Google “wardrobe essentials” and you get: “30 Fashion Staples to Have By 30.” “The 14 Timeless Pieces You Shouldn’t Live Without.” “Everyday Basics Your Closet Needs.” Those articles are bogus, guys. There is no specific article of clothing everyone needs. People have different audiences, different life experiences, and different personal preferences. Nothing’s “missing” from your wardrobe if you’ve got enough to suit you.
However, a lot of people don’t know whether they have enough to suit them. They follow the process I used to: they try stuff on in clothing stores, and if it fits OK and is reasonably priced and they don’t hate the color, they take it home. And then they feel like their outfits are incoherent and they never look put together. So they buy more stuff in the hopes that this time they’ll like their wardrobe.
What helped me is to be more analytical. Here’s the thought process I used to start feeling happy in what I was wearing.
Sort through your nail polish collection
If you have one, that is. This is kind of an odd first step, but nail polish can be a microcosm of the colors you’re drawn to and keep buying.
For me: I’d been whittling down my nail polish collection for a while, trying to minimize, and once I got it down to just the things I couldn’t bear to part with, I realized virtually all of them fit into one of the following categories:
- Greens (so many greens)
- Purplish greys and taupes
- Colors so dark they are almost black
That helped me because I owned clothing in a lot more colors, but looking through my nail polish made me realize that the nail polish I owned and the clothes I loved were almost always the same colors. It also helped me identify a pattern and break it: with both my clothing and my nail polish, I kept buying purple and brown because they looked good on me, but I was never really in the mood to wear them.
Write down every piece of clothing you own
First, write down everything you remember owning, including what color it is. Put the letter A by everything that you feel awesome in every time you wear it. Put a W next to the ones you wear all the time. Then go wherever your clothes live and write down everything you forgot to write down.
Yes, it’s time-consuming. But it will give you a few more good things to think about.
- Clothing you can remember easily you likely either love or have worn recently. If you couldn’t remember owning it offhand, think twice about whether it’s worth owning.
- Your A-list clothes probably fit some kind of pattern. I’ve made a few suggestions as to what that pattern might be below, but basically, think analytically about the comfort, fit, color, durability, maintenance, versatility, and individual quirks of each of your favorites.
- If you have A-list clothes that you rarely wear: why? Do they represent a lifestyle you don’t live? Is that likely to change? Are you saving your favorite clothing for special occasions? If so, why?
- Clothes you wear frequently but don’t feel awesome in are likely either acceptable enough but not great or necessities you dislike. Consider what would make those pieces of clothing great for you.
Listing all your clothes will also help you…
I used to have a lot of short-sleeved sweaters. Now I have one. Why? Only two of the sweaters had a W or an A next to it, and one of the two was an inferior-quality duplicate of the first one. It turns out pullover sweaters don’t work very well with the clothing I like to wear.
Many people are drawn to the same thing, pick a favorite of that thing, never wear the others, and then feel like they’ve got a closet full of stuff and nothing to wear. Eliminating duplicates can help with that.
Next, you analyze!
Why you like your favorites: the breakdown
Are they comfortable? Are the ones you dislike uncomfortable?
Are there particular fabrics all your favorite clothing is made of? Categories of fabrics?
How much happier are you if your clothing is soft and snuggly? Do you mind wearing itchy fabrics? Stiff ones? Do you have consistent temperature issues– constantly overheating, constantly freezing, hot flashes? — that your clothing needs to address? Do you sweat a lot?
Softer fabrics are usually less durable and somewhat harder to maintain, so consider whether that’s worth it to you. Comfort is also subjective– for example, I find cashmere extraordinarily itchy, and I understand I am an outlier– and changes over time.
How do your favorites fit?
I prefer clothing closer-fitting on top and looser on the bottom. Most contemporary fashion disagrees. I also prefer longer shirts than most manufacturers make.
How does the stuff that you like fit? And more relevantly, how much do you care? The proportions of clothing are important to me, but I know people who just want to match fun colors and don’t care about silhouette or proportion.
Are your favorites durable?
How careful do you have to be with your favorites? How thick is the fabric? What construction elements do you care about?
Are your favorites low-maintenance?
Historically, have you been willing to hand-wash your favorite things? What about drying things flat? Dry-cleaning? Ironing? Do your favorites dry quickly? Do you have any favorites that are hard to put on? (For example, I love the idea of this convertible pantsuit, but I will never get one because that is entirely too many adjustments for me to make to my clothing. I also hate tying my shoes and fussing with ankle straps.)
Do you prefer clothes that have a lot of personality or a lot of versatility?
Do you love basics that you can wear over/under anything, or unusual colors or cuts that don’t layer well?
Balancing personality with versatility can be really hard. I’ve struggled with it myself: my fondness for colors, my distaste for many neutrals, and my fondness for asymmetry makes it hard to layer. Right now, I’m content with about half weirdly-structured shirts that look awesome under layers and half awesome asymmetrical shirts that don’t work with toppers. Also, I wear a lot of black pants.
Do your favorites convey something specific to a particular audience?
Do you feel more professionally competent in these clothes, and/or like others will see you that way? Do you feel wealthier or of a higher social status? Or are you saying something to a niche group? For example, thanks to the awesome crowd I run with, I play music at cons and Street Fighter at weekend events. I wear nerdy t-shirts to those events (and to the tea shop) because they’re basically a way of striking up a conversation with fellow nerds who like the same stuff without anyone having to say anything. Introvert powers!
Are your favorites ethically made?
Not everyone considers ethics in their favorite clothes, but some people do. Do you feel happier when you wear things if you know that they were fair trade, vegan, made under ethical working conditions, made in the country you live in, environmentally friendly, created by small businesses, etc.?
You’ve run through the same process I did to sort out what clothing meant to me. I hope it helps you. (I followed up with an altered Marie Kondo method– laying everything out on my bed and getting rid of most things that didn’t “spark joy” when I held them. It can be a helpful litmus test, but man, don’t take it too far. I don’t feel passionate about pants, but I need pants.)