Saturday, March 23, 2013

Wear all the things

Sweater knit skirt, Lux; long-sleeve tee, Gap; fair isle pullover, no tag but I'm pretty sure it's vintage. All thrifted, plus some burgundy tights.
I recently started a new project: wearing clothes.


Oh, well, okay, what I really mean is that my project is to wear all my clothes.

This is about to be a really long, possibly self-indulgent, and probably shallow (or maybe not) post, but I'll tell you a secret, I love reading about other people's wardrobe overhauls, so I figured maybe you do too.

Anyway, for several months (if not longer) I'd been having a hard time getting dressed. Some days I would grab whatever clothes were hanging over the bedpost in the morning--i.e., exactly the clothes worn the day before--which left me feeling schlubby. Other days I would select an outfit, put it on, and realize it totally didn't work--either the proportions were off, or the shirt wasn't comfortable under the sweater, or etc. So I'd switch out one piece for another, find it was still wrong, repeat this process several times, and wind up grabbing the clothes off the bedpost again. At which point I felt schlubby and demoralized to boot: WTF, I can't even get dressed if I try? (And also, crap, now I have a giant mountain of clothes to clean up. AND, jeez, that was a waste of time for nothing.) And then sometimes I would look at my closet full of clothes and be totally overwhelmed, unable to even come up with an idea of what to wear.

Legging jeans, Express; plaid tunic that miraculously makes me feel like a model in a Japanese pattern book, no tag; big black sweater that is currently losing the constant battle against cat hair, Michael Michael Kors. All thrifted.
 The Internet is, of course, full of advice about how to edit, purge, and rebuild your wardrobe. But none of it quite worked for me.

There's one strain of advice that focuses on creating a minimalist wardrobe. Project 333, for example, where you create a capsule of 33 items and wear them for 3 months. That was the opposite of what I wanted! I mean, roughly speaking I had been wearing the same 33 items for 3 months, and it was depressing me.

Plus, I am not a minimalist. I don't want to own the fewest possible clothes. Actually I want to own the maximum number of clothes that I can effectively store, care for, and wear.

How many is that? Well, let's be honest, probably fewer than I currently own. But how many? To me it has been helpful to think about Dunbar's number, which refers to the maximum number of social relationships we can maintain, based on how many people and their interconnections our brains can keep track of. I think the same concept could apply to clothes: after all, we have to remember what we own, which items go with which other items, and so on.

Well, nobody knows how big Dunbar's number really is. But 150-ish seems to be a generally agreed on rough benchmark. What does that mean? It definitely doesn't mean that everybody should have 150 items of clothing, no more and no less. It just means that 150ish might be the theoretical maximum size of a wardrobe that doesn't require a lot of cognitive effort.

By cognitive effort I mean that I don't want to have to do things like make lists and take Polyvore-esque snapshots of outfit ideas (another piece of advice that I've frequently seen). Some people might be perfectly happy doing that, and more power to them. Me, I think clothes are fun to think about, but I don't want to think about them that much. I just want to be able to open my closet and pick out something pleasing to wear, and then get on with the rest of it.

I don't have any proof of all that Dunbar's number business but it's an interesting idea to ponder.

The other common piece of advice of course is "get rid of everything you don't absolutely love and wear." Oh, well, okay then. I mean, if it were that simple we would all have perfectly curated wardrobes already, wouldn't we?

Rose-print dress, Kimchi Blue via Urban Outfitters; houndstooth cardi, Mercer Street Studio, thrifted. And some bright vermilion tights.
And anyway, I have a lot of things that I do love, or think I love, but don't wear. What I want is to understand why not. And to figure out how to wear them.

So here is what I came up with: a sort of Slow Wardrobe Purge, if you will.

