Let’s Talk About This

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After penning this post, I promptly shut down the computer and padded down the hallway to our guest bedroom, where my “spare” closet exists. Listen, I hate that I even typed those words. It pains me to admit to owning so many articles of clothing that they spill over into multiple rooms, waiting for someday events and “Maybe I’ll need…” and “Whenever I visit…”, all endless justification for my addiction to impulse purchases and indulgent rewards.

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I’ll admit – I love being the friend that someone calls when they have a very specific wardrobe dilemma. And I love knowing that I can pack for a conference in less than an hour, pulling pieces from the “events” category, consisting of items I wear maybe twice a year – all much too fussy or non-functional for everyday wear. But what I don’t love is the headspace and energy and wastefulness that surround a closet that is – literally – spilling out of itself. I don’t love the uselessness of it all, the endless combinations of wardrobe options and choices and decisions that we were never created to focus on. Why does it matter?

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Part of me is torn. I love the creative expression that comes with styling and mixing and matching. But the other part of me feels hypocritical for wasting more than a minute of time deciding which blouse to wear when there are so many existing without a blouse at all.

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I want to donate all of it. Every last item. But if I do, what will keep me from turning around the very next month – when the novelty of a life change has worn off and I’m feeling empty or restless or wanty – and purchasing yet another $20 top I don’t need? How can I make it stick?

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I’d been contemplating this for a few days, and then the work of Nadine Goepfert stumbled into my inbox. She explores the idea that clothing is little more than a sculptural object, an everyday work of art that shapes and molds and changes as we move throughout our days. And then I read this quote from French theorist Roland Barthes:

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“What is the essence of a pair of pants (if it has such a thing)? Certainly not that crisp and well-pressed object to be found on department-store racks; rather, that clump of fabric on the floor, negligently dropped there when the boy stepped out of them, careless, lazy, indifferent. The essence of an object has some relation with its destruction: not necessarily what remains after it has been used up, but what is thrown away as being of no use.” 

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I want to rid myself of the excess – to find a use for the waste – to fulfill the destiny of the object itself and gosh, maybe even remove myself from my relationship with clothing entirely. I want to create a reminder of the life change that I feel might be on the horizon.

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Any ideas on what I should do with the excess? I’m officially opening the forum and would love to hear. And by the way, if you could comprise a closet with just 10 items, what would a few of them be? Do you guys have weird, fractured relationships with your closets, or am I totally over-thinking this?

(And don’t worry – I’m fully aware that the answer to the last question is always YES.) Please send help (and maybe cookies).

Image Credits: Sanna Helena Berger  for Nadine Goepfert

p.s. The labels we wear.

  • I have thought about all of this quite a lot as well. You see—I love thrifting clothes. I live in a small town and our local goodwills always have some treasure to be found on $1 day. But I have to constantly ask myself “am I just buying this because it’s cheap, or do I really think I will WEAR it?” Thrifting helps me to rationalize a large closet, because none of it cost me much and it’s not adding to any terrible work environments internationally. However, it does bring me to a large closet full of clothes, much that I only wear a few times per season. I do however have some favorite and really unique pieces. Staples for me would be a great fitting pair of jeans, black pants, a comfortable cardigan that can be dressed up or down, a simple grey tank top (to be layered, or not) and a skirt (if I had to pick just one from my current wardrobe I’d go with a thrifted long black/ white polka dot one).

    • Oh Lisa – I used to be the same way! I grew up in a small town with an AMAZING Goodwill, so I often justified my impulse purchases that way. Unfortunately, it grew into some pretty bad habits and now I use the same mentality at Target for $20/top. LOVE your thoughts on a simpler wardrobe – great staple pieces!

