Optimize Your Suitcase Space (Mathematically)

So much clothing, so little space. How can we pack as few items as possible, for as many outfits as possible? I have compiled a few different suggestions… and here’s where we get mathematical. (Brace yourselves.)

Outfit Formulas

Clothing  for travel

The math: You might remember this from high school: a + b = c. For the purposes of this exercise, c = an outfit. What are a and b? Well, that’s up to you.

It is worth mentioning, before we get too far into this, that the math I am including in this article is for the purposes of analogy only. To all the non-math-fans, breathe a sigh of relief. To all the actual math-fans, I apologise for getting you excited.

The term ‘outfit formula’ refers to types of clothing you know will always go together. Something that works for you personally. A fitted blouse and a pair of jeans, for example, or a maxi dress and a cropped jacket. Some people dress by formula all the time… a little extreme, possibly, but this approach can be perfect for packing. Instead of throwing everything into your suitcase and coming up with the outfits later, you plan your “signature look” in advance.

The point of simplifying your clothing options is so that you can predict how many different outfits you have by balancing out the parts of your formula. You do this by multiplying.

Say you have a small carry-on bag, and you pack a pair of jeans and eight blouses. That’s 8a x b = 8ab. Eight possible outfits. (I realise you don’t need the formula to work that out, but I like my analogies to be consistent.)

Now say you use that same space to pack five tops and three pairs of trousers. That’s 5a x 3b = 15ab. Fifteen possible outfits. And that’s with a two-item formula; you can expand yours to cover outerwear, shoes, accessories, and so on. (Obviously some items will be the only one in their category, like a big winter coat.)

For colours and patterns, I would recommend creating variation within one category, to avoid potential clashes. Of course, if you like that sort of thing (bring on the bohemians!) then feel free to ignore this. For anyone else – choose a colour palette for most of your clothing categories that relies on a neutral base, then go wild within one category only.

You might choose to bring a variety of tops, or a selection of weird and wonderful jackets. This way, you can maximize your clothes’ expressiveness while also maximizing the overall number of outfits you have.

Versatile Pieces

Traveling clothes

The math: Remember prime numbers? These are numbers that can only be divided by themselves, or the number one. Like 7, or 19.

You may have the fashion equivalent of this in your closet. That asymmetrical cropped shirt that only goes with that one pair of high-waisted jeans, or that brightly printed dress that clashes horribly with all your jackets except the denim one. There is nothing wrong with these items – but if you’re trying to travel with lightness and ease, you should not be packing them.

More math: Composite numbers. These are the ones that have multiple factors (numbers by which they can be divided.) Twelve, for instance, can be divided by 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12.

These are the items that go with just about everything. These are the items you want to pack. They might not have the show-stopping quality of some of your other items, but the goal here is efficiency and convenience.

Best of all are the items that can be worn in multiple ways. A chambray shirt that could be worn open as a light jacket. A short dress as a long t-shirt. Perhaps a stretchy maxi skirt that could become a short sleeveless dress, a high-waisted midi skirt, a poncho, a circle scarf, or a make-shift beach bag.

Statement Pieces

Suitcase Clothes

The math: As mentioned, 12 has the factors 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12. Eighteen has the factors 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, and 18. They both have 1, 2, 3, and 6. (Okay, you probably noticed that.) These are their common factors.

It’s going to seem as though I am contradicting myself here, but bear with me. Those items in you closet – the weird ones, the stand-alone pieces that you have to base the entire outfit around – these can be a great way of optimizing your outfits. This is only provided that they have items in common with each other.

Say you have a forest green velvet jacket that you only really wear with this one particular black dress. And you also have a pair of lacy leggings that you wouldn’t wear with the jacket, but you would wear with the dress – then the leggings and the jacket have a common factor.

This approach can allow for a more varied wardrobe while still minimizing the amount of items you have to pack. Start by laying out all of your statement pieces, then lay out your neutral pieces around them. Then, see how many outfits you can make with as few extra neutral pieces as possible.

Show Your Work

The key to all of the approaches I have suggested here is preparation. While you could get a kick out of choosing a selection of clothes and waiting until you reach your destination to see what outfits you can make out of them. If you have unlimited suitcase space, or a tiny capsule wardrobe that all fits into a single bag, then you will not have to worry about any of this.

For the rest of us, however, we need to plan. And if using math helps in that regard, I say we go with it – and forget all those indignant protests we made to our middle-school math teachers that we wouldn’t need any of this in the real world.

(Credit to the amazing Audrey and her Putting Me Together blog, which gave me the idea of multiplying outfits here. I recommend checking out the blog, it’s awesome and has really brilliant ideas.)

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Kate Downes

Kate is a freelance writer and travel blogger. Some people say it's a tough gig, but she has previously taught high school, worked retail, and been a bartender in London, and would take five thousand words on a deadline any day. You can find more of her work at readlongshorts.com and signedkateelizabeth.com.

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