A Starting Guide for Women

If you are like many American women, you have closets bursting with clothing, piles of shoes, and boxes of clothing in storage. Storage and organization producer ClosetMaid reports that the average American woman has 103 items of clothing in her wardrobe—and that probably doesn’t include undergarments, shoes, accessories, or items in storage, such as coats and wedding gowns.  

The size of a woman’s wardrobe is determined by many factors: the low cost of “fast fashion,” a cultural emphasis on fashion trends, the need for clothing that suits varied climates, and the tendency for many women’s weight and shape to fluctuate with hormonal changes. Then there’s social pressure to fit into the moment’s idea of what it means to be “attractive,” a whole other area of anxiety.

So how can you purge excess from your wardrobe and build a minimalist one, while still ensuring your clothes are varied and stylish?

This is where I refer to my Five Principal Keys to a Functional Wardrobe:

  1. Ethics: Fast fashion is made by oppressed peoples in dangerous conditions and damages the environment as well. For example, Biznomics reports that “garment workers in Bangladesh earn…just 30% of what they need to live a decent life.”  Is variety in your wardrobe so important that you are willing to contribute to such human and environmental costs? Consideration of your purchasing impact is a good place to start when thinking about how to minimize your own economic and ecological footprint. One way to do this is to shop at thrift stores; often, you can also find extremely high-quality clothing at a fraction of the retail price here. Another option is learning how to sew and repurpose items you already have. Love a skirt that is too long for this season’s fashion? Hem it, or take it to a good tailor or seamstress and have them refashion it. 
  2. Construction: It’s tempting to dive into a fast fashion megastore with all its colorful displays and low-cost items in the latest styles. Unfortunately, fast fashion isn’t just low cost—it’s cheaply made. Examine the garment carefully: are the seams sewn properly, or are there loose stitches or crooked lines? Do the seams hold when you pull on the fabric? Do the prints match on each side of the seam? Does it have an easily broken plastic zipper or a sturdy metal one? Poor construction means the item won’t last more than a few machine washes, and it’s not worth the money—or the closet space.
  3. Longevity: This is all about the quality of the fabric. For example, some sweaters “pill” (gather little balls of fuzz). This is a sign of a poor synthetic fabric, or, even if it’s a good material like cashmere, a thin or lower quality material. When you buy clothing, look for natural fibers such as cotton, silk, wool, linen, and, increasingly, jute, hemp, and bamboo. In addition to ensuring quality, these fibers also breathe better than polyester, rayon, or other synthetic fabrics, which makes the item more comfortable to wear. 
  4. Repairability: When you buy an item of clothing, look to see if there are extra buttons sewn into the inside, if the zippers are metal rather than plastic, and if there is enough fabric on the hems and seams to lengthen or let out a garment, instead of just tossing it into the back of your closet if it no longer fits properly. It’s worth noting that natural fibers like wool are easier to repair than synthetics. Repairability is also a valuable element when it comes to shoes. Resist the temptation to buy cheap shoes just so you can have variety. Shoes that have solid soles and heels can be replaced by a good cobbler, which will save you hundreds of dollars in new purchases over the years.
  5. Usability: Most garments should have multiple uses. I have embraced the APBD (All-Purpose Black Dress) as the foundation of my wardrobe. This differs from the LBD (Little Black Dress) in that the LBD usually refers to a cocktail dress. The APBD, by contrast, can be worn to a business meeting, funeral, or cocktail party, all with just a change of accessories. The same goes for an all-purpose black pantsuit. My workhorse item, though, is a black cashmere cardigan. It goes with literally everything. I can wear one with a dress, jeans, and in all weathers. When you go through your closet, ask yourself if each item can be worn on more than one occasion. If not, you probably don’t need it. 

A note on sentiment: Clothing can be extremely sentimental. For many women, wedding dresses are touchstone items they think they will “pass down” to another person, usually a daughter. But it’s a rare bride today who doesn’t want to buy her “own” wedding dress, and the marketing of the wedding industry has now convinced many brides-to-be that they should have not just one, but two, and sometimes three dresses to change into throughout their wedding day. Holding onto “big-life-moment” clothing items like this can create a barrier to building a truly minimalist lifestyle. 

There are several ways to help you let go of a piece of memorable clothing, especially if it no longer fits, is cheaply made, or is worn out:

  • Save a swatch for a quilt. Cut a piece of the fabric from the garment and set it aside to use in a memory quilt. 
  • Take a photograph of yourself wearing the item. I promise it will make you happier than trying it on decades later, when it may no longer fit or—worse—may not be as great as you remember. 
  • Donate it. Your treasured item can make someone else very happy, too—and help them save money and time. It may be easier to let go of an item if you know it’s going to make someone else happy.

Clothing should make you feel good, give you value for your money, and enrich your life, not bog you down. A few conscious choices about your wardrobe is another key step toward a more minimalist life.

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