Desperately Seeking Simple

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Well, maybe not “desperate” exactly, but in the last few months, I’ve done quite a bit of wardrobe acquisition. Part of it was due to having dropped weight and a full clothing size during the winter/spring, and needing to replace a substantial percentage of my wardrobe. The other part of it was feeling as though I’ve finally settled into my own style, and being comfortable enough to invest in upgrading those items that are working. But now I need to shift out of acquisition mode, and so recently re-read “Simple Isn’t Easy” by Olivia Goldsmith and Amy Fine Collins.

I will say that while this is a great book to help focus and get motivated to simplify one’s wardrobe, it’s not the only resource out there, or even the most comprehensive one. Blogs like The Vivienne Files or Project 333 are full of inspiration and wardrobe ideas for those looking to simplify and pare down their wardrobes.

“Why bother?” you may wonder. Why all of this obsession with a smaller wardrobe? For me, it boils down to this: too much stuff is oppressive. Don’t get me wrong…I love clothes and accessories, I love to shop, I love new things. But I’ve also learned that too many choices are as burdensome as too few, and having a wardrobe that supports rather than making demands of me as I’m trying to get dressed and out the door in the morning is a blessing. Just Enough and Just Right: those are my wardrobe goals.

It’s become the norm here it seems, aided by cheap, fast fashion, to want to look different every single day. There are women in my office who seem to never wear the same thing twice. I wonder what their closets look like…and whether they discard clothing in the same volume they seem to acquire it.

Not long ago, we watched the French film “Beloved,” starring Catherine Deneuve on cable. What was notable for me (other than the characters periodically bursting into song) was how Deneuve’s character often wore the same few pieces of clothing over and over in each period of time covered in the story. The same skirt, dress or jacket make appearances in scene after scene that are obviously not the same day or even the same week. You’d almost never see that in films or TV produced here, unless the story line focused on a character’s poverty or quirkiness. (Our French cousine reminds me that French women, especially of a certain age, aren’t afraid to find and stick with what works for them where they are now. They don’t chase youth or trends.)

I find that I can balance wardrobe simplicity with my desire for novelty by keeping most of my key pieces very clean and understated, and using accessories to change up the look. Not rocket science there. But simplifying one’s wardrobe isn’t just a matter of having fewer pieces, but having cohesion between those pieces. It isn’t easier having a smaller wardrobe unless everything works well together, and that’s the tricky part. In Simple Isn’t Easy, the authors outline several strategies for streamlining and maintaining a cohesive wardrobe. Their strategies focus on choosing one: one silhouette, or one color (or only “perennials” such as black, white, camel and navy), or one designer, or even just one single outfit in multiple colors and fabrics. The first two of these are strategies I’ve begun consciously employing and they are helping me to stay focused and tune out the Fashion Pressure Chorus. You know, those voices that tell you that your wardrobe is too drab, that you should wear more (or different) colors, that a particular cut of trousers is SO OUT, that women over years old shouldn’t wear Y, that you don’t yet have this season’s Must Haves.

Not everyone has a desire to pare down or simplify their wardrobe, and that’s fine. Some people thrive on sartorial creativity and a multitude of choices. But if you’re finding that putting outfits together is feeling more like an ordeal than a joy, less may be more for you too.

Do you have strategies and techniques for putting together an maintaining a cohesive wardrobe? How do you tune out the Fashion Pressure Chorus? Are there obstacles that are keeping you stuck with a too-full closet, or too many closet orphans?

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  1. I also have culled the wardrobe down pretty heavily and I agree that tons of stuff is oppressive but I don’t feel I have less choice by having a small wardrobe, if anything my creativity is challenged more with fewer pieces. I pretty much employ the “color/silhouette” methods and when I shop I won’t buy something unless it works with at least 2 other things I already own. And even if it does meet all those criteria if I don’t love it 100% I don’t buy it. Also, even though I sew I still need to use this theory with my fabric stash because I know plenty of sewers who accumulate ginormous stashes they could never sew up in their lifetime. It’s the problem of fast fashion applied to sewing basically. Btw – the whole notion of fast fashion is pretty much an American thing, I spent 6 weeks in Australia this summer on a work project and fast fashion has not (yet) entered retail down there. God help them when it does.