  • Wow, if I had to only have 10 things in my closet, I’d be pretty depressed.
    I view my closet and the clothes in it as an extension of my moods and personalities (not that I have multiple personalities, but sometimes you feel like Audrey Hepburn and sometimes you feel like a Patti Smith, right?)
    My solution to owning unique and special pieces is to wear them without an occasion – that fancy jacket? Dress Up Tuesday! Just wear it with capri jeans, so people at work don’t think I have an interview on my lunch break. That awesome but entirely inappropriate for work dress? Throw a deconstructed jacket made of sweatshirt fabric on clearance from Delia’s. I mean, there’s way to pare things down without getting rid of too much variety, and if it’s wrong to dress up for a trip to Lowe’s, I don’t want to be right. And what’s wrong with having clothes that only get worn once in a while? Not everything has to be super functional and get a lot of mileage.
    Also, disclaimer – I, too, thrift the majority of my clothes. To the point where a $20 top seems like an extravagant purchase. Which helps, I suppose, to curb my buying. I also often purge my closet by gathering all the pieces that just don’t fit my spirit anymore and do clothes exchange with like-sized friends. The stuff no one took gets donated. If something does not fit my style anymore but has sentimental value, I stash it for a couple of years to see if I fall in love with it again.
    Also also? There is no shame to overthinking clothes ^_^

    • Ha, you sound so much like me, Tanya! On good days, I think like this and realize, I actually am fairly smart about my purchases. But then on bad days, I shift to the extreme and want an entirely pared down wardrobe in a simple gray color scheme. Oh, my brain is a mess.

      Also, this made me smile: “… and if it’s wrong to dress up for a trip to Lowe’s, I don’t want to be right.”


  • It’s sort of weird, but my way of dealing with impulsive buys and grappling with “fast fashion” has been to decide that I’m not going to buy fabrics that aren’t recyclable. So, that means natural fibers only. (I read somewhere that polyester and other unnaturals just end up in landfills, but natural fabrics do not.) I don’t know why I decided this, but it really helps to have this “rule,” especially when shopping at places like Target, where most of the clothes are synthetic. Instead of agonizing or beating myself up after the purchase, just telling myself “I don’t buy synthetic clothes” (almost like if you had a food allergy, and something was just off them menu for you), both helps me reign in impulse buys AND I think it is in line with my concerns about disposable fashion. It doesn’t mean that I don’t impulse buy–my credit card statements can tell you that!–but it does mean that I have to be pickier and I have to slow down and think about it. And, when I have more clothes than I need, I feel a little better knowing that if I got rid of them, they wouldn’t end up in a landfill somewhere.

    I’m not even sure this answers your question, so I’m sorry if I just went off on a nonsequitur of nonsensicalness. It’s an excellent thing to think about and to work on. You don’t have to immediately be perfect about shopping issues–indeed, you couldn’t be! But thinking about it, and taking small actions, will eventually help you deal with not only your overflowing closet, but also whatever feelings you’re having about the closet.


    • Oh I love this, Meagan! I work well with boundaries, so I like the idea of setting a specific limit (very much like a food allergy, yes!) and making that my shopping rule. Wonderful food for thought- thank you for sharing!

      • A little late on this thread, but will give it a go anyway. In Sweden at least you can now (finally!) donate clothes, shoes and fabric, even scraps, to H&M and Weekday stores for recycling. You get store credit, but you can always just hand it over to the person standing in the checkout line, making them happy and avoiding shopping temptation.They work together with an international fabrics recycling company, so if the stores do not offer that service in the US, or wherever you live, maybe you could ask them to? Another thought is that if you have knitters or fiber artists in your family or community they might want to take care of your wool and cotton sweaters, for felting (wool) or unraveling.

        Erin – what about keeping what you have and really love, regardless of them being practical or not, and just not buy anthing new until you have worn out something essential? This really helps in using what you have and more importantly it breaks the habit of just popping in to a store for browsing. Once the habit is broken you wont miss it as much, and it might just turn shopping into a big treat instead of that everyday thing that you just do.

      • Hi Jessica: I LOVE this – thank you for sharing! I’m not much of a shopper surprisingly, so this shouldn’t be a hard habit to break. Online shopping, however – eek! ;)

  • THIS: “… and if it’s wrong to dress up for a trip to Lowe’s, I don’t want to be right.”
    Thank you, Tanya, I’m with you on this!

