Saturday, 3 January 2015

Wardrobe Planning IIIa: The numbers game

The story so far of my Wardrobe Planning efforts:

I: Why I started thinking about it at all.
II: The role starting to sew has played in developing my ideas about the wardrobe plan

At the end of the Wardrobe Planning last post I said that this next entry would be about how I want to dress, but actually, as the title should suggest, it turned out to be only tangentially about that. Instead, I'm going to talk a little bit about wardrobe planning as a numbers game. It will surprise nobody who has read this blog at all regularly that I was strongly attracted from the very outset to doing some kind of numerical analysis of both my existing and my planned wardrobe. That's just my nature and my training. Thus one of the starting points for me in my whole wardrobe planning thought process was a simple question:

How many items of clothing do I really need?

You can imagine this question being asked plaintively (with suspicious undertones that however many that number was, it was a different number to the amount I had in front of me in my closet when I asked) and also curiously, because as soon as I asked it I found myself floundering about trying to articulate all kinds of hitherto tacit assumptions I was making about the number I needed. As soon as I started to make any kind of decision about numbers, I found myself having to articulate those assumptions, and the risks I saw in challenging them.

For this post, part IIIa, I am going to talk about the numbers game from the initial broad perspective, and in part b, about my own wardrobe by the numbers and the directions thinking about my wardrobe in this way has taken me. (It's in two parts because, as always, I am Wordy McWorderson.)

The plentiful and limited wardrobe paradigms

In the wild world of the internet, if you go wandering in search of information about how many items of clothing you "should" have, you immediately encounter two clashing paradigms.

The plentiful wardrobe

The first is the overwhelming but mostly tacit paradigm of the western world: the maxim of plenty, born of a society where seemingly one of our chief roles as citizens of industrialized nations is to consume. In the world of clothing, this is fuelled by the rhetoric of fashion, which encourages us to regard still-wearable but older clothing as having no value, and new items of clothing as essential, all because of product differences that are, in the grand scheme of things, marginal at best.

The work of building the plentiful wardrobe is accumulation and the acquisition of novelty. You must be constantly out there, looking for things to add to your wardrobe that are new and different from what you already own. In the worst excesses of this paradigm, you literally cannot own enough and nothing you purchase is durable. There are always new micro-trends to pursue and always tiny differentiations among products that make new acquisitions essential; there is always constant novelty to seek out and purchase. We are encouraged towards a faster and faster pace of acquisition by "fast fashion", which not only turns over those meagrely differentiated products more quickly than ever, but which offer clothes they openly admit are not constructed to last much past a few wears (Zara, for example, and their 10-washes-and-it's-done design policy). Celebrities, never knowingly photographed twice wearing the same clothes twice, are the public face of this sort of consumption. Those few people in the public eye that do not fully conform to this constant parade of novelty, the Duchess of Cambridge being the strangest and most interesting of the semi-holdouts, are either slammed, or, in the Duchess' case, scrutinized minutely for the subtle political statements she must surely be making by wearing the same distinctive item of clothing a second time. Even if we don't aspire to the excesses of Hollywood, we are constantly being sold an image of glamour and beauty that depends in part on novelty and plentifulness.

I am going to guess nobody reading my blog is fully bought in to the idea of mindless, endless consumption as portrayed by celebrities who are, after all, mostly getting their wardrobes given them to free by designers and whose livelihoods depend on their appearance. In fact, I would guess the opposite, that many people reading this might like to think they are above being influenced by the messages shown to us by the media, which is almost never as true as one might like it to be. However, I would tend to argue that those of us who live lives far from the media spotlight that drives some of the most extreme consumption behaviours are still heavily influenced by the same forces, although often dressed up in more practical guises.

For example, I remember having a conversation with a friend about what she should pack for a lengthy business trip, who told me she would never wear exactly the same outfit to work two days in a row, especially if it were something highly distinctive. At the time I nodded and agreed without much thought, because at that moment her statement simply seemed self-evident: nor would I, generally, in the places I have worked. The last time I did so was probably when I wore school uniform, and as soon as I got to sixth form (grade 12) and was expected to wear "dress code" rather than specific garments I would make some minor effort not to wear the same clothes on consecutive days. I would think that outside of jobs where you wear a uniform of some description (scrubs, for example, or a full uniform or corporate polo t-shirt) many women would generally not choose to wear the same outfit two days running. Certainly women in serious professional roles in the public eye (politicians, for example) do not generally seem do so, in my (limited) observation. We are accustomed, particularly in white collar, office environments, to a norm in which women wear something visibly different pretty much every day of the week.