    1. I live in Australia and I respectfully disagree completely about fast fashion not having entered retail here. We have the ubiquitous Zara and TopShop, which change their offerings every week or two, plus a large number of even cheaper places that encourage shoppers to buy things they’ll wear just a couple of times before discarding. Thrift shops in Sydney say they have to refuse/get rid of at least half of what is put in donation bins, because it’s low-quality, ‘throw-away’ stuff from exactly these kind of shops.

      1. I also disagree re ” fast fashion ” in Australia- we are full of it- maybe you didn’t. look in the right places. I own a clothing boutique ( not fast fashion) and people tell me it’s good to find clothes that are going to last more than one season. Its really not an ” American thing”- the UK is full of it too!

        1. Well – I was in Sydney for six weeks this summer and I didn’t see *anything* that corresponds to the full on fast fashion tsunami that exists here in the States. I don’t doubt that fast fashion has hit your shores but again what I saw was not even close to how bad it is here at home, trust me on that. Good luck to you guys when it ramps up to US levels – it truly is scary. Try to fight it as much as you can as consumers because once it’s in it will never leave.

    2. pcraine, I heard about a woman who has a sign in her sewing room that says, “She who dies with the most fabric wins!” That does seem to go hand in hand with sewing. From now on, I’m not buying any more fabric until I actually sew something with the fabric I have on hand.

  2. One of the book’s other ideas has been great for me as I have the same goal: find one or two stores that carry your “uniform” and only shop there. The book pre-dates the rise of online shoppng, which gives us undreamed-of choice.

    One also needs self-discipline to resist flash sales, “trends” and reward or sport shopping. You have a wonderful eye and know your body; what remains is the mind set of refusing “more”, and that’s hard for all of us, to resist the siren song of consumption.

  3. What I noticed last year and even the past few months on my blog, is that I tend to wear the same “favorites” over and over again. They feel like me…they work. I have been going over to the side of simplicity for some time now. As my body changes…and hopefully, that will continue as I work out more…I hope to keep the same thoughts in mind. I believe I have come into my style and now it will take self-discipline to not be dragged to pieces that really are not me. I am tired of wasting the money and the space. Thanks for the book recommendation…I will look into it!

  4. I am trying desperatly to do the same thing, but different obstacles have prevented me from getting there. Still trying though. Your blog is a great inspiration to me.

  5. Simplicity is the hardest and in ways the most desirable styling. Gosh we are on the same page because I just finished my next post with simplicity as the theme. I remember wearing minimal design in the 90’s, clothing by Theory. I enjoy all of your choices here and can see you wearing them with style. You are a great writer and I always enjoy reading your posts!

  6. I adore that little book! It’s short and funny and full of great ideas. And I love your style as it’s getting more and more refined. I’ve been studying the Into Mind blog for more ideas about simplicity (and yes I know it’s not for everyone). Wonderful post.

  7. Haven’t read this book, I must check it out. I’ve been decluttering my wardrobe recently, and have given bags of stuff away to friends/charity shops. I tend to wear the same things over & over again anyway, sometimes you have to be quite ruthless. I like your ‘Fashion Pressure Chorus’ phrase!

  8. Your style is both simple and striking, which is a great combination. My style choices are generally about camouflage. As in, “How well will this camouflage cat hair?” or “How well will this camouflage my recent weight change?” Sigh. Your style choices and discussions provide much-needed help and inspiration. Thank you!

  9. I have let so many pieces go in the last two years, but only if they don’t fit or no longer serve me. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped collecting! But I do love to have basic backgrounds, and your examples for that purpose are very elegant.

  10. After seeing the movie, Blue Jasmine, it really hit home that fewer quality pieces are investments that pay back over and over. I have my opera wardrobe, but my everyday wardrobe I find that I am grabbing the same pieces again and again. Exploring rut blowing silhouettes are fun as long as they can fit in with those other pieces that form the backbone of my wardrobe.

    Of course in the movie , Cate Blanchett’s character had Chanel clothing that I can only dream about (she wore it like armor), but there is good quality clothing being made at all price points. I have gone on an Eileen Fisher craze as her pieces are really speaking to me this season. She is using some classic shapes, but is also providing edgier ones for a little fun. They all mesh together and pack well. That does not mean I will be tossing my well loved favorites. It does mean that I have a put together modern silhouette that I can use to layer these older pieces over to give them a new flair. So, I am doing a make-over of my wardrobe by using it in a new way.

