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The Wardrobe Equation

The Wardrobe Equation

When I was in high school, my parents would amusingly smile at my endless complaints about having nothing to wear. Mostly because it wasn’t true: I had a closet full of clothes. What I was really complaining about was not having something brand new to wear. At that time, I had begun reading fashion magazines (I had subscriptions to both Seventeen and YM). And every month, unconsciously or not, I would convince myself that my wardrobe was somehow lacking and in need of a new top or pant that resembled the one I saw on page X of magazine Z. Over a year this ‘need’ for new clothes would quickly add up and was limited mainly by the extent of my parents’ willingness to indulge it. Fortunately for them this was a time before the real advent of fast fashion. Clothing store inventories were seasonal, so the pace at which new clothing became available for me to covet was still manageable.

Back then at the age of 16, there was plenty of time to read fashion magazines, even with school, extracurriculars and a full-time summer job. All of the additional responsibilities of adulthood were still some years away. Fast forward 25 years and I can’t remember the last time I bought a fashion magazine – it has been more than a decade. As life became busier and filled with new responsibilities, following fashion became less interesting or necessary, replaced by a want for complementary clothing that showed consistent and timeless style.

In addition, more recently I have been thinking about how to simplify my wardrobe. This question especially became relevant when my husband and I purchased our first home a few years ago in a historical 1910 condominium (with its original 1910 floorplan). Here my clothing closet is long and narrow, 1.5 feet deep and 6 feet long, of which only half of this space is readily accessible. That’s about 5 square feet of accessible closet space, compared to the minimum footprint of 20 square feet for today’s average walk-in closet. But not letting present-day norms affect my judgment, I could clearly see that there was still enough room to hang at least a few dozen clothing items in this closet of yesteryear.

The question that followed then was: with the right kind of clothing in my wardrobe, how much did I really need? Let’s imagine a hypothetical wardrobe: 10 unique blouses and 5 unique pants. Assume these items are all complementary, consistent and timeless in style, which means each of these ten blouses could easily be worn with any of the five pants. That makes 50 (10 x 5) unique outfits. With that many outfits, I could wear them equally and never wear any one outfit more than about seven times per year.  Even if I didn’t like twenty percent of the blouse-pant combinations and only half of the outfits were weather-appropriate at any time of the year, I would still have 20 unique outfits to wear on any day. Assuming 20 workdays per month, I could get away with wearing a specific outfit to the office just once per month. This is a simplified example, but it provides some quick perspective on how much mileage one can get out of a small but cohesive wardrobe.

The want for new clothing long ago outweighed the need for it. It is estimated that Americans discard more than 12 million tons of clothing per year. With fast fashion, many clothing items are worn just a few times or never at all. The most definitive way to change this is to reprogram how we think about what we wear, starting with consuming more of what we need and less of what we want. It means divorcing ourselves from ideas like every new day deserves a new outfit. As suggested above, all we really need are enough outfits. In addition, when we buy clothes we need to change our perception of what makes a good deal: do we equate it with low price and large quantity, or with longevity? Investing in well-made (and maybe more expensive) clothing means a longer lifecycle and therefore, longer time before that next clothing need arises. Best of all, we may realize that we don’t miss all of those extra clothes we used to buy, because we were barely wearing them as it is.

Shilpa Shah

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