Arriving here from the Decatur Tiny House Festival?
Welcome and thanks for coming to my talk with Alternative Apparel.
And here’s my new blog, Where With Elle.
It’s all about travel, sustainable living, and life’s adventures.
Hope you love it!
A well-worn wardrobe is filled with stories. When we consider our clothes as intentional investments, we clarify new chapters within ourselves and we unearth a better sense of what’s important to us – of exactly what we want in life.
When we are content with our closets and the stories they tell, we cultivate what makes us feel most confident, comfortable, and compassionate. We radiate our best self. Carefully considering belongings that reflect our interests and intentions creates a kind of conversation with our things – and with ourselves – that helps us process our history, examine the present, and plan for a better, brighter future.
Good style is as timeless as it is effortless. This guide is about creating a lifestyle of less through thoughtfully building a treasured wardrobe that’s made well and worn well, both now and in the many seasons that await us. With an eye toward the new season ahead, consider this your clean slate, a fresh chance to simplify your closet and your life.
.01 IDENTIFY // Start by studying your story. Pick up a notebook and sit down with a cup of coffee. What kind of life do you want to lead? Fill up a few pages with words, images, and ideas that paint a clear picture of your ideal, intentional life as it relates to your clothes.
Visualize a vivid picture. From blogs, magazines, Pinterest, or your own photos, search out a few images that represent your idea of a rich life. What illuminates your interests and makes you feel whole? Think back to your favorite travels, films, moments with people you love – perhaps a point in time that a place, photo, or piece of art stopped you in your tracks. What makes you feel comfortable and confident? Pull together three to five shots that summarize a meaningful, beautiful life.
Describe an ideal morning and night. Set a dream daily routine. Does your day begin unhurriedly, delicate jewelry tinkling as you go about reading the news and enjoying breakfast in bed? Would you kick off the day with a brisk walk outdoors, or drop by a museum café for culture and a fresh cup of coffee?
Would you come home to an airy condo in the city or a simpler space nestled in the middle of a forest? Does your evening end with jazz and a glass of wine in hand and a long, hot bath? Describe your ideal morning and evening routines in bright detail.
Prioritize a purpose. Give your wardrobe a raison d’être – a reason to exist. Do you want to spend less time getting ready each day, or more? Invest in fewer pieces that you’ll enjoy over many seasons? Shift time spent shopping toward more meaningful interests? Create a certain sense of style or an iconic look? Emanate your ethics or support any particular beliefs or values? Narrow your list down to three top tenets.
Decide on donations. The last step in identifying wardrobe intentions is to simply spend a few minutes researching where you’d like to drop off the things you’d like to let go. Who are the people you could help by giving away what you no longer wear? Charity shops, women’s shelters, friends, and family are just a few options. Identify exactly who you’d like to help – two remarkable non-profits supported by clothing donations include Assistance League and Salvation Army. Your goal is to transform the idea of letting of things into a gift of empowerment for others.
.02 CLARIFY // Our clothes like to talk. They talk to you, to each other, to every person we encounter. Step over to your wardrobe and open the doors. As you scan and touch each piece, what are the first words that come to mind? Clarify the conversation with a simple style file.
Calendar & Climate. Study your schedule for the next few seasons and consider where you’ll be spending your time. What do you like to wear to work each day? Do you have any big celebrations or trips planned? Perhaps you’re preparing for cold weather or sojourning someplace warmer.
Think about how you like to enjoy your downtime – waking up for an early morning run or spending a quiet weekend morning sleeping in? Determine how much of your life you spend in clothes from each area of your wardrobe: whether that’s time spent working, working out, enduring wet or winter weather, at weddings, on weekends, or simply unwinding.
Contours & Cuts. Examine patterns in what is well-loved and worn most often in your closet. Single out a short list of silhouettes and styles that make you feel at your very best. The internet is your oyster when it comes to considering your body type , documenting specific shapes, exploring preferred necklines and waistlines, contemplating lengths and proportions.
If your existing sense of style feels extensive and incoherent, it’s especially important to be specific at this step. Whittle down to exactly what makes you feel most comfortable in each category, from collar styles and embellishments down to the exact height and heel style of your favorite shoes.
