Less is More
January 2, 2010 2:17 PM   Subscribe

What are the best practices for a smaller, versatile wardrobe?

In keeping with a New Year's spirit of trying new things and improving my life, I've decided to really overhaul my wardrobe. This is mainly because I will be graduating from college this spring and I'd like to cultivate a more professional, structured set of clothes. I'm not interested in accumulating a lot of new items on top of what I have; I'm mostly interested in having a rather small assortment of clothes that are highly versatile. I've realized that there are only a few colours that I really wear, and that when I buy clothes that are not one of those colours, I rarely wear them. So I intend to get rid of what I never wear and acquire new items.

My question is this: how can I best create a reductionist/simpler wardrobe? I'm not keen on it mirroring some pre-fab template exactly, largely because my style is not really preppy or business casual (so a set-up of black pants, jacket, and skirt, plus a LBD and three different coloured blouses is not what I'm looking for). Mostly, I'm looking for personal experience stories and advice on paring down a wardrobe as well as sources for good, versatile pieces. Any blogs that deal with less-is-more wardrobes would be great as well.

Stylistically, I lean toward the eclectic, which I know may need to be tempered in a professional environment. My hippie leanings (tunics, flowy skirts, etc), are not going to go away, so I will keep that genre of clothes mostly for at-home and casual wearing. I generally lean toward a steampunk/old-school aesthetic and I love layering. My favourite blog fashionista is here: http://geekthreads.blogspot.com/ though I realize that her style is definitely unusual. I follow a goodly number of other fashion blogs as well, and I have a decent sense of what is currently in style. Also, I can sew and I am interested in sewing the items that I can and also finding things through vintage or secondhand shops.

Thanks for any guidance and suggestions.
posted by fantine to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (15 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
try reading styleforum.net
posted by abbat at 2:20 PM on January 2, 2010

Best answer: I think that "get rid of the colors you don't wear" enhances your chances of having all your separates potentially go together, which is the secret of keeping a small wardrobe versatile.

You might want to identify your favorite pieces and figure out what you like about them, and your unfavorite pieces and figure out what you don't like about them. This can help you shop more effectively.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:23 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Browsing the Q&As and shopping guides on Omiru should provide some guidance.
posted by ishotjr at 2:46 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Accessories and shirts.

Nobody is likely to notice (remark) that you own only 3 pants and 2 skirts if you are rotating through a fair number of tops.

I'm sure you already know that accesories can add a subtle steampunk flair to what might otherwise be a boring outfit. Think of gear/clockwork cufflinks, shoe clips, hair accesories, handbags, etc.

Also, an occasional small splash of color (little earrings, a small brooch, a hankie tucked into a pocket) can bring life to a limited collection of garments.
posted by bilabial at 2:46 PM on January 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't speak to how you should build your wardrobe, but I can absolutely advise you on how to purge, especially considering your personal style: your purging must be based on quality. Go through all of your clothes - hippy/flowy skirts, professional clothes, everything, and:

1. Note the condition of the clothes. Is something fraying, fading, pilling, or stretching? Those are signs of fabric degradation and cannot be fixed with a needle and thread. Chuck 'em.

2. With what's left, you have to decide what looks best on you, not what you like. Surely there are plenty of things in your closet that you love, yet haven't worn in ages. Why is that? Probably because you know it's not a flattering piece. Get a friend, or the internet, to tell you what items you have are most flattering on your body shape. Rate them 1-10, based on fit and flattery only, and don't keep anything below a 7.

3. Now you've got things that are made well, that are flattering on you. If you must purge even more, start checking labels for fabric types and washing instructions. Purge things with complicated and/or expensive washing instructions.

I found that it was a lot easier for me to purge my wardrobe if I was headed to a clothing swap with all the castaways. Knowing someone else could wear it better than me helped minimize the instinct to hoard my clothes.
posted by juniperesque at 2:56 PM on January 2, 2010 [7 favorites]

Run with the 'only a few colours I wear' thing. Boredom set in eventually, but for years I did well (lowered hassle-wise, not sure about looks-wise) sticking to black, white, khaki (beige, but occasionally an olive), and blue (wild-n-crazy: periwinkle).
posted by kmennie at 4:16 PM on January 2, 2010

