Simplifying: How to Pare Down Your Wardrobe (And Buy Thoughtfully)

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As a part of the Dress That Mama series, I’ve had some questions about how to pare down your wardrobe to make it more simple and streamlined. I thought I would share a few of my tips on simplifying your closet, as well as rules about being thoughtful when buying new clothing.

To begin, why even bother? To me, there are so many reasons to purge yourself of unworn items, but the reason I started was to simplify my life in general. I read somewhere that when we own too much stuff, that stuff tends to hold us down and hold us back- the care of it and managing it all weighs us down. It takes up space not only in our homes, but also in our minds. In the way of clothing, I found that I was holding onto things I hadn’t worn in years, or things that I would never fit into again (three babies changes your body shape even if it doesn’t leave you with extra weight). It was making the task of getting dressed every morning more difficult than need be. So I decided to make a drastic change.

I chose a chunk of time to completely clear out my closet. This took time, but was completely worth it in the end. Here is what I recommend if you want to make a big change:

Remove everything from your closet and start fresh. You will probably find clothing you forgot even existed. With this will come sentimental feelings. Push them aside. If you haven’t worn these items and forgot they even existed, you didn’t really miss them.

Sort clothing into keep, give away, and sell piles. Your give away and sell piles should be equal to, if not larger than, your keep pile. Think hard. If you haven’t worn something in over a year, you probably aren’t going to wear it again. I have done this purge so many times and kept items I hadn’t worn in a year, thinking Oh! I love this! I’ll definitely wear it this year! only for another year to go by without me wearing it (surprise!). Again, try not to get wrapped up in the thoughts or feelings you get when you look at a piece of clothing. It may hold memories for you, but you will still have those memories even if you don’t have the clothing! I was so surprised when this turned into an emotional experience for me, but once I realized that, it was easier to get rid of stuff. It is, after all, just stuff. Think about what you need. Do you need three pairs of black pants? Unless you wear black pants to work every day, the answer is probably no. Pick your favorite pair, get rid of the other two. Do you need more than two pairs of jeans? When I buy a something new, I always get rid of something else in my closet. This rule also helps me tremendously when I’m about to impulse-buy: do I love this pair of jeans more than the other pair in my closet? If not, then I don’t buy.

Once you have sorted through, look for places that buy gently-used clothing, jewelry, and accessories, then make a few trips to drop off clothing. I have two places nearby that I sell clothing to. They give cash or store credit. I always take the cash and save it for something I’m looking for.

Take your time. If you are on a tight budget, replace items slowly with ones you love. It will make your decision about what to buy so much more meaningful, and you will end up loving it that much more. Set aside money and save for one item at a time. I literally have a save jar that I add money to until I have saved enough for that item. It can take a month, maybe two, but it is such a good feeling to wait and really think through each purchase. Simplifying and replacing your clothes can take years, and that’s okay. But it’s also okay to buy things you really, really love and wear them over and over again. If you take time and think about each purchase, you will only buy what you love, and you won’t mind wearing it again and again. Scratch that. You will look forward to wearing it.

Think about what your style looks like to you. If you are drawn to a certain color palette, work with it. This will ensure that your clothing will go together and you’ll be able to mix and match the few items you keep. I have a lot of grays, black, and various shades of white and blue. I have found that I actually had more choices once I decided to stop trying to dress like someone else and just get what I loved. Never underestimate the power of a monochromatic outfit. All black can look so nice and classic, as can all white, or gray, etc. It is easier to accessorize too!

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Beware of trends. Things like neon polka dots, chevron, harem pants, and crop tops go out of style super fast. You may love it for a season, then hate it the next. Try to be honest with yourself about what a trend is. I try to stick with classics that won’t go out of style anytime soon, but I’m also guilty of going for a trend or two. I often regret those choices a year or two later, honestly. On the other hand, you can make certain trends work for you, as long as you don’t go overboard! I have had a plaid shirt for 8 years that I still wear frequently in the fall and winter. Some trends aren’t so over-the-top that they will go out of style forever. Beware the ones that will.

