My Wardrobe, Myself

The intersection of clothing, emotions, and life

A key reason why I stopped writing my previous blog, Recovering Shopaholic, was that I had gotten burned out on continuously exploring the topics of wardrobe management, shopping, and personal style. I was also tired of being a sort of “poster child” for compulsive shopping. I needed a break from the spotlight on me and my shopping behavior, plus I wanted to write about other things. Although I would periodically publish essays on alternate subjects on Recovering Shopaholic, when I decided to return to blogging, I thought a fresh start with a new site would be the best approach.

I like the fact that Full Life Reflections has a much wider scope, but after taking some space from wardrobe-related topics, I have a renewed interest in writing such posts again. I still plan to keep this blog fairly balanced in terms of subject matter, but since the goal is to explore happiness, peace, and fulfillment in today’s chaotic world, writing about managing “closet chaos” fits in quite nicely. After all, if one’s closet is bursting at the seams and they still feel like they have “nothing to wear,” that doesn’t lend itself toward feeling calm and happy, does it?

A Topic Not Often Addressed…

In today’s post, I’m going to look at wardrobe size and closet churn. When I wrote about applying the “Goldilocks Principle” to our lives last week, I mentioned that I would do a follow-on post about how this concept relates to our wardrobes. I still plan to do this and have been giving it a lot of thought, but what kept coming up for me is how one can’t really look at wardrobe size honestly and authentically without considering the degree to which “closet churn” is an issue for them. These topics are closely related, but I think there is often far too much focus on the former and not nearly enough on the latter. I have been guilty of that phenomenon myself, which is why I want to come clean today and commit to doing things differently.

closet churn

Have you pared down your closet only to have the size creep up once again? 

Closet churn is basically a continuous flow of clothing in and out of one’s closet. Many people who boast about having a “minimalist wardrobe” still shop on a regular basis, but they’re also diligent about purging items from their closets. Such individuals don’t usually consider themselves to be “shopaholics” (as an aside, very few people will admit to that moniker – I can’t tell you how many emails or blog comments I’ve received that opened with “I’m not a shopaholic, but…”), as their closets are not jam-packed and they own only a small number of items. However, if they have a lot of closet churn going on, that may be the area to shine a spotlight on rather than simply counting how many pieces they own.

Wardrobe Size is a Hot Topic!

I have written a lot of posts on wardrobe size and they are among the most popular essays I’ve written. In fact, my 2013 post titled “What is a Normal-Sized Wardrobe?” remains the most viewed on Recovering Shopaholic by far. Additionally, five more of my top 20 posts are on the subjects of wardrobe size and paring down a large wardrobe:

I linked those posts for those of you who are interested in the topic and want to read more. There is some overlap in what I wrote about, but there is value to be gained from each article, as well as the many wonderful follow-on comments from readers.

The Elephant in the Room

In my essay on paring down a large wardrobe, I mentioned the proverbial “elephant in the room,” which is closet churn. I stated that “while there are lots of downsizing tips that can help, they won’t do much good if you keep bringing an overabundance of new pieces into your closet.” I recommended setting an item limit to help reduce the inflow of new items while one is also working to pare things down. Those two parts of the equation have to go hand-in-hand:  what’s coming in and what’s going out. Otherwise, any efforts toward wardrobe downsizing will only be short-term measures and it won’t be long before the closet gets overloaded once again. This seems extremely obvious and straightforward, but it’s all too easy to delude ourselves and feel virtuous about our purging successes while pulling the wool over our own eyes about our overshopping.

Closet churn is a huge problem for me personally. I don’t struggle all that much with purging things from my closet. If I’m not loving and wearing something, it’s usually not that difficult for me to pass it on via donation or consignment. The only significant purging challenges I encounter are around pieces that don’t currently fit me (still dealing with some menopausal weight gain that’s hanging on for dear life), items that were expensive, and things I think I should love but don’t. Those are some sticking points for sure, but in all honesty, the shopping part of the equation is my real difficulty. I haven’t been able to consistently adhere to an item limit even though I’ve done well in sticking to my clothing budget all years but one since I started Recovering Shopaholic in 2013.  Although I give myself credit for not spending a fortune on clothing anymore, the churn is an issue that needs to be addressed.

