What I’ve Learned from Shopping My Closet

As much of the world moves into the frenetic shopping blitz of the holiday season, I’d like to talk about a different type of shopping, the “shopping” we can do in our own closets.  I first heard the term “shop your closet” a few years ago on a fashion forum and I have to admit that it didn’t sound like much fun to me at the time.  As a dyed-in-the-wool shopaholic, I believed the only shopping I could enjoy was the type that took place in malls or on e-commerce sites.  I was always looking for what was new and better than what I already had.

Benefits of Shopping Your Closet

Have you taken the time to shop your own closet?

Before this year, I regularly purchased at least 150-200 new clothing and accessory items per year.  I bought so much – and so fast – that I generally had little idea of what I already owned.  My closet was so jam-packed that even if I spent a large chunk of time looking around in there, I still wouldn’t have been able to remember most of what I possessed.

Enter 2013 – Stop the Insanity!

This year, I decided to stop the insanity, quit buying so much, and cultivate a wardrobe that worked better for me and my lifestyle.   I learned the hard way that incessant shopping did not automatically make me a well-dressed woman.  In fact, it mostly served to make me feel confused and overwhelmed whenever I opened my closet to put an outfit together.  Paradoxically, however, the “I have nothing to wear!” feeling sent me rushing back out to the shops instead of taking the time to make what I had work for me.  I told you there was some insanity going on!

While it may seem to some of you that I’ve still bought too much this year, my 2013 shopping has been significantly less than all of the previous years that I can remember.  Yes, I still had my months during which I bought too much (hello, June and August…), but I’ve cut way back overall.  Instead of constantly adding new pieces to my closet, I’ve shifted my focus more toward using and evaluating what I already own.  In the process, I’ve learned a great deal about both myself and my wardrobe.  I decided to share my insights with all of you and encourage you to spend some time “shopping your closet” instead of heading out to the shops (or clicking the “buy now” button online).

The “Wardrobe Benchwarmer Project”

My shopping my closet experience began with the “wardrobe benchwarmer project.”  After learning that approximately half of my wardrobe had been worn only once or not at all during 2012, I opted to wear and evaluate all of these items during 2013.  My original intent was to focus on one category of items per month, but I soon decided to take things up a notch in order to get through all of my “benchwarmers” sooner.

My benchwarmer project created a big shift in how I got dressed each day. Rather than reaching for my closet favorites or whatever was right in front of me, I pushed myself to wear those pieces which I had been neglecting for one reason or another.  I challenged myself to incorporate at least one benchwarmer into each of my outfits.  This led to mixed results.  While I definitely discovered some “diamonds in the rough,” I also wore a lot of ho-hum outfits.

I would guess that at least two-thirds of my benchwarmers weren’t being worn for good reasons.  In most cases, I’d bought these items on sale or via consignment and they were not “8”s or higher on a scale of 1-10.  These pieces were generally lacking in terms of fit, color, fabric, pattern, or style.  They were often “close but no cigar,” but I bought them because they were “such a good deal.”  Much of the time, these items were not a good match for my casual, Southern California lifestyle.  Even if some of the garments were quite lovely and fit me well, they were more geared toward a woman who either works in an office or spends a lot of evenings out on the town.  That’s definitely not me, hence the benchwarmer status of such items.

Project 333 and Shopping My Closet

My second “trial by fire” of shopping my closet began when I opted to take on the Project 333 minimalist fashion challenge in April through June of this year.  When selecting the 33 garments I would wear exclusively during those three months, I had to shop my closet for the pieces that would best fit my activities and the predominant weather of the season.  It was a painstaking selection process and I second-guessed my decisions over and over again.  Even after I had made my final selections, I ended up making numerous substitutions during the three months of the challenge.

One thing I learned during Project 333 was that I had far too many of the same types of garments in my closet.  I often bought multiples of the same items in different colors because I mistakenly believed that if one such piece was good, three or more were better.  The result was a rather homogenous closet, especially for someone with such a large wardrobe.  What’s surprising is that I had no idea I was buying so many similar pieces until I stopped shopping all the time and buying so much!

33 Garments Aren’t Enough – Or Are They?

In addition to learning that I had too many dressy pieces and too many similar items in my closet, I also learned that I had far more outfit options than I previously imagined.  While I ended up feeling like 33 garments weren’t enough for me to have the variety I craved, I definitely concluded that I needed far fewer items than were in my closet at large.  That important realization has allowed me to pare my wardrobe down significantly since the conclusion of my Project 333 term.

