My Wardrobe, Myself

The intersection of clothing, emotions, and life

Last month, I wrote about applying the “Goldilocks Principle” to your life and I introduced three exercises you can use to help you determine which areas are either over-represented or under-represented in terms of your time and attention. I shared my personal lists of things I’d like to either increase (sleep, reading books, eating vegetables, etc.) or decrease (staying up late, screen time, self-criticism, etc.). My subsequent post was on the topic of wardrobe size and “closet churn” , where I asserted that addressing the amount that comes into our closets may actually be more important than working on paring things down. Today I’d like to basically “marry” these two topics and consider how the “Goldilocks Principle” of just right can be applied to our wardrobes.

Too Much Focus on Numbers

I have mentioned this many times in previous posts, but it bears repeating. There is no absolute right number of items a person should have in his or her closet. There are many variables that are included in such a determination and I won’t repeat them all here, as I have covered them in depth in posts such as this one.  Today’s essay isn’t about the numbers, but rather more about how we feel about our wardrobes. For years, I was very big into tracking and statistics, but that is less of a focus for me these days. While I still track how often I wear the items I own, my attention now centers more on determining the types of clothing pieces that will best serve me rather than on achieving an optimal cost-per-wear number or having zero wardrobe “benchwarmers.” Yes, I still care about both of those things, but my main emphasis now is on having a wardrobe that works for the body and Iife I have today.

just right wardrobe

I actually think that focusing too much on numbers can get us into trouble. While I believe that wardrobe challenges like Project 333 and the “30 for 30 Remix” can be beneficial, there is a danger in getting too wrapped up in having a “perfect” number of items or the perfect items for a given season or purpose. Those challenges were not intended to have such an outcome, but shopaholics can easily bend such experiments to our will and use them as an excuse to shop rather than on better learning how to wear and use what we already have.

My Biggest Shopping Problem

Ask me how I know! Of course, I have been there… Even though one isn’t supposed to shop during a Project 333 term, I did it anyway. Dressing with fewer items shined a spotlight on substandard pieces and pushed me to want to buy replacements, even though I often owned very similar items that weren’t included the capsule wardrobe I was working with. My focus remained on what was “out there” instead of on what was already in my own closet.

When I started Recovering Shopaholic, I had almost 400 items in my wardrobe. I thought my main problem was that I owned too many things and spent too much money. Yes, those were big issues, but they weren’t the worst ones. I have come to understand that my biggest problem was that I made far too many buying mistakes. My closet churn was always high and many pieces were worn only a few times, if at all. I often “settled” when I shopped because an item was on sale or it ticked some of the boxes but not all of them. Perhaps the color was right but the fit was off, or the silhouette worked but the fabric was scratchy or too synthetic.

I did a lot of resale shopping and paid for myriad ill-advised alterations on pieces that should have been left in the store. I wasted lots of money buying and tailoring clothes that didn’t work for me. I fell for the “What Not to Wear” phenomenon of buying tailored jackets and trousers and high heels that would have been great for working in an office but not for my casual life. This led to the “church lady” vibe that it took me years to fully overcome. When I would publish my accountability updates on my previous blog, many readers suggested that I buy fewer things of higher quality rather than the multiples I was bringing in each month.

That was a great recommendation, but I was still attached to the false security of a large wardrobe and I didn’t trust myself to buy more expensive items because so much of what I bought ended up being donated or consigned. I was caught up in a vicious cycle of over-shopping and over-purging for many years. Although I decreased the size of my wardrobe, spent less money, and improved my shopping track record, my mistake percentage remained too high and my wardrobe still didn’t work as well for my life as I would like.

What is a “Just Right” Wardrobe?

Some of you may resonate with my experience, regardless of how much you buy and how many items are hanging in your closet. When I mention the “Goldilocks Principle” in relation to our closets, I’m not only referring to the size of our wardrobes. In fact, that is only one facet of it. The way I see it, a just right wardrobe is about this:

  • Do you have appropriate clothing for all of the activities in your day-to-day life? I’m not talking about having “just in case” pieces for all of the possible scenarios that may never occur. I’m referring to the activities that you do on a regular basis.
  • Does this clothing fit your current body such that it is comfortable and flattering for you to wear now?
  • Do you feel attractive and happy when you wear this clothing? Does it feel true to you and your personal style?
  • Can you easily put together an outfit when you go into your closet? That is, is it easy for you to see what you have and what coordinates with what?
  • Do you have enough variety that you don’t get bored with what you have, but not so much selection that you become overwhelmed every time you open your closet?