Whether it’s skinny jeans and flowing tops, tailored dresses and flats, or cigarette pants and block heels, sort out a few “uniforms” make you feel confident – any combinations of clothes that you find yourself pairing up to wear each week.
Hold onto this style sheet as an easy litmus test to determine what deserves to stay in your current closet, as well as a concise guide that can be used to plan out future purchases.
Color. When we select a handful of hues that make us feel good – optimistic, relaxed, content – we create a palette that works together to make life a little easier. What colors, textures, and patterns do you reach for most often? Maybe you tend to wear shades that match your natural environment, or feel happiest in jewel tones positively dripping with color. Maybe it’s both – like an English garden filled with stone walls and weathered benches that contrast against rows of ranunculus, black currant, wild roses.
Look to the photos you set aside earlier – which shades are your favorite? Learn to identify what brings out the color in your cheeks and a sparkle in your eye. Do those hues feel warm or cool?
Most often, choosing a wardrobe color palette is a subtractive process focused on whittling away many hues and prints already in our closet – but in some cases, we’d do well to expand our collection of clothing colors by looking beyond what we already own. If you’re feeling stuck at this step, spend an afternoon window shopping and trying on a wide selection of clothes, or considering the seasonal palettes and prints of designers you admire. Try to turn a fresh eye toward hues and patterns you like to see at home and on travels, but might have never considered wearing.
Culture & Conscience. Personal style develops over time, initially influenced by one’s childhood and culture, later refined by our individual interests and values as we discover what matters most to us. Think back over the history of your closet.
Consider what has influenced your style: from cinema and classic icons to your parents and Pinterest boards and political beliefs. Are there any issues that are important to you – natural and organic textiles, fair trade and safe working conditions, recycled and sustainable materials? Write them down and commit to supporting the causes you care about.
Comfort. Finally, consider how well each of the above factors – calendar and climate, contours and cuts, color, and culture and conscience – fit in with your overall sense of confidence and feeling at ease in what you wear.
Go back over your notebook and strike out anything you don’t truly feel great wearing or enjoy caring for, whether that’s impractical stilettos that look good but leave your feet aching, finicky fabrics that require weekly dry-cleaning, labels that might not support your values, or cuts and colors that don’t make you feel really, really good about your body. Commit to letting go of anything that feels better on a hanger than against your own skin.
.03 SIMPLIFY // Equipped with a style file and better sense of the story you’d like to tell, the art of simplifying becomes a clear-headed conversation that cultivates a cleaner closet. Set aside a couple of hours and commit yourself to addressing your entire wardrobe at once.
Categorize. Start by gathering up every piece of clothing you own and separating pieces into stacks of the following twelve categories. Before you begin to sort, make sure you’ve pulled everything outside of each closet in your home, and sorted it out onto a bed or table in a room with good lighting and a full-length mirror.
- Shirts, sweaters, cardigans
- Coats, jackets, vests, suits, uniforms
- Pants, jeans, shorts, belts
- Dresses, skirts
- Lingerie, socks, stockings
- Pajamas, leisurewear
- Activewear, adventure and rain gear
- Cold weather accessories (hats, gloves, scarves)
- Warm weather accessories (hats, wraps, swimwear)
- Bags, backpacks, wallets, luggage
- Jewelry, watches, glasses, sunglasses
- Sandals, sneakers, boots, heels
Cull. Next, go through each category in the above order, starting with shirts and ending with shoes. Master Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up method by carefully considering each item: pick it up in front of you, give it your full attention, and inquire if what you’re holding makes you feel good. Does it tokimeku – spark joy, flutter, feel vibrant in your hands?
Be sure to try on anything you haven’t worn in the past couple of weeks, and evaluate how you feel in it standing in front of a mirror. Inspect each piece for missing buttons, torn hems, discoloration, sweater pills, and thread pulls.
Take time to individually assess every last sweater and sock. Is it well-fitting, worn often, in good condition, and does it makes you feel great?
- Do you feel content and comfortable when you put it on?