On “Closet Creep” and Set Point

My recent move and the remodeling we’re doing to our new home have highlighted the fact that my wardrobe is once again too large. While getting new flooring installed, we had to move the contents of our rooms around to clear out the spaces that were being worked on. I noticed that my “holding zone” (items that either don’t currently fit or are on the chopping block for being purged) had grown inordinately large. Those items are back in what’s now my office and since there isn’t a door on the closet at present (the old ones were taken off to do the flooring and it will be a few weeks before we put new ones on), I see them all day long. This fact and the upcoming flooring of our bedroom (which houses my main closet) are propelling me to do another “KonMari in the closet.” I’m excited to pare down, but before I do, I felt the need to explore the closet churn issue.

My “out and about” wardrobe has been hovering around 150 items for the past few years now.  Whenever the number creeps above that, it starts to feel like too much, so I think 150 items is my current “closet set point(and has been for some time). I’d ultimately like to lower my set point and have a smaller wardrobe, but that goal is not nearly as important as reducing the churn. I don’t want to purge 25 or so pieces this week only to have the number creep back up over the next few months. It would actually be better to keep what I have and try to make it work than it would be to pare down, give myself a false sense of security, and escalate my buying frequency shortly thereafter.  Of course, the best scenario would be to get rid of what’s not working for me, wear what does induce happiness, and only strategically add new pieces when a real need is identified.

Why Closet Churn Happens and How to Stop It

Why have I not been able to do this? Obviously, I could write a whole series of posts on this topic and I have explored the myriad reasons for overshopping in quite a few Recovering Shopaholic essays (including this one and this one). Those of us who struggle with compulsive shopping have to find alternate ways of meeting our needs, as no amount of new clothes, shoes, and accessories can fill an internal void or change our life circumstances. I continue to work on all aspects of my life and I share a lot of what I’ve been thinking, exploring, and changing here on the blog. My word for the year, “essential,” has worked a lot of magic in my life and I feel less stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious than I did when 2018 began. In the last third of this year, I’m going to place more focus on my physical environment and look at what’s essential in my wardrobe and in my home.

So, how can we stop closet churn? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to that question, but I always like to start with awareness. Maintaining lists of what’s coming into and leaving our closets can help us to recognize the sheer waste of it all. Asking ourselves important questions about why we’re either buying or purging something can enable us to identify patterns that are emerging on both ends. Doing so can assist us in writing “do not buy” lists so we can stop purchasing the types of items we don’t ultimately hang on to and things that are already well represented in our closets. Once a do not buy list has been created, it should be reviewed before each time we purchase something new. We can also create an “okay to buy” list for the things we actually need, which will enable us to make more inspiring outfits that work well for our bodies and lifestyles. I’ve found that the more specific such lists are, the more effective they end up being. If they’re vague and ambiguous, it’s a lot easier to go astray with our shopping.

Conclusion and Your Thoughts

In my next post, I will share my lists, as well as some additional thoughts and exercises to help you “right-size” your wardrobe for your particular lifestyle needs. I’ll also update you on how I fared in shopping the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale (NAS) in July/August (which I initially wrote about here). In the meantime, I’d love to get your insights on the topic of “closet churn”:

  • Is closet churn a problem for you, or has it been in the past?
  • Why do you think that closet churn occurs?
  • What has helped you to stop the continual inflow and outflow of wardrobe items?
  • What do you feel is an appropriate wardrobe size for you and why?

The questions above are intended to spark your thought process, but feel free to comment in any way you’d like about the topics addressed in this post. I look forward to reading your words of wisdom. If any of you are headed out to the malls or shopping online this holiday weekend (in the U.S.), here are a few posts from the archives that you may find helpful:

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24 thoughts on “Musings on Wardrobe Size and “Closet Churn”