The only a few colors thing was the best thing I ever did. I have a palette of colors that all go together, and I keep to those. It enables me to mix and match a huge portion of my wardrobe, which makes it go considerably further.
posted by Zophi at 5:31 PM on January 2, 2010

Looks that Work, now out of print but available used, was written by the "capsule concept" developer Janet Wallach, but in this book she differentiated among business types: business conservative, communicator, and a type that was artistic, fashion-forward (I forget what the fourth one was). If you can find this book in the library or for cheap, it might be useful. The fashions may be somewhat dated -- it's been at least 20 years since the book was published -- but the concepts about what constitutes a great look for you might be what you're after.
posted by angiep at 6:49 PM on January 2, 2010

Best answer: I just trashed Real Simple in another thread, but I recently had to do a work-related wardrobe upgrade and went with a "classic basics" approach, and found their Wardrobe Basics Checklist really helpful, as was their Essentials of a Well-Balanced Wardrobe" piece.

Juniperesque's advice is really fantastic. I had to be kind of tough on myself going through my wardrobe. I'm one of those people that keeps a lot of things I "might wear" one day. Try this technique, which worked for me: go through your closet on a first pass and make 3 piles - not based on what you like, but on what you wear most often. One pile are the favorites you wear in constant rotation. The second are things you wear more rarely, from an occasional night out to once a year holidaywear. The third are things that just never make it out of the closet.

Then you analyze. For the stuff you never wear, why? Is it just unflattering, doesn't fit, not easy to wear, has broken buttons? IF it's fixable, fix it. If it's simply that you don't have any coordinating pieces, then jot down on your list what kind of garment you would need to make this into a usable outfit. If it doesn't have that kind of potential, get rid of it.

For Pile #2, you know these pieces work, but is each one pulling its weight? How many special occasion or highly specific garments (like beach coverups, sandals,ski sweaters) do you need to see you through those activities? Retire anything you don't love wearing or is getting dated, and get rid of duplicates.

Finally, look at your remaining piles and ask "What's missing from your wardrobe that would create more options for new outfits based on what I already have?" Chances are you can find basics that would make everything else work better - a couple jackets, good pair of boots, good trousers, black turtleneck, shells/camis, what have you. Make a shopping list based on that.

I found this approach really worked for me in a way that just plain "get rid of what you don't wear" didn't. When I was younger I had a habit of really gathering a wardrobe to express my laid-back identity, and I bought and kept stuff just because I liked it. In the working world, though, I'm having to change the way I think about clothes. I now think of them more strategically - I'm using them to maximize the impression of professionalism and capability I'd like to project. Now that I think of clothes less emotionally it's easier to pick them out.

I do wear a ton of black and use the "shots of color" method to vary it and punch it up. Before choosing signature colors, it's worth researching your color season, or at the very least, having a friend tell you what colors look best with your skin and hair color. My boyfriend did this for me, and it actually kind of transformed what I buy. I never liked pinks/oranges, but he finally convinced me they were good, and now I have a bunch of things of that color that work well together and with the neutrals that make up the bulk of my closet.
posted by Miko at 7:44 PM on January 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yer wan there at Geek Threads is probably a little too steampunk for a typical office environment. But looking at an outfit like this one, I think you could drop the tutu and replace it with an a-line skirt and still make it work with the accessories and the shoes. If these pants were not jeans, something like this would work, too.

So basically I think: work-friendly classic separates + colour layers + accessories + shoes = wardrobe success.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:44 AM on January 3, 2010

Best answer: The idea of wardrobe capsules might help you too: the idea is that you need a set of clothes that suits your job, a set for your typical nights out, a set for any exercise/sport you do, etc. Sort your most common pastimes into groups that require similar clothes. You'll also want stuff that suits the dominant season where you live, not the unusual weather. This way, you won't end up with a lot of clothes that aren't useful to you.

To use myself as an example... I have a combined casual/weekend wear capsule, because my work has a casual dress standard. Jeans/tees/sneakers works for me 7 days a week. My 'going out with friends' capsule is suitable for a nice restaurant or bar - a handful of girly tops/skirts/wedges. I have a special event capsule as well, 2 dresses with matching heels. And all of this is suitable for warm weather, since I live in a city where summer seems to take more than half the year.

I don't have any sport wear, business suits, church outfits, nightclub getups, gardening clothes, or snow gear. My winter wear consists of boots to replace the sneakers and a coat to go over everything.