I’ve actually come to believe that 33 garments can be enough for a person to wear over a three-month period. My problem wasn’t that I didn’t have enough clothes to wear, it was that I had too many of the same types of clothes.  I found that I was dressing primarily in three types of “uniforms” rather than mixing up my sartorial repertoire.

There is nothing wrong with uniform dressing; however, I am someone who really loves to be creative with my wardrobe and outfits, and I’d inadvertently limited my options through the types of purchases I’d made.  Being forced to “make it work” with what I had during Project 333 showed me that I really didn’t need any more open cardigans, knit blazers, or basic t-shirts.   I learned that I don’t need more clothes, but I could benefit from different types of clothing options.

Identifying Actual Wardrobe Gaps vs. Imagined Ones

After my August shopping “binge,” I’ve dialed my purchasing frequency back quite a bit.  Instead of shopping to try to fill my imagined wardrobe gaps, I’ve instead focused on wearing what I have in order to discover what is really lacking in my closet.   I’ve also stopped wearing only lounge wear around the house and started wearing more of my “real clothes” in my home office.  This has helped me to feel more attractive and put-together when working from home. It’s also allowed me to see that I still have too many dressy and business-style clothes for my current lifestyle.

My lifestyle has changed considerably this year and is still in flux, but I need to dress for the life I have rather than for a past, imagined, or wished for life.  Should my life change in the future and necessitate a different wardrobe, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.  In the meantime, however, I want to wear the types of clothes that are appropriate for who I am and what I’m doing today.  That means I need casual, comfortable clothes that suit my evolving personal style aesthetic.

Buying Less and Personal Style

Slowing down my purchasing cycle and using what I have is also helping me to refine my personal style.  For a long time, I dressed how I thought I should dress based upon my age, body type (more my body image issues than my actual figure), and profession, as well as the current styles and trends.   While I’m not avoiding these issues altogether now, I’m listening more to my inner voice in terms of what I want to wear.  I’m asking myself whether or not I really like the items in my closet.  If the answer is “no” for a particular garment, I let it go and focus instead on the pieces I do love to wear.

Interestingly, my style is actually circling back to what it was before I became a wardrobe stylist and started believing I should dress dramatically different as a result.  Many of the garments I’ve decided to keep are from a few years ago and are the types of styles I enjoyed wearing when I was just a “regular” person.   Now that I’ve removed the pressure on myself to be something I’m not, I’m allowing myself to be who I am in all respects, including style.

The garments on my shopping list now are things I see myself wearing tomorrow or next week instead of for occasions that just don’t occur in my real life.  Many of these items are either replacements for current pieces that have passed their prime or higher quality versions of existing garments.  Gone are the uncomfortable shoes and fussy clothes of the past few years.  I want to only buy things that I see myself wearing often and for at least several years to come.

I still feel like it may be a while before I’ll have a wardrobe that truly works for me.  I made so many mistakes in the past that it will take me some time to fully turn things around.  However, I feel like I’m well on my way to a smaller wardrobe and increased sartorial bliss.  Stopping the crazy shopping cycle has made these changes possible.  If I had continued to shop many times per month, I’m sure I’d still have numerous wardrobe benchwarmers, a stuffed closet, and be experiencing intense frustration when getting dressed.

Shopping My Closet Has Made All the Difference…

Shopping my closet has made it possible for me to make progress on my wardrobe goals.  Using what I have and making decisions and determinations about what does and doesn’t work has played an invaluable role in my wardrobe evolution.   I’m confident that continuing this process will help get me to the other side, away from my wardrobe woes and toward closet nirvana.

If you’re an overshopper like me (or even if you’re not!), I highly recommend that you take a step back and allow yourself some time to shop your closet instead of the stores.  Take a short hiatus from shopping, or limit your number of purchases, and turn your attention toward your existing wardrobe.  Challenge yourself to work with what you have, create new outfits, and evaluate your closet winners and losers.

Instead of rushing out to the Black Friday sales, you might want to spend a few hours shopping your closet and putting some new outfits together.  Take some notes and snap some photos to capture what you learn during the process.  I guarantee that you’ll gain new insights that will help you to dress better and shop smarter. My guess is that you’ll not only save money by doing this, you’ll also find you need far fewer new pieces than you thought.  Any shopping you need to do can be done when the crowds dissipate – and you won’t risk being trampled in the holiday rush!

