Saturday, 24 January 2015

A Not-So Minimalist Perspective on Wardrobe Planning

There are quite a few people in the sewing community taking on the challenge of not purchasing anything from the high street clothing stores during 2015. It’s not a new concept, and plenty of people have done it before. Even so, I think it’s a really good exercise – to examine our habits, to consider the efforts which go into making our clothing and question their market value, and to encourage ourselves so consume more mindfully.

I’ve been reading around these ideas, and the idea of wardrobe planning seems pretty topical. There are a lot of blogs and posts around capsule wardrobes, and minimalist wardrobes. There are people who have taken on extreme wardrobe limitations as challenges for a given time frame, and indeed extreme limitations on their every possession. Go you, you crazy experimental blogger types. I've employed such an approach when travelling, and it has its benefits and its frustrations.

I have to admit, the idea of a sleek, streamlined collection of clothing really appeals to me. (I am well past it at the moment). But there seem a lot of practical considerations overlooked, and some generalised advice for capsule wardrobes that should probably be disregarded. So here I’m looking at some of them, and putting forth my thoughts. This is not to say I’d reject the whole idea entirely – it is a useful starting point for examining the way we do what we do and why. The idea of having less stuff, but good stuff, is a jolly good one. Certainly if you’re making your own clothes, you can improve that quality, and you want the investment of time to pay off.

But it doesn’t need to be, and shouldn’t be, presented as a dichotomy situation. That is, you either have more stuff than you can possibly handle, and keep shopping with crazy recklessness, or you live with no possessions other than a single fork and a versatile (but beige) multi-use cardigan, which looks awkward no matter which of the 25 different configurations you decide to wear.

I would rather have 25 different items which served their one purpose really well. But if I didn’t need all 25, I would only want the 5 that I needed. And they should look breathtakingly good on me. And they shouldn’t be white, or beige.


If there’s anything off-putting about an extreme minimalist wardrobe, it’s the restriction of colour.
I know that there are some people who thrive within that simplicity. Who take delight in the infinite shades of white and like to talk about textures. And I do understand that that is a minimalist aesthetic.

I just don’t fancy limiting myself to black and white, with the tiniest spot of navy blue thrown in for excitement. Nor do I fancy wearing a coat with no detail other than an artsy funnel neck and a single button. It’s just not me. And I doubt many would be able to throw off their existing habits and embrace that extreme.

Capsule wardrobes often suffer from a similar monochromatic aesthetic, where everything goes with everything, only everything is black, white and hot pink (or one other colour) – every day.
While black is always cited as the colour that ‘goes with everything’, I would say that black may well go with everything except me. I just look tired when I wear it. And plenty of others would probably find that too. When I wear light marl grey, concerned friends ask me if I’m feeling ok. I wish I was exaggerating.

Plenty of capsule wardrobe / wardrobe planning advice will extol the virtues of monochrome and tell you to get a white t-shirt and a black t-shirt. I don’t consider a white shirt an ‘essential’ item, particularly as white, stone and beige give my skin a ‘zombie’ tint.

My take on such advice is this: You need to work with colours that suit you. Ideally, everything you add to your wardrobe should be in a colour that looks good on you, in its own right. Not always possible, but you will get more wear out of, and feel much better in, stuff that makes you look heathy. So filter stuff on that criteria before bringing it home. If you choose *tones* that suit you, they will frequently be in harmony with each other as well. It does help to choose a base colour to use as a starting point, and I don’t think it needs to be black.


When planning your wardrobe, what you do is pretty darn important. Where do you spend your time? If you work in a workplace which has a corporate dress code and party hard every weekend, your wardrobe will have very different requirements to someone who works from home or somewhere with a casual dress code, and enjoys outdoorsy weekends and evenings in with a good book. A lot of ‘essentials’ lists overlook the fact that your lifestyle may never require a pair of patent black stilettos.

The best advice I’ve seen so far, is to look at how you spend your time over a month and plan it out. Make sure you can create sufficient outfits for all requirements, keeping in mind that plenty of things will cross over into different categories.

My life currently requires:
·         Daily smart-casual clothing (work / shopping / time with friends).
·         Appropriate stuff for going to the gym
·         Loungewear (book reading type right here.)
·         Clothing for going out of an evening every other week or thereabouts.

Take into account weekends as well as work days. I tend to think of weekends as ‘jeans days’ which I wouldn’t wear to work, and that’s enough of a mix for me. Plenty of minimalist wardrobes overlook entire sectors of your life. You’re probably not wise to wear your fancy stuff you wear to dinner to the dog park. You’ll have to bleach the shower from time to time.  Appropriate clothing is not always Pinterest-worthy clothing, but a functional wardrobe needs such things, in moderated quantities.


It also goes without saying that you need to take into account the climate in which you live. Again, general advice will tell you ‘every woman should own a trench coat’ and other such rot which only applies in some climates.

At the moment, since it is winter and I live in the UK, I have 3 coats in constant rotation. One of these is considerably warmer than the other two for very cold days. I only need one lighter coat, but bought one while waiting to finish making the other (such are the perils of DIY). As the seasons transition, I will put the thicker one away and bring out a lighter weight option. Summer coats are a thing here.