If you can answer yes to all of the questions above, you have reached the wardrobe “promise land.” I am not yet there, but I’m a lot closer than I was even earlier this year. The reason I can say this is because I’m finally getting real with myself. I’m no longer trying to dress for who I was or who I want to be. I’m focusing on dressing for who I am today, for the body I have now, and for the lifestyle I’m currently living. While I would love to magically get back the body I had in 2015 before menopause set in and I’d love to have a life that involves getting dressed up more than once or twice a month at best, that’s not my reality. Continually railing against the truth was only making me miserable and led me to make lots of ill-advised purchases while I still didn’t have the right clothes for my day to day life.

I’m sure I will still struggle and experience some growing pains as I work toward a wardrobe that best works for me, but I feel like I have made my way over the proverbial hump. I will continue to be vigilant so that I don’t bring too many of the wrong things into my closet, but I’m feeling better about the wardrobe path I’m on now. Although I don’t have all the answers yet and probably never will, I can share a few insights and exercises that you may find helpful as you work to forge a healthier wardrobe path. I know that some readers are farther along on this journey than I am, so if that’s you, I invite you to chime in with what has worked for you so that we can all learn more.

Here are the exercises I recommend to you, some of which may sound familiar if you read my essay on applying the “Goldilocks Principle” to your life:

  1. The Plate Exercise
  2. The Plus, Minus, Equals Exercise
  3. The Lifestyle Pie
  4. Do Not Buy / Okay to Buy Lists

I will outline each of these exercises below and share a bit about my own personal experiences with them. I will likely elaborate further in future posts, but since this article is already getting quite lengthy, I don’t want to turn it into a tome!

The Plate Exercise

This exercise is a twist on the one I wrote about related to our lives, but it’s a bit trickier because many of us have far more clothes in our closets than we have activities, relationships, and projects in our lives. Basically, what I want you to do is go to your closet and pretend like you’re in a department store or boutique. Ask yourself which items you would consider purchasing today and which ones you would leave in the store. There are two ways that you can do this exercise, one that is more “lite” and one that is more in-depth and time-consuming.

The “lite” version would be done with pen and paper (or digitally) while standing in front of your closet. Look through your items one by one and jot down notes about what you would and wouldn’t buy today (a.k.a. what you would add to your “wardrobe plate”). It’s most helpful if you can make notes as to why or why not you would purchase these things today. The notes can be about specific items or more general thoughts about the types of clothing you either like or dislike.

If you want to really do this exercise to its fullest potential, I recommend that you actually remove the items from your closet as you consider them and designate them into defined piles. Ideally, you would only have two piles: those pieces you would buy now and those you would not buy. Try not to have a “maybe” pile or attempt to keep it to a minimum. Do your best to make a concrete decision about what you would and wouldn’t be excited to purchase today. Once the piles are done, make some notes about their composition and the garment features that you’re currently drawn or not drawn to. You can then choose to either place everything back into your closet or gather things up for donation or consignment. If there are things you would buy today but are not wearing, perhaps you might want to place them front and center in your closet to prompt you to include them in upcoming outfits.

I have not actually done this exact exercise as of yet (I just thought of it as I was writing this post!), although I have done the “KonMari Method” in my closet several times (you can read about those experiences here if you’re interested). The Plate Exercise is similar to KonMari but not quite the same, as I’m not saying that you should get rid of all pieces you own that you wouldn’t buy today. While that may be the eventual outcome, the main objective for asking the question is to increase awareness and better understand your wardrobe preferences and needs.