As soon as you start thinking about how this applies to your own life in any detail, though, it seems entirely ridiculous. I work in a non-media-facing, physically undemanding white collar job where I suspect most people I encounter would be hard-pushed to recall major physical details about my appearance, let alone what I wore yesterday (unless I had waltzed in to teach a class in a space suit or something equally outlandish). Yet, even though my clothes are unmarked by any kind of demanding labour and my clothing choices have typically been fairly circumspect, I have always felt quite compelled to ring the changes in my outfits all week, every week. Even now, after thinking about the underlying issues extensively, I probably would still feel vaguely uncomfortable if I turned up for work at the office in the same clothes I had worn the day before. Why do I feel obliged to do this? What, and whose, purpose am I serving by wearing slightly different variations on a theme of "suitably dressed female academic" every day?

The reality is that the maxim of wardrobe plenty bears down on us less obviously than on celebrities but still powerfully. I tried to think of the worst construction that could be made on turning up at work in the same clothes two days running and came up with: "I didn't go home last night" (thus calling my morals into question); "I don't value cleanliness" (and since western societies strongly correlate cleanliness and moral rectitude, much else about my character comes immediately into question); "I don't own enough clothes to change mine every day, so I must be poor, or I must be spending the salary I am known to receive on other, inappropriate things"; "I am not spending "enough" time on my appearance commensurate to my age/role/money/influence, and therefore I can't be trusted to allocate my time appropriately in other ways", and so on. If we believe that there are ranks of invisible critics just waiting to make these sorts of judgements based on what we are wearing, then self-evidently it's much easier to drag on a different pair of pants in the morning than risk that these are the messages I am sending. And then, if the first bit of variety is good and silences those voices, then more variety is better, and massive variety is better still... and in this direction, clearly, is a path towards a larger and larger wardrobe. (Except then, at some invisible tipping point and because life isn't fair, you have too many clothes for those invisible critics, and your judgement is called into question because clearly nobody has enough space in her head for both fashion AND whatever sorts of higher brain activity her life involves: coding, or caring for her children or curing cancer.)

On top of this drive to plenty from fear of judgement, you then have to layer the complication of different occasions and people in our lives requiring us to adopt different dress codes, and thus to own different clothes to meet the requirements of each. This does not just mean the obvious extremes of not wearing yoga pants to church or evening wear to meet a friend for coffee, but the impact of tiny gradations like "smart casual" versus "business casual" and needing some portion of your wardrobe to fit in each category. You have to remember as well that we are immersed in a media and retail environment that constantly reinforces the idea of shifting "fashion" and thus requires us continually "update" our wardrobes. "10 Hot New Trends For Spring 2015!" every magazine is screaming right now, as if there will be, or should be, something special and different about 2015 compared to all the preceding springs that requires us to dress in clothes we did not own last year. Throw in too, for women in particular, the engrained sense that when we get dressed we do so as much to provide entertainment and interest for others as for utility: that we have a duty not only to be as attractive as possible, but to do so in a way that is somehow provides a pleasingly novel interest in the landscape for the people around us.

Suddenly, when you consider all these pressures, even for ordinary women in ordinary jobs and leading ordinary lives, "large" does not seem to undesirable as a wardrobe size. Very large starts to seem like it might be quite fun, actually, the sort of thing you might do for yourself if your lottery numbers came up.  Plentifulness seems the easiest answer to the problem of dealing with all these demands on what you wear: the invisible ranks of critics just waiting to use my clothes as an excuse to slander my character will surely find no purchase if I just own a large enough wardrobe. If you own enough things, surely, surely you must have something suitable available for every conceivable dress code situation in which you might find yourself.

