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Engineering a Wardrobe

It occurred to me, after writing about packing for a trip, that half of knowing how to pack lightly is having worked out a reasonable wardrobe.

If you want to make you life simpler, reduce the hassle of trying to put together an outfit in the morning, and reduce the amount of effort you expend in maintaining a wardrobe, Jay Gatsby's example is a good one. Fitzgerald's playboy had a wardrobe full of exactly the same outfit. While that is a bit of overkill, the systematic purchase and use of clothing is the goal.

I've always been fascinated by lists of what clothes you should own, with details like how many pairs of socks and underwear, how many dress shirts, and so on. But the reality is that determining what you need is so personal that you really cannot rely on a list made by somebody else. I spend my days in one of two modes: standing in a studio making models all day, or sitting at a desk drafting all day. If you're a trial lawyer or construction worker, the wardrobe that works perfectly for me is not going to work for you. My hobbies are large and extremely messy; if you do needlepoint you may not need to change your clothes at all.

So start by making a list of the things you do that require changes of clothing. Here's mine:

  1. Work or school
  2. Messy projects
  3. Exercise
  4. Out to fancy event
  5. Sleeping/Lazy time

Pretty simple, no? That's because "Messy projects" encompasses everything from gardening to making plaster molds or repairing plaster. And work or school require pretty much the same outfit; I could dress more casually for school or more formally for work, but I don't because it's simpler not to.

Then create a "uniform" for each type:

  1. Work or school: black pants, long-sleeved t-shirt, black shoes
  2. Messy projects: older clothes from work or school
  3. Exercise: t-shirt, leggings, sneakers
  4. Out to fancy event: fancy top, black skirt, black shoes
  5. Sleeping/Lazy time: pyjamas

There are a couple of important things in that series of uniforms. The first is that I've chosen a "neutral" colour to use as a base: black. This means I only need to buy shoes and purses and stuff that match black, which is hard enough, but easier than having black, various shades of brown, a burgundy, and so on.

The other is that I'm recycling the clothes I wear to work or school for use in another activity. The more you can move clothes up from one activity to another, the less you need to buy and maintain separate sets of clothing.

After I chose my "neutral" colour, I chose a set of highlight colours that work for me. I buy shirts in dark red, dark green, and purple. I might branch out and get something that is a little lighter in colour, or more orangy than red, but I pretty much stick to my uniform because those are the colours that work on me and for me. It means that everything I own works together: my jacket always matches my shirt well enough, and any accessories also work with everything I own. It also makes buying easier: I find a shirt style I like and buy it in those colours. There's enough variation that I don't always feel like I'm wearing the same clothes, but not so much that getting dressed in the morning takes more than five minutes. Perfect.

Something that's hidden is the systematic support clothing. Find a kind of underwear, a kind of sock, a kind of tights, and so on. Buy them in bulk. Not only does this reduce the amount of time you spend doing things like pairing socks (you don't need to pair them at all if you don't want to), but it means that you always have what you need and they can all be cleaned together. Not having to run fourteen different tiny loads of laundry every week makes a huge difference. And buy enough so that you can put off laundry reasonable amounts of time, but not so much that you have no incentive to ever do the wash. I think I have about two weeks worth of socks and underwear, for example; probably a bit more. I do a load of laundry every week, so if I don't do the one with my underwear in it that week, I'm still fine. More than that is probably way too much clothing; storage space is limited.

Speaking of laundry, start reading labels. Make a decision about what level of cleaning you're willing to do, and only buy clothes if they fit that. Don't even try the clothes on if they don't fit your criteria, because it's no use falling in love with a blouse that requires more care than you are willing to put into a blouse.

My criteria are pretty straightforward (I've been working on this for years):

  1. If it's worn daily, it must be machine washable on regular cycle
  2. If it requires the delicate cycle, it must be something I only need to launder monthly
  3. If it requires dry cleaning, it must be either something special, or something that gets cleaned seasonally

I own about six or seven items of clothing that require dry cleaning, and one of them is my wedding dress. The rest are fancy clothes that I wear when we go out to eat or to formal events. When the event is over, most of those can be brushed clean and hung back up in the closet. Not having to run lots of clothes to the cleaners regularly is a real time-saver and reduces the amount of stress in my life -- I hate getting things dry-cleaned. If I had a job where I had to wear a suit, I would probably have enough suits that I could make only a monthly visit to the cleaners.

A friend of mine decided to simplify his clothing by buying twenty work shirts and having them laundered at the cleaners. This means he has an absolutely astonishing number of wire hangers, but it also means that once a week he drops shirts off and picks up clean ones, and he never has to wash, iron, or otherwise maintain them. He has enough shirts that if he's late by a day or misses a week, he's fine. It works nicely for him.

When you're engineering your wardrobe, whether to simplify your life or to make mornings easier, or just to get rid of the random weird clothes that you never seem to be able to match with anything else, the important thing is to remember that this is for YOU. You are not trying to turn yourself into me, or anybody else. You have to make the system work for you or it will not work at all.

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