  11. I would love it if you would do a summary post, detailing what you’ve acquired, what you’ve divested yourself of over the past year or so.

    I have found that cleaning out my closet is as good as shopping–getting rid of the less good reveals the good. In my old house, I have a 3 foot closet rod and I STILL have too much!

  12. I love this post. Simplicity, both as an aesthetic and as a mode of existence, is hard to hold onto when so advertising and media are always urging you to “upgrade” this and “modernize” that and know what is “trending” now. What a relief to be able to tune out the advertising and believe that what we have already is good enough! About fashion, and simplifying color choices: I used to think that you had to choose between having cool black/gray/navy neutrals (with silver jewelry) or warm brown/tan/camel ones (with gold jewelry) in your wardrobe. I was never quite able to make that choice, though I leaned towards browns because of my autumn-type coloring. I never seemed to have enough non-neutral colors, either. A couple of months ago I happened to see a picture of all those “neutral” colors on a blog, lined up in a row, and I realized that they all look pretty together! Cognac and gray; navy and wheat; black and tan; leopard and anything. Throw in a few colored accessories (I like mustard and burgundy) and it’s more than enough choice for me. Une femme, I like your blog particularly for the mixes of neutrals and the repetition of the same pieces in different outfits. Thanks!

  13. I too have lost weight and therefore have the need to acquire clothes. My attitude is to locate quality finds in Thrift Shops. Cost are reasonable and I now view my wardrobe as ‘recyclable’ and transitional. I keep a few basic pieces on which to build. The basics are blazers (black, brown, navy and camel), a dress, two pair of dress pants, jeans and some scarves. I have quality leather pumps, boots, ballerina flats and sandals. Everything else I consider as ‘completer pieces’ which I keep/wear for a few months and then ‘recycle’ back to the Thrift Shops. I like the versatility this gives me. It keeps me current and always on the lookout for how to build on my basics. When something new is added to my closet -something else must leave . . .

  14. I have struggled with this my WHOLE life! I fixated on trying to find the perfect pieces and the perfect number of them. Experts are full of judgments about the perfect number: 10! 20! 33! I would cull, then have to rebuy because I gave away something essential. Sigh. Recently, I have made progress though. I’ve decided to stop fixating on the number or perfect items and start keeping track of what I actually wear. Turns out I already have a work uniform, and I really like it! I’m now working on a casual uniform. After yesterday’s trip to Goodwill, I’m left with only things I like and wear (plus a couple of sentimental favorites that don’t get out much but i feel lucky to have them).
    Relaxing and keeping things for my actual life (rather than some fashion editor’s life) were key. Also, being honest about what I like rather than what I think I should like!

  15. The part that makes it the most difficult to simplify is this: The body! Always on the verge of gaining or losing weight makes it difficult to truly streamline in the way that I would like. It is so tempting to just do it, but I get anxious about not wearing all those lovely things I have grown out of…

  16. I read that book years and years ago. I’ll have to comb the shelves for a reread as it really had some great ideas. I, too, would love to see a summary post on how your style/wardrobe have changed/morphed recently. Thanks for sharing!

  17. I, too have paired down my wardrobe to half of its original size since I lost 25 lbs. last year. A seamstress altered what could be altered and I donated the rest. My closet is now easily to oversee, just about everything can be combined in other ways. I keep to classic lines in the Eileen Fisher vein, and for the most part I feel well dressed every day. Jewellery is classic also as I do not like bling on me at all. My scarves to the yeoman’s work of keeping everything look fresh.

  18. I also read Simple Isn’t Easy years ago and actually pulled it out last week wondering if it was time for a reread. I’ve been on The Big Purge all over the house and certainly in my closet. I echo most of the other comments. Just tired of fighting with my clothes. I’m on the way to finding exactly what works and sticking with it. I work from home, live in LA (your blog is a big help) and none of my wonderful friends are big on fashion. So the only pressure I feel is from the media. Which I’m successfully ignoring. Travel has taught me a lot. Throw the clothes on and hit the pavement, ready to explore! Without sounding clichéd, enthusiasm for life and an interest in others is a great fashion plus!