My once-upon ideal wardrobe
When I think back to the wardrobe I rather desperately aspired to, back in my pre-sewing, pre-weight loss, miserable-job days, if I had a mental image of an ideal wardrobe it was precisely one that conformed to this idea of plenty. I imagined a walk-in wardrobe (a scarcity in British homes and unlikely to ever be something I have in a home within my budget) with carefully spaced, neatly ranked racks of clothes offering me near limitless choice. As far as my clothing size, space and cheapskate frugal nature allowed, that was in fact what I attempted to recreate. Whenever I read wardrobe planning posts elsewhere on the web, I am struck by the same undercurrent in many other people's lives: we are pushed to plentifulness as the easy answer to all the pressures that getting dressed comprises, not least because it suits the fashion and retail industries very well for us to be unquestioning of the drive to consumption that this creates. I am sure there are women, perhaps even many or a majority of women, who enjoy this plentifulness and who manage it more or less successfully, and if they do, that is A-OK with me. For me, personally, however, what I ended up with when I pursued the plentiful wardrobe ideal was a closet full of a great many clothes of largely indifferent quality. Rather than having limitless choice that reduced my overall concern that I could dress well, I wore a limited subset of clothes over and over, and was no happier for owning the excess that lay unused in drawers and hung unwanted on hangers. 

The limited wardrobe

The other extreme of course, is a consciously limited wardrobe, where you own precisely some number of clothes, suitable for your particular purposes, and no more. There are many, many people looking to sell you some variation on a model of how this should work (and I say "sell" because very often these come with a book or some other purchasable object attached). I am going to mention a few that I have personally spent time thinking about, not out of any desire to endorse them or because I believe they are intrinsically better than the alternatives, but because those happen to be the articulations of the limited wardrobe that most caught my attention and interest.

The ways to implement a wardrobe goal of just enough are actually quite fragmented in approach because of the differences in the underlying goals of those writing about it. These goals include everything from reducing the environmental and ethical footprint of their wardrobe, to aesthetic minimalism, to money-saving, to (most weirdly to me) aping some allegedly unique "French" approach to fashion and dress. Despite these differences, there are some fairly common themes: a focus on versatility and usefulness; a concern with how buying is executed, though with different emphases (environmentally friendly or thrift-focussed, for example, vs. purchasing high quality and only once); and the idea of curation as the on-going work of this wardrobe rather than accumulation. The underlying numbers of garments in these wardrobes also vary, from the tiny (12-15) to the more generous (30-50), to the unspecified, potentially large wardrobe that is nevertheless closely curated (often one-in-one-out).

The most interesting difference to me between the various limited wardrobes I've considered is the extent to which they reject or embrace the same pressures that create the environment in which the plentiful wardrobe has become the norm. On the one hand, you have what I would call the stylish but limited wardrobe and do more with less side of the limited wardrobe debate. They do not reject the pressures that create the drive to plentifulness, they just recognize where the worst excesses come from and try to mitigate and to some extent subvert them.

In the stylish but limited wardrobe, the idea is that you do adopt trends, but you do so in a highly thoughtful, structured and planned way. In practice, this means doing a tremendous upfront work to determine what the current trends are, which of them you like and suit you in various ways, when and where you are going to buy constituent components and how they will work with everything else you own. The best example I have run across of this is You Look Fab's wardrobe planning section and overall blog approach. In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit I find the overall tenor of this blog vaguely repellent and can't bear to read it with any degree of regularity. However, it, and the forums attached to it, do demonstrate that just because you are actively planning your wardrobe and rejecting the pure accumulative model, you do not necessarily have to have a small wardrobe, nor do you have to eschew fashion and novelty. I think this is likely to be a highly attractive halfway house for many people, and particularly people with a strong interest in fashion and trends who also want to be more measured and structured in their approach.

The do more with less brigade are more focussed on numerical limitation and creating an illusion of plenty within constraints. In these models, there is therefore a lot of time spent discussing "remixing", concluding mainly that a smaller number of garments consisting of both versatile basics and a few distinctive garments still contains a huge number of possible combinations, including options that you might not have considered without the constraint of wardrobe scarcity. These articulations of the limited wardrobe also tend to rely heavily on accessories as a way to ring the changes in outfits so that you don't look like you're wearing the same thing several days running (even if you are).

This is, in fact, a fairly straightforward subversion of the plentiful wardrobe: make your limited wardrobe seem plentiful, even though it's not! A good example of this is The Vivienne Files. This blog author explores multiple ways to build a small, easily "remixed" wardrobe in the middle range of sizes (30+ garments), with a great deal of discussion and examples of combinations that can be worn and the use of accessories.  Project 333 is another example, although the motivations behind this model seem rather murky and catch-all to me, as it appears to try to appeal to declutterers, aesthetic minimalists and anti-consumerists all at the same time. However, both of these models are much more about developing a personal style and look that is less dependent on trend than the larger "stylish wardrobe" alternative.

