Thinking more, not less, about your clothes


I had a brief conversation with a friend this weekend that sounded a lot like many conversations I’ve had. It was about personal style, the frustration that comes with trying to find the right clothes, putting outfits together and generally looking presentable without all the internal drama. We have not always lived like this. The average American woman in 1930 owned nine outfits. Today, that figure is 30 outfits. (Forbes).*

Some will say that we think entirely too much about what we wear. We are driven by consumerism; we are self-focused and vain. If we would just get our priorities straight, we wouldn’t have such problems with our clothing. Although these arguments are certainly problematic and real for many of us, I would like to offer an alternate outlook: perhaps some of us don’t think quite enough about our clothing. Any budgeting guru will tell you that you should contemplate and plan for purchases in order to have a successful time at any budgeting attempts. You should assess your needs, your lifestyle, contemplate what you can do without, and identify your priorities. When you have sifted through these questions, it’s time to make a plan and save the amount of money necessary for those planned purchases.

Impulse shopping isn't always a see-want-buy in rapid succession scenario. It can be stretched out over days, or weeks. An impulse purchase is characterized by a lack of planning and thought. Perhaps it goes like this: you need a new dress, and so a few days later drive to (or log into) your favorite store, and find something that catches your eye. If you're online shopping, you may put it in your virtual cart, and then come back to it in a few days and buy it. You’re happy with your new purchase, and think it will be a fun addition to your wardrobe. Sometimes this works well, but in my experience, it’s typically a dismal failure in the end. The hype of a new purchase lasts for a few days, or at best, a few weeks, and then you find that you need yet another dress, and so you repeat the process. Fast forward 6 months to a year, and you don’t even like that dress anymore, and so you give it and half a dozen other dresses away. Clearing out that space makes you feel like you're doing it right, starting fresh, and passing your unwanted items to lucky Goodwill shoppers. One of the problems (there are many with this scenario) is the fact that unless one is able to spend hundreds on clothing each month, we can’t keep up with these purchases, and absolutely never reach a point when we feel our closet is complete or void of any outstanding “needs.” It’s exhausting, quite frankly.

Now let me present an alternate reality. My mother-in-law is a swimmer, and so puts the amount of effort necessary into outfitting herself with the appropriate swimwear that makes her feel comfortable and assists her in swimming well. Because of her job, she finds that she needs to not only have professional, but comfortable, flexible clothing, so she is able to go from one place to another, often doing activities with young children. It has been fascinating and really encouraging to see the way she doesn’t go on mindless shopping sprees, or buy things on impulse, but takes measured (but not obsessive or time-consuming) steps to get the job done, keeping their household economy and her personal tastes and preferences in mind. She is someone who, as far as I can see, gets dressed with confidence, and enjoys clothing that allows her to live her life well.  Her wardrobe is not exclusively utilitarian, but combines the practical with her preferences in color and style. Here is a woman who thinks about what she needs to wear and wants to wear. She takes that information, looks at her budget, makes a plan, and keeps her eyes open for items that fit her requirements. I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of woman I’d like to be.

Living in such a way may sound simple, but it is rarely so, until you wrestle with a few things first. One thing to recognize is that clothing expresses status, it just does. I assure you I dislike this as much as you, and would love to shed this reality. But there are some who embrace it, and some who haven’t given this fact any thought whatsoever. But no matter our feelings on the matter, what if we can’t escape the status factor? Maybe we can outsmart it. Perhaps instead we can harness the status our clothing expresses, and make it something beautiful, positive, and unique to us, our lifestyles, and our particular needs. I think I’d like my status to say something like, “Woman, aged 29; not bound by societal expectations for clothing, i.e. status what, doesn’t cave to impulse purchases, concerned with ethical production of clothing, mother, wife, Christian, doesn’t have clothes-induced anxiety upon getting dressed each morning. Income level unknown.” What would yours say?

