#6 A Small Wardrobe Takes Work

I’ve received a handful of questions about how I chose the clothes I wore this year and the clothes I’ll wear this next year (and how I intend to buy clothes in the future). Answer: deliberately.

When you intend to wear only a few outfits, and you like clothes, you really must love the outfits you pick. Otherwise, you will be fussy. I found this out within a week of beginning my project.

One of the combinations I’d picked included a grey maxi skirt and an off the shoulder over-sized t-shirt worn over a navy, high-necked tank. It looked cute enough in my head, fit my requirements for simplicity and modesty, and seemed to fit my lifestyle, but I knew from the first time I wore it in the rotation—it was not going to work. I felt sloppy, boring, and cow-sized in this detestable get up. The second time I put on the outfit, the husband told me this: “I love you. You’re beautiful no matter what you wear. But, you look like a linebacker in that shirt and you need to find something else to wear or you will be in a bad mood for a fourth of the year.”

He was right. I tossed the outfit and started over. Its replacement was probably the most versatile, practical, sassy thing in my lineup.

So, given that not all clothes are the same, you need to make wise choices and recognize quickly when you’ve made a mistake (hopefully while you still have the receipt).

Here are five tips for ensuring that your small wardrobe works:

1. Decide on your personal style.

When you have only a few items in your closet, those items must work together. I picture my clothes like family members. When I’m shopping I think, would this shirt fit in the family? For this reason, for example, I don’t buy any black. I’ve committed to brown. If it doesn’t work with brown shoes and a brown belt, it won’t work (I do wear red shoes and purple shoes and blue shoes but only of the sort that works with brown). I also have a list of six words I’ve jotted down to define my style. If a piece of clothing can’t be described with those words, no dice. This keeps me from making impulse purchases like a furry vest or a sequined dress—they don’t fit with what I have and I’m committed not to buy what it takes to make them fit.

2. Try everything on.

So many of my wardrobe mistakes can be chalked up to not trying something on or trying it on too quickly. I end up with something that just doesn’t fit or, worse, isn’t wearable because of what it shows. Now, when I’m considering buying an item, I lounge around in the dressing room. I bend over in what I’m wearing and take a look in the mirror. I squat down. I look at the view from every side. I am brutally critical of clothes. Because I already have clothes and don’t absolutely need more. I only want what works perfectly.

3. If possible, stick to one level of “dressiness.”

For me, a small wardrobe works because almost everything in it is at the same level of dressiness. I shoot for a consistent Sunday night church level. That means dark trouser jeans, more casual dresses in washable fabrics (sometimes with jeans), skirts. The stuff you can wear to work with heels and a blazer, on a date with a fun necklace or to the grocery store with cute ballet flats. I like this level because I always feel pulled together. 

I know this won’t work for everybody, but it has been wonderful for me. And the husband loves that the sweats are rotting in the back of the closet.

4. Don’t repeat.

This means don’t buy more than one of the same item. I have one pair of dark skinny jeans, one pair of trouser jeans and one pair of more casual bootleg jeans. I have one cardigan and one loose, drape-y sweater. I have one sundress, one playful, fancy dress, and one black dress. Get the idea? If you like cardigans, buy one beautiful one, not ten okay ones.

5. Buy quality.

This does not mean spend a fortune, but it does mean avoiding fast-fashion retailers like Old Navy, Forever 21, and Target. In addition to producing their clothes in a way that is morally questionable, these stores do not invest in the quality of their products. It’s why your Old Navy t-shirts don’t fit as well after a few wears. They’re banking that instead of going somewhere else and buying a more expensive shirt, you’ll just come back to them and buy another $5 one. If you’re trying to keep your wardrobe small and your shopping minimal, go ahead and spend $30 on a well-made fair trade or organic t-shirt. 

My process for buying clothes has, honestly, become quite tedious. I look at dozens of factors before I buy a shirt. That’s why I’m happy to only do it once a year. Thing is, even though the shopping’s harder, the living’s easier. I think that’s worth the cost.