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Only go shopping when you need something, and don’t get sidetracked. Look for that item, and if you don’t find it, go home empty-handed. There’s a sense of peace when you are able to walk away and say, oh, well. maybe next time. You will find what you love eventually. Don’t settle until you do. For two years, I have been looking for the perfect bag. I found it (Baggu), but it was sold out. I looked everywhere else for months, but I kept coming back to the perfection that is this one. I kept an eye out, and eventually, it came back in stock (here). I was beyond excited that I had set aside the money and could buy it before it sold out again.DSC_0067

Buy what works for your body, and don’t be afraid to alter. I am petite, so even though I love the look, wearing boyfriend jeans and loose tops makes me look like a twelve-year-old boy. Wear what you feel confident in, and what you are comfortable in. If it is uncomfortable, you won’t wear it. Also, find a good tailor. Make your clothes really fit you. They will be more flattering, and you’ll wear them more if they are.

Take your time when looking for a new item. Shop around. Be picky. If you are looking for, say, the perfect fall sweater, don’t settle on the first thing you see. Think about it, email the link to yourself if you are shopping online, and come back to it. If it is still the front runner after much research and shopping, then it is the one!

Beware of sales. Rather than buying something just because it’s on sale, wait for your favorite items to go on sale. If you miss out on something because you are waiting, something else will come along. I try to follow this rule unless I really love something (see above bag) and know I will wear/use it all the time. The same goes for thrift stores, outlets, and discount stores. Instead of only thinking about what a great deal you’re getting, ask yourself if it is something you would swoon over if it were full price.

Only buy what you really really love.

Buy items that can be worn in more than one season. A long black cotton dress can be warn in spring with a lightweight cardigan, in the summer with sandals and a straw hat, in the fall with tights and a bulky sweater and boots… you get the idea. If you know you are going to wear it all year round, it makes sense to spend a little more time and money on it.

Once your closet is pared down, resist the urge to refill it. When you look into your dresser or closet, you should be able to clearly see all of your clothing and not feel overwhelmed by choices. It’s easy to get dressed when you have fewer choices, and it feels good to see things that you have selected one by one, things that have made the cut over and over again and that you still love. It’s okay to wear the same things over and over again; in fact, it’s even better for the environment!

Happy simplifying!

26 thoughts on “Simplifying: How to Pare Down Your Wardrobe (And Buy Thoughtfully)”
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  1. I lovelovelove this post, and I have so much to say about it, but I’m running carpool this morning, so I’ll have to come back! See you later alligator! 😉

  2. This is such a great post. I have a terrible time paring down my wardrobe; often I don’t even particularly *like* the thing in my closet, but I’m seized by the sudden fear that I might need it…sometime, and therefore can’t get rid of it. But I know I’d feel so much better after a good purge. Maybe a project for this weekend!

    Your point about only buying things you love and that work for you is a great one, too. I had a mini-shopping revelation after my sister pointed out that clothes are auditioning for *you*, not vice versa. If they don’t make you look and feel awesome, then they’re not worth your time and money. Kind of silly, but I realized how often I would try something on and play down the parts that didn’t work so well, looking for an excuse to keep it because I liked it on the rack, or I needed something like it, or it looked cute on someone else, etc. Nope: If it doesn’t impress me, I don’t get it, period. It’s pretty freeing, actually!

  3. Margaret, your sister sounds like she has some good advice! I love the auditioning bit! I’m going to remember that!

    And Lauren, good to hear from you. Can’t wait to see what you’ve been up to!

  4. Yes, yes, yes, to everything you said. I actually look forward to my big closet purge in spring and fall. I would add a simple, “Don’t buy cheap shoes.” Nothing drags down your wardrobe faster than cheap shoes.

  5. That is terrific advice, thank you Lauren! I definitely need to purge — and then be much, much more careful when I’m shopping. I also love the idea of clothes auditioning for you, will definitely keep that in mind.

  6. Great advice! I love how disciplined you are. My clothes are always such a mess, I need to do your purge. I feel like my weight has been in constant flux since I started having kids (I have piles of jeans from size 0 up to 8 all of which have fit me at some point in that time frame!). I’m thinking I’ll do a big edit in about a year when maybe I’ve settled on a weight 🙂

  7. I’m in the middle of this project so this post is probably very timely. I haven’t even read it yet and I already know it’s gonna be awesome. Wait for my rebuttal, though, I’m the hoardiest of hoarders 😉

  8. I might actually have to reply to this with a whole post! Because: hahahahahah! Lauren, oh my gosh how I could not and badly need to apply most if not all of these rules. For a few occasions in my life, once when I had just moved back to Finland, once was moving to the US, and the spring we had to abandon our house, I’ve lived with a carefully pared down wardrobe, thinking, initially even feeling like it would have all those really positive impacts on me, only to discover that I remember those periods as being depressing partly because “I had nothing to wear”. This in spite of having in fact several combinations and several pieces to wear. I was bored with my attire and felt glum and unlike myself. This of course in addition to some other glumness inducing factors.

