Since the day I learned to dress myself, my style M.O. was to “look cute.” (I’m not saying it was always successful; there was a very unfortunate JNCO jeans phase in my adolescence). Now that I’m getting older, that’s shifted to “look polished/sophisticated/put-together.”
A year ago, I purged my closet of all the bad shopping decisions of my twenties. It was one of many closet cleanouts; I’d spent years in a cycle of buy-wear-toss and couldn’t figure out why I was never satisfied with my stuff.
During that Labor Day 2013 Purge to End All Purges, I got the moment of clarity I so desperately needed: the trick wasn’t filling a wardrobe with a whole bunch of random inexpensive stuff; it was creating a well-edited collection of great stuff.
For so many years, I equated good style with having lots of options and never wearing the same outfit twice. So I bought as much as I could within my [limited] budget: I rummaged through clearance racks, shopped at outlet stores and fast fashion retailers, and gave zero damns about quality or fit. I wasn’t invested in my clothes because I tied their worth to their value; which wasn’t much.
After that last cathartic closet cleanse, I promised myself that going forward I would be much more mindful of what I purchased. And I have been. In the last 12 months I’ve completely changed the way I think about shopping and my style: I have a better grip on what works for my body, I’m not afraid to splurge on quality basics, and I understand the value of keeping things super simple.
Here are the self-imposed rules I’ve followed to create a closet that I really love on the same budget I’ve had for years:
1. Is it on the list? One of the things that’s helped me the most this year is keeping a mental list of the pieces I think are missing from my closet from season to season, and sticking to that list when I’m shopping. The benefits are two-fold: it keeps me from buying a bunch of random crap, and helps me keep an updated inventory of what I have.
2. What’s it made of? When you start to pay attention to garment construction, you can easily spot shoddy pieces that will fall apart after the first wash. Now I check the tags on clothes the same way I check nutrition labels on food. I won’t buy shoes or handbags unless they’re leather (I always have great luck finding both on Hautelook), and I try to find things made from natural and/or durable fabrics that are easy to care for, like cotton, lyocell and rayon.
3. Does it fit? No seriously, does it fit? Not to be confused with, “can it zip?” Here’s what I’ve figured out as a 5’3″ hourglass: as much as I love shift dresses, I’m much better off in tailored and wrap styles; curvy-fit jeans that sit higher on the waist are my friend; super tight skinnies and cropped pants of any kind are my worst enemy; I should avoid mini skirts and shorts with less than a 4-inch inseam; and I feel best in tops and sweaters with some breathing room. Once you figure out what’s most flattering for shape, shopping becomes so much easier!
4. What’s the cost-per-wear? Five years ago, if you handed me a $100 gift card, I’d buy as much as I could with it, supermarket sweep style, and end up with a bag full of things I’d probably only wear once or twice. Now, I’d put it toward a staple — a great leather jacket, a pair of black suede pumps, or a little black dress — that I can wear lots of ways for years to come. At the end of the day, it comes down to cost per wear. If I impulse-buy a clearance top for $20 and wear it twice, my CPW is $10. If I splurge on a versatile black romper for $80 and wear it 25 times, my CPW is around $3. So romper, FTW.
It took me a while to get over my obsession with more is more, and realize that it’s better to have a few pieces I really love than a lot of pieces I just kinda like.
5. Will it play well with others? When I’m shopping for clothes, I stick to mostly neutral tones and pick just a few printed statement pieces. I used to do the exact opposite, and I ended up with a closet full of mismatched patterns and colors that didn’t work together. Now I can easily remix my favorite pieces and put outfits together quickly.