The rules are:
  • Wear every item in my closet. Season-appropriate, that is--I'll do this again in the summer.
  • Every item in a category (pants, skirts, etc.) must be worn before one is repeated.
  • Plan what to wear the day before. (Because otherwise: clothes from the bedpost and/or the whole day in sweatpants.)
  • If I can't wear a garment for an entire day (because it's itchy, uncomfortable, unflattering, or just blah), it goes immediately into the Goodwill bag. I can't recommend this strategy enough. A plain black long-sleeve tee looks like a useful basic when it is sitting on the shelf, but once it's been on my body for a couple of hours and I've realized it's kind of boxy and stiff, neither very comfortable nor very flattering--buh-bye. A totally angst-free (if slow) method of getting rid of things, and I think it is much more effective than just briefly trying on each item of clothing.  
  • Each day, write down what I wore and how I felt about it. I'm embarrassed by how self-indulgent this sounds, but it has really helped me to understand what I feel comfortable in and what I like to wear. I also try to notice things like: What garments are hard to wear or not very versatile? What item in a category gets worn first? Last? Are there categories of things that I just don't feel right in? If I'm not comfortable in my clothes one day, what would I rather be wearing?
The pictures in this post are a few of the outfits I've put together during this exercise that I've especially liked.

Black cords, Kut from the Kloth via Nordstrom; moss-green cowlneck sweater, Ann Taylor Loft, thrifted; Aran cardigan, vintage John Molloy. The sweater, which I got in a clothing swap, is nearly always the answer to the question "what would I rather be wearing?"
Because I live in a very casual city and work from home, I think of myself as a jeans-and-a-sweater kind of girl. But I've been surprised to find that a lot of the outfits I've felt best in are dress- and skirt-based. (With these tights I am comfortable all day, able to resist the siren song of my sweatpants calling to me from the very next room.) Realizing that these can be everyday outfits, even if I am going no farther afield than the school bus stop, immediately makes me feel like I have a lot more variety in my wardrobe.

I am not done with this project yet but I have identified the outfit formulas that make me feel good. For me, that's mainly skinny denim or corduroy pants + tunic top + long cardigan sweater; or loose-fitting dress + cardigan + leggings or tights; or A-line skirt + tights + long-sleeve tee + cardigan. (Why yes, I have noticed the almost comical consistency of the cardigan bit.)

Look at how different that list is from the usual advice about garments that "every woman" "needs." I don't own a single blazer, as I can't imagine why I would ever wear one when I could wear, yes, a cardigan instead. I don't have a pencil skirt, a white button-up shirt, a sheath dress, a wrap dress, or a shirtdress. At this point, I don't miss any of those items.

I am far from a style expert but I think what I can say with confidence is that in order to have a wardrobe that works you have to start with what you, idosyncratically, want to wear. It sounds simple and obvious I guess, but a lot of wardrobe-building advice out there is based on totally different principles.

So I do know what I want to wear, that's the good news.   
The bad news is I have relatively few of some of these items in my closet (especially the day dresses and the long cardigans--plenty of cardigans, but not so many work with the skinny pants).

Black knit dress, Max Studio; gray rose-print cardi, Sarah Spencer; both thrifted. Plus those vermilion tights again!

The good news is I have quite a stash of fabric to make them (the dresses at least; no idea what to do about the sweaters, I am NOT going to take up knitting!).

The bad news is my recent sewing-for-myself output consists of one upcycled men's t-shirt, a cut-but-still-not-sewn muslin for a long-sleeve tee, and a half-finished dress (the poppy print) that I haven't touched since last February.

So I am probably doomed, but we'll see how it goes.

(I have another wardrobe-ing exercise that I did along with this one, but I've already gone on more than long enough for one post, so stay tuned.)


  1. Very nice roundup. I think we have to be self-indulgent sometimes to stay sane.
    My problem is what would be tossed into the donation pile today, will surely be sorely missed in about 18 months: story of my life.

  2. "I think clothes are fun to think about, but I don't want to think about them that much"--Amen!

    If you have white button-up-down-whatever shirts you want to get rid of, you can send them to me. If I had skinny pants, I would send them to you.

  3. It's been a week, how is it going?