    Being a lifelong vintage lover, I have such a hard time letting go of pieces, even if they’ve gone unworn for years. They’re all one of a kind, I’ll never see one of these again, things. And being a sentimentalist, some of them are superduper important to me. SO SILLY I KNOW. It’s good to hear you say that this aspect of it was hard for you as well.

    My other (obvious?) problems with simplifying my closet are that I love color, patterns, costume-y things, most of which don’t always match with one another. I’m also not a particularly stylish, elegant dresser, one who would benefit from having things that match. My whole closet is a mishmash of madness from which occasionally cohesion emerges, but try matching any randomly picked three things and you’d end up looking like a circus clown on the prairie, with Heidi from the alps and a bunch of witches.

    I’m excited to use your good example to work on this, my mad closet. Thank you for the inspiration. It’s a hot topic around here. Also, Lauren, YOU ROCK. That is all.

  9. Oh, Milla! I absolutely LOVE how you dress! And your style is one I always enjoy and admire seeing on other people. For me, it just doesn’t work that way because it seems that the more clothing I have, the more choices I have, the more confused I feel about what to wear! I would say if it works for you, then there’s nothing wrong with having a lot of choices and items… especially those one of a kind vintage pieces. I would find it impossible to part with those as well!

    Thanks for your comment. I absolutely adore hearing about different points of view. You rock too!!!

  10. Clearly this post struck a huge chord because so many people are raving about it. I was just going online to look at a sale, when I realized…I don’t even like any of these things. I just pared down my closet (partly inspired by yours!), while I feel like I am missing some serious pieces, I plan on being very very thoughtful on how I will add.

  11. As someone who styles women for a living, I have to applaud you for this post. When I put looks together for my clients I intentionally create five looks and repeat accessories or a great cardigan that goes with everything else. I may even use the same jeans or blouse a few times to show them that a wardrobe is more cohesive when you use staple pieces that can last a few seasons. Great post!

  12. Look how long it took me to get back to you! 🙁 Still, I’m kind of glad I did because I got to read all the lovely responses you got! I just finished a book called The Joy of Less, a Minimalist Living Guide, which, for the most part, I really, really enjoyed. (Although, clearly, I am not minimal in my comma usage!) I like things so she’s a wee bit hard core for me, but we definitely are trying to live more minimally here and clothes are the perfect place to start. My friend Annie, who writes at http://www.insideology.com just wrote a couple of great posts about keeping a style book to help you tap into your own creative style (Both for the home and for your clothes), and I think this is something that could really help me gather my thoughts when it comes to purchasing clothes, for the long haul.

    So I’m trying not to fear spending a little more on key pieces that will last longer and work with many things, and I’m trying to let go of my need for plenty (you’d think I was a child of the depression or something!). I love all of your advice, every piece of it. I’m going to keep coming back to it, although I will say that I need tissue tees and tanks, but both of those things are staples for me and I wear them constantly and all mine are worn out! 😉

  13. Isn’t it a rush getting rid of stuff? I seriously love it! Although I have and do fall into some of the above mentioned bad habits; buying something just because it’s on sale, keeping something out of pure sentimentality, etc. Thanks for all the great reminders of what it means to pare down your closet. 🙂

    Love all the pics of your beautiful life, Lauren – you always look so amazing!

    xo
    cortnie

  14. Thank you for your kind reply, dear, I feel that I have a lot to gain from classy dressers such as yourself. It’s fun to be inspired by someone who’s style is totally different from your own. I almost get more pleasure out of it, than the vicarious joy of looking at clothes I myself would wear. Individual style is so interesting. I really do mean it when I say I would like to lighten my closet load and that it’s extremely hard for me. I literally see each piece of clothing as a unique, individual being and worry about whether they would make it to a good home. It’s absurd. Anyway, thanks for your writing your style and your inviting, warm online presence.

