It’s amazing what we can discover about our wardrobes when we take a step back from shopping all the time and instead focus on what we currently have. For years, I was always looking outside of my closet, pondering the multitude of new items I could add to my already burgeoning wardrobe. In the meantime, many of the pieces I had were scarcely worn. This year, armed with my new item limit, I’ve cut way back on how much I’m bringing in, which has forced me to look at what I have with new eyes.
In today’s post, I share one of the insights I’ve learned in recent months as I’ve been shopping in my closet more than at the stores. Yes, I’m probably still buying more new pieces than many of you (over 20 so far this year…), but my current garment inflow represents a sharp reduction over years past. What I’ve learned has turned a few of my prior notions about smart shopping and workable wardrobes on their side. After I share my new knowledge, you may either nod in agreement or think I’m crazy, but I just might get you to consider a new perspective along the way.
Conventional Wisdom – Buy Lots of “Basics”
For as long as I can remember, I thought it was a good idea to buy lots of what have been termed “basics” by fashion experts and retailers. Such basics include solid-colored tops, plain cardigans, dark-wash jeans, black pants, and other essentially non-descript garments that don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves. The reasoning behind “basics” is that they are more versatile and can easily be worn often and re-mixed in a variety of different ways. We’re told that we can layer these items and pile on various accessories in order to jazz them up. We can use scarves, necklaces, jackets, belts, and all sorts of other pieces to give life to our closet basics.
That all sounds good, right? But do we actually do it? What I’ve found is that many of my basic pieces end up becoming closet “benchwarmers” instead of wardrobe workhorses. While some are worn regularly, the bulk of them end up collecting dust on their hangers rather than being used in my ensembles. The largest culprits are my solid-colored t-shirts and tank tops. I thought I’d wear them frequently because I love the colors. I visualized the possible outfits I would create with them and the seemingly endless mix and match possibilities. I thought it was a wise choice to buy “multiples” of these basic tops because they are classic styles that likely won’t go out of fashion anytime soon. So why not buy a few of them, I thought.
Here are some examples of my “basic” tops that were good in theory but not so much in actual practice.
A Discrepancy with My Basics…
What’s interesting is that I have some shorter-length tank tops that I wear with skirts that get a lot more use than the tops above. After pondering the “why question” for a few moments, I realize why some of my basic tops get worn more often than the others. Put simply, my skirts are a lot more exciting than my pants, so I don’t mind topping them with more sedate tops. I like at least one garment in my outfits to have some visual appeal, even though I also enjoy wearing interesting jewelry and other accessories.
My pants are a whole different story than my skirts. Anyone who has seen my outfit photos can attest to the fact that my pants are all pretty boring. They are the epitome of basic and pretty much “snoozeville” in appearance. Part of the reason for that relates to my difficulty in finding well-fitting pants in long lengths for my extremely long legs, but I also tend toward boring pants because I don’t like to draw attention to my bottom half. Whatever my reasoning, the bottom line (no pun intended…) is that my pants aren’t very interesting, so I want the tops I wear with them to have a bit more “oomph.”
Problem Identified – Too Many Basics!
As I look at my wardrobe, I realize that I have too many basics. I’ve peeled away most of the ill-fitting and poor quality garments I purchased during my unconscious shopping binges of yesteryear, and I’m left with an overabundance of basic garments that just aren’t all that exciting or compelling to me. When I look inside my closet for something to wear, those plain tees just don’t conjure up any enthusiasm in my soul, so they sit there on their hangers week after week and month after month. When they do get worn, it’s usually out of a feeling of guilt or obligation and it’s typically when I’m just working from home. My more exciting tops are usually the ones I reach for when I venture out of my apartment these days.
I’m not saying I want to shy away from solids and wear prints all the time, but I do want my solid pieces to be a bit more interesting than the ones in the picture above. I actually don’t think it’s bad to have some very plain tops in one’s closet. I just have too many of them overall. Sure, there are different colors, necklines, and sleeve lengths among my solid-colored tops, but I just don’t want to wear that many plain tees. That’s the bottom line for me, I’ve learned.
I’m about to do another closet audit (I think it’s good to do this at least twice a year) and I’m guessing that many of my plain tees won’t make the cut. They’ll either get downgraded to lounge/workout wear or be tossed into my donation bag. As I continue to cultivate a workable wardrobe, I want to love more of my clothes. I want a larger percentage of what I own to be clothes that make me smile. I no longer want to have such a high proportion of my clothing be “serviceable” but little more. I want to be excited about the garments I put on my body, perhaps not all of them (those pants still need some work…), but most of them.
Too Few Basics Can Also be Problematic
Of course, I understand that one can go too far in the other direction as well. It’s possible to have too many clothes with “bells and whistles” and struggle to make them work with each other. With the recent trend toward pattern mixing, that’s less of a problem these days. But eventually that fad will become passé, plus many people feel uncomfortable wearing that much “look” even now. We definitely need some basic items to use as a canvas for our star pieces, unless we have a streak of Lady Gaga avant garde within us.
What is a “Just Right” Number of Basics?
So that brings me to an interesting question… How many basics do we really need? What percentage of our wardrobes should be comprised of the types of garments that pull outfits together but aren’t all that exciting on their own? I’m sure there isn’t one empirically correct answer to this question, as there are a variety of fashion personas which we can embody. Those with a very classic persona probably feel more comfortable wearing a lot of basics than those who aim toward an artistic or edgy flair.
My Style Evolution and the Basics Question
I think my style aesthetic is evolving rapidly as I work to heal my long-standing compulsive shopping problem. I find myself wanting to return more to the creative and quirky style I embraced in my twenties and thirties, albeit in a much different way (more fitted and figure-flattering). I also want to add a touch of “edginess” to the way I dress and move away from the safe types of ensembles I’ve been wearing in recent years.
I’m not entirely sure what this will look like, as it’s still in the thought phase, but I do know that change is in the air for me style-wise. In light of that, I think the percentage of basics I’ll need to retain will decrease as time goes by. I’m guessing the percentage will go down to around 20% from its currently much higher level of around 40%. Again, I’m not necessarily talking about solids versus patterns here. I will likely have more than 20% solid pieces in my ideal wardrobe, but many of those items will have some “special” features to them, such as asymmetry, interesting necklines, ruffles, sequins, or even just a nice quality fabrication. The goal is to have a higher percentage of “standalone” garments that do not need a lot of layering or accessorizing to look good. I still plan to layer and accessorize, of course, but I don’t want to have to do it!
I plan to do a style evolution post soon in which I’ll share thoughts and photos of how my style has evolved over the years (similar to what Sally did on “Already Pretty”). Of course, I need to swallow a bit of pride in order to do this, as some of the visual evidence is quite incriminating, to say the least! But I’ve never shied away from honesty and openness here thus far, so why start now? In the interest of personal growth and helping others, I’ll lay it all bare for you to see (and probably chuckle at…). The important thing is where we are now and where we are headed, rather than where we’ve been. So stay tuned…
Your Thoughts on Wardrobe Basics?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on how basic pieces factor into your ideal wardrobe equation. Do you like to have a lot of basic t-shirts, cardigans, plain pants and jeans, and other such items in your closet? Or is your wardrobe mostly comprised of more “special” pieces with interesting details, as well as prints and patterns? What do you feel is the appropriate percentage of basics for you? I invite you to share your thoughts with me and your fellow readers. If you’re reading this via email or through a feed reader, please click here to comment.