26 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned from Shopping My Closet

  1. Debbie, I learned the same lessons you learned from Project 333. And limiting myself to 33 pieces taught me that I really “didn’t” have anything to wear because like you I collected clothes for a professional work life and an evening out-on-the-town life, that I no longer lived. I had few items for the life I really lead. That was then and now I have a very small wardrobe of functional clothes I wear all the time. And since I have recently begun wearing my favorites regularly, now in a funny twist when I need to get a bit dressed up (dressed up in the casual beach town where I live means good jeans, great shoes and great shirt or sweater) I’m wearing my “everyday” clothes! I save almost nothing for good anymore and the majority of what I have now is casual or casual-nice.

    • “Dressed up” where you live is the same as it is here, Terra! I’ve lived here for 11 years and I’m just now starting to get it. I guess I’m a slow learner – LOL! How you’re doing with your wardrobe is my end goal. It will take me a bit longer to get there, but at least I’m headed in the right direction now. I’m going to do Project 333 again in January (but maybe with a twist…) to help accelerate my progress.

    • Thanks for recommending my blog. I’m glad you’re finding it helpful yourself and are also passing it along to your clients. Much appreciated!

  2. Debbie this is a wonderful “recap” post and it truly shows the progress you have made. Thank you for allowing us to come along on your journey and for the insights and tips that benefit us all 🙂

    • Thanks, Megan. It’s been having all of you along on my journey that has really helped me to make progress! Being accountable to others and knowing that my struggles and insights are benefiting my readers has really made a world of difference!

  3. Nice summation. I am not a shopaholic, although I do find your posts very interesting. This year I purchased 1 skirt, 1 pr. sandals, 1 pr. athletic shoes, 1 bathing suit, 2 t-shirts, 1 pr. of shorts, 2 bras, and one bangle. The shoes were purchased on E-Bay and most of the other items were purchased at the retailer for which I work., so I have been slightly under my $250 annual budget. Except for the shorts and t-shirts, all items were good quality clothing on deep discount (further savings with employee discount!) and all items worked with my existing wardrobe. That’s it. I don’t plan to make any additional purchases. I will be in the store on Black Friday but I will be working — ironically working for a retailer has dampened my ardor for shopping!!!

    • I’m glad my posts are of interest to you and other non-shopaholics, Dottie. I wasn’t expecting that to be the case, but I’m happy to have a wider readership. It seems like you’ve done very well with your shopping this year, both in terms of what you bought and in sticking to your budget. I can see how working in retail could dampen one’s ardor for shopping, especially during the holidays. Best of luck to you with working on Black Friday!

    • Today I was in a major retailer near my home, searching fruitlessly for the ubiquitous long sleeved white cotton shirt. I was not successful, but I did find a pair of espresso brown ponte leggings which were also on my list. As she rung up my purchase, the saleswoman said she would be working on Black Friday, and that she had volunteered to do so. Then she wiped tears from her eye and said she had chosen to work on the holiday, even though she didn’t have to– because she had no family…that she was waiting to be old enough to retire so she could join her children in another part of the country. I was touched by her honest expression of emotion. Usually when I go in that store, the salespeople are so chilly, that you are not inclined to converse on any sort of real level. She asked me if I cooked a meal, and I said, “yes –every year.” And Dottie, lol: I did not invite her to my home for the holiday!

      • I had to laugh! Most of the people I work with are very friendly and outgoing (must be a type mgmt. looks for!), but it’s tough to maintain an upbeat attitude after dealing with hundreds and hundreds of shoppers, all expecting to be treated as special people (which they are — but perhaps less so on Black Friday when each shopper is one of thousands). Some shoppers are more pleasant than others; some barely acknowledge that a human being is handling their transaction. I don’t expect to be “friends” with the people I interact with, but a kind word or even a smile goes a long way on a day like this coming Friday. I wish I could write about shopping and shoppers from the retailer’s point of view — it would curl your hair!!

      • It’s amazing how difficult it can be to find good pieces like the long-sleeved white cotton shirt you mentioned, Deby. With white especially, the fabric tends to be so flimsy and see-through! I’m glad you found another item on your list, though. I’m sure you added some brightness to the salesperson’s day by chatting with her. This time of year especially, people tend to be so hurried and grumpy that I’m sure many are not kind to those who are assisting them in stores. Of course, the rudeness can occur on both sides, but I agree with Dottie that a kind word or a smile can go a long way.