  15. I absolutely love this post. I have been thinking about this for quite some time prior to reading this… but I think your post pushed me to actually move on it. I have been a sale-only shopper forEVER. I thrift on sale, online shop on sale (without trying on) and it’s led me to many MANY useless clothes piling up but I’m too stubborn to rid myself of them because of cost.

    I think one of my main reasons for feeling so strongly about this (lately) is because I turn 30 this month and I do not want to end up dressing inappropriately for my age. I have seen a few ladies my age with Forever 21 gone-bad and I fear for myself! I want good pieces that I can return to and I don’t want to end up frumpy and frustrated in 5 years.

    Thank you for this. I will start today!

  16. Fashion question for you, oh wise one! Do you ever wear jewelry with flannel? And if so what do you wear? I have a black and white buffalo check flannel I can’t wait to wear with black skinny jeans and cognac boots, but I feel like some sort of necklace would help it seem less “country.” Any ideas?

  17. Liz! This is crazy- I just bought a black and white buffalo check shirt and wore it the other day with black moto skinny jeans, cognac boots, and a mustard colored sweater. No other accessories. But I might add a scarf for a pop of color if you don’t do a sweater. I would definitely keep the buffalo check the main focus, but I’ve seen how you dress, and I’m sure whatever you do will be amazing!

  18. Fantastic post! I have been working to create a capsule wardrobe for the past several months. I am slowly purging my closet of items I no longer wear. I did spend a few hours going through my closet and sold/donated 4 bags of clothes, but it still seems like every few weeks I’m able to let go of a few more items.

    I stumbled across your blog when I googled denim jacket outfits 🙂 I really your Dress That Mama series.

  19. Lauren,
    Thank you for writing this post and also for being so brave to show off your everyday style in “Dress that Mama”! I have recently battled some “stuff” anxiety and dread. After almost 5 years living in our, actually very small house, my husband and I have accumulated an unexpected amount of stuff! From clothes, to books, journals, and magazines, to unused remodeling material and tools! For nearly a year I have been stunned by this clutter, not knowing where to start, busy with finishing grad school and a new job. Finally, this month I have had enough spare time, and have started to face this clutter monster!
    Your wardrobe advice has helped in conquer the laundry pile beast and start to clear my closet. I wear a uniform to work, and now, realize that I should only own and wear what I love when not on the clock. Thank you, Lauren, for providing guideline and support in the battle of stuff and consumerism we, as Americans and 1st worlders face. There is so much more to life than the care and accumulation of things.
    -Lauren K

  20. Thank YOU, Lauren, for your thoughtful comment! I know how easy it is to accumulate things, and I couldn’t agree more about your last statement, “There is so much more to life than the care and accumulation of things.” Brilliant! Right on!

    Good luck purging, and I promise you it will reduce the stress you feel in your life. The less stuff we have to take care of and manage, the better!

  21. I just happened to be scrolling around online before bed, ( a bad habbit, I’m afraid) and tripped across your post by accident. I am hooked!
    You see, many times in my life, I have gotten rid of basically everything. When I was younger, I did a lot of travel and seasonal work- And I would get rid of everything that did not fit into my duffel. So, when I settled down, I was very minimalist. After years of marriage and having a child, I got a divorce. Seperating and dividing up my piece by piece, one at a time items was difficult. So, when I finally came through the other side, I rapidly became a “stuff-aholic”. The liberation of not having so much stuff was lost. I went stuff-crazy! I was getting hoardery.
    Recently, I moved. I decided to get only a smaller uhaul and pare down. What could I not “live” without? What was important to me? What had value to my family and made our home a better, happier place?
    Ah, the liberation is back!!!
    However, the one place I DID NOT pare down was my closet. Well, Ladies, fear not! I have begun that deep work. I am a 35 year old mother and I am FINALLY parting ways with some obvious issues in the closet- leather pants that are skin tight and have holes? Probably are not a contributor to my lifestyle and if they are, aren’t contributing anything positive! HAHA . Stained ripped items, Be gone! Thanks so much for your post. I am realizing how liberating it is again to pare down.
    PS– I love, love, LOOOOVE Blacks, greys and whites too. So easy to mix and match! 😆
    I would add, if you do wabt to try a trend, keep it to one or two items, inexpensive if its something seasonal you probably wont wear next year, and have fun with colors with your accessories. They make a statement when I wear grey and black. I love fun shoes as an “accessory”!
    I eagerly await your next post.

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