By contrast - I never required a coat at all when I was living in India. But everything was single wear only. You could not get away with wearing trousers twice. This meant an ‘outfit’ approach rather than mix and match worked really well in that context.

When I lived in the cooler parts of Australia, I tended to wear more layers. The variation in temperatures during a day was much more obvious, and the buildings don’t have the same enthusiastic heating as here – they’re not built for the cold months as they have to contend with warmer summers as well. I had tops with different sleeve lengths rather than coats, to be taken off and put back on during the course of a day. All of this matters when building a wardrobe.


When super-enthusiastic fans of minimalism propose the 10 item wardrobe, all I can think is ‘yeah but I don’t want to hand wash my stuff every night’. It’s all well and good to say you can create 16 different outfits with 6 pieces, but if you’re relying on one t-shirt for most of those options, you’re either constantly washing, or you’re going to smell a bit by the middle of the week. So to my mind, when planning your wardrobe, you really need to think about how often you wash, whether you hand wash, and what washes together. Washing less than a load at a time is going to have a greater environmental impact than washing full loads.

Also, washing takes its toll on clothes. So while you can keep wearing the same 3 t-shirts over and over, they will age quickly. That’s not to say they’re aging with fewer wears than otherwise, just that it will be more noticeable.

So my thoughts on laundry factors to consider.
1.     Look at how often you wash, and make sure you have enough to make a decent load (+ a bit) as your barest minimum. If you’re in a family and bundle stuff together, you will need fewer of your own things than if you are single to make a whole load.

2.       Some stuff needs washing every time you wear it. Some stuff doesn’t. So you might need to have 5 tee shirts to one pair of jeans to make a reasonable load of washing. Some will point out mathematically that 5 t-shirts and 1 jeans = 5 outfits, whereas 3 t-shirts and 3 bottoms = 9 possible outfits with the same number of items. True. But there are 3 washes in that same equation, instead of 1 wash as in the first. You could have 7 tops, 3 bottoms = 21 possible outfits and 1 load of washing a week instead if you like. It’s not as ‘minimal’ by count but it is more practical in terms of maintenance.

3.       Be prepared to replace certain items in your smaller wardrobe more often. Jackets and jeans will go on and on, t-shirts, socks and undies have a limited term of presentable service. Whether you want to start out with more items (and greater variety) and wear your way through them equally, or regularly replace them is a matter of choice.

4.       Consider the separation of loads as well as just the bulk. Since I wear mostly dark colours but prefer flesh-toned underwear and white sports socks, I need a single week of dark stuff to make a load, but I either need a couple of weeks of unmentionables to make a load, or I need to hand wash them. Others who prefer lighter coloured tops (for example) would not have this difficulty. Looking after things and washing them according to instructions really does make a huge difference to their lifespans. Stock your wardrobe in a way that makes this easy to do.

5.       Take washing instructions into account when you add a garment to your wardrobe. Stuff that’s easy to wash will get more wear. If it’s dry clean only, think about whether it’s worth it.

What do you already wear / what do you like to wear?

This might be really obvious but you already know what you like to wear. Look at the things which get the most use and plan around those items. If you like wearing jeans, plan around jeans. If you like a jumper for its colour, look for or make items which are that colour, or have that colour in a print. If you’ve got 15 skirts that you never wear, maybe you don’t like skirts. Stop buying them. Do you have 15 skirts and 5 of them are in the wash basket because you wore them this week? Skirts are your thing. Roll with that. Do you have 3 white blouses that have been in the wash basket for a WHOLE month? You like them, but you don’t like washing them. Consider an alternative. Your existing habits will offer insight into which clothing purchases or makes are wise investments (of time and/or money).

Hypothetical Experiments to help figure out what you actually wear, and streamline your stuff / direct your sewing projects:

If you suddenly had to evacuate without an expectation you would be able to return to your home for a year, what clothing would you pack in your one suitcase? (You have 30 minutes. Go pack).

If someone robbed your house, and took all your clothing except the things you are currently wearing, (weird, but whatever) what would you need to go and buy right now, to get you through the next month?  Write a list. [PS, If you are sitting here in your onesie reading this, take a moment to reflect on how silly you might feel going to the shop in said onesie.]

Looking at the stuff you have, look at each item and ask yourself - would you buy it again for £1? (Or $1.) If not, you probably don’t need it.

So there you have it. 

My thoughts on a not-so-minimalist, but useful wardrobe.

What do you think? Do you have any advice you live by, or ways of balancing your new garments to best effect? Do you practice a one-in-one out rule? Or do you just make / buy stuff and see what happens? And most importantly, how do you choose your next practical project?


  1. I'm one of those guys doing a RTW fast, I haven't bought a RTW item since December 2013 (apart from underwear and pair of much required waterproof cycling over trousers). Because I now need to make all my new clothes it really makes me think about what I need and what else it will go with in my wardrobe. I love colour and pattern and I think I have become more adventurous. Previously I wore jeans more than 50% of the time but now I only wear them at the weekend and wear more skirts and dresses to work. I don't think I could do the minimalist thing - you are right about the washing, it's something I'd never thought of.

    1. It would make sense that your favourites would change a bit if you were making your own - I hadn't thought about that much either. Do you find that sometimes bold colours work better with other things than the 'safe' colours?