  1. Tara C says:

    I don’t have a problem with closet churn now that I’m not working any more. I am just wearing the things I already own until they wear out or I get tired of them and toss/donate. After taking up cycling and yoga a few years ago, I bought a set of clothes for those activities, but I’m satisfied now and haven’t bought any more. I have stopped buying pretty much everything except perfume, which is still a passion of mine, but I’ve slowed way down on that too. As for wardrobe size, I do have too many clothes, accumulated over many years, but by allowing the amount to decrease due to attrition rather than aggressively donating feels better to me. Waste not, want not kind of thing. I think if I tried to make myself get rid of stuff just to get down to a certain number of items it would trigger another shopping binge, so I’m not doing that. I will live with the excess (which is honestly not overwhelming) until it dwindles naturally.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Good to hear from you, Tara, and congrats on not having a problem with closet churn or overbuying any longer! There’s really no good reason I should still have closet churn, either, but I still do… I agree with you that getting rid of things just to meet a certain item number is not wise and can definitely trigger a buying binge. That has happened to me more than once… Letting the number decrease due to attrition is a good way to go for things that we still like and still fit. I’m actually grateful for a smaller closet now, as that will help me to buy less and work more with what I have.

  2. jenn says:

    Beginning in 2018, I’ve been keeping track of what I get rid of and what I purchase. I set forth a requirement that I had to get rid of three things in order to purchase two and separated items in categories of small or big.

    Fast forward to August. Family vacations, away from the structure of home, regular writing, holding myself accountable. I am now way over my limit.

    What’s worse, I intended for my new purchases to be made conscientiously, not impulsively. But many items I’ve bought this year, I’ve already donated. In fact, at times of anxiety, my shopping can be almost bulimic.

    My closet contains a ridiculous number of clothes and accessories (I’ve only counted shoes—over 80 pair), some that I love and enjoy wearing. However–because outside activities take me away from writing, and I enjoy only small doses of social time–most days I wear (gulp) a Life is Good T-shirt and knit pants. I’m comfortable, look presentable when walking out to the end of driveway to get the mail, can exercise in them, and even sleep in them (clean, of course)!

    I could care less about the car I drive as long as it gets me place to place. I don’t overbuy anything else but clothing and accessories and would never get myself in financial trouble to do it, but the shame….

    Causes? Besides, buying too impulsively, sometimes I feel I make a lot of mistakes purchasing because I lack self-awareness, so I’ve been working on that. I’m also creative, and I love looking at clothing, experimenting, putting outfits together.

    With all the recent family vacations (in which I felt obligated to partake), there’s also been a sense of losing control. This, I think causes me anxiety and exacerbates my shopping issues. Possibly avoidance plays a part too. I’m currently writing my second novel. (My first isn’t horrible, but not good enough to publish.) When I take a break from it, it’s so hard to re-immerse myself. Plus, I’ve struggled with low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy, so that could play a part. I was definitely deprived in childhood of having clothes like the other kids wore. My parents weren’t struggling financially, but they were smart with their money and I aimed to please by allowing my mother to guide me to inexpensive choices. Cheap jeans instead of the Levi’s I really wanted. I’ve certainly made up for that!

    For the moment, I’m back to writing and back in control of my spending. But I need to prepare for the next time a circumstance arises (like the trip we are taking later this month) that causes me to veer off from the structure I’ve regained.

    Since I’ve kept a record of the items I’ve gotten rid of this year, I think your idea of a “do not buy” list is a good place to start, as well as an “okay to buy” list. Meanwhile, I’ll start with the lists and look forward to your next post.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful comment, Jenn. I agree with you that anxiety can lead to impulsive rather than conscientious purchasing. Like you, clothing is the only thing that I overbuy at this point. I used to overbuy other things (shoes, accessories, books, etc.), but not anymore. Now it’s just clothes… I resonated with what you wrote about low self-esteem and inadequacy playing a role in overshopping. I don’t know how long you’ve been reading my blog and if you read “Recovering Shopaholic,” but I thought you might like to read the following posts from 2013:

      Congrats on getting back on track with both your writing and your spending. I hope the “do not buy” and “okay to buy” lists will be helpful for you. I think that the more awareness we can cultivate, the better. Good for you for wanting to be prepared for when the next time an anxiety-producing occasion arises. Keeping good thoughts for you! 🙂

      1. jenn says:

        Thank you for the links, Debbie. They both resonated with me. I definitely have an issue with self-acceptance, but I’m working on it.