- Does the color, cut, and feel fit into the style file and life story you’ve imagined for yourself? Does it work well with your current lifestyle?
- Is it functional and does it work well with favorite pieces already in your wardrobe?
- Have you worn it in the past year?
- Do you have a similar version of it that you usually wear, instead of this one?
- Can you think of wearing it with three different outfits?
- Would you buy it again, today, if you saw it in a store?
- To live the life you’ve imagined for yourself – do you really need it?
Construct. Although at first blush it may seem counter-intuitive, try thinking about simplification as an additive process. Instead of approaching it as an exercise in removing things with the aim to “get rid of them,” consider your closet clean-out as a chance to separate yourself from your things, shop each piece anew, and select only what truly makes you feel great – what resonates tokimeku, as KonMari would say – to put back. Instead of approaching culling as “throwing things out,” your aim is to frame this step as intentionally choosing what to keep.
Compare. It’s also a good idea to deeply consider whether or not you truly need each piece. Do you already own something similar? Do you have several versions of a piece but tend to always wear the same one? Shoes are a good example of this habit: We tend to collect many pairs of similar shoes when all that’s really needed is one pair of each kind – booties, riding boots, casual sandals, sneakers, heels – maybe two if you’d like a black and a brown option. Compare similar pieces against one another and keep your favorite.
As you compare, be realistic about your daily schedule and honest about your lifestyle. Stock your closet with essentials that are worn often, look good together, and form a solid foundation in your wardrobe. Only after you’ve addressed the basics should you begin to consider if you’d like to season your wardrobe with a handful of statement pieces.
Consider. In her tidying tome, KonMari notes that it’s difficult to let go of an object in our lives if we believe it to be potentially useful, informational, sentimental, or rare. Step back and take a fresh eye to every piece of clothing as if it’s the first time you’ve ever seen it and have no memories tied to it – chances are you’re in a different mindset than when you first acquired it, and maybe the piece has outgrown its purpose in your life.
It’s also be helpful to approach culling as if you’re preparing for a trip. Identify each of the favorite pieces you’d tuck into your luggage and consider discarding what wouldn’t make the packing list. Be generous in letting go of what’s outlived its purpose in your life. Keep what you need and love, donate what could make someone else’s life a little brighter.
Clean. At the end of this step, you should be left with a few groups of clothes: Keep, repair, donate, recycle, and perhaps a stack to sell.
If you come across something you’d like to replace but will need to wear in the next couple of months, jot it down in your notebook and keep it – otherwise, go ahead and put it in the discard pile. Add a description of what you’d like to replace it with to a shopping list of potential future investments.
If you end up with a stack of clothes to store, it should really only include off-season and occasion pieces. Avoid creating a “maybe” or “later” pile and make a decision now: does it make you feel good, or not?
- Rarely worn or tags still on? Donate or sell it. Sites like eBay, Tradesy, Poshmark, and The RealReal make selling clothes online a snap.
- Worn out, tattered or torn? Repair or recycle it.
- Poor fit? Have it tailored or let it go – everything in your closet should be ready to wear, right now.
- Poor quality? Recycle it and read up for future buys.
- Not quite your style? Note the style and let it go.
- Guilt over an unworn gift or bad buy? Transform negative emotions associated with an unused item into an empowering gift. Donate the item to someone in need, pass it along to a friend, give it to a charity, or sell it and invest the item’s unused value into a future gift for yourself.
While you’re rounding out this step, spend a few minutes jotting out a page in your notebook about what you’re getting rid of – the brand, color, cut and fit, condition – and use this page as a guide for making better purchases in the future. You can also snap a few photos of your discard pile for a better picture of what to shy away from on future shopping trips.
If you’d like to sharpen your shopping skills a bit more, look for patterns in the pile you’re discarding, then dedicate a page to the specific styles and categories you should stop buying, whether that’s a sea of socks, a certain shade of cerulean, or lacy skirts you like the look of but never wear. Follow up with one more page that tracks anything you seem to be short on, or would like to invest in more of, in the future.
.04 CLASSIFY // Once you’ve clarified and simplified your wardrobe, it’s time to update the design and decor around the space your clothes call home. Use the process of organizing to redefine and update the layout of your closet, as well as to celebrate each piece inside it.
