Taking Stock of What You've Got and Building a Smarter Closet
Between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I took a summer job working in a factory that produced quilted handbags out of a small Midwestern town. Perfect!, I thought, here was my first foray into the fashion industry. I worked on the cutting line-pulling fabric from the bolt onto a long table and stacking it twenty or thirty layers deep in a seven-yard space. I worked with a partner and our favorite things to talk about were variations on If I could only have twelve pieces of clothing, what would they be? and What would you buy with a bajillion dollars? Since then, I've always kept a little running list in the back of my mind of what I'd do in either of those situations-how I could make the most of a closet limited to a dozen items versus what it would be like to completely make over my closet from scratch with a wad full of cash.
Let's talk about your actual budget. No matter how much money you have to spend per season, the questions are the same: What to buy? Where to spend? Where to save? For a four-season climate, your yearly budget should be roughly broken down to:
30 percent for spring (This is when you'll buy most of your warm- weather clothing.)
15 percent for summer (Add-on pieces like sundresses, skirts, and blouses in lighter-weight fabric-which also cost less.)
45 percent for fall (Spend now for the majority of your cold- weather clothing, including a coat, shoes, boots, denim, etc.)
10 percent for winter (Spruce things up with a few heavier sweaters and holiday items.)
Basics: classic pieces in core colors that you wear year after year and that work for every season.
Core colors: neutral building blocks like black, dark brown, or charcoal gray
Secondary colors: bright or bold trendy colors that are season specific (for example, pastels in spring or jewel tones in fall)
Add-ons: trendy and seasonal pieces that round out your closet
Let's start with the basics and add-ons every woman should have in her closet.
Pick Your Core Color
When you're getting started with your year-round basic clothing, it's best to stick to a core color-like black, dark brown, or charcoal gray. A lot of women end up with nothing to wear because they've limited themselves to wearing an item only one way (this happens when you shop for head-to-toe "looks"). If everything in your closet flows from one piece to the next, from outfit to outfit, you're left with so many more potential combinations. That flow is best achieved by starting with the following basic items in one core color:
Once you feel your basics are covered in one core color (and you're buying quality, classic clothes that last more than a single season), expand into a new core color.
If you can afford to spend more on the basic part of your closet, do it, especially for investment pieces such as blazers, slacks, skirts, and coats. Although your head-to-toe look doesn't need to cost a fortune, wearing one high-quality (and sometimes more expensive) item can make your entire outfit look more polished. You can get away with spending less on tights, tees, and casual sweaters because these need to be replaced more often and are not usually the focal point of an outfit.
Secondary Color Palette
Next, start to add diversity and pattern into your closet with a new set of what I'm calling your add-on pieces. While your core colors work year-round, your seasonal add-on pieces will be in secondary colors. For this example, I've started with the blues and purples in the prints of the dress and skirt. From there, I've added on a violet cardigan that works with both pieces. For each new garment you add-on, make sure there's something it will work with in your current closet (basics or other add-on pieces). Key add-on pieces include:
I usually spend less money on items that are multicolored or patterned because they have less mix-and-match possibilities than their solid- color counterparts. And while you might wear the same bold-printed skirt two weeks in a row, you probably won't wear it two days in a row like you can with a solid-colored cardigan or skirt.
The idea here isn't to be matchy matchy with every single item you have-your closet doesn't need to look like a color-coordinated boutique. Instead, it's more about buying clothes that flow from one outfit to the next, like the tights and cardigans and accessories that transform your investment pieces into weeks and weeks worth of outfits.
Pro Tip: When shopping, make a rule for yourself that each new piece you buy goes with at least three things you already have in your closet.
Shoes may be a small part of your outfit, but they're an important one. The bulk of your shoe collection will be specific to your needs (standing all day, work safety, lots of walking), but don't limit yourself there. To be covered for almost every occasion, the most basic shoe stash should contain:
Of all these shoes, walkable flats are the pair that need to come with a warning: White gym sneakers should never, ever be worn with business suits, office outfits, or cocktail dresses (or really any place other than the gym). If you have a long walk to and from your job, go ahead and get a supportive pair of walking shoes, but spice things up by going with an old-school color palette (like burnt orange, maroon, mustard yellow, navy) or go with some funky flats with built-in cushioning.
In the following chapters I've paired up the shoes I think will look best with an outfit, but you can always swap out flats for heels or vice versa.
Finally, buy yourself some decent underwear! Get rid of anything that doesn't make you feel good about your body (and you know exactly what I'm talking about). A modern woman might argue that slips are for grannies, but they'll make your clothes flow when you're wearing tights or hosiery. I've had luck finding them in specialty lingerie boutiques, finer department stores, and vintage shops. They've been a lifesaver so many times for me that I'm slowly but surely adding to my collection with different lengths and colors. And the proper length is important-just the other day I attempted to roll the waistband of a half slip so it didn't show under the mini-skirt I was wearing. Big mistake! Within half an hour the hem of that slip started to creep down to reveal itself. Not cute. Slips should always be shorter than your skirt.