    I often feel the same way you do, Erin, when I look at my closet and wonder how I’ve collected such a broad range of staples mixed in with those fun/magpie purchases like sequin tops from J. Crew. But then I realize, like another commenter said, that each unique piece I’ve bought expresses different sides of me for different reasons. I put it on, and feel the clothes. And that’s why I usually make my purchase decisions—I put it on, and if it’s love, it doesn’t matter if it’s practical or not. I treat it as a styling challenge to work those special pieces into my everyday wardrobe, to make it more rational for me to make the purchase. And ultimately, I think it’s caused me to expand my horizons and take more risks when getting dressed everyday. That’s how I end up going to work in a studded denim jacket and a tulle skirt. And if I’m “that girl” – whatever!

  • I reduced my clothing down to a few pieces this year, not as little as 10, but it’s been really freeing. It wasn’t a decision to do it deliberately as much as, I cleaned my closet out before I packed up for what I thought would be 2 years overseas, thinking I wouldn’t really miss the clothing items if I was gone so long. So they went in a big box to charity and off I went with a few mix and match outfits whilst I was traveling. Due to unforeseen circumstances I came home after 4 months away, with just the clothes I went travelling with and a near empty closet.

    I thought I’d fill it again once I got home, but I’ve found I just accessorize the outfits I have (that I took traveling) with my cute shoes and scarves and it feels great. I’ve found myself stopping before buying that new Target top and wondering what bigger thing I could put that money towards, like a weekend away or something that I’m saving for. It’s not for everyone, but it’s worked for me.

    Good luck Erin, I’m sure you’ll find the right wardrobe balance for you! x

    • Ah, thanks for your support, Dannielle – and I love your perspective! Saving for something larger really worked for me while we were paying off our home, so I think I might need to plan a family getaway soon. :)

  • I have been thinking about this a lot lately! At the beginning of the year, I decided to stop the impulse $20 target or H&M clothing purchases and I did really well for a while…but then summer hit and I had “nothing” to wear. In reality I had a lot to wear, I just wanted NEW things. I don’t know if it’s human nature to want new things or if we have been programmed this way due to super cheap and accessible clothing. I would like to go back to the days where people had less (but fabulous and well made) clothing but I doubt we’ll ever get there as a society.

    • This happens to me, too – I set very rigid restrictions, but the second the new season hits, I’m eyeing everything new that I want and somehow find myself feeling like I have nothing to wear. And you’re right – I think we as a society are accustomed to this, but it seems that it will take a drastic event (no more landfills, another recession, etc) for us to change our ways. I’m working on it now, in the mean time! :)

    • I think it’s both a bit human nature and conditioning for us to want something new. Even in the days when clothes were more expensive and people owned fewer things, they still updated what they had each season. New ribbons, lace, collars, cuffs, flowers, etc. were added and the old trims removed. They even reworked the silhouettes of old dresses to be in line with changing styles. So wanting something new each season is certainly not a modern problem.

  • I used to struggle with wanting to buy the $20 top, but it helps that I can sew most everything that I wear. I have tried to be more conscious about how my clothing purchases affect other people. Who made this top? What is their life like? It leads me to purchase clothing that is more expensive, but that is made from local (or at least American) designers. I get pieces that not only last longer and look better, but that have a positive impact both on my community and on my mind, not mention they are more unique and last more than just one season. I may only be able to purchase a few pieces every year, but they are pieces that I will keep and wear for many years to come. On my own, I’ve focused on creating clothing that I want to reach for every day. Simple pieces that fit me well and that make me happy have become my closet staples, and it’s easier and easier to come away from a trip to the mall with nothing in my hands.

