Friday, 11 December 2015

Wardrobe Planning IIIb: My wardrobe by the numbers

This is a return to a series of posts I started writing more or less this time last year. Previous entries:

Wardrobe Planning I: In which I talk about the reason I am interested in planning my wardrobe
Wardrobe Planning II: In which I digress into discussion of the role of sewing in my wardrobe plan
Wardrobe Planning IIIa: The numbers game

The TL;DR of these posts -- and if you're new or didn't read them the first time, you should note that I took my normal baffling wordiness to extremes with these three posts, and likely will again with all subsequent posts -- is as follows:

I have, over the years, had a difficult time with clothes and my wardrobe and fashion, for reasons (Part I). When I started to sew my own clothes a couple of years ago, this unexpectedly improved a great deal, but also made me want to make sure that I kept making the right things -- things I would wear and love and enjoy frequently. This in turn made me more and more interested in planning what I made or bought in a more deliberate and thoughtful way (Part II). Once I started to think about planning to make sure I made only the most useful and delightful clothes, I found I fell down a rabbit hole about overall wardrobe size. I started to ask myself a lot of questions how many clothes I really needed, and what social forces and ideas might affect how I perceived that number, and what other people have said about it all. (Part IIIa)

The last post, IIIa, was written in January of this year. Since then, I have been quietly doing all sorts of things in the background around wardrobe planning, sewing and yes, tragically, also some numerical analysis in Excel spreadsheets, for lo, I am the nerdiest nerd of all. This post and the next in the series are therefore the outcome of a year's worth of experience, 6 months of the most mind-bogglingly ridiculous data-gathering on my actual clothes-wearing habits, and general thought about the numerical requirements of my wardrobe.

But first, I have to say this as a  preface to the whole conversation:

I don't care what your actual number is, or what your opinion is of mine (and nor should you)

There is this thing I see people do that I really don't like: someone with some size of wardrobe -- and most often I see this among people working a minimalist thing, although sometimes also from the highly fashionable with a huge trendy collection -- will try to make everyone else feel bad about whatever it is they have. In the grand scheme of possible interpersonal conflicts, I hope this is a tiny blip for most of us. However, it does grate on me a little when I see people acting as though they are approaching sainthood for either their conspicuously anti-consumerist wardrobe or their devotion to and enjoyment of fashion. Ultimately, my take on the whole numbers game is this:
Whatever number of clothes makes you happy with your wardrobe with is a good number.
I am thus not here to tell you that either (a) I have struck upon the One True Number, to which all people should now conform; or (b) that the number you have decided would make you happy is in any way wrong. I also do not care if you think that the number of garments I have is too many/too few, or that the underlying reasons I have for choosing those numbers are faulty. I am not the gatekeeper of your happiness; you are not the gatekeeper of mine.

To be honest, I do not even think I have hit upon a permanent One True Number for myself, because I think it could easily change as things in my life change -- the job I do, the climate I live in, and so on. What I do think is that I have some better idea of my current baseline, and how it might be adjusted.

The number to be happy

Even if we all agree that our ideal numbers are (should be!) all different, we still all need to determine individually what a happy-making wardrobe would look like in size terms. After thinking about it on and off for about a year, this seems to me to come down to the answers that we each choose to a mix of practical, aesthetic, lifestyle and even moral questions. (For example: How often do you feel comfortable wearing the same thing and how does your job/living with a sticky fingered toddler/laundry routine/whatever affect the frequency with which you wear things? How much storage space do you have? How much seasonal weather variation do you have to deal with? How much would you value being able to mix and match 90% of your wardrobe vs. having a lot of colour choice and/or the option of many striking-and-distinctive garments? How many different sorts of events and activities do you have going on that require significantly different types of dress? What level of consumption and discards can you afford and how much can you live with as an educated consumer aware of the social and environmental impacts of the clothing trade?)

Some of the more practical questions are quite easy to answer. For me, the very tiniest minimalist wardrobes are just not workable because I am, I am sorry to inform you, grubby and sweaty. I always end up with mud on my trouser cuffs, gravy on my cardigan sleeves and I perspire inelegantly on everything. I sort of always hoped I'd grow out of these unfortunate tendencies, but: no. I just turned 40 and I am as grubby and sweaty as I have ever been. Laundry frequency is therefore a significant constraint for my wardrobe because I cannot go to work with last night's gravy on my jumper.

