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How to Build a Relationship Capsule Wardrobe

Hint: It requires a lot of schlepping.

Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

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If you were to search the bag of any single-yet-dating young woman living in a major metropolitan area, you would be likely to encounter two things: someone extremely distraught to have her possessions pawed through by a stranger, and a pair of underwear.

Because dating means schlepping. It means attempting the careful calculus of “Is it too optimistic or deeply unchill to bring a change of clothes to a third date?” versus “Do I have enough stray things at my desk from which to piece together a halfway reasonable outfit?” It’s nomadic. It’s thrilling. It’s exhausting.

The schlepping doesn’t stop once you’ve found someone to hang out with regularly. In fact, it tends to increase — unless you move in together after the first few months (not unheard of, especially in cities whose rents require you to offload a couple gallons of platelets), or have an apartment with such a strong magnetic pull (usually in the form of a washing machine or proximity to work) that the two of you naturally gravitate toward your place, chances are you’re going to be spending more nights away from home. This means new math: knowing whose house you’ll be closer to at the end of a given night, figuring out who sacrifices more by being away, and deciding which of your things you’re willing to leave at theirs as a sort of relationship capsule wardrobe.

Sometimes this collection is incidental, building up naturally as the relationship unfolds: an extra layer left behind because the following day is warmer, a handful of underwear bought in a moment of nothing-to-wear-tomorrow panic. Sometimes it’s deliberate: a pair of jeans that’s not your favorite but still reasonably serviceable, meant as filler for when you just don’t want to plan ahead. Sometimes you miscalculate, leaving a garment that you’ll miss too much when it’s not in your regular rotation, or one that doesn’t make sense outside the context of your other clothes. And their stuff will inevitably make it your way, too, whether it sneaks into your laundry basket or you swipe it for a cold walk home. Sometimes you’ll even co-opt it as your own. You mix, and you modulate, and you make room.

These adjustments can be surprisingly difficult, especially when you’ve been used to keeping your things close at hand (whether that means “arranged in rainbow order in your closet” or “stuffed at the bottom of your backpack”). Questions can arise that take up more space than a spare jacket: How much do I want to leave here, and what can I let in? Will they care for my stuff the way I do, or will I accidentally shrink theirs beyond recognition? What happens if it ends? The kind of brain that plots outfits days in advance is similarly susceptible to this sort of thinking, and under the right conditions it’s easy for something as benign as a pair of underwear to mutate into a symbol of caring too much, wanting too baldly, all of a sudden having a whole lot to lose.

But it’s just underwear. It really doesn’t require that much thought. Now put that back in her bag and leave that lady alone.