  3. Kim says:

    I think this post was written for me! I have about 75 pieces total, but I am on a constant quest to get the perfect 75 pieces…and there is always something better out there. I buy and donate way too much. One of my current goals is to focus on gratitude for what I have, rather than what could be improved.

    1. Wendy says:

      I concord with Kim’s sentiments. I am the biggest offender of closet churn. I can guarantee that I have had more wardrobe churns more than Debbie and her readers of this post. My family would no doubt say I am more of an obsessive purger than obesessive shopper, although one has to be the latter in order to have items to purge. On the surface, it is the quest is to acquire the ‘perfect’ wardrobe – one where I will wear everything and with items that I can quickly pick out that goes together. But this so called quest does not call for all the items I have purged over the years, as I do constantly look back at what I have donated and know most were compulsive purchases.

      1. Debbie Roes says:

        I remember many of your comments on Recovering Shopaholic, Wendy, and thought of you as I wrote this post. I’m glad you decided to comment and share your thoughts. I think there are a lot of obsessive purgers out there, including many of those who call themselves minimalists. Good for you for recognizing that you have made a lot of compulsive purchases over the years. I’ve found that the more “in the shopping frenzy” I’ve been, the worse my purchases were. I don’t think the “perfect” wardrobe exists, but a workable one does. My problem is that I’ve often been far too focused on what I didn’t have that I didn’t pay enough attention to what was already there. I hope that both of us (and all others with this issue) will be able to reduce our closet churn moving forward…

    2. Debbie Roes says:

      The quest for perfection leads a lot of us astray, Kim. I like your goal of focusing on gratitude. Such a practice can go a long way. There is no end to the continued attempt to improve and perfect our wardrobes, so at some point we have to take a step back and try to just enjoy what we have. I know it’s not easy, though, which is why I am back to writing about this topic again!

  4. Tonya says:

    I think what I’ve got right now is a good size wardrobe for me. I had no idea what that was so I just went and counted for the first time in ages. 91 out and about clothes, 26 shoes, and a small of amount of lounge and hiking clothes that I didn’t count. So about twice the size that I once had when I tried to be as minimalist as possible. I was one of those people that had a tiny closet, but a ton of churn. I was forever looking for the perfect thing or something that one thing that could replace two others (that were perfectly good). My closet churn has greatly improved, but I think it’s still unreasonable. I’ve started challenging all of my excuses that I use to shop. Updating, trends, better quality, etc. I’m fine with adding a couple of new trendy things a season, but I often add way more than that. Last year’s stuff doesn’t go out of style that quickly. One good thing I did was buy good quality basics. I no longer feel the need to upgrade those. I’m just trying to get real with myself. My lifestyle means that most of my nicer stuff doesn’t get worn all that often. I just don’t need a ton of it. If I keep buying I either have stuff that is just sitting there unused or I donate stuff that I still like that there is nothing wrong with. Neither option sits well with me. The only solution I see is to buy way less stuff and make it count when I do.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thanks for your comment, Tonya, and thanks for taking the time to go and count your wardrobe items! It does sound like what you have now is a good size wardrobe for you. I think that some of us with more casual lifestyles often think we SHOULD have smaller wardrobes, but there is no absolute right size. It’s all about what is the right size for us, and that number can be a moving target. Congrats on the progress you have made with your closet churn and for challenging your shopping excuses. I think we can always rationalize our way toward buying things, but most of those excuses don’t hold water under cross-examination. Great job with getting real with yourself! I don’t need a ton of nicer stuff, either. Your solution is the one I need to implement, too. We can do it and we can help each other 🙂

  5. Claire says:

    A quick aside… I would love to hear more about your new place and the updates y’all are making if writing on that topic interests you, Debbie! Also look forward to hearing how you fared with NAS.

    Closet churn is definitely a tiresome point of frustration, directly related to my health issues. In addition to the more typical medically influenced weight fluctuations, from day to day my nervous system can be extremely reactive to tiny subtle differences in fit and fabric (pressure/touch on the skin as well as temperature). This is compounded by the inconsistent and low quality out there these days, which is a mixed blessing – on the one hand i can afford to experiment and fail a lot, on the other hand it seems like everything is a crapshoot and wardrobe building takes forever! But I cut myself a lot of slack and don’t feel excessive guilt, as I’m kind of resigned to this being part of the disability “package”, and just try to take advantage of the positive points of having to spend so much time churning my closet. Hehehe, folks used to churn butter, now we churn closets!

