How I cut my wardrobe in half and learned to shop for clothes I love

Call me old school, but I love reading magazines. Especially magazine’s I’ve never heard of. Each time I fly on an airplane, I treat myself to one new magazine. (Ok, maybe two if it’s a long flight!)

Before heading off to Stockholm, I picked up an issue of The Magnolia Journal in the checkout line of Whole Foods. My partner and I recently moved to a new apartment and this magazine looked chalk-full of home inspiration.

Capsule Wardrobe article in The Magnolia Journal, Issue 2

As I read on the plane, one particular article grabbed my attention. It was called “Capsule Wardrobe” featuring a methodology by Caroline Rector. The subheading read, “Often, with a closet packed beyond capacity, you can still feel like there’s nothing to wear. How can this be?

This is a question I’ve asked myself every morning for as long as I can remember.

Shopping has never been easy or enjoyable for me. My shopping M.O. is to do a huge shop every few months at Banana Republic, Anthropologie or another such store to stock up for the season. I comb every corner of the floor, grab anything that could possibly look good on me, spend an hour in the dressing room, and then try to determine which items to buy just as my blood sugar inevitably starts to drop.

This formula worked well enough…so long as I kept it up. But in recent years, as life has gotten fuller and my energy has gotten lower, I’ve started to skip my big shop every few months. My wardrobe has gotten stale. My clothes feel old and outdated and I haven’t been excited about getting dressed in the morning for a while. Not only do I need a wardrobe overhaul — I need a new way to shop.

This article had some familiar steps, such as taking everything out of the closet, picking up one piece at a time and categorizing it into piles. I’d heard this wisdom before — but it seemed a bit daunting. If the goal is to giveaway clothes, I may as well just spot them in my closet..

What struck me was that this formula includes pre-pile analysis of the activities in my life to determine what kinds of clothes I actually need, as well as a post-pile analysis of the clothes I decided to keep and the clothes I decided to give away.

This was a game-changer. At the end of this exercise, not only would I have a trimmed down closet of vetted clothes, but also new information to inform my shopping trips. I was sold.

The weekend after returning from Stockholm, I gave this formula a try.

Step 1: Evaluate the activities in your life

This step only took 5 minutes, and was a grounding and motivating way to start the exercise. I had never thought to proportion my wardrobe according to how I spend time wearing clothes. My first “aha” moment!

If I only dress up a few times a year, why is 30% of my closet taken up by formalwear? If I change into comfortable clothes every single day after coming home from work or play, why do I circulate between two comfy sweatshirts?

Here is my activity breakdown and accompanying takeaways:

Work: 40% | Home: 40% | Friends: 15% | Formal: 5%

  • I need more comfortable clothes to wear at home in the mornings and evenings. I wear different clothes for my morning and evening routines and I can feel great about investing in more home pieces that look and feel good.
  • I often pull from the same corpus of clothes whether I’m going to work or hanging out with friends. I end up feeling more casual than I want to at work, and more stuffy than I want to with friends. I can feel great about investing in work clothes and make me feel spiffy and fun clothes that wouldn’t fly in the office.
  • I hang onto way too many formal outfits, and then end up pulling out an old one when another wedding rolls around. I can feel great about letting a formal outfit go after wearing it a couple of times (or even once!). And I can feel great about buying a new dressy outfit before the next scheduled formal event.

Step 2: Take everything out of your closet and drawers

All the clothes I owned

This step was especially easy for me because we had just moved. Nothing had a home yet.

I can absolutely see why experts prescribe this step. There’s something important about “opting in” versus “opting out”. With this method, the default is that everything is OUT of your life, and you can only bring it back into your life by picking it up and deciding you love it. It also made the whole project feel more momentous — like I was really making a change in my wardrobe, my home and my life.

Step 3: Sort clothes into Yes, Maybe, No, Seasonal and Nostalgia piles

I was prepared for the worst, but this step turned out to be more fun and fast than I had anticipated.

The idea of having a “maybe” pile made the process feel less harsh. If I was on the fence about something, I had permission to put it in the maybe pile, keep it for a month, and see if I ended up wearing it. (I didn’t end up creating a maybe pile, but I was happy to have the choice!)

I started with the “easy” ones. How did I know they were easy? I saw something and was like, yeah, I don’t want that thing at all. There were a lot of these. This part of the process also helped me realize that I didn’t need to try on everything. For some reason I thought this project would require physically trying on everything in my closet, which was an initial deterrent.

After identifying the obvious ones, things started to slow down a bit. I did need to try on some pieces of clothing and I felt ambivalent about many decisions. After the initial hump of saying goodbye to some old friends, it got easier. This old thing? Yeah, I loved it, but I bought it on sale in 2012 and I’ve worn it a million times. Thanks, bye!

Finding the gems that went in the HELL YES pile was the best. After parting with so many pieces that didn’t spark joy, I’d find one that made me smile. It was a great feeling to put it on a hanger and place it back in my closet.