My current laundry/ironing routine works very well for me, involves exactly the level of effort I am willing to put in and no more, and has endured for many years. I have almost zero interest in changing it. I can't say laundry ever precisely makes me happy, but I would definitely be annoyed if I had to suddenly change my routine. Thus, I have an automatic, practical constraint on the size of my wardrobe: at an absolute minimum, I have to have enough clothes to last between laundry cycles, with a little bit of wiggle room for safety (in case I am sick on the day I usually do the laundry, etc). The tiny minimalist wardrobe would be a source of laundry-based irritation, and thus won't work for me.

Other sources of happiness are less easy to quantify. There is a point of having belongings when I start to feel uncomfortable, and I get this visceral reaction: argh, I have too much stuff. It feels out of control, oppressive, and annoying. By contrast, I quite enjoy having the right amount of things. For me, this means being able to see all my choices, nothing being crushed or lost in a crowd, nothing falling out of the cupboard when I open the door. I like to know I've used the things I own and am pleased when I feel I have had value for money. I don't mind a bit of visual clutter when I look at my belongings, but too much and I feel overwhelmed.

When thinking about your wardrobe on a purely numerical level, I think recognizing if you have a specific comfort level is key. Maybe it delights you to open a closet door and see a space packed with clothing choices. Maybe you like to open your wardrobe and see three pairs of black skinnies and six stripey black and white t-shirts (each with different stripe widths, naturally!) and nothing else at all. Those two people might accumulate past their comfort level and hit argh, this is too much stuff on the exact same day, but it is going to be at a very different actual number of items that prompts it.

I don't think there is a "right" number for that discomfort to hit, but I actually do think most adult women have probably experienced it at least once -- we've all done that frantic, cathartic wardrobe purge at least once, right? -- and probably have some idea where their preferred comfort level is and how strongly they feel about it. Getting to grips with this was important personally because until I thought about it I kept getting stuck in a loop of regretting that I wouldn't be able to have shiny new things all the time if I set limits on the size of my wardrobe. Now I remind myself how very much I disliked having too much stuff vs my relatively fleeting moments of dislike of a lack of novelty.

I do think people who sew have a double problem here, because if you feel like you've hit your ideal wardrobe size and don't need anything new at the moment then you've unfortunately engineered yourself out enjoying of your hobby. In my case, I am again still more uncomfortable with owning an excess of stuff than annoyed by having to take a break from sewing until I need something. I know for sure that other people I know find their equilibrium on this swings much more towards making sure they have a constant flow of sewing projects and never mind the accumulation of clothes that results -- and that's fine, too, as long as you take into account your preferred sewing output when you make your wardrobe plan.

At any rate, as I've thought through some of these questions over the last year or so, and come up with ways of working out what it means in concrete terms, I've started to reshape my wardrobe to the size (and distribution among garment categories) that makes the most sense to me. Hence:

My current wardrobe by numbers
Since I am a giant data nerd with a wardrobe spreadsheet I can tell you exactly how many items of clothing I own. Thus: if you include every single thing I own except the contents of my sock-and-lingerie drawer (I do not keep track of these, though I have a one-in-one-out policy for all my lingerie etc because I feel like whatever I own right now is the right amount of stuff and I want neither more nor less).

In total, therefore, I own 216 garments, from winter coats to swimsuits, from t-shirts for bands that broke up two decades ago that I wear to sleep in, to formal evening wear.


However, not all garments are actually available to me. My weight fluctuates a lot (in 2015 it has wandered up and down an 18lb range, which is pretty typical for me). Most of my wardrobe copes reasonably well with that level of weight change but I have some things that only really fit at the top and bottom of the range. Right now I'm more or less dead centre of my normal weight range and thus I have 29 garments that live in storage boxes under my bed that don't fit me, pretty much an even too big/too small split.


I have 2 pieces of evening wear in my wardrobe, which I don't wear much, obviously. I also have 33 items of nightwear/loungewear and 39 items of active/gymwear/swimwear, etc. These numbers are very stable and again, the right amount of stuff,  so I mostly also manage these with a one-in-one-out policy. I always take these out of my "everyday" clothing numbers because although I do wear some of it every day, I don't wear them out of the house (or outside of the gym in the case of activewear) and I don't plan how they go together in any way. (As a result I always look like I chose my PJs with my eyes shut because absolutely nothing matches anything else, but I quite actively don't care -- comfort trumps all aesthetics in PJs.) Once you exclude evening-, active- and nightwear, I have:


As much lamented, I have had to take an extended break from my career due to chronic illness. When I work, I'm a university lecturer and work in business schools. This requires something akin to a business casual wardrobe with some more formal business wear for some situations. I was in the process of rebuilding this part of my wardrobe following my (jeans-and-a-sweater) PhD years when I became ill and had to give up work.