Design. As KonMari notes in her second book, Spark Joy, it can be helpful to think of your closet as a bento box. Or a jewelry box, or a chocolate box, or a small room of your favorite things. Each time you open the lid of a neatly organized space, you give yourself a little gift. You feel good when your eyes survey everything inside. A wardrobe is no different, really, as it prepares you for the day and warmly receives you every evening. As you get dressed, a well-planned wardrobe is a small daily gift to yourself – a place for everything, and everything in its place.
- While your wardrobe’s empty, wipe everything down with a warm washcloth and grab a linen spray to freshen up your space before placing anything back inside. Tuck in a lavender sachet or two. If you home is prone to moths, loop a set of cedar rings over a few hangers.
- Count your clothes, measure your space, and invest in an appropriate number of matching hangers, baskets, and boxes. Use wooden hangers for coats and heavy sweaters, and slimline velvet hangers for light sweaters, tops, dresses, and dress pants. Add two baskets to your closet: one for donations and another for pieces that need to be repaired, dry-cleaned, or tailored.
- If the clothes you’re keeping don’t make great use of the rails and drawers installed in your space, spend some time redesigning and remodeling your wardrobe around functionality and sufficient storage. Consider trading out deep, dark shelves for drawers or baskets that can be pulled out into better lighting. Brighten up dark corners with lamps or battery-powered lights. Replace anything that’s sagging, whether that’s a clothes rod, shelves, set of boxes, or laundry bin.
- Be sure to record your space with a soft tape measure before heading to the store for organizers: rigid rulers have a tough time accounting for corners and awkward angles. Snap a few pictures of each category you’d like to store in one place so that when you’re out selecting storage options, you have an accurate picture of how much space you’ll need for each category. You can also browse Wayfair or Ikea, two companies whose sites offer exact dimensions for each of their storage products.
Display. If you’re stuck on how to organize any category, think about how your favorite stores display their goods. Are they hanging in small groups? Folded neatly at eye level? Resting on cushioned trays or stowed in neat cubbies? Are most of the pieces laid out so you can shop everything at once, or is it mostly tucked away into tidy glass-front drawers, with just a few key outfits on display?
- As a general rule, group like with like. All pieces from each category in your closet should live together in one home, whether that’s shirts, sweaters, shoes, or socks. For rarely used seasonal and sporting items, combine what’s needed for specific activities: bathing suits go with caftans and sunhats, snow suits go with ski gear and knit caps. If you live in a cooler climate, consider dedicating an easy-to-reach drawer to all of your winter accessories: gloves, hats, scarves, wool socks, and thick headbands.
- Another trick from KonMari: The human eye loves an elevating line of sight and dark-to-light gradient. Whether you’re folding clothes into a drawer or hanging them on a rail, sort the pieces within each category from left to right: longest to shortest pieces, heaviest to lightest fabrics, darkest to lightest hues. When clothes are organized from “dark and heavy” to “light and airy,” it’s much easier to filter out certain colors, seasons, and categories – and to quickly select exactly what you’d like to wear each morning.
- Reserve the top shelf of your closet for items you wouldn’t wear most days of the week: hats, handbags, and anything that’s off-season. Think of your highest shelves like an attic, and your lowest like a basement: storage for things you love, but might not need to see or use every day.
- If you have a spare closet, use it to store anything you won’t wear every couple of weeks — black tie gowns and bedazzled dresses, costumes, heavy jackets, winter boots, and any off-season pieces. Be sure to double the bottom hems of long dresses and coats up over their hanger, so they don’t catch dust from the floor.
- For advice on rolling and folding your clothes neatly “like sushi in a bento box,” turn to Marie Kondo’s excellent folding methods for jeans, shirts, socks, sweaters, and underwear. Try not to create towering stacks of clothing, which can easily topple over and make it difficult to quickly find something to wear each day. Aim to hang, fold, or place clothes side-by-side as much as possible.