The most radical point of view is much rarer. It starts from the premise that the number of clothes you own is far less important than our prevailing culture asks us to believe, and encourages you to pare down to a very limited just enough wardrobe. An example of this is The Daily Connoisseur, who has a very limited day-to-day wardrobe (about 20 garments), some of which are quite distinctive. She emphasises, in addition to paring down the numbers within your wardrobe, a need to make sure that all constituent components are of quality level to survive frequent wear and wash, and are intrinsically attractive enough to you that you are going to want to wear them a great many times. Her argument seems to be that if it's suitable for the occasion and beautiful, it is no less suitable or beautiful the fiftieth time you wear it as the first, assuming proper laundry care. You can see her actual wardrobe roundups on her YouTube channel (to save you trawling her actual blog, which is full of paid-for product reviews etc). If you watch her other, non-wardrobe v-logs at all, you'll note that she does legitimately seem to wears the same (expensive/high-quality, sometimes designer, a high proportion high-maintenance e.g. silk) clothes daily. (The big down side of TDC, in my opinion, is that she couches her whole argument in a Francophile "because this is what Parisians do, omg" gimmick, which I find baffling and off-putting.)

When I first saw TDC's 20 item wardrobe, and despite my general feeling that the drive to plenty is a manufactured pressure designed to make us consume, my knee-jerk reaction was that this is risky. However, I think that reaction stems from precisely the set of assumptions that make the plentiful wardrobe so attractive, the unthinking first choice that didn't work at all well for me, and thus it is worth re-examining at least some of those assumptions.

One of the big problems for me personally, particularly after my experiences with my dreadful boss, was my concern about the response of other people to what I wear. I do still believe that people notice what we wear and make judgements. My own experience was that those judgements can trend towards the negative and it can, legitimately or not, affect your career. If my wardrobe was tiny, it seemed to me I'd be risking a slew of such negative responses. Twenty (or so) garments is certainly enough clothes that you wouldn't have to wear the same thing every day, but over a season you'd be repeating a great deal more frequently than "the norm" and it's quite possible that something quite distinctive would be noticed if you wore it often enough. Would people be secretly noticing that I wore the same thing over and over and wondering if I was gambling away my salary or not doing my laundry?

On the other hand, I think we might also be legitimately cynical about the existence of the invisible ranks of critics mentioned previously. How much do people, who are, let's admit it, mostly much more concerned with themselves and their own appearance, really notice about what you wear? Even assuming a profoundly judgemental audience, do we really, truly believe that that people in ordinary, non-fashion-focussed workplaces are tracking how often we wear certain garments? Could you really say, with any degree of certainty, how often even BFF wears the same outfit? I doubt I could. Personally, even when I think about the people I considered my closest friends or my best-dressed co-workers at previous workplaces, I can't say I ever took conscious note of what specific garments they wore. I don't know that I would have noticed if they wore the same 20 garments for an entire season at work, or even whether they wore the same outfit two days running.

Increasingly, I'm inclined to think that people mostly receive impressions of what we're wearing and don't notice the details, and that most of their judgements are happening well below the level of conscious thought: they might recall that you looked suitably professional, without being aware of any details about the particular outfit you were wearing that day. People notice inconsistency too, hence the nightmare of everyone in the office asking if you are going to an interview if you turn up one day at work looking more dressed up than usual. Thus, if I wore 20 garments of consistent quality, fit and style to work that were wholly suitable for the environment I worked in, would anyone actually notice that there were only 20 of them? I suspect the answer is closer to "no" in more workplaces than "yes".

You can unpick the questions about whether you need to follow trends or pay attention to what is fashionable; to conform to perceived tiny differences in dress code rather than simply the major ones; or to conform to the unstated expectation that you are responsible for making the landscape interestingly novel for people who have to look at you every day in much the same way. In doing so, you begin to realize first, how perniciously unquestioned many of these assumptions have been in your life, and second, that the model of plentifulness is rather tawdry and obviously serving someone else's interests than your own, especially if you personally have only a limited interest in fashion and clothes as a means of self-expression. I would have to say, personally, that though sewing has awakened an interest in choosing how I dress, it's never going to be my biggest interest. I am interested in finding a style and a look that suits me, but ultimately I also want getting dressed to be simple and easy many days. The very limited wardrobe does look quite appealing on these grounds.