    Now, come back out to Portland and I’ll teach you to make your own pieces. ;)

  • I have a closet in the bedroom, and a “costume” closet in the spare room – used to do theater so I would gather interesting (usually thrifted) pieces to add to my costume pile but now I don’t do any theater and I’m not sure a lot of what’s in there still fits… but I don’t want to get rid of it yet. I like the memories. And most of it is so much more interesting than the clothes in my regular closet! I also feel like I lost a lot of my fun and funky clothing mojo when college was over, the artsy boutique job went away, and I went back to an office environment – now I mostly wear a ‘uniform’ of cami/skirt/cardi combos that mix and match, most of which I’ve had for an embarrassing number of years… but I still regularly buy my Target cami’s in new colors and prints each season to pep up the old standbys. And accessories help too. Erin, there are days I look at my closet and wonder why I have any of it, maybe I should get rid of everything and start over (simpler), then the next day I pull on my uniform and off I go. Big SIGH over clothes and style and fashion over here!!

    • We sound very similar in this way – I’m just at a standstill as to what to do with all of it. And if I’m ready to do anything at all?

  • i love this post – thank you for sharing those quotes! I too am trying to figure out my relationship with my wardrobe these days.. after a huge career change, i’ve been streamlining my wardrobe to focus on my favorite items – essentially, creating a uniform. like meagan, my concerns with fast fashion/ethical consumption/waste/etc. lead me to shop more consciously, and i try to buy as much american made clothing as possible. however, i still find myself buying more than i need, and constantly wanting a new addition to my uniform… it’s an ongoing process! i do find that i shop/want less when i’m incredibly busy, so maybe i need to find more projects/volunteer/etc. so that i stop thinking about stuff.

    • Ha – I think that’s a great technique! I know having a baby threw my shopping habit out the window. No more time for meaningless Target runs! :)

  • Thought-provoking post! My 10 items (for summer): 1 pair of capris, 1 pair of shorts, 2 sun dresses, 2 tees, 1 cardigan, 1 white shirt, 1 cotton skirt, 1 pair of sandals.

    For me, clothing is not an area of creative expression; simplifying clothing works for me because it frees up my creative energy for other pursuits that are more meaningful to me. And that I enjoy 100x more. My clothing is fairly minimal and more like a uniform. When it gets too boring, I buy a new scarf or earrings. Woo-hoo! But that’s just me. I can totally see how clothing is something creative and valuable for others, and I don’t judge them for having closets with many more items than mine.

    • I’m always glad to hear non-judgmental tones from those different than the over-stuffed closet club (me!). And thank you for sharing your uniform – love hearing these! :)

  • I too have two closets. I keep all of my Western style wear in one (that is what gets used the most) and my Eastern/traditional style wear in the other. Purging my closet is something I have struggled with a lot. I do not shop much but I can’t seem to pare down what I have. I have outfits that I have had for years and not worn yet because the right occasion hasn’t occurred yet (my more formal Eastern clothes). But they are too beautiful to be given away without wearing at least once. What gets to me even more than having all of this is that this is how many of my friends function as well so I never really thought it was bad. It is just how it is. I am thankful to have so many wonderful things and I am not afraid to admit that I have some materialistic tendencies. It is a part of who I am; and I don’t think it is a bad thing. I am mindful of the bounty and do my best to help those who aren’t as fortunate as me. But, that doesn’t mean I have to give up my two closets.

    As for the ten things I would keep in my closet; that is something I recently had to do while I was pregnant. Buying maternity clothes didn’t appeal to me so I took stock of what I already own and only wore the things that fit me: two pairs of leggings, two skirts, a pair of skinny jeans, two maxi dresses, one knee length dress, a man’s dress shirt, two flowy shirts and three tshirts.