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thanks for your comment, Claire. I will definitely share how I fared with NAS very soon (hint – a mixed bag…) and I will likely write more about my new home in the future as well. As for closet churn, I know your health issues make it so much more challenging. The same is true for me, but I think your challenges are more severe in terms of nervous system reactions to clothing. It’s hard enough for healthy people to find good clothes! I think it’s great that you have a kind and loving attitude toward yourself and your wardrobe building. I hope things will get easier for you somehow and I wish you more “wins” in terms of clothes that you like, are comfortable, and stand the test of time. LOL about the churning butter comment! It definitely helps to have a sense of humor about all of this!

  6. Wendy says:

    Debbie and fellow comment readers,

    I just came across this wonderful article about a clothing shopaholic. It’s actually 10 years old and I can’t believe I haven’t came across it before. Old news to some but new news to me. I think you would find it interesting regardless if you agree with it or not.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thanks for sharing this post, Wendy! I hadn’t seen it either. I always like to read articles on this topic, as there are so many “layers” to compulsive shopping problems. I enjoyed reading the article and found it very interesting, but I didn’t fully resonate with the female appraiser part. I do feel that’s been an issue for me, but definitely not the biggest motivator of my overshopping behavior. I have written a lot on my reasons – and the reasons of other shopaholics – for shopping too much, and this article uncovered yet ANOTHER one, so it’s really like peeling an onion, isn’t it?

  7. Terra says:

    Back when I worked full time and shopped frequently (more than 7 years ago) and bought about 4 items per month, I had a fair amount of closet churn. Now that I’m buying much less (mostly just replacing worn out items) I don’t have much churn at all. Just replacing a well worn sweater that has begun to look shabby and other items that after five years of wear are beginning to either wear out or have begun to look dated. I’m older and at this stage in my life I have a small, perfect sized wardrobe for me.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I always admire your smaller wardrobe and your low shopping frequency, Terra, and I aspire to get to where you are! As I mentioned to Tara above (whose situation is very much like yours), there is no real reason why I should have so much closet churn. It’s just compulsive behavior – that I am really trying to get to the bottom of and change. I have made good progress and am proud of that, but I do hope I can stop the churn soon, which is why I’m writing about it now…

  8. Michaela K says:

    Although I’ve made progress in overcoming bad shopping habits over the past few years, closet churn is still a big issue for me. I think setting a budget and then lowering that budget this year has unexpectedly contributed to my closet churn because I’m more conscious of buying inexpensive items to get more bang for my buck, and the fact that too many of my purchases have been trendy items hasn’t helped either. I’ve also noticed the size of my wardrobe creeping up over the past 6 to 12 months to point where I have too much and am now in purging mode again. It really is a challenge to find the right balance between wardrobe size, churn and budget.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thanks for your comment, Michaela. I agree with you that having a lower budget can contribute to closet churn for a shopaholic. We are often less discerning when the price for something is lower, which leads to more mistakes and more churn. You and I seem to be on a similar trajectory with “wardrobe creep” leading to purgin mode. It is definitely a delicate balance to find the “sweet spot” in terms of budget, wardrobe size, and the inflow and outflow of items. I wish I had the answers, but I’m going to keep working on it and I know you will, too!

  9. Jane says:

    Oh wow, I really resonate with this article. I was good for a long time, but due to some transitions in my life (job transition especially), my wardrobe is now all over the place…literally. I feel like some of my closet churn is due to the uncertainty in my life, but…I could definitely stand to shop less than I do…sigh.

    I’m hoping that once things settle down, I can pare down my wardrobe back to a pleasant, fills-the-closet-and-no-more number.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      It’s always good to hear from you, Jane. Transitions and the resulting uncertainty can definitely spur on closet churn. That’s been the case for me multiple times, including recently when my body has changed due to menopause. Awareness of the problem is the first step! I hope things will settle down for you soon and your shopping will go back to its previous level. I will share more exercises to potentially help in an upcoming post.

