Simplify Your Wardrobe By Defining Your Styles (Plural)

Much of the wardrobe simplification advice I've read advises choosing moods or themes to defining your style: bohemian, feminine, edgy, romantic, minimalist, etc. Then you can pick cuts, colors, and fabrics that match your style. I like the idea of this, but when I tried to put it into practice, I found that I had multiple competing styles; I was attracted to classic, professional, tailored dresses and blazers in neutral colors like navy and gray, but also to casual edgy tomboy outfits with skinny jeans and cool sneakers. Trying to find pieces that matched all of my contradictory desires was impossible.

Yet, they didn't really have to match because I wasn't going to wear them together. I noted in my Love and Wear/Don't Love and Don't Wear exercise that my wife and I both divide our wardrobes into specific "uniforms" for work versus weekend. It made more sense for us to define our wardrobes as several modular mini-wardrobes, each for a different occasion. Once I started thinking of my wardrobe this way, certain questions were easy to answer. Rather than searching for versatile dress-up, dress-down pieces that would work in a variety of contexts, it made more sense for me to pick pieces that were perfect for one of my wardrobes, and to stop worrying about whether my wardrobes matched each other.

List all the major occasions in your life. Think of the different hats you wear in your life--each different major way you spend your time that requires its own dress code. For me, that's work, home, and out-and-about (including errands, seeing friends, and birdwatching).

There are also more rare occasions with specific dress codes--weddings, job interviews, funerals, swimming--but for those, because they are rare, I only need one suitable outfit, not a whole mini-wardrobe. We'll more or less ignore these going forward. Just make that, if you can't organically address the needs for these events with items from your major occasion wardrobes, you keep one complete outfit for each.

Define a style for each major occasion. These can be as different or as similar as you like. Maybe you have one unified general look, and each mini-wardrobe is a variation on the theme. Or maybe you go to fairly opposing extremes in the different tracks.

Here are some ways to think about each style:

  • Brainstorm some words that you want to convey with this style. These could be moods, like "artistic" or "peaceful," or style words, like "preppy" or "boho."
  • Come up with some example pieces, from your wardrobe or your imagination, that exemplify this style.
  • With your color palette in mind, think about which colors might dominate this style. You don't have to narrow it down to a subset of your color palette, since pretty much any color on your palette will go with any other color, but it might be helpful to narrow down your focus.
  • Think of any images, patterns, or symbols that might go with this look. I call these "motifs." For example, if you have a nautical look, you might be attracted to waves, chevrons, anchors, and mermaids.

Because I think in tables, here are my answers to these questions for each major style occasion in my life.

professional, classic, tailored, structured
blazer, slacks, pencil skirt, button-down shirt, pumps, ankle boots
navy, gray, charcoal, pastels
cables, pinstripes
Out and About
casual, tomboy, colorful, outdoorsy
jeans, hoodie, sneakers, T-shirt
denim, aqua, strawberry pink, mint green, clear yellow
plaid, canvas, birds, pine trees
comfortable, soft
PJs, T-shirt, sweatpants
blue-greens, burgundy

As you can see, two of my mini-wardrobes are quite similar (home and out-and-about), but one is starkly different (work). In practice, I share a lot of pieces between home and o&a--T-shirts, for example--and I'll tend to just put on different pants if I'm going out. But I wear almost none of my work stuff at home, and vice versa.

If you're redefining your wardrobe or starting from scratch, I think this would be a good pre-planning exercise to help you figure out what to focus on (buying or keeping). For me, I'm kind of creating my style guide after the fact, thinking of things I already have and styles that have already sort of coalesced from my attempts to live with a minimal wardrobe. But, I think this is still a useful exercise for me, as it will be a good guide going forward to make sure that anything I buy fits neatly into one of these categories. It's unnecessary for me to try to find things that work for both work and home/out--items that kinda work for both tend to work in a marginal sort of way--but it's best for me to find stuff that's smack dab in the middle of one of them.


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