For your foundation garments I recommend:
Analyze Your Closet
Now that you know what you need to buy to get your wardrobe into tip- top shape, let's figure out what you already have that's worth keeping. When I take stock of my closet, I remove everything from the shelves, drawers, and hangers and throw it all on my bed (so I can't talk myself out of the job and crash for a nap halfway through). This is the kind of project that takes a lot of energy, so you should plan for an entire Saturday or Sunday with a mind-set of determination. Once you have one giant pile, assess each piece and create three new piles: yes, maybe, and donate/resell. With each item you pick up, use your flash judgment. At the beginning of the process, you'll feel like putting a lot into the "yes" pile, but as you progress, you'll be getting rid of the pieces that don't make you look and feel your best. You might even want to go through the "yes" pile again and try to narrow it down even more. A lot of women hold on to clothes years after the last time they wore an item, telling themselves, "I might need this later!" The truth is, you probably won't need it later, and if you get rid of something you're not wearing anyway, you open the door to replace it with something that you'll love even more.
Now it's time to try everything on. It might sound crazy, but it's a waste of space to put things in your closet that don't fit, and it's aggravating when you reach for that piece when you're in a rush. Anything that's not within one size of fitting perfectly needs to go to the tailor or Goodwill. (I make one exception to this rule. On the back shelf of my closet I keep one pair of "skinny" jeans for when I'm feeling extra sexy and one pair of "slouchy" jeans for when I'm not.) Take everything that doesn't fit or is no longer to your taste and put it in another room so you're working only with the good stuff. While you're trying each item on and checking it out in a full-length mirror, ask yourself:
Does it flatter my body?
Did I feel great the last time I wore it?
Can I remember the last time I wore it?
If you answer no to any of these questions, get that item out of your closet, pronto.
The important thing to remember is to build your closet around the life you're living now. If you spend most of your time at the office, buy work clothes. If your primary interest is comfort, find ways to be practical yet stylish. If you love nightlife, buy yourself some sexy tops and dresses. It's all about balance to suit you and your time. I'll go into more detail on your basics, add-on pieces, shoes, and accessories for each of those situations in the following chapters.
In Your Closet or Store for the Season?
Now that you have separated out the best of your wardrobe, everything should be clean and ironed before it goes onto a hanger and back into your closet. Just like clothes that don't fit, it doesn't make sense to have wrinkled pieces that put up a big ol' roadblock when you're already short on time. If you hate to iron, keep that in mind when you head out on your next shopping trip, and stop buying fabrics that get wrinkled easily. I find that most of the time, if you hang your clothes up right after they're washed and dried, you'll be fine. Otherwise, send anything that needs to be pressed to the cleaners if you can't bear to iron it yourself.
What about seasonal gear? Only keep out the current season's clothes and put everything else out of sight. Granted, you'll have crossover items that work from season to season (or even year-round) like jeans, button-ups, blazers, and basic dresses, but anything for extreme weather should be packed up. I have pretty small closets, so it's absolutely essential for me to pack away out-of-season clothing in space-saving bags, big plastic tubs, or in unused suitcases and store them out of sight. (For me that's the top and back of my closets, but dry attics and basements also do the trick.) I know so many women with closets that are packed to the brim who still always end up feeling like they have nothing to wear, which is true if you have sundresses hanging in your closet in winter or puffy coats in summer. So do yourself a favor and only work with the ingredients for the season and the weather outside your door.
Tools of the Trade
After the clothes and shoes and accessories, there are a few things every gal should also have on hand to take proper care of her wardrobe:
. Cascade-style flocked hangers to save space
. Full-length mirror near your closet
. Ironing board and steam iron
. Lint roller
. Small sewing kit containing scissors, safety pins, straight pins, black and white thread, small multicolor thread set
. Jar for all those extra buttons that you may never use but will be very happy to have in one place should you need them
. Tape measure for cross-checking measurements when online shopping
. Shoe polish kit
And if you're really into having fun with your closet and have the space:
. Folding clothing rack (great for packing and laying out/ organizing a week's worth of outfits)
. Upright steamer
. Three-way mirror (always check your front and backside before dashing out of the house)
. Dress form to display scarves and bags (or even full outfits)
. Wig forms for hats (either very awesome or very creepy)
Flocked hangers are covered in slip-free fabric to prevent your clothes from falling off
Wooden hangers are ideal for heavier items like jackets and coats or suits
Plastic hangers can work double duty for hanging slacks or blouses
Trouser Clip hangers are ideal for skirts or pants hung by the hem
Wire hangers aren't great for long-term use-they can easily snag clothing and leave permanent poke marks on the shoulders of your blouses. Toss 'em!
Always and Never
Although I'd like to believe there aren't a whole lot of rules left in fashion, there are some things I'd classify as "Always" and "Nevers." My fashion favorites and pet peeves:
. Wear what flatters your body, regardless of the trends
. Remember, how you feel about yourself is the most important part of getting dressed
. Have a go-to outfit ready in your closet for mornings when you feel uninspired
. Find time to play dress-up and create new outfits (like on Sunday night with a glass of wine)
. Wear pants with dragging hems
. Sport a muffin top
. Buy something just because it's on sale
. Wear flip-flops (except for the salon and the beach)
. Wear brown corduroy in summer, yellow chiffon in winter
. Leave the house in a dirty or wrinkled outfit
. Wear bunchie undies under body-conscious garments (or ever?)
. Resort to safety pins instead of a tailor (except in emergencies, of course)
So now you have a wardrobe that may be a bit smaller, but it's full of clothing that you love, that's clean and pressed, and that fits. You're off to an excellent start!