Obviously your mileage will vary, but sorting out what activities make up the bulk of your time is a useful way to figure out what you will get the most use out of, and what items you can skip. There's no point having 'nice restaurant' clothes if your social life is about casual bbq's or going to clubs.
posted by harriet vane at 3:01 AM on January 3, 2010

If you're going for a more versatile look I'd shop for more classic (not to be confused with basic) clothing. For me classic means something that's not a fad, and I ask myself if I could really wear this item 5 years later?

It's kind of hard to find a nice store for this stuff since I feel like we're at a "cusp age" (I'm also in my early 20s), where you want to be cute but professional. So far I've really liked Banana Republic and Mango. I'd check out their sales section :) Another awesome brand is Michael Kors (check them out on Overstock.com . I know it sounds a little cheapo but you'd be surprised what you find :) )

Best of luck!
posted by metakiwi at 9:08 AM on January 3, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions thus far, y'all -- I'm finding them useful, especially the ones where people say the limited colour palette approach is both workable and effective. Also, the guidance on effective purges is quite helpful. Like many people, I do form emotional attachments to clothes that keep me from getting rid of the pieces that don't currently work well (and to be honest, may not have worked that well in the past). This is especially challenging for clothes that I have knit or sewn for myself and spent serious time on, since I hate to see that labour wasted. All the clothes I'm casting off will be brought to Goodwill, so I know that someone else can hopefully find them suitable.

harriet vane, I really like your idea of creating event/location-specific capsules and keeping the dominant season in mind.

Keep 'em coming!
posted by fantine at 9:53 AM on January 3, 2010

I agree that color palette is very important. Do you look good in blue undertones, or yellow undertones? Buy items in a limited palette of colors that suit your complexion, but don't collect a mishmash of both, even if things are on sale. That way you can probably grab nearly any top from your closet and layer with any other t-shirt or sweater and it'll all match. Buy suits and trousers in a color that works with the color palette you've chosen. If they all work with warm browns and light beige and khaki, go for that; if they all match navy and slate grey, go for that, but not both. I can't emphasize enough the importance of paying attention to color; even black and navy come in many shades, and if you buy a few pieces of blue-black navy, and then buy a few pieces of royal-blue navy, they probably won't go together. Stick to one or the other. For variety go for a patterned or textured fabric in the same palette; for instance, if you prefer shades of brown, get something in brown tweed, if you prefer charcoal greys, get something in grey pinstripe or herringbone.

If you do feel the need to buy a suit and can afford it, pick a versatile all-season color that matches all your tops, and get three pieces, not just two: buy the jacket and both the skirt and trousers. This gives you three pieces to mix and match. (I guess it's recommended to dry clean all three at once so the colors stay even.)

A good pair of black trousers is always classic. Ditto on dark navy blue jeans in whatever cut that suits you. I find it easiest to buy nearly all my dress shoes in black, to avoid complication, but if brown works better for you, buy nearly all in brown.

Personally, I love French label A.P.C. - it is pricey (they have occasional sales at end of season, but things go fast). Their website is fun to look at, just to see how they put together some very simple pieces and make them stylish. I have a pair of grey charcoal trousers from there, and a cardigan, and a pair of black boots. They're beautifully made and the cut is pretty chic, they go with everything, will never be out of style, and I expect I'll wear them for a decade if not longer. Another item I wear to death is a nicely-fitting (a bit roomy but not oversize) 3/4 sleeve black jacket, it's a bit longer than waist-length, and layers over everything from t-shirts to blouses, and it has a sheen to it. Texture is worth paying attention to; the texture of this jacket makes it extra versatile because I can pair it with black wool trousers and skirts that are made of cotton, without it looking like I am wearing pieces of two different suits.

There's a whole long discussion on the Fashion Spot forums about 4-5 piece French wardrobe (eg, capsule wardrobe). fun to read, though it being the Fashion Spot there are plenty of people who are sort of buying a new capsule wardrobe every season.
posted by citron at 3:28 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Reply to selling your clothes:
I think some clothes can be kept :) Like if you were to go out with your friends. If you're still into sewing maybe you can take some of your clothes and turn them into new shirts/skirts/dresses etc.

And since you mentioned that you've sewn some of your clothes, maybe you can put it on the site Etsy.com?
posted by metakiwi at 8:30 AM on January 4, 2010

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