        Dottie, you mentioned writing about shopping and shoppers from the retailer’s point of view. You might be interested in reading this article from a local San Diego paper (written by a Nordstrom salesperson): http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2013/mar/13/cover-selling-service-nordstrom/ Reading it definitely changed my perspective and has made me be much more careful about returns, especially at stores where salespeople are on commission.

  4. You have helped me with my decision-making on my clothes. I’ve just taken a dress, never worn, to the consignment shop. I gave it 6 weeks sitting in my wardrobe, tried it on again yesterday, & gave it a “no”. So it’s gone. It was a mistake, but at least it’s out of my life. I also returned an item to a department store. In the past I never returned items – for some reason I felt obliged to keep them if I’d made a mistake. I think I’ve got over that now!

    • I love getting comments like this, Katy! It warms my heart to know that I am helping others to make better decisions in their closets and at the stores. I’m sure you will feel much better having the mistake items out of your life. I know I do! Congrats on making some positive steps for yourself.

  5. There are so many interesting points in this post, and I can see myself in many of them. You mention you did a “shopping halt” in May, then overpurchased in the following months, the same happened to me after my “shopping fast” experiment. As if total deprivation, if a useful experiment in retrospect, isn’t the answer.

    Then about wardrobe benchwarmers, although I probably don’t own as many clothes as you do, I realized I have a tendency to revolve around the same outfits – things I know work and are easy to put together. Sometimes, when pushing myself to wear new types of outfits, I actually discover “diamonds in the rough” as you beautifully put it. And other times, it ends up in the donation bag. I think a well curated wardrobe means there are no more of these ill-fitting clothes, but I think even with a carefully pared down wardrobe it takes a bit of effort to wear everything, rather than going for the favourites. Now, I always select at least one thing from the back of the pile. That’s the essence of “shopping our closet” isn’t it?

    The “real and imagined gaps” are also a very interesting point. When I look back at my previous wishlists, sometimes I feel like I have “created” a gap to justify buying something I simply wanted, without necessarily needing it. Which leads to having too many of some item types (in my case, tops), and not enough of the “neglected areas” (in my case, pants). Now, I have sorted my closet by item type, and when laundry day arrives, I take a look at what’s left unworn – the biggest piles are definitely the ones I shouldn’t buy anything from at the moment…

    All that to say, thanks for sharing your journey and all of these thoughts, it’s very useful 🙂

    • I think the key to a really workable wardrobe is to keep only to clothes you love, look good on you (e.g., fit), and work with other clothes you already have. Everything else is of no use to you and needs to leave your house immediately (take back to the store, sell on-line, give to a friend, head to the consignment shop, or donate to a charity). Otherwise you are giving valuable real estate to “slackers” who are never going to earn their way. Developing a critical eye to avoid purchasing “dogs” (substandard clothing) and sticking to a master plan helps to avoid mistakes in the future and to avoid “imagined gaps” (I like that term). I really examine the stuff I buy: I turn clothing inside out to examine stitching in the seams and seam allowances (a rapidly disappearing concept, I’m afraid); I scrutinize buttonholes and trim (I tend to avoid “trim” because it’s too often a maintenance hazard); and I check fabric content and care labels. A lot of clothing that I like and fits is often rejected at this phase. A good part of the “clothes I love” depends on construction, fabrication, and care. I find it hard to “love” a lot of the stuff that’s out there nowadays. I am ever thankful that I know how to sew and know how a garment should be constructed.

    • Thanks for sharing your insights, Kali. It’s interesting that you also overpurchased following a shopping fast. I know that shopping fasts can work for some people, but I think that for many of us it’s better to institute limits instead of going “cold turkey.” I like how you gauge what you do and don’t need by seeing what’s left in your closet on laundry day. I’ve never thought of doing that before, but it’s a great idea! Like you, I have lots of tops and not very many pants. This year, I’ve really gotten to see what I do and don’t wear and consequently I’m not making as many buying mistakes (but I’m still making some…).

      Dottie, thanks for sharing your tips for creating a manageable wardrobe and for avoiding purchasing “dogs” (good term for them). I agree that it’s getting harder and harder to love the stuff in the stores. The quality really has gone downhill and the same dollar amount just doesn’t get you what it used to! You’re lucky you know how to sew. I may have to pick up that skill if things don’t improve with the retail landscape.