My current, mainly house-bound, miserable sick person lifestyle only requires a wardrobe that varies between "pyjamas", "almost but not quite pyjamas" and "casual/jeans" for when I do go out anywhere. I have 26 items of clothing (tailored trousers, blazers, skirts and formal blouses) that,  while they fit, are not useful, and just hang about waiting for the glorious day when I get to go back to work.


It is December right now. I live in the UK and while we don't have massive seasonal weather fluctuations (compared to other places I've lived, at any rate) the winter is colder and wetter than the summer. There are 40 useful, everyday, current lifestyle appropriate garments in my wardrobe (shorts, summer skirts, short-sleeved tops, linen trousers) that I don't wear in the dead of winter, and are currently tucked away until next year.


Thus, it turns out that for my current lifestyle 40-50 garments in my everyday wardrobe is actually an extremely practical number that also makes me happy for other, less quantifiable reasons. It feels like this is the number where I have the right level of repeat wears vs novelty for me, the right amount of mix-and-match vs. this-top-doesn't-go-with-much-in-my-wardrobe-but-I-don't-care, the right amount of variation for the range of things I have to do day-to-day, and feels like the right amount of stuff.

The big caveat here is that 40-50 active garments works for me right now because of my lifestyle, and it might not have worked at other points in my life and may not again in the future. I don't need separate work and a casual/at-home wardrobe, because I'm not working. I don't need clothes to go out in the evening or beach holiday clothes because, alas, these are activities currently conspicuous for their absence from my life. So, my happy equilibrium at 40-50 garments that I can wear right now is (hopefully!) a temporary one, that I will need to revisit again in the future as circumstances change. I think that is always true, though, for everyone.

As this post is already extremely long (bafflingly wordy, remember), I am going to stop here, and come back in Part IIIc to discuss the distribution of my garments among categories, my alarmingly nerdy data gathering process about what I actually wear and how often, the fact that I have an actual wardrobe calculation formula embedded in my spreadsheets, and my horror at my acquisition/discard numbers.


  1. This is the best post ever.

    "I don't care what your actual number is, or what your opinion is of mine (and nor should you)...However, it does grate on me a little when I see people acting as though they are approaching sainthood for either their conspicuously anti-consumerist wardrobe"

    Oh. My. Goodness!

    I too reach a point where I'm like ACK! Too many things!!!! And that goes for clothes, fabric, etc. I have almost no storage limitations right now which is a gift and a curse. I do enjoy having a large wardrobe so it's good that I have space for all of my things.

    I am also lucky (apparently), that handmades aren't treated much differently from RTW when it's time to purge. If it doesn't work, it's got to go. There are things that I really did enjoy sewing and I *like* the thing, but realize I never wear it. And then, what good is it if I'm not going to wear it??

    I have my spreadsheet compilation going for analyzing 2015 sewing. It's kind of my favorite thing to do :-p Look forward to IIIc and hope you are on the mend!

    1. Oh. My. Goodness! was to be followed by:

      So much this. I'm completely over people criticizing other people's wardrobes and sewing output. I don't understand why they care or how on earth it affects them. Gah.

    2. I have no idea either! I see it all the time though, people commenting about how someone seems to make a lot of clothes and when do they wear them all and blah blah blah. Who even cares how much other people sew and own? My whole thing has been about working out how many things *I* want to have, and I don't think anyone else could possibly make that decision for me or have a remotely educated opinion on the matter, so who am I to say that someone else should take my numbers and use them.

      I am such a nerd, I super love everyone's end-of-year roundups to see how things worked out for them. I am so interested in "I thought this was great and then I only wore it four times because omg, the SLEEVES ARE AWFUL" types of several-months-later reviews.

  2. You have eloquently expressed my major dilemma - a love of sewing vs accumulation. I have been sewing for 30 years and many of my hand made clothes from a decade ago are still in my closet and very wearable . I am comfortable with my wardrobe figures but I know it won't take much more to tip that balance. I do sew for others which helps but I am thinking perhaps I should start on another quilt and use some scraps .

    1. The sewing vs. accumulation thing is really difficult. I have dozens of patterns earmarked and piles of fabric in my stash... but if I made all the things I dreamed of making I'd have a wardrobe three times the size, and I really don't need or want that many clothes. It's very tricky to know what to do! I don't sew much for others, but I do sew other things than clothes (bags, I'd like to make another quilt, etc etc.) and I think next year for sure unless I start work and have to suddenly ramp up my professional wardrobe I will spread my sewing among some long, slow projects as well as clothes.