One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome is knowing, accepting, and loving your personal style. I’m no expert on 1930’s fashion, but I expect the amount of acceptable clothing choices were far fewer in number than what we experience now. At the very least, access to clothing stores was much more limited. When your choices are numbered, it is much easier to make a decision and be content. But instead, we not only have to figure out what our colors are based on highly scientific formulas, whether we’re bohemian, hipster, vintage, grunge, sporty with a 90’s vibe, classic with color, or classic monochromatic, we have to decide on an endless variety of silhouettes and accessories. It is truly maddening. What’s more, there is always the option to change your mind, change your style, change your wardrobe. This ability to alter things at the click of a button, combined with our lack of thoughtful planning, and changing bodies due to decreased metabolism and baby weight, creates complete wardrobe mayhem.

A couple years ago I started on a journey away from this closet chaos, and offer some of my thoughts and suggestions here if you find yourself in a frustrated place.

But I also want to offer a few tips  specific for beginning to identify your personal style, and none of them require you to carve out an entire Saturday for a window-shopping field trip. 

One / Pick 5 people who inspire you with their clothing and overall personal style (this could include hair, makeup, and accessories). I recommend that at least 2 of these be people that you know, and bonus points if they share a similar body type or lifestyle.

Two / Among those people whom you identified, jot a quick list of some of the reasons why you admire their style. Is it because Susan always wears the best colors? Maybe Katie always wears such figure-flattering clothes. These things can be wildly specific or general in nature. Next, ask those people where they shop, and if they have any style tips. It wouldn’t be surprising if many of these women have a few simple guidelines they follow when shopping. For example, I have a color palette I operate from, certain fit guidelines, and a limited range of stores to which I go when I have a clothing need. I also like shoes that have some bulk to them.

Three / Do you have any items in your closet that match with some of your newfound clothing preferences? Did you realize you love that Susan wears a lot of pink? Find all the pink in your closet or make a note to add more pink eventually. And Katie revealed that she finds cotton and linen fabrics to be the most flattering, avoiding knits like the plague. Gather up your knits and set them aside, looking to rely more on the cotton and linen items in your closet. Work with some of this new information and strategize. I recommend doing your best with what you’ve got first, and then making a plan to add things with intention.

Four / Don’t be afraid to limit the colors you allow into your closet. At first, this can seem horribly restricting. I’ve found that recognizing that I simply don’t enjoy wearing certain colors has given me so much freedom. I may find the perfect dress/tee/shorts, but if it comes in a color other than muted blues, muted greens, or within the black to white range, I hard pass that baby, and look for another option. (I do make the very rare exception, but usually in regards to an accessory). Your colors could cover a broader range than mine, but working to identify them is important. Wearing an endless variety of colors does not equal an endless variety of options. You may choose to wear a rainbow anyway, but be aware that this may complicate your wardrobe and necessitate more items in order to have the ability to mix and match and create new outfit combinations. If you need a little guidance, check out Cladwell's guide to your personal color palette. However, charts are not necessarily the final step. I’ve been told for ages by people and charts that I look good in hot pink, purple, and jewel-toned green, but the fact is, I do not like wearing those colors. They technically look good on me, but I don’t feel good in them. Simply holding up the items in your closet and asking yourself what you enjoy wearing and what colors you feel confident wearing is a simple and useful step in the right direction. It's also okay to make exceptions. Creams or oatmeal colors don't look the best on me, but I allow it into my wardrobe simply because I love it so much. 

Five / Ask yourself if your discontentment with your clothes is rooted in something deeper. Maybe you don’t need to do anything about the contents of your dresser right now. Is there an area that is causing discontentment with your clothing that you need to address first? Going back to the "status-factor," are your motivations behind the things you wear healthy? Do you feel bad in your clothes because you neglect your health? I don't always feel great when I get dressed, especially now, twenty-six weeks into pregnancy, but having gone through some of these exercises has put me in a much better place than I was during my previous pregnancies 4 and 6 years ago. We often use our clothes to cover up our insecurities and mask our flaws. I urge you to contemplate your motivations, your fears, and your goals. 

This process takes time. Quick-fixing your wardrobe will turn out to be anything but a quick fix. Take the time to get to know your preferences, and put some intention into this area of your life. It is not frivolous or a waste of time, but is something that will bring simplicity to your life, refresh your relationship with your clothing, and save you time and money, allowing you to be a good steward of the gifts you’ve been given.

*Some other startling statistics about our stuff.