I sorted 205 pieces of clothing in one weekend. Below are the results.

The No Pile (left); The final breakdown (right)

Step 4: Analyze the results

As mentioned, I have little confidence when it comes to shopping. When I pick out a piece of clothing to try on, or when I look in the dressing room mirror, I’m often not sure whether to buy it or not. Reasons for and against making the purchase pop into my head, one after another. 75% of the time I’ll pass out of uncertainty, and 25% of the time I’ll buy it without much conviction.

For this reason, I was most excited to mine the No pile for clues as to what to avoid while shopping. As I placed each No item into a bag for giveaway, I assigned it to a category:

  • Old
  • Uncomfortable
  • Doesn’t Fit
  • Stain/Defect
  • Don’t like look

I expected the first four categories to emerge, but was surprised by how many items were either old or didn’t fit. The largest and most ambiguous category was “Don’t like look”, so I set aside those clothes for further examination.

A few more assessments emerged from the “Don’t like look” pile:

  • Looks cheap: The allure of a “good deal” can blind me to the reality of how cheap something looks.
  • Top too short: Longer tops are more flattering on my relatively short stature. I may love how a top looks on the hanger, but if it’s too short on my torso I won’t end up wearing it.
  • Top too wide: Similarly, I don’t feel beautiful when a shirt looks too wide from the front or side. A pretty pattern or color can blind me to the loose fit that I don’t love.
  • Top too low: My comfy clothes gravitation led to the accumulation of many over-sweaters that hang dangerously close to my knees. Not my target look.
  • Four seasons ago: Boy, do I hang onto clothes too long! Way too many pieces were from over four years ago — and not in a “timeless” way. Even when the material had held up, they were simply no longer in style.
  • Too “cool”: Every now and then I panic and buy something “cool” to really “express who I am”. I feel so self conscious wearing it the first time that I never take it out of the closet again.
  • Hippie: I may love 60s music, but those hippie clothes always look better in the store then IRL!

The No pile analysis gave me unexpected insights about retiring worn clothes.

Previously, I had given away clothes based on whether I wore them or not. This old strategy let me continue wearing certain pieces that I loved for years on end — far longer than they were intended to hold up. As soon as the thought crosses my mind that I’ve had something for a good while, it’s probably time to put it in the giveaway bag. And as soon as a piece of clothing becomes irreversibly stained or otherwise damaged, I can let it go.

My quest for shopping guidelines continued as I analyzed the pieces I decided to keep. Three patterns emerged when I examined my “new” wardrobe:

The keepers
  • Flair. Whether it’s a pattern, a color or a texture, almost every piece I kept had some unique feature that made the item interesting to me.
  • Fit. As I saw with my No pile, no matter how beautiful a piece of clothing is, if it doesn’t fit my body, it’s not a keeper.
  • Comfort. Whether it’s for work, play or home, if I’m not comfortable while wearing an outfit, I won’t feel my best.

Seems simple, right? Get rid of old clothes, buy clothes that fit right and are comfortable — these don’t seem like earth-shattering revelations.

Yet it was important for me to discover the patterns I was stuck in and codify the changes I need to make. By finding tangible examples of my wardrobe mistakes, I’m now more confident in my ability to shop for clothes that I will actually love.

Step 5: Finish your capsule

Armed with this newfound information and motivation, all I wanted to do after completing this overhaul was go shopping!

The author recommends waiting a week to start filling gaps, though. At first it seemed like I’d have trouble putting together outfits since I had given away over half my wardrobe. Sure enough, this was not the case.

Each morning, I had a newfound sense of confidence that I could wear anything in my closet since everything was a Yes. I found myself taking a few extra beats to look for clothing combinations I hadn’t tried before.

After the week was up, I embarked on my first shopping journey with my new rules of thumb. As I went through the store and scanned the selections, I felt more calm and collected. When I looked at a given item, I spent more time deciding whether it was worth bringing into the dressing room. Before I would simply ask the question: Is there any chance this will fit? Now, I had new questions. Is this something special? Do I think this will flatter my body? Does it seem comfortable to wear?

The dressing room experience was different as well. I felt myself moving slower, less likely to make a snap judgement and move on to the next. Upon trying on an item, the first feeling I looked for was comfort. I closed my eyes to really feel the clothes on my body. If something felt itchy or tight, I knew it was a No.

Then I spent time examining fit. Too short, too long and too wide were top of mind after discarding so many to my No pile. The bar for what I considered flattering had been raised.

Though I was shopping the semi-annual Friends and Family Sale at Banana Republic — an event which historically would have sent me home with multiple shopping bags full of clothes — I ended up with only three pieces of clothing, two pairs of earrings and some socks.

I have a long way to go to round out my wardrobe and the verdict is still out on whether I’ll ever truly enjoy shopping for clothes. But I’m finally optimistic that I’ll be able to create and maintain a closet of clothes that I enjoy wearing!

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