  6. I love this post and had to laugh as I could see so much of myself in it. The one area of difference is that I don’t buy as many clothes as you did. Phew, 150 clothes per year = new clothing purchases every few days!!!! Regardless of the amount, I share similar issues. In a way the actual amount doesn’t matter. Two tops or twenty tops are still a waste if they aren’t right or being worn in the first place.

    Shopping in my closet not as much fun but I am often surprised what I can put together from what I have, especially for a night out. I have a bit too much in that department and no longer have that lifestyle. I really do not need anymore nightlife pieces.

    I have also been working towards the idea of Project 33. I found 33 items not quite enough for me as I need a lot more items in autumn-winter with the extremes in temperature but in spring-summer I need a lot less. The point is to constantly keep my wardrobe pared down, functional and loved whether there are 33 items or 99.

    I certainly know what you mean about multiples. I just stopped myself last week from buying a sweater in another colour because I loved the original purchase so much. I had it ordered in to the store but decided I was just being stupid. Glad I did as that is now quite a bit of money that can go towards something else in the future instead.

    I have noticed something quite interesting lately. Like you, I have found that I prefer a lot more of my older clothes which seem to be more in tune with my personal style. I have 2 circles of friends – those who are into fashion and those who don’t care at all. I have been spending more time with the latter circle of friends lately and have found it so liberating knowing I don’t have to compete. They wouldn’t even notice what I’m wearing and I just don’t have to try so hard.

    Finally, I decided that personal grooming (hair, nails, makeup & waxing) was a better investment. I feel better when I am well groomed and that feeling has nothing to do with which jeans I am wearing. Having a fresh manicure makes me feel as shiny and new as a new top and lasts longer.

    • I agree with the personal grooming tip CS. My clothes tend to be more minimalist and plain in style so makeup, a good haircut and manicure really do a lot to pull my look together into something polished and intentional instead of boring (at least I hope so!)

    • You made some really good point, CS. I agree with Alice that the personal grooming tip is right on. I once heard that our hair is our most important accessory. I’ve always been willing to spend money on grooming and feel that it’s money well spent for sure.

      I agree that it’s nice to spend time with people with whom you don’t feel pressure to compete fashion-wise. Much of my overspending during the past couple of years was about trying to measure up, but I’m much happier just being myself and dressing in a way that makes me happy. And yes, most people don’t even notice what we’re wearing anyway (or if they do, they’re on to their next thought within mere minutes or seconds!).

  7. I had never heard of SYC until I started reading fashion blogs too. Since I am currently sorting out my working closet for spring/summer clothes, I decided to SYC and see what size the capsules I have are for my spring/summer clothes.

    I used my hardest to style bottoms as the start of the capsules (cobalt jeans, white jeans, boyfriend jeans, teal cotton trousers, khaki cotton trousers). I learned two things by doing this. 1. My capsules are very uneven in size. I have many, many tops that work with my white jeans and teal cotton trousers, yet only 3 that work with my khaki trousers and another small handful that work with my boyfriend jeans. 2. The items for my capsules are not very interchangeable, across capsules. It might be just me, but the tops that I like pairing with my teal cotton trousers, I really do not like to pair with say my white or cobalt jeans.

    I understand that a capsule involves a collection of clothes that all work together and that a closet can have many, many capsules. However, since I desire that ever elusive ‘minimal Parisian wardrobe’ for both the size (fewer clothes) and functionality (items remix easily) of my wardrobe, it isn’t very logical to have multiple capsules that are so unbalanced in size and do not remix at all.

    • Sounds like you’ve done a very useful exercise, Lisa. I think it’s very helpful to shop our closets in preparation for a new season. I would like things to mix and match better across a capsule, too, but my experience is much like yours. I often read these blog articles with photos of clothes that “go” together in theory, but they are usually not shown on a person so I question if it all really works. I think it CAN work, but we all have to know ourselves, what we like to wear, and what we feel comfortable in. Remixing is definitely an art…

  8. I just found this post, wish I’d found it months ago. I now gain a new sense of thrill when I step in to shop my closet. Why seek new purchases if you have a wealth of selection in your closet, so simple. SYC. I’m studying at the moment but once I have more spare time, I will be recapping all the posts on here. Just up my street.

    • Yes, shopping our closets can be fun, Fiona! I wish I would have done more shopping in my closet year ago. Then I wouldn’t have built up such a HUGE wardrobe… But it’s great that we’re doing SYC now and learning from it. It can only help us moving forward! Glad you like my blog.

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