      1. Jane says:

        Thank you, Debbie! It’s great seeing new posts from you! It makes me happy to see all the strides you’ve made over the course of this blog!

  10. Katrina B says:

    Yep, I’m here a month later to comment because it seems like closet churn in my case is a much bigger issue than whether I have the right number of clothes. During my working years, I frequently tried to cover my social fears with expensive clothes, more professional clothes, more stylish clothes, or just new and different clothes. After a bad day at work, I’d go to the mall and buy a complete head to toe outfit that matched some image in my mind of how I would look if I was successful and/or happy. I’d wear the outfit the next day, expecting it to change my entire life. Later, having completely failed its purpose, the outfit would be relegated to the back of the closet and get tossed in the donate pile soon afterwards. I can only guess at the numbers over a 20-year career — it must have been thousands of items and hundreds of thousands of dollars. In this case, I can attribute 90% of the churn to chronic anxiety and 10% to not knowing my style.

    Then there was a transitional period where I decided to be intentional about my style so every time I changed directions in my life — going back to school, volunteering, working at home, etc — I created a new style for myself. That meant getting rid of almost everything in the closet and buying all new stuff. Yeah, not too smart. This might be news to the people on “What Not to Wear”. but you don’t change your style by just throwing everything out and ending up with a closet full of clothes you’re not comfortable in. Each of my style decisions resulted in a double churn, first when I got rid of my old familiar clothes, and second when I slowly discarded and replaced all the new things. Clearly this phase was mostly due to not knowing my style, but the decisions were partly triggered by anxiety — this time about being prepared for change.

    Now I’m in a space where even though I rarely purchase anything other than socks and underwear (due to lack of income), I know my style and I like my clothes, but still have a lot of churn, and I always have a donation pile going. I feel very weighed down when I see a lot of things in my closet. It’s not a number, but the amount of space they take up. I have almost 22 running feet of hanger space available but I like to see my clothes all together on less than 6 feet. So as you might guess, I’ve done some navel-gazing about this as well. In 1988, I would have felt that 2000 items was not enough, and in 2018, 200 is too many. What is the underlying change? Once again, it’s not really clothing-related. I’m in the middle of a relationship transition and uncertain whether I will be moving in the next month, the next year, or at all. My flight instinct makes me want to lighten all my burdens. I have to actually fight the urge to discard good clothing so I don’t end up with less than I need.

    So I’ve taken up a vast amount of your blog space to work through my own issues, but I want to thank you because it was a very interesting exercise and it gave me some excellent insights that I can apply in other areas of my life.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Katrina, I’m so glad you decided to comment and like I told you earlier, it doesn’t matter if it’s weeks after the post was made. It also doesn’t matter how much space you take up with your comment, as we don’t have a character limit around here (and I’m not exactly brief in my posts, either!). Thank you for being so open and honest in sharing your insights with me and your fellow readers. I found myself nodding along as I read what you shared and tears welled up in my eyes at some parts, as I resonate with so much of what you wrote.

      The majority of my overshopping has been fueled by anxiety and low self-esteem, and I shudder to think about how much money I’ve wasted over the years shopping for a feeling that eluded me. Like you, I also have social fears and feel like I don’t fit in a lot of the time. I agree with you that the approach of getting rid of everything and starting over again is usually ill-advised. You mentioned “What Not to Wear”… I remember reading an interview with Clinton Kelly in which he said that the aftermath of their makeovers on the show tended to follow the “rule of thirds” – one third kept up with their new style, one third partially kept it up and partially reverted to their old ways, and the following third fully reverted. I think it’s a matter of how committed the person was (which often was not at all since they were all nominated for the show) and the reasons behind their previous way of dressing/style.

      I’m sorry to read that you’re going through a difficult time. I understand the flight instinct. I felt that myself with my recent move and was disgusted with myself for how many clothes I have. Yet when I moved to San Diego 16 years ago, I had probably 5 times as many clothes as I do now and I didn’t think twice about transporting it all here. We evolve over time and both of us are not okay with how much we have even if it’s far less than before. I wish you the best with your life transition and I’m glad my post allowed you to do some helpful introspection and gain valuable insights.

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