As a fashion editor turned style coach, I spend a lot of time in other people’s closets — not with the intention of being critical, but to help them build the wardrobe of their dreams and, in the process, discover their true contemporary style.
In my nine years of doing this, I’ve seen it all: racks of garments with price tags still on them, 17 pairs of black pants in different (outdated) styles, sequined hot pants, triplicates of the exact same garment in the exact same color because the owner didn’t remember she had already purchased the first — or the second — one. The list goes on.
By the time we reach a nice, mature age, we’ve been through countless fashion eras, and our closets reflect that. While it’s nice to think that some of our favorite trends will come back into style (and they might), it’s probably time to chuck the hip-huggers and blazers with linebacker-size shoulder pads.
It’s a commonly repeated statistic in my field that most people wear 10 percent of their clothing 90 percent of the time. Check it out for yourself over the next two weeks. The truth is, you could probably get rid of 25 to 50 percent of what’s in your closet and not even miss it. You’ll get more from pairing down and decluttering than just more closet space. Based on my experience, you’ll discover you have more stylish clothes than you thought, and in the process become a savvier shopper.
The bottom line is that most people shop with their hearts instead of their heads, then for a variety of reasons have a hard time getting rid of things they’ll never wear (and possibly never wore). And yet, there are certainly some real winners in your closet. They might need some tailoring to bring them up to date or make them fit better, but they’re there and worth finding.
To launch the process of discovery, reduce impulsive buying and move toward a simpler, more stylish way of dressing, first you need to clear out the clutter.
Five-Step Closet Evaluation
Step 1: Take Inventory. To see what you actually own, organize the mass first into categories (pants, skirts, tops, jackets, sweaters) then into colors within each category (dark to light). If necessary, beg, borrow or steal a clothes rack for this important process.
Step 2: Arm Yourself. Assemble three really big bags and label them Discard, Donate and Hold.
Step 3: Review. In the privacy of your bedroom — where you can be painfully honest with yourself — take a good, hard look at every single garment. Place anything ripped, faded, worn-out or otherwise unacceptable in the Discard bag. Yes, even that cashmere turtleneck with the stain on the front. It’s never coming out, you’ll never wear it again, so let it go.
Step 4: Get Tough. Put anything you no longer like yet can’t bear to discard or haven’t worn in five years in the Donate bag.
Step 5: Leave Yourself an Out. Place clothing you like but are either tired of or equivocal about — that are of good quality, in good shape and fit your image and body — in the Hold bag. Store them in a place where where they'll be protected, like a cedar chest, and review them again next year. If you’re still on the fence then, follow the “when in doubt, throw it out” rule.
Everything else is a contender for your new look and stays in your closet. Now it’s time to go on a shopping spree where the clothes are free. Before you begin, however, you need to think about what you want your look to convey.
Define Your Image to Create Your Style
Determining the image you want to project is essential because whenever you don’t know what to wear, you can come back to this image and find something that supports it.
Pick one adjective that sums up the impact you want to make. If you’re in a professional field, your word might be “smart” or “trustworthy.” If you work in banking, maybe “wealthy” or “conservative.” For an artist: “original” or “creative.” The next step is putting together looks that convey this attitude. Of course, outfits should also accentuate your assets while playing down your less-than-best features.
Now comes the fun part. Start by dressing in your favorite outfit, including accessories. Stand in front of a full-length mirror. Inspect yourself to be sure the skirt or pants fit perfectly. Still love that blouse? Is the jacket the right length and a flattering cut? Do your favorite earrings work? Without even trying, you probably personify the image you want to convey.
Once you’ve created your “core” outfit, start experimenting with options. For example, pair the skirt with a more tailored blouse and wrap a double-strand of pearls around your neck. Slip on a pair of knee-high black boots and put the jacket back on. Another winning outfit! Next swap the jacket for a long cardigan (with an optional belt). Dress it down another notch by replacing the necklace with a scarf, ends tucked inside the collar.
Systematically go through all your favorite outfits and do the same thing. Pair bottoms with tops you never thought to put together and see how they look. Don’t forget to try different hose, shoes and boots and to change your accessories. Take photos of every outfit you like and create your own “look book,” making a note of which items need altering.
To assess the outfits more objectively, really scrutinize those photos. Anything that can't work with your new look goes into the Donate bag. I’m confident you’ll find that you have more to wear, and more that makes you look modern and fabulous, than you realized.
The most fun way to get rid of your discards is by throwing a wardrobe swap party with friends. But there are plenty of truly needy people (and critters) out there. Some animal shelters accept clothing as bedding. Other charities, likes Wearable Collections, recycle fabric and are less fussy about the condition of the clothes. In addition to women’s shelters, thrift shops, church groups, the Salvation Army and Goodwill, look into www.freestyle.org and Dress for Success (especially for business attire in good shape).
Susan Sommers is a style and communications coach in New York City.