Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Wardrobe Planning IIId: In which I conclude (for now) my thoughts about wardrobe size

Previously, on Writing in a Bafflingly Long-Winded Way About Wardrobe Planning:
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: In which I ponder what the 'right' size of wardrobe should be
Wardrobe Planning IIIb: In which I count up all my clothes 
Wardrobe Planning IIIc: In which I count up all the things I threw away

As I've discussed extensively in my last three posts on this topic, one of the most enduring concerns I have about the wardrobe I own is how big it "should" be. This is (for now) my last post on the subject and I'm going to talk about the wear statistics I've gathered over the last year on my existing wardrobe and what I've learned from doing that.

Wear Frequency

One of my concerns, right back in the beginning in 2012 when I first started to think about wardrobe planning, was that I felt I owned a lot of clothes but only ever seemed to wear a small subset. Since then I've gone through several cycles of identifying and discarding unworn clothes, trying to get my wardrobe down to just the things I need and want to wear. It's meant several years of pretty substantial discards, sometimes of clothes I had very rarely worn, which is a sort of waste I really dislike and to which I wish I were not contributing (more so every time I read things like this recent BBC news article). I dislike it even more now that "not wearing things I own" more often than not means "not wearing things I've worked hard to sew/knit".

This week marks the anniversary of my "what I wore" spreadsheet -- a document I set up to keep track of how many times I wore each garment that I own over the course of a year. Although I, like most people, could very likely intuit what garments I wear most frequently, my feeling was that it was harder to get a real sense of how my total wardrobe broke out in terms of wear without actual data.

This sounds like a crazy amount of work to do just to assuage what is actually only mild curiosity, but it was not at all onerous. Since I already had a spreadsheet containing a list of all my clothes, all that was involved was a few minutes of work to set up a second spreadsheet where I could capture what I wore, and then about 10 seconds each morning to actually record the information.  In terms of the data I collected, I recorded all the main parts of my daily outfit (trousers/skirt, tops, top layers i.e. cardigans and jumpers, and shoes), but not outerwear, underwear, nightwear or clothes I wore for exercise. I started tracking on 21 June 2015, and thus I now I have a whole year of data, through all four seasons. (I have to admit, even though it's something that takes very little time, I probably wouldn't have done it if I had been gainfully employed and had a life over this past year. Since illness precluded either work or life-having, however, I had the free time.)

I mentioned in my last post on this topic that there's definitely been a Hawthorne effect going on, by which I mean, my behaviour clearly changed in response to the fact that I was analyzing it. The very fact that I could see as the year went along that I had clothes I hadn't worn much made me try to wear them more often. I am not sure that my year of wear therefore represents a "typical" year for me as a result. I don't really mind that my numbers were potentially a bit skewed -- this isn't a scientific study, after all, and my goal was to make better use of my wardrobe, not simply to create a record of what I wore. Plus, I think that while I probably wore my least favourite things a few extra times as a result of this effect, proportionally I still wore them much less often than my favourites.

Initially, as an arbitrary benchmark, I decided that I would be satisfied if I wore every garment at least once a month on average over the course of the year. In practice about two thirds of my wardrobe is seasonal (either summer or winter) and any given seasonal garment spends about six months of the year tucked away unworn. My actual wear pattern is therefore not nearly so evenly distributed as "one wear per month".

After a year of data collecting, I know that I wore about 65% of my useful wardrobe (that is, the part of my wardrobe that is suitable for my current lifestyle, excluding things in storage and garments like suits and formal blouses that I presently have no use for) at least once a month on average. I wore about 25% of my wardrobe at least twice a month on average, and about 15% of my wardrobe three or more times a month, which means I wore it more weeks than I didn't.

The garments I wore most frequently of all are really not interesting or surprising at all. For one thing, it's not like I don't know that I wash and wear those items a great many times a year. They are also, without exception, very dull: more or less invisible outfit building blocks like white tees, dark wash jeans and the like.

More interesting is the question of the 35% of my wardrobe that I wear less often than once a month.

About 15% of my useful wardrobe falls into a category of "I don't wear this often, and that's OK". Mainly, these are garments that fall at the extreme ends of weather-appropriate dress. Where I live I do not frequently require clothing for either very cold or very hot weather. It is rarely warm enough here that I want to wear shorts, for example. However, I am quite happy to continue to own two pairs of shorts for those few days a year when I want them. The most striking thing, looking at the list of these items, is that I've owned a lot of these garments for years -- my heaviest winter sweater, for example, has been in my wardrobe for something like 6 years, far longer than my sweaters usually last. This is actually a problem with the two pairs of shorts that fit me right now. I've owned them since 2006 but I've only worn them a North-of-England-typical handful of times each year. They're in good condition still, but I'm aware they are quite dated and probably more suited to my age in 2006 than my age in 2016.

The remaining 20% of my everyday wardrobe I just apparently don't want to wear that frequently. I would say about a third are a problem because the fit is off or I don't like the fabric. Another third are orphaned or difficult to fit into outfits, often because they just aren't a good colour match for the rest of my clothes. The remaining third, I genuinely just don't know. I don't have any sound or logical reason not to wear them. In fact, in some cases I am really surprised that I wore them so infrequently -- without data in front of me, I would have sworn they made it out the closet much more often than they actually did. I think given the choice, I just tend to choose to wear other, similar things that I like more. This seems particularly true of woven tops, which has the most obvious hierarchy of favourites: from my chambray and gingham shirts that I wear very regularly, to (mostly older, RTW) non-favourites that rarely make it out the wardrobe. Since I have (too many?) alternatives, I am never forced to wear any of these items, so I just don't.

Generating an "ideal" wardrobe size from from wear statistics

The obvious problem with this discussion so far is that I've made a blanket assumption that wearing a garment 12 times a year is a "good" level of wear. This is always going to be a sticking point, because there is not and never can be a universal "right" number of wears per year. My initial guess was that wearing something once a month on average -- and in practice, for the two thirds of my wardrobe that consists of seasonal garments, this means wearing something twice a month over 6 months -- was probably a low to moderate estimate.

I soon realized though that I actually have different expectations of different parts of my wardrobe. In particular, I expect to wear pairs of trousers many more times a year than tops. In fact, this proved to be exactly the case: I wore my most worn trousers exactly twice as many times as my most worn top, and almost all my most frequently worn garments are trousers. The few heavily worn items that aren't some kind of trouser are cardigans.

This prompted me to set up another little equation, this time with rather more variables. My goal was to create something up that took into account the applicable number of days (I wear casual all the time at the moment, but one day I will be well again and I'll have a workwear/casualwear split); the fact that I don't wear a cardigan or jumper every day (I now know I wear one about 85% of days) and I do wear more than one layer of top on a not insignificant number of days (about 25% of days in total over a year). Then I just play with the details of how many times a year I expect to wear different types of garment, and what this means for overall wardrobe size. Inputting "12 wears per year" for each category immediately shows how poor a measure that actually is -- I'd need twice as many pairs of trousers as I own right now if I were to wear them only 12 times a year. While I do think I have a few little gaps in my wardrobe as it stands, I don't think doubling the size of my trouser collection would produce any overall improvement to my wardrobe.

On the other hand, a more interesting question was what a good number would be if I wanted to go more minimalist. For a first run at this, I picked as my preferred wear count per year the frequency with which I currently wear my "favourite" items in each category. My reasoning for this was that I wear my most favourite, highest rotation items of clothing exactly as often as laundry logistics and, rather more subjectively, my preference for variety permits. It's not likely that I'd wear anything more frequently than I already wear my most favourite item in each category, but I wondered how many garments I would need if I wore everything with exactly that same frequency.

The answer to this question is that my minimalist wardrobe for a full year of casual wear would be 30 garments in high rotation, including 5 cardigans/sweaters, 8 pairs of trousers, and 17 tops. When you take seasonality into account, that would mean something like 18-20 garments in constant high rotation at any point in the year. In practice I'd probably also have to throw in a scant handful of things I wear less often but consider essential, like a pair of shorts in summer and an extra heavy sweater in the depths of winter. (Note that all these numbers exclude coats and other outerwear.)

There would be absolutely no slack in that wardrobe for me, from a laundry logistics point of view, and even as a mental exercise I recoil from the idea of having a wardrobe so limited that a laundry crisis looms every week. As a second run at minimalism, therefore, instead of taking my highest rotation garment, which in some cases I wore very much more often than anything else, I looked at the average of the second and third most frequently worn items, which added an extra 10 garments to my list for a total of 40 high rotation garments: 1 extra sweater, 1 extra pair of trousers, and 8 more tops. When you take seasonality into account, probably at any given time there would still be only about 25-30 garments in my wardrobe.

What's interesting to me about this is that it immediately brings to mind several of the minimalist wardrobes I looked at right back at the beginning of my musing about numbers. At the time I wrote the first of these numbers posts 18 months ago, I found it quite difficult to imagine how I would put together a wardrobe that small, or what it would mean to do so. This has given me a much clearer grasp of what a very small wardrobe would look like for me. Probably the most important thing for me is the idea that I'd need a wardrobe full of "favourites" -- things that I love and want to wear as often as specific things I already have in my wardrobe. Even if the strictest of minimalist wardrobes doesn't really appeal to me, that aspect of it does, because it would mean an end to that waste I described. Yes, of course I'd still need to replace things as they wore out, but I'd hopefully avoid owning things that just never worked to start with.

The idea of cost per wear

Another thing I toyed with calculating over the course of the year was cost per wear. In the end, however, I haven't found this at all useful as a concept, so I'll just touch on this briefly. Cost per wear, of course, is very simply calculated as the amount it costs to buy/make something divided by the number of times you wear it. The idea is that if you are buying something that has the potential to be durable, like say a winter coat, or a watch, then you can justify buying a higher quality, higher price item because over a long lifetime, the cost per wear would be the same as if you had bought a cheaper, lower quality version that fell apart after a year.

The problem I have with this is twofold:

1. How do you even start to pick your target/preferred cost per wear?

The biggest stumbling block to this whole idea is that you've basically got to pull the critical number straight out of thin air. Is £1 per wear low enough, or does it have to go under £0.20?  If I buy or make a £100 coat, do I have to wear it 100 times to make it a good buy, or 500? Without some idea of what cost per wear "should" be -- and I honestly have no idea what it should be and nor does anyone else, seemingly -- all you can do is a comparison. I'd have to wear a £500 coat five times as many times as a £100 coat for it to be worth the extra, you could say, but then you run into the counterfactual problem: you will never know how long the £100 coat would have lasted or how much you would have worn it because you didn't buy or wear it. If you sew, you also have the problem of deciding what you're going to count as part of your costs in the first place - do you estimate labour? Do you add in the patterns you bought and considered but ultimately rejected? My "number of wears per year" thing is also arbitrary, but at least I can sort of see some practical way of estimating a reasonable number for me personally and proceeding from there. I can't really even guess at how much I think my daily outfit should cost on a per wear basis.

2. It's hard to know ahead of time that product A is going to be more durable/wearable than product B.

If the main use is in comparison (will I wear this five-times-as-expensive coat five times as often?) then in addition to the problem of the counter factual (you'll never know the answer to that question) you also have the problem that most of the time you can't determine longevity ahead of time based on price. It's maybe a little easier with buying fabric than buying clothes because the brand thing doesn't play into it quite so much (Liberty cotton and the like notwithstanding) but then you have the problem that you still don't really know if you'll love it and wear it constantly just based on the fabric you used.

In the end, I wiped out that column in my spreadsheet because I found it completely unhelpful. Of course, I want everything I make or buy to work out to be good value for money, but I can't see how cost per wear tells you anything when you can't even guess at what benchmark to use.

In conclusion

This has been a lot of words, and is based on an awful lot of numbers, but the important question is did I actually learn anything from all of this? Here are my thoughts at this conclusion of all this thinking:

1. There really isn't a right number, but you can probably use these mathematical approaches to figure out a good mix of garments and total size for a minimal or starter wardrobe.

I mean, this is obvious, but there are just too many variables to pick a "right" number. I can't even pick a right number for me, let alone pick a right number that has any kind of universal claim to usefulness. For me, I seem to have a seasonal minimum of about 25-30 items. I tend to wear an average of about 32 different garments in any given month. As you might expect I wear the least variety in the most temperate months, and the most in months where we have the local version of "extreme" weather -- a few days of unusually hot or cold temperatures. I do think that all of these blog posts and spreadsheets and calculations have given me a good idea of what I actually need and want from my wardrobe, in purely numerical terms, which is something I never really had before.

I also think that my current equation is helpful because it's helped me divide my clothes into useful categories and sketch out how many garments I want to own in each category, as well as picking out what rarely used but still useful things I want to have available. After that, I use more qualitative judgement to try to make sure I have a range of different colours, styles and seasonally appropriate clothes in the mix. I've definitely minimized the number of duplicates or near-duplicates in my wardrobe, and I think overall my wardrobe is more diverse and interesting as a result of my efforts, while also being overall much smaller than it has probably ever been in my adult life. I've never had a lot of laundry crises, but I've had basically none since I started trying to be more organized with how many things I own, but I also think in the last 18 months in particular I've been much less likely to feel that "I have nothing to wear!".

It's also really helpful to use the minimalist wardrobe ideas -- the wardrobe made up of "favourites" -- to figure out exactly what my core wardrobe looks like and what I can't live without. If nothing else, it helps set priorities and helps me set up my sewing queue, as well as informing how I spend my clothes and fabric budget.

Finally, this whole exercise has given me a much better sense of what a starter/rebuild capsule sort of wardrobe would need to look like for me. This is extremely useful, because when I (eventually) go back to work I'm going to be starting almost from scratch to rebuild my work wardrobe. This will give me a much better starting point to systematically create a really useful work wardrobe than the last time I tried to rebuild, post-PhD, hopefully with a minimum of waste. I also think it's useful for future travel wardrobe planning and the like, assuming that's a thing I get to do again some day.

2. Some things I'm just not going to wear that often, but that's OK.

I could just decide not to own, for example, any shorts at all, because I don't wear them that often, but it seems a sort of needless martyrdom to do so. My main constraints are money and space. Money-wise, because I have a wardrobe plan that feeds into a sewing/RTW-to-buy queue, I am pretty good at budgeting ahead for what I need to make and buy. I don't have cubic miles of storage space, but I do have more than enough to cope with owning a handful of garments that I wear less often.

However, what I have realized is that if I'm going to own, for example, a couple of pairs of shorts that I don't wear very often, they're potentially going to lurk about in my wardrobe for a decade. For those sorts of garments, I think I want to make sure I am picking patterns and styles that are very classic and won't date as badly as my 2006-called-and-wants-their-shorts-back shorts that I have right now. The same is true of anything I replace or add knowing that it's in that "rarely worn but that's OK" category: it's likely to be around a while, so it's worth picking a timeless style and probably a neutral colour. If I decided to make something more trendy or colourful, it's basically got to be cheap enough that I don't feel bad about ditching it if it's out of style or I no longer like the colour a year later.

3. I haven't figured out how to deal with the unworn 20% of my wardrobe

One of the outstanding questions from my data analysis is that I legitimately don't know what to do with the garments I identified that I just don't wear. (Bear in mind, 20% of my current everyday wardrobe is only about 18 garments total, so at least we're not talking about great bagfuls of clothes.)

At the moment, my approach is to just keep trying to make it work, trying to push some things, especially the things I don't have any real reason not to wear, into higher rotation. Of course, in theory, I could also just put all of the non-worn 20% in a bag and donate/recycle them tomorrow and it would have, overall, little impact on my life. For all practical purposes I probably wouldn't even notice the difference. I don't wear those items very often and in some cases only wore it this last year because my tracking exercise showed me that I 'ought' to. I am far enough over the minimum numbers I've figured out that I could easily have worn something else on those few occasions without prompting any kind of laundry crisis.

But... I'd feel bad about actually doing that, because in some cases there's nothing really wrong with the garment in question. Some of them are things I've made myself, and, even though I know all about sunk and unrecoverable costs, I feel like there is a lot of time and effort that has gone into those garments that I am reluctant to "waste". Again, if I were struggling for storage space, I'd probably bite the bullet and purge, but it's really not that much of a problem to house those extra garments, at least for now.

4. It's pointless to make anything in a fabric I don't like, a colour I am unlikely to wear, or that doesn't fit.

On the other hand, for those items where the problem is that I don't like the fabric or fit, in particular, well, that's pretty insurmountable. Time is not going to change my dislike of those garments, and it makes no real sense to hang on to them. It's not worth hanging on to anything if I don't like the fabric or the fit is that far off. Since fit remains one of my biggest problems with sewing, this is a rather depressing conclusion to reach, because it's likely to recur rather frequently as I continue to try to sew for myself in the future.

Moreover, apart from the problem of the finished garments I don't wear, this conclusion also poses a challenge for my fabric stash. I've mentioned before that in the early days of my fabric buying I made numerous ill-conceived purchases, many of which unfortunately still linger in the lowest archaeological layers of my stash. I've been trying to make use of some of it, but it's really depressing to use fabrics you're at best indifferent to all the time, and so I keep skipping over them to use nicer, new fabrics instead. Plus, why bother making things if they're going to end up in the annoying 20% anyway?

5. If I really wanted to go minimalist, sewing would be my downfall.

The reality is that I think I would be a lot closer to the "minimal" wardrobe camp if I didn't sew my own clothes and enjoy it. While I'm by no means the most prolific sewer I know, I sew quickly and am inclined to spend a lot of my leisure time on it. I therefore have to put deliberate limits on how much I make. I could easily make two or three times the number of garments, and some days I really kind of want to do that. There is definitely a tension between my inclination to sew, sew, sew and my preference not to end up inundated with clothes, especially when some of the things I want to make really don't suit my current very restricted semi-invalid lifestyle. Some days I swing rather wildly from "it doesn't matter if you have more clothes than you strictly need, it's better to have the distraction!" to "but why make stuff if you won't wear it, it's so wasteful, you're a terrible person!" and even though that sounds ridiculous, it's actually stupidly stressful.

Next time:   I think I've finally exhausted the topic of numbers for now, and therefore the next thing I am going to talk about in this on-going occasional series is the problem of "style".


  1. From the bottom up...
    I am ho-hum about summer clothes and was all ready to sew this FAB! summer wardrobe this year but...I have no summer style. I don't know what I'm going for which is probably why, RTW or sewing, I've never quite had a summer wardrobe that I love. So I'm eager to read those thoughts!!

    I think it's okay and normal to have things you like/love/don't want to get rid of even if you don't wear them often. And that discounts any special occasion or other unique garments. Like, I'm not going to wear my lace sheath dress hardly ever but I love it and it fits well so why would I get rid of it?

    I think minimalism is fine if it works for you. I tried the capsule thing with xx number of garments and, that just doesn't work for me. I can't see any reasoning behind it!! I think the better approach is to have a wardrobe that *overall*, you love. I live somewhere that technically has 4 seasons (even though winter is 5-6 months) so I've taken to dividing things into fall/winter and spring/summer. That has been AWESOME! When I make the closet switch it's like I have a WHOLE NEW wardrobe of clothes to choose from!

    This has been fun to follow and numbers and spreadsheets are fun.
    -Ditch that fabric you know you won't want to wear or use it for a non-garment item if you can. Obviously there's some you may want to hang onto for muslins but, yeah, it's easy to rack up stash and later look at it wondering "what in the hell was I thinking??"
    -Don't feel bad about sewing as therapy!!! Sometimes you just want to sew a thing!
    -I think you should ditch the shorts and make new ones!
    -Never count outerwear! :) No such thing as too many jackets and coats!

  2. Also stash fabric that isn't to your taste might make a great gift!

  3. I've really enjoyed reading this series of posts, almost enough to try to spreadsheet my own wardrobe!