no fear! When following these tips, a limited wardrobe can still be exciting, vibrant, and comfortable— even when traveling for long periods of time away from your home closet. 

1. Tote bags are tote-ally the way to go. 

The fashion world says your purse should always match your shoes. If you don’t have a bright coral Gucci purse lying around to match your new platform sandals, then you are basically out of luck. Not! As somebody who owns quite a few pairs of shoes and exactly one black cross-body purse, this fashion rule is simply not attainable. Solution? Don’t wear a purse— wear a tote bag! In Paris, I noticed that most people don’t pile their groceries into the flimsy plastic bags supplied by major grocery chains. Instead, college students and business people alike hit the streets with a trusty tote to gather fresh fruit, flowers, or freshly baked croissants (my favorite Parisian snack) from the farmers’ market. Totes are practical, environmentally friendly, and a way to express your personal style without spending a fortune— so hop on the trend!

2. Make the choice: fun pants or fun tops. 

You don’t have to sacrifice your style when packing light. You just need to consolidate it. An easy way to achieve this goal is to decide between showcasing your personal style through your bottoms or your shirts. In Paris, I brought along my favorite colorful or patterned skirts, pants, and shorts alongside a ton of black tank tops and cropped tees. Pairing basics with funky pieces lets your individuality shine through without requiring you to bring every single item in your closet. 

3. Go thrifting/vintage shopping first! 

Not only is thrifting super inexpensive and fun, it’s a thing now. If you want to step up your style game while traveling to one of the fashion capitals of the world, head to the thrift store or vintage store to pick up some inexpensive funky pieces to take your look up a notch. Plus, if you get to the airport on your final day of studying abroad and realize your suitcase is a whopping two pounds over the weight limit, you might need to make some sacrifices. If this dreaded situation arises, you’re not going to want to leave behind your favorite jeans or your brand new splurge dress. You’re going to want to leave behind the tank tops you purchased for two dollars each at a thrift store. 

4. Step it up with jewelry, hair, and makeup (if that’s your thing)

When an entire month’s (or multiple months!) worth of clothing must fit within one suitcase, there is a simple way to express your fashion tastes through methods that don’t take up a ton of space: accessorizing. We’ve all heard it before— the quintessential Parisian look requires a bold red lip. While I did see a lot of people rocking this bright and confident statement, I didn’t see it as much as I thought I would. However, I did notice a lot of people elevating a more toned-down or casual outfit with a little something extra, be it a colorful silk scarf around the neck or around the strap of a bag, a pair of blue vintage sunglasses, a bold winged eyeliner, an interesting belt, or, yes, bright red lipstick. None of these items are ridiculously heavy or large, so feel free to go big or go home when it comes to accessorizing.

5. Resist the urge to bring all of your shoes

I brought along four pairs of shoes: comfy black wedges, black flats, white converse, and my new three inch colorful platform sandals. Guess which pair I never wore? My new three inch colorful platform sandals. Studying abroad involves a TON of walking (one day in Paris I walked a whopping 16 miles), so it’s smart to be picky when choosing footwear. Shoes take up the most space in a suitcase, so narrow it down to the shoes that you A.) have already broken in, B.) know will go with most of your clothes, and C.) are pretty lightweight. When it comes down to it, it makes more sense to enjoy sightseeing in a pair of understated yet manageable shoes than to suffer through it in the coolest (and tallest) heels in your closet. 

6. However, bring A LOT of socks/underwear

The washing machines where you’re staying might not always work. Can confirm. Enough said. 

7. Don’t buy (a ton of) new clothes while abroad. 

You’re in a new place! The local style is SO COOL. The stores are new and interesting! You must buy it all! No! Resist the urge. If you find one or two pieces that are completely original and unique to the city or country you’re staying in, then sure— treat it as a souvenir you’ll keep forever. However, if you see a cute pair of mom jeans in Europe’s equivalent to a Forever 21, don’t do it. You’re likely to find something the exact same when you get home, minus the unfavorable Euro-to-dollar conversion rate and the challenge of squeezing it into your suitcase. You might not even like the item that much when you get home (unfortunately speaking from personal experience). 

For me, creating a capsule wardrobe for studying abroad truly helped me hone in on my own personal style. During this experience, I learned what I liked the most (fun pants!), what I didn’t really like (tall shoes!), and what I wanted to experiment with more in the future (colorful makeup!). If you pack light while still encouraging yourself to incorporate interesting pieces, you might come home with more than a brand-new global awareness— a new outlook on your style might be an added bonus!