In one of her FAQ vlogs, which I cannot locate, The Daily Connoisseur also answers the other question about novelty that I imagine she gets all the time: do you not get bored with your tiny wardrobe? Her answer is that she chooses not to make clothes be a thing she gets bored about. I would also note that this is another thing we are being sold by the vested interests of fashion and retail: this idea that buying something new is desirable for all sorts of reason that have nothing to do with actually needing or wanting the actual article of clothing, and everything to do with feeding a constant need for novelty in our lives. If you choose not to buy into that, then the frequency with which you are wearing your clothes becomes much less problematic -- you are not bored by your wardrobe because you are not concerned with how frequently you wear things. I don't think this is as easily said as done for some people. I think most people can train themselves to recognize when they are seeking novelty due to exogenous pressures rather than inherent interest, but I also think some people are just more novelty-seeking as a personality trait. Moreover, if you are highly accustomed to using clothing as a vibrant means of self-expression, this wardrobe plan would seem stifling, and it would indeed take a major principled commitment to live in this manner.

And this to me is the sticking point of the just enough wardrobe. Although I think the tiny wardrobe approach is probably much less risky than it initially appeared to me, I can't imagine myself fully embracing it. In fact, I think many women would struggle with a sense that somehow, in frequently repeating the same outfits, they were not doing this getting-dressed-in-the-morning thing right, because, despite how trivial it must seem, it is a weirdly counter-cultural thing to do. You have to really want to live like that, in other words, because everything in our media and retail environment is going to try to push you in the other direction, towards the boundless consumption of the plentiful wardrobe. The tiny wardrobe approach needs a degree of principled commitment to the ideas that underpin it, and a willingness to experiment with something that, irrespective of the truth of it, does appear to contain more risk than almost any other wardrobe alternative. (On a more pragmatic note, I also think many people would struggle initially to figure out what specific 20 garments they could live with for a whole season would be, and it would take, again, a commitment to constant review and curation to get this right in the first period in which you lived like this.)

In conclusion...

So where then did all this thought and discussion leave me on the fundamental "by the numbers" question: how many items of clothing do I need?

I am very much closer, after all this thought, to embracing the limited wardrobe models than the plentiful wardrobe paradigm. One thing that appeals to me thoroughly from the limited wardrobe approach is the idea that all the clothes I own should be of high quality, high durability, high versatility and, above all, my wardrobe should contain only things that I actively like and want to wear. I feel that if I had a wardrobe full of clothes of this type, it would naturally and without any real difficulty lead to me own fewer clothes overall and to be much happier with what I do own. On the other hand, I find a lot of the "endless variety by employing judicious use of scarves!" stuff on the remixing side of the discussion rather tedious and unhelpful.

I have to admit though that I'm probably not passionately committed enough to the small wardrobe/small footprint/anti-consumerism principles of the truly tiny wardrobe to really make it stick over the long-term. I am interested enough in these ideas to make them important parts of my wardrobe planning process, but not enough to take the plunge into the most radical extremes.

In the next post I will therefore talk about my own wardrobe by the numbers, and where reworking these numbers has taken me over the last eighteen months, towards a sort of middling ground of wardrobe size and planning.


  1. I loved this post. You've articulated a lot of what I have been thinking about, as to wardrobe size, purpose etc, in a wonderfully thoughtful way. I sew most of my own clothes, thrift for some things, and am close to having a 'complete' wardrobe -- one that suits my own life. However, I still feel the pressure to follow trends in fabric choice, new silhouettes, and patterns.

  2. Thanks for the interesting thoughtful discussion. I actually agreed with everything you have written. I dislike the push women have to be fashionable to be truly worthy which is just an underlying technique to create more profits for companies. On the other hand I don't want a minimalist wardrobe. I know I don't have the ideal wardrobe for me and probably never will - too many clothes, clothes that are a bit daggy etc .also I really don't notice what my female colleagues wear - occasionally I do but I couldn't judge how many clothes they have etc over a long period . I don't think we should dress on others imagined thoughts on us . It is terrible you had the bad experience with your boss but as is often said this says more about her than you and she is the one who should reflecting on why she said it and change her being accordingly. Looking forward to your next post.