  19. In the process of lowering my size right now and using it to protect some time to think about my wardrobe AWAY from the shops. . . . so your post, so well-written, resonates. . . .
    And wasn’t the song-bursting-into an odd mix of charm and annoyance in that film? French pop, and a very specific form thereof . . . let me just admit that I sometimes used it to take a bathroom break without having to press the pause button!

    1. materfamilias, re: the film, yes it was a disconcerting pendulum swing between deeply charged and cheesy. I don’t think the music added anything to the story but then I’m not French, and maybe there was some irony there that was lost on me.

  20. I use two basic neutrals that flatter me – navy and camel-khaki-taupe-brown. Also I try to find a few quality basics, pencil skirt, blazer, pants, and classic white and chambray shirts. Then I add knit tops,well fitted jeans, and cashmere sweaters. My accent colors are blues, greens, and a touch of yellow and coral-peach. In an effort to achieve a wardrobe that stays timelessly in style, I always ask myself: would Audrey Hepburn or Jackie Kennedy wear this? This has worked for me!!! I prefer a FEW quality things that flatter me – instead of a lot of novelty and cheaply made items. My wardrobe has become smaller and smaller as I experiment and discover what I am consistently drawn to wear each day. I love this minimalist way…everything goes with everything.. It is actually easier to get dressed and much more fun — and most of all… It Saves time and money!

  21. I get a little bored with my basics, but I stick with them because they flatter me the most.

    If you want a fun film for wardrobe-watching, Blue Jasmine. Cate Blanchett’s character wears Chanel, Hermes etc but basically wears the same few pieces over and over. All in shades of beige and cream (which would do nothing for me, but are beautiful on her.) Never mind that her character is supposed to be losing her mind!

  22. What a great post. I find myself wanting to simplify EVERYTHING, complicated by having clothes I’m emotionally attached to (shall we sing “memories…”?) not to mention, different sizes. Simplifying isn’t always simple, but oh do satisfying when you can do it.

    And I love the combo above.

  23. I realized awhile ago that the periods in my life when I have purchased clothes that aren’t my typical uniform (and looking at pictures from my 30th high school reunion, it is a life-long uniform. Oy) have been when I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be…freshman in college, new mom, newly separated single parent, newly promoted leader. When I’m comfortable about who I am, the uniform returns. Better quality, and less need to have it in every color, as I’ve discovered the colors, textures, and fit that I prefer. And accessories, yes, they truly do make a difference.

  24. I could not agree more with simplicity and find myself guilty of weighing myself down under the bulk of my clothing and accessory collection, often rendered unable to assemble an outfit merely because the selection is to varied. One should find a balance allowing you enough flexibility to choose but not to much to burden you with to many options! I refuse to buy seasonal things that fill up land space after one season and I have adopted the approach to discard the idea of cheap finds, guised as bargains! Your style is great allowing you to mix and match!

  25. Tish, I really need to let you know how much I enjoy reading your posts. They have totally changed my perspective in the way I shop, pack and wear my outfits. Thank you so very much for sharing all your wonderful ideas.

  26. What a great post. I will look for the book you mentioned. I’ve lived in NYC for 17 years so I am used to having just half of a tiny closet (the other half belongs to my husband). The lack of space must’ve been working on my mind all that time because I have a tiny wardrobe (which is why I am shy when it comes to outfit posts). It’s all about the accessories for me and that is where I spend the real money these days. Everything else feels like a canvas for the accessories! I find too many choices when it comes to actual wardrobe pieces makes me feel overwhelmed and then I can’t decide on what to wear at all. Great topic. I love your writing. XO, Jill

  27. I think your method of simplification works very well for you. I just got through editing my summer closet (I lost some weight, too) and, for me, fit is the most critical element. I tend to wear a lot more color than you do but I’ve got a decent amount of neutrals, too. Winter closet is next up for critical culling.


  28. I live half the year 15 minutes outside of Manhattan and the other half in Hot Southwestern Florida. The neutrals in both areas are totally different. I am an Autumn in coloring and a lot of those colors just looked odd in Fl. A lot of black or charcoal grey in Fl. looks mostly out of place, particularly during the day. . And the Fl. colors – turquoise, coral, lime whie ok in the NY summers are really limiting in NY

    My basics for either place are Navy, Taupe, Light warm grey, beiges, black for evenings I live in knits in NY but in Fl. they are way to heavy and I wear very lightwight cottons or linens. So it seems like I have to have a mostly different minimalsit wardrobe in both places.