- Use thin boxes as drawer dividers and think in terms of basic square and rectangular compartments, resting side by side. Empty shoe boxes, laptop boxes, and beauty subscription boxes work well for tanks and tees, while smaller candle boxes and cellphone boxes are great free storage options for pieces like jewelry and panties.
- And speaking of unmentionables, consider streamlining your socks and delicates down to two weeks’ worth of each in a simple color and favorite style or two. Often we hang onto many uncomfortable pieces that are rarely worn and we don’t feel great in for the simple reason that we haven’t taken time to stock up on the styles we do love, and sort out the ones we don’t really care for.
- Let it breathe. Remove all dry-cleaning bags, which can cause fuming – discoloration due to air pollution. Fill rails and drawers up to no more than around 70% of total capacity so that the fabrics that make up your clothes have space to air out and breathe in between wears.
Decorate. Whether it’s a closet, freestanding wardrobe, or antique armoire, your clothes’ home should serve dual purposes: functional storage space, as well as a cozy place where your personality shines. Open up the space by tucking a mirror on the wall behind hanging clothes. Add a soft rug underfoot and use the “small room” of your wardrobe to display art, mementos, and even your favorite flowers, alongside your favorite clothes.
Finally, work with the flow of your days and nights. If you have a morning ritual of hand lotion, makeup, and a favorite perfume as you get dressed, set a vanity up close to your closet. If each evening you empty out a handbag before taking off your jewelry and slipping straight into pajamas, set up adequate storage space to support that good habit. Carve out a little spot to set your morning coffee and evening glass of wine. Use your closet as a space to post reminders of daily intentions, favorite quotes, and fond memories. Equip your wardrobe to naturally foster your goals, dreams, and ideas.
To maintain an ideal wardrobe, it’s a good idea to edit every few months. Once you’ve completed your first thorough cleaning, treat yourself to a massage or long soak in bath, then mark your calendar and make it a seasonal ritual to clarify, simplify, and celebrate your clothes – and yourself.
Links mentioned in this post:
- Donations. Fashionista: What Really Happens to Your Clothing Donations?
- Donations. Assistance League and Salvation Army.
- Contours & Cuts. Reddit: On Dressing Your Body Type
- Contours & Cuts. Colette’s Wardrobe Architect Series: Shapes Worksheet
- Contours & Cuts. Anuschka Rees: Proportions Catalogue
- Color. R&F: Wardrobe Editing: Lessons Learned On Choosing Colors + Smarter Shopping
- Color. R&F: Favorite Designers
- Culture & Conscience. Zady: The New Standard Sustainable Fashion Primer
- Cull. R&F: The Life-Changing Psychology of Tidying Up
- Consider. R&F: 3 Weeks in Europe: A Complete Guide to Packing Light
- Clean. Where to sell clothes online: eBay, Tradesy, Poshmark, The RealReal
- Clean. Where to recycle clothes: Earth911.com: Recycling Directory
- Clean. Anushchka Rees: How to assess the quality of garments
- Design. Spark Joy by Marie Kondo
- Design. Storage options, furniture, boxes, bins: Wayfair and Ikea
- Design. Closet helpers: Wooden hangers and slimline velvet hangers, lavender sachets and cedar rings
- Display. Folding clothes: Goop: The Illustrated Guide to the KonMari Method
Favorite books on wardrobe building and minimalism:
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (R&F review)
- Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
- The Curated Closet: A Simple System for Discovering Your Personal Style and Building Your Dream Wardrobe by Anuschka Rees (R&F review)
- To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World? by Lucy Siegle
- Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster by Dana Thomas
- The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life by Francine Jay (R&F review)
- A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance by Andy Couturier (R&F review)
- True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy by Juliet Schor (R&F review)
- Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris by Jennifer L. Scott
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
- Craft of Use: Post-Growth Fashion by Kate Fletcher
R&F’s related closet challenges and ideas:
- What’s Inside My Wardrobe: A Complete Closet Inventory
- First Day of Fall: Setting Intentions
- Fireside Chat: A State of the Closet Update & How to Inventory Your Clothes
- A Year Without Retail Fashion: The Nothing New Challenge
- Wardrobe Editing: Lessons Learned On Choosing Colors + Smarter Shopping