    • I really enjoy hearing your perspective, Tasneem! And yes, pregnancy does call for a certain set of wardrobe revisions, doesn’t it? :)

  • I live in and work from a very small space, and I find any amount of clutter bogs down my creative process – I just need to have clean lines around me. So every new possession added gives me a bit of a pang, and I’ll only buy something if I feel the pleasure of owning and wearing/using is is going to be greater than that pang. As another commenter said, too, as much as I love getting dressed (I’m a jewelry/fashion designer) it’s also a significant creative energy sink.
    Lately I’ve been thinking a good deal about the fact that the work I do is actually creating more Stuff. I’ve moved towards cleaner lines and more functional pieces, but I have a feeling I may be moving on from jewelry soon.
    Thank you for the timely post :)

  • I have the same push and pull with my closet! Actually, closets. I have 3!! (we somehow managed to find an apartment in DC with a ton of closets, so storage space has not been a reason to motivate me to purge) Ugh.

    I think a big reason that I have accumulated so much is because wearing something new or trendy always makes me feel so much more confident than whatever has been in my closet for years. It’s kind of sad and silly, but for someone with social anxiety and a high pressure job, I find it to be an easy way to get that extra confidence boost.

    Anyway, I’ve too been thinking a lot about minimizing. I’d like to live a more portable lifestyle — and I’d rather not have all these unnecessary possessions weigh me down! But also, I like my clothes and don’t want to waste the money I spent on them. So yeah — I’m gridlocked too :P

    • Ha, we’re in the same boat, my dear. What is it about wearing something completely new that just makes us feel great? The interesting thing I’ve noticed is that the item doesn’t have to be NEW, just new to me. Perhaps a closet swap with my girlfriends is in order.

  • I have just done a clean-out of my wardrobe using the question: “Would I buy this again now?”…and if I wouldn’t, it goes out! This exercise has really forced me to define my own taste and sensibility, separate out the items that are actually worth keeping, and slow me down when I look longingly at new stuff I don’t need or that aren’t worth the investment. Buy less, and spend more (time and money) is my new mantra! :)

  • Hi Erin (and everyone) – I just finished reading a book that I think is pretty pertinent to this conversation. It’s called “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion” by Elizabeth L. Cline. It discusses a variety of topics from the environmental aspects, to working conditions and living wages for apparel workers overseas, to what actually happens with clothing you donate, and on and on. It sounds a little preachy and dry as I write about it here, but it was a fascinating read and will definitely change my shopping habits! I recommend it to everyone!

  • erin, i just wanted to comment that ever since bee came around / this blog changed it’s course a bit… i’m loving it. your writing is so concise, witty, and fresh. in the ocean of blogs out there, yours have such a refreshing tone. i’d like to compare your blog to the ‘slow food’ movement, while all the other blogs are a little too fast-food for my taste.
    thanks for the good reads. :)

    • Ah, Katie – this is so kind to hear. Thank you so much! It’s been a really great change for me personally, and I’m so thrilled to hear it’s resonating with a few, as well. :) Thank you for the encouragement today!!!

  • 10 things? Assuming that doesn’t include shoes, foundation garments, outerwear, jewelry, belts, scarves and other accessories…

    1. Jeans – dark wash, skinny, hemmed for flats.
    2. Jeans – dark wash, boot cut, hemmed for 2″ heels.
    3. White cotton dress shirt, tailored close to the body.
    4. Wool trousers, black, straight, hemmed for heels.
    5. Wool suit, black, with pencil skirt and 2-button, single-breasted, fitted jacket.
    6. Cashmere long-sleeve v-neck sweater, gray, a bit relaxed, falling below hip.
    7. Leather or denim blazer, fitted, hip-length, burnt orange.
    8. LBD, silk, sleeveless, just-pass-knee-length.
    9. Wrap dress, with geometric print (on navy?) that could be worn with the blazer.
    10. Boho or peasant blouse, some interesting embroidery on teal that could be worn with the blazer.

    Oh no! I could easily add 10 more “must-haves” — and I haven’t even thought about summer! I’ve often fantasized about paring my closet down to just the essentials, the key being that each item would have to fit perfectly and be made to last. But, so far, only a fantasy.

    • I’m right there with you – trying to find the time to pare down and really find the perfect fit (especially with an ever-changing body size, you know?). :)

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