The Plus, Minus, Equals Exercise

This is another exercise that’s a variation on what I wrote about in terms of applying the Goldilocks Principle to your life. To use it with your closet, look at everything you have and consider which categories are well-represented, over-represented, and under-represented. Most of us have either too much or too little of certain wardrobe items. For example, I have too many open-toed shoes and not enough closed-toe shoes, as was made readily apparent to me when I packed for a trip to see my family in the Lake Tahoe area this past April. I also have a dearth of comfortable lounge and workout pants in my wardrobe, while I have more than enough pairs of jeans (I don’t find jeans comfortable enough to wear all day at home).

Think about your ideal wardrobe as if you were putting it together today. You may not know the specifics, but it’s likely that you have some idea as to how it would vary from what you currently own. Make notes about the categories you would like to increase, those you’d like to decrease, and those you’re fine with the way they are. This can be an ongoing list that you revise and add to as time goes on, as we often become more aware of what’s lacking or what’s over-abundant as we continue to get dressed and notice how we feel about our wardrobes.

The Lifestyle Pie

Another exercise that can help you expand upon the previous one is to create a “lifestyle pie.” To do so, draw a large circle on a piece of paper (or in an online program if you’re adept at using one) and designate wedges of varying sizes to represent the different areas of your life. You may want to jot down those areas before creating the pie chart, as it’s easy to forget certain things. Examples of what you might write down include:

  • Work
  • Casual/Weekend
  • Evening/Going out
  • Workout
  • At-home/lounge
  • Sleep

You may not have all of those areas in your life – or some of them may overlap. For instance, you may wear the same clothes for lounging and sleep or for work and weekend (if you have a particularly casual job or if you like to dress up most of the time). You may also have sub-categories within a category, such as if you have two jobs and wear different types of clothes for each or if your “going out” activities vary widely. You can have as many or as few categories as necessary. Again, the objective is to increase awareness.

After you have constructed your chart, compare the percentages of lifestyle categories to the types of clothes that are in your wardrobe. It may be helpful to look at how many outfits you think you need for each type of activity or situation. For example, if you work in an office five days per week, how often are you comfortable repeating outfits? Would you be happy with ten outfits or do you feel you need twenty or more? Do you always combine the same garments or do you like to mix things up more? These are things to consider as you look at your “lifestyle pie” in comparison to the composition of your closet. In many cases, you’ll notice a disconnect in that the clothes you own don’t match up well with the way you live your life.

In my case, the largest sections of my “pie” are for casual/weekend and at-home/lounge, as I don’t work outside of the home and I rarely go out in the evenings.  However, up until recently, a large section of my clothing was fairly dressy. I would either wear those items for the ultra-casual activities of my life and feel out of place or they would hang in my closet mostly unworn. One of the reasons my wardrobe satisfaction has increased as of late is that I stopped buying dressier clothes even though I often feel drawn to them. It just doesn’t make sense for me to purchase such things given that my actual life doesn’t call for them very often. I have more than enough dressier pieces for those times when I need them, so there’s no need to buy more.

“Do Not Buy” and “Okay to Buy” Lists

This final exercise was mentioned in my last post when I suggested creating two lists to help target future shopping and avoid buying mistakes and “splitting our wears.”  These lists, which I will describe below, should be as specific as possible. The more detailed you can make them, the more useful they will be in terms of guiding your shopping. Once you take the time to construct these lists, you should have them on hand whenever you shop in brick-and-mortar stores or online. To make things more convenient, I recommend saving your lists in Google Drive or on an app such as Evernote. If you’re more “old school,” you can of course use a notebook or a piece of paper, but be sure to keep it front and center so you won’t find yourself purchasing yet another pair of black pants (says the women with probably ten such pairs!).

The first list is called a “Do Not Buy” List and contains items that are either already well-represented in our closets or things that we just don’t end up wearing for various reasons. In regards to my first statement, I’m not saying that it’s not okay to have some duplication in our wardrobes. I have a friend who wears jeans virtually every day, so it makes perfect sense that she would own quite a few pairs. Likewise, if you work out a lot, it’s totally reasonable to own multiple outfits for that purpose, especially if you want to avoid laundry bottlenecks. However, if you only go out to parties or nightclubs a few times per year and you already own five cocktail dresses, you probably don’t need to buy any more.

Here are some examples of the things on my Do Not Buy List:

  • Sleeveless black dresses
  • Long open cardigans, especially black and burgundy
  • Black sleeveless and short-sleeved knit tops
  • Black and white striped/printed short-sleeved tees
  • Super form-fitting pants and jeans, especially black

If you look in your closet, you’re likely to find an over-abundance of certain types of items, just like I did. We’re so often drawn to things that resemble what we already have because they’re familiar. Making a note of those specific items will help you not to reach for them on your next shopping trip.

The second list is much more fun, as it’s an “Okay to Buy” List. If you did the Plus, Minus, Equals Exercise above, you likely identified a few wardrobe categories that are under-represented in your closet. To make your Okay to Buy List most effective, get specific. Don’t just write “jeans” or “skirts” on it; specify which types of these items would best serve you. This will constitute your shopping list for the coming months and will help you to get the most bang for your clothing dollars (or Euros or whatever currency you use).

My Okay to Buy List includes the following items:

  • Loose-fitting black print full-length pants
  • Loose-fitting, comfortable full-length workout/lounge pants
  • Mid-weight, thigh-length black parka (to replace an existing one)
  • Knee-length straight, non-corporate black skirt
  • Bright mid-weight, mid-thigh length coat (replacement)

The combination of the Do Not Buy and Okay to Buy Lists will really help to target your shopping, if you use them consistently. Doing so will help you to avoid the all too common situation of having a packed closet and nothing to wear for your important life occasions. It’s a good idea to update these lists at least twice a year, if not more often, as your needs and preferences will change. In most cases, the Okay to Buy List should be relatively short, particularly if you’re looking to downsize your closet overall.

Conclusion and Your Thoughts?

I could write more, but this article is already quite lengthy! I suspect I will revisit this topic in the future, but I hope what I had to say today was valuable to you. The bottom line, I think, is that the time we take to evaluate our wardrobes using exercises like the ones above is time well-spent. Such introspection doesn’t have to lead to a large closet purge or to extensive shopping, and it probably shouldn’t. For most of us, building a workable wardrobe is an ongoing effort that can take years, but we’ll notice lots of improvement along the way. If you have too many of a particular type of item in your closet but you still like and wear what you have, there’s no need to get rid of anything. Just stop buying such pieces and allow the process of attrition and targeted shopping to change your wardrobe composition. It’s as simple as that, but it’s certainly not always easy!

I’d love to get your thoughts on this post, as well as any suggestions you have for creating a “just right” wardrobe. What has worked for you and where do you still feel challenged? If you’re still struggling, be patient, but be vigilant. Your tenacity will pay off, as it has for me. I have made probably more mistakes than most of you, but it’s finally coming together for me.  In coming posts, I will share how I did with the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale (NAS) this year, my recent closet KonMari, my ongoing productivity experiments, and the phases for behavior change. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions for future posts. Thank you for reading and for sharing the journey with me.

19 thoughts on “Applying the “Goldilocks Principle” to Your Wardrobe

  1. Mo says:

    Seeing as how my blog’s tagline was ‘Just right – not too much, not too little, like Goldilocks’ you know I’m nodding along to this. I stopped blogging about it, but kept up with honing my shopping. Instead of strict numbers like 15 pants, I instead decided on how many of each category I wanted to allow myself to bring in each year. Then, purging happens more organically as I shift styles or fits aren’t as comfortable as they once were. So I allow myself 2 new pants let’s say, and I end up maybe purging 3, maybe none. That’s okay if I’m over or under the magical 15 as long as they work and I’m wearing them (or plan to wear them in the near future). By focusing on how much to allow myself to buy each year, vs how many to have in the closet, I’m addressing the influx, which is largely where my problem was.
    I’m still not perfect, and I make mistakes, or settle. But so much less often. I find when I tell myself I can only bring in 4 toppers for the year, I tend to make sure they check the boxes! My wardrobe is slowly improving every year and I now find myself thinking about challenging myself even further with a 5 items per season limit. Again, the idea being that if I impose limits, I tend to make better choices, long term. I still pick up the occasional impulse item. Fashion should still be fun. But most of the time I’m keeping in mