Wednesday, 11 September 2019

A wardrobe planning update/discussion

It's been ages since I wrote here, and that's mainly because I continued not to sew all that much for most of the spring and summer after my last post in April. I didn't sew, but I also didn't fall back on buying anything much new. It turned out that, apart from one garment that I made, I just really didn't want or need any more clothes for summer and was very happy with the things I already owned. This follows on from a similar feeling about my wardrobe last winter. In total I made about a dozen garments in the twelve months from August 2018, and I bought about the same number, excluding basic, high-rotation stuff like underwear etc.

Very long-time readers of this blog will know that I've been trying for a long time to figure out what my own ideal wardrobe would look like in terms of number and types of garments. I have spent a lot of time since I started sewing garments figuring out ways to keep track of what I actually wear day to day, why and when I discard garments, and also reading and thinking about other people's philosophies about wardrobe size and contents. If you're interested, you can see a lot of those previous posts under the tag "the planned wardrobe".

Over the last 12 months, I've really felt like I already have a really solid wardrobe. I think that's because the outcomes of thinking about my ideal wardrobe, the wear & discard tracking of my actual wardrobe, and the sewing I've done in the recent past, especially the improvements I've made in making garments that fit better and last longer, all coalesced into something really works for me over the last couple of years.

Feeling very satisfied with my wardrobe has been a theme for me over the last couple of years in my end-of-year reviews, as I've been more and more pleased with my clothes as my wardrobe planning ideas and sewing skills have evolved. However, the feeling that what I had was now so versatile and durable and made with such close attention to what I actually wanted to wear that it was almost perfectly sufficient for my current needs, without anything more being needed, is quite new.

Chambray wide-leg trousers using Ottobre 02-2006-10. They stretch out! They bag at the knee & butt! They fall down! I've worn them a LOT for a pair of trousers I actively despise. Also why am I wearing those shoes.
That's not to say my spring/summer wardrobe was perfect: there were some less-successful garments in there (including the one extra garment, a pair of chambray trousers that I sewed for this summer, which I wore plenty of times but found new reasons to dislike every time, see above). I've noted a couple of possible changes or improvements to my summer wardrobe plan for next year. A handful of things hit the limit of their usable life a little earlier than I hoped and limped over the finish line of summer, so I'll definitely need to replace them before the warm weather rolls around again. Overall, though, my late spring/summer wardrobe was very close to my ideal. It covered all the weather eventualities I experienced (a couple of weeks of ark-building levels of endless rain, a couple of brief heatwaves, plenty of middling-ish days), covered every type of activity from "lazing around the house" to "going out for a casual dinner", and it mixed and matched really well.

So, what has changed from previous years? I would say four things: First, I think, is the most interesting thing I've learnt about myself recently. I have always thought of myself, and described myself on this blog, as moderately novelty-seeking. I'm now pretty sure I'm not very novelty-seeking at all.

I think many people legitimately churn their wardrobes with lots of different items because they find it fun and interesting, and that's great for them, I have no argument with people who do that and sew 100 garments/year in the process. What I've come to realise though is that, by contrast, a lot of my "novelty-seeking", in the sense of making frequent additions to my wardrobe, especially if I think back to the time when I was purchasing all my clothes, was actually me just buying broadly the same things over and over, trying to find a version that actually worked for me and my body shape and my colour preferences. Because so much of what I bought didn't fit well, or wasn't really what I wanted, or didn't last very long for some reason, I felt compelled to churn my wardrobe constantly in the hopes that the next thing I bought would work better.

This made me think again about how I dressed when I was a child and teenager: I was always the kind of kid who had a favourite sweater and wore it over and over until it was destroyed. As an adult, I've realised I'm still perfectly happy to wear garments over and over and not churn them at all until they reach the end of their wearable life. I've just never really had the chance to see that in action in my adult life because so little of what I've owned has stood up to any kind of test of time. Now that more of my clothes have the potential to go the distance in terms of longevity, I find I don't miss or want the constant novelty of the churn. I'm not just grudgingly trying to get a lot of wear from things: my ideal wardrobe would genuinely be one where if I were confronted with all the sweaters I own, I could no longer pick a favourite because I loved them all.

Realising I don't want to churn my wardrobe is making me much more concerned about making more timeless styles, using higher quality fabrics, taking more time to sew more accurately, and doing my laundry with a sharper eye towards longevity. Part of the reason I love my current wardrobe so much is that having learnt that, I switched to more expensive natural fabrics, and I'm seeing the benefit of those sewing and laundry efforts in how long my clothes not just last, but look good while they're lasting.

Related to this has been the second change: that I've started to pin down my own personal style.

For the longest time, I would have told you I didn't have a style at all, except that I could exclude a few style types without much thought -- mostly overtly feminine looks, and then also the kind of  athleisure and distressed looks that have been really popular lately. In an effort to develop a description of my personal style that isn't just "I don't know, but not that", over the last couple of years I really dug into the "identify your style" resources I could find, and tried to find the commonalities in looks that I really liked and that, crucially, I liked for me.

A big part of getting a better understanding of how I want to dress has been separating out how much I admire and appreciate how other women look in specific styles and outfits, and then letting it go as "fabulous for her! Not really for me.". (Or the related issue, which is the rarely articulated but often-felt: if I could dress like and look like her, could I have her wonderful-seeming life too? to which the answer is always no, and moreover, probably she doesn't have that life either, not really, not outside the few minutes it took to take that photo and post it to Instagram.)

There's a lot of style related garbage out there on the Internet, but despite the occasional rabbit hole of sheer nonsense, I definitely found a couple of ideas and processes that I thought would help me resolve the problems I have been gnawing on ever since I started sewing: "What is it that I actually want to make? What do I actually want to wear? What is the public image I want to present?".

In the end, the style I have settled on is one that's very understated and classic-oriented, and slightly more masculine than feminine. I've always thought that if I were a man, it would be 100% easier for me to pick out my style and dress that way. I like tailored, streamlined, unfussy (no ruffles or bows or flaps or straps, or extra buttons or logos... you get the idea) clothes. I love plain colours, simple prints (stripes, dots, etc), natural fibres, and I'm fussy about how clothes fit, touch my skin, move around with me, and how long garments are (my pet hate being too-short trousers, ankle-length trend be damned). I don't feel like every single thing I own has to be completely consistent with that description -- it's a preferred aesthetic, not a straight-jacket -- but I  definitely think it's an 80-20 thing: 80% that aesthetic, 20% everything else.

Since I've figured out this slightly more positive answer to the question "what is my style?", I've find myself caring much less about fitting in with arbitrary fashion standards that I have given up trying to understand, and community norms (like everyone in the sewing community being frantic about making dresses) that it would make me unhappy to pursue. I have been focusing instead on making and wearing the best possible versions of the things that I like. This seems like a far more achievable, and much more satisfying, as a way to approach the problem of "what should be in my wardrobe?"

Overall, even though this is the area where I still feel I have the most work to do in building my ideal wardrobe, I feel a lot more confident in my style. However, this came about not, as I once thought would be the case, by making radical changes, or owning many glorious items of clothing, but mostly by deciding that it's OK to like the things I like, and it's OK to dislike the things I dislike. So this new confidence has led me to build a wardrobe I personally like a lot, and be OK with the fact that it doesn't look a lot like what's in the shops or popular on sewing!Instagram.

The third change is that I have a much better handle, after four years of tracking, on exactly what I  wear every single day, and therefore what needs to be in my wardrobe. Not what I think I wear, or wish I wore, or imagine myself wearing, but the actual decisions I make every morning in the moment when I have to get dressed.  Left to myself, data-less, it turned out that I made very faulty assumptions about how much choice I needed (for laundry purposes) and wanted (for personal satisfaction purposes). I am sure for other people both the collection and analysis of data would feel onerous and not be so helpful, but I am a person who thrives on analytics, and at this point, with multiple years of data, it is all really paying off for me in terms of knowing with absolute certainty what I tend to pick to wear, and what stays hanging in my closet except for rare outings.

I do add my subjective experiences to the data: having a bunch of things hanging around that I don't wear much might not bother some people, but it's irritating to me, and I want to avoid it. Not having enough of the things I like to wear because my wardrobe plan had committed me to wearing garment types (dresses!) that I then never voluntarily chose to wear, and only reluctantly took off the hanger because everything else was in the wash, was extremely annoying to me. I worried that I would end up feeling uncomfortably restricted by the changes I made as a result of this data, but in fact, when I stripped my wardrobe back to only the things I really like and want to wear, and made sure I had enough of those things to last a complete laundry cycle and offer me exactly the level of choice I prefer, I loved my wardrobe even more.

For example, one of my personal myths was always that I didn't wear dresses in summer because I couldn't find any that fit, back when I was buying all my clothes. I genuinely love how dresses look on other people. I've always thought that for sure there must be a place for me among all those people looking fantastic in summer dresses, if only I had just the right dress for me. However, I now know, after a few years of experiments, that even with summer dresses available to me that fit and are in colours I like, I won't wear them. I just don't LIKE them on me, and I feel like a pig in a wig wearing one -- it's just not me, I feel uncomfortable and unhappy in them. No amount of effort to make a beautiful dress is going to actually make me reach for it when it's hanging in my wardrobe.

This year, I took out the handful of dresses in my wardrobe and added in some things I was much more likely to wear. I didn't miss the dresses for even a second, and I was much happier with my choices every day. I'm not saying nobody should ever try anything outside their comfort zone, but I do think if you've given it a good try and you are still not into it, you can decide you're done with the experiment. (My mum, meanwhile, thinks it's hilarious I even tried, since apparently I used to throw EPIC tantrums as a toddler when she tried to put me in a dress and never wore one voluntarily as a child or teenager.)

The last change I made recently is that I have, over the last 12-18 months, tightened up the colour palette I wear significantly. To be honest, I have always had pretty entrenched preferences when it comes to colour, but I definitely tried, even quite recently, to expand my colour horizons. Now though I've decided to just embrace the colours I love and avoid the wardrobe dead-ends that resulted from trying to mix in too many others.

Very amateur attempt at a colour palette. Top row neutrals: navy, grey, white. Second row, shades of blue, certain greens, turquoise and teal.

I decided on navy, grey and white as my main neutral colours, and then I wear accent colours that span across all kinds of other shades of blue, plus turquoise/teal and the more blue end of the green spectrum (rather than the more yellow-y shades, which don't suit my colouring). I like really saturated colours, in part because I have moderately high contrast colouring: very pale skin and dark brown hair. Anything pale or pastel tends to look washed-out on me.

The biggest change though is that I've stopped wearing black. I've always worn a huge amount of black, especially black and white combinations, and I came to a dead stop on it over the last 12 months. I did this because I wanted to simplify my overall wardrobe, and adding black into the colour mix really didn't work as well for me as expanding on the grey garments I already had.

I have to be frank: my new colour palette consists of colours I've always loved and that I've always owned in large quantities. I think every "favourite" garment I've ever owned was a variation on a theme of blue, I wore my final chosen colours probably 80% of the time over the last 5 years anyway, and it represented an even higher proportion of my fabric stash. So what might be a really radical decision for some people was actually pretty simple for me. I was most concerned about cutting the black garments out of my wardrobe, but as it has turned out, I have not missed wearing them at all.

On the other hand, I absolutely adore that so much of my wardrobe is no-mental-effort-required mix-and-match. In general, the only things that stop me from being able to match every garment to every other in outfits are mis-matches in proportion (which I am going to work on very hard with my new  work wardrobe, see below) and mixtures of prints, since I generally don't like how that looks.

So that leads up to today: I'm just really happy with where I am with my wardrobe, and I feel like it's all working out really well, but at the same time, I'm really struck by how it's not what I thought it would be when I first started sewing. When I started, I had the idea that somehow, I was going to end up with the wardrobe that I imagined I wanted, the one I thought I would wear if the limitations of buying RTW didn't exist and I had free reign. But I don't at all: I actually have something I like a LOT better, which is not nearly as different from what I had before as I expected, but is like all the good parts of what I used to have, all the time.

I will say that writing like a 6 page discussion document about it makes it sound like I spent a million hours thinking about this stuff, which I... kind of did, I suppose, but not in a weird way, I don't think. There is this whole thing, in creativity research, about  how externalising your thoughts helps to crystallise them, and for me personally, I like to write about things I am thinking about as if I am explaining them to someone else; it makes it more real, forces me to edit down to what I really want to say. Sadly, let me assure you that I am not overwhelmed with people in my real life who want to sit down to listen to my TED talk about how and why I organise my wardrobe. The only place I have for it is here :D

So, all that said, what's next: First, I've been sewing away madly to a plan for a couple of weeks, putting together the pieces of my everyday autumn/winter wardrobe for the rest of the 2019. I'll have all that to show off in about a week or so, though it's on my Instagram in bits and pieces already.

After that, I am moving on to making some entirely new clothes, in preparation for the much-hoped-for day when I am able to re-enter the world of work. I'm starting again nearly from scratch, and I have a whole other TED talk worth  of What I Am Going To Do and Why to share, probably towards the end of the month/October. My first task is to try (emphasis on try: I have money saved for an RTW alternative if it doesn't work out) to make a tailored pinstripe wool suit, and throw myself into learning the kind of tailoring techniques I need for that. It's piece 1 of my work wardrobe plan: a formal suit appropriate for future job interviews, and some suitable shirts/blouses to wear underneath. :D

If you get this far you deserve a prize, thank you for reading! :D


  1. I always enjoy your posts and and am glad to see one from you today. Lots of food for thought.

    I understand what you are saying about wearing dresses. I didn’t wear them for many years but in the past year and a half I discovered some that I like, all summer dresses that I didn’t make, and now they are some of my favorite things to wear. They are fairly casual, but that is the way I dress. I recently bought a pattern for a winter dress I want to try.

  2. Love this post. You are coming to the same place that I am. I always think I need dresses or skirts, make them, and if they get worn once, it's a big deal. I finally figured out it's a waste of time, fabric, and money. So now it's pants, shirts and jackets in all their iterations. A similar color palette, but I have brown, beige, etc. added. A friend described my "style" as Casual Elegance, due to choices of all natural fabrics, and very classic styles. That works fine for me. I can't wait to see your next posts! BTW, check the library for texts on tailoring. You should find some great help there.

  3. Great post. I think we can all learn from your approach of being who we are , not trying to sew and wear what others are making because it is popular and ending up with the perfect wardrobe for us. Your ruminations have obviously paid off very well. PS your ottobre pants look great in the photo so I wonder if it is the fabric and not the pattern that was the issue.

  4. Fantastic! I am also not a big lover of dresses (or skirts) and find them an effort to wear. I've also chosen a limited colour palette (though mine also has burgundy/berries). I never really managed to come up with a few words which summarised my style.

  5. I always love your analysis posts, they always make me think about my clothing and why I wear what I wear. Have you looked at Dr T designs, posts on Kibbe system? I found it incredibly helpful when I found "my" style, which is Natural. You might enjoy it.

  6. I always enjoy the wardrobe talk!! Figuring out ones style is a pretty tough project it seems. FIguring out what you want to wear when you sew seems harder still!

    I know:
    1) I like having a lot of choices
    2) I love dresses and part of that is the many years spent shopping for them and they were never quite right. So now that I can have awesome dresses - bring them on!
    3) I am getting to acceptance over my color palette. I don't wear tans/browns. I wish I did, but I do not. I always joke that I am brown and so I don't want to wear brown! I adore jewel tones and almost every shade of the color blue (I'm not a pastels person at all). I love black and white prints so, why not?
    4) I love toppers. Instead of limiting myself, I'm just going to go ahead and have a free-for-all with jackets, cardigans, etc. :)

    I can't wait to hear the next installment and YAY for a pinstriped suit!

  7. This post really spoke to me as well. I don't wear many dresses or skirts but have enough of them to suffice for church, weddings and special occasions. When I started seriously sewing again I discovered SWAP, Sewing With A Plan and chose my colors. That made all the difference in the world. I look forward to what you sew next.
    Theresa in Tucson