  29. I was really inspired years ago by the book by Helene St James on Simplifying your Life. I have simplified mine in many aspects except for clothing! I like COLOR too much and most recipes for simplifying your wardrobe start with a neutral palette. But I do think too much clothing is overwhelming and can become obsessive. I try and use a 30 day wait list; if I still am thinking about an item a month later, then maybe its a purchase I shall make!
    I did notice French women have much fewer articles of clothing, My friend and I were shocked when staying in Paris and a women at the bank wore the same 2 dresses for 2 weeks! But really, what a great thing~xoxo

  30. I love this post! I strongly believe that paring down has improved my style. I use color to streamline. As I get older I notice that I don’t look great in black anymore, so I am shedding it. With my reddish brown hair, green eyes and fair skin I really look better in brown, and I’m learning to use brown like black and base the rest of my color choices on it. Everything I acquire needs to go with brown and I find that liberating! The color I struggle a bit with is green, because although it looks good on me I don’t like the way it looks with brown, it makes me feel like a forest creature. So I wear it with jeans, or in the summer with gold/tan.

  31. Congrats on the weight loss. I have lost and gained the same 8 lbs for the past 10 years. I have
    recentely decided to forgive myself and give up dieting. The same goes for simplifying my wardrobe. I have been working toward this for a year and have not yet accomplished my goal. This past week, I began to understand how much stress this goal has placed on my life and I decided to cease and desist for the time being. I don’t know why simplifying has been such a stressor for me, but I decided to let is rest for awhile and decide my path a later date. If a project is causing you so much stress you need to reevaluate. Something is not right!

  32. I wrote at some length about this topic on my blog, Late Blooming Rose, under “The Joy (and Frustration) of Weeding.” Between a recent weight loss, a move, and gaining little control over my addiction to sale racks, well – I’ve discarded so much clothing recently. Vous avez mis le doigt dessus – too many options are worse than too few, especially if nothing really goes with anything else. I admire your elegant simplicity, and look forward to reading the book you’ve recommended – merci mille fois!

  33. Heavens, don’t I relate to this post! It’s a first-world problem, isn’t it, Sue?

    I’m constantly looking at my closet, wondering how I can pare it down to what really matters. I’ll think about getting rid of things that I seldom if ever wear, and then have a hard time saying goodbye…because more close equal more options. I also feel like having more allows me to do laundry less often. Is that wacky or what?

    The reality is I wear the same things over and over and I DO love simplicity. While I love to be creative, most days, I prefer the ease of selecting a blouse and a pair of slacks–plain, plain, plain Jane, I know. But I know I won’t have to think and can still look put together. I have gobs of blouses and slacks, so I sometimes think it would be a good idea to get rid of everything else and just let that be my signature look.

    In my dreams, I would also edit things down to a basic neutral that would pair with all other things (black, brown, navy, beige, gray) but I’ve never settled on one that I like best, so that simplification idea has never worked for me.

    Thanks for a lovely post…I’ll look forward to checking out the book.

  34. So funny…I’ve been rereading “Simple Isn’t Easy” the last two nights! I also feel driven by the need to simplify.

  35. What a brilliant post! Completely relate and have spent the past two yep ears culling and refining my wardrobe. My colour palette is essentially black, white, navy and grey and i keep to a very simple silhouette. While I like to keep up with what’s trending, I don’t seek to wear trends. I feel I am finally in a place where I know hi I am and hiwntonreflect that in how I dress. Too many clothes is oppressive for me too.

  36. I love this post so much. I just threw out lots of clothing today for the first time in about six years. In the past, I mostly tried to stick to the cost per wearing rule when I bought. But then I hit lean times, bought crap and clung onto everything basically.

    Now I’m gonna be more strict with myself re: clothes purchases in the future. When I was clearing out I discovered: cheap t-shirts are a waste of money – any I bought from asos own brand were a poor fit, washed badly and were hardly worn. V expensive formal dresses are a waste – you only wear them once or twice. Yes – have one “look at me dress” that everyone loves – then save your money and get over it and give someone else a chance at the spotlight. 🙂

    Pay more for the things you wear constantly – the perfect suit, the fab black trousers, trench, little black dress etc. When you de-clutter your clothes you will congratulate yourself on investing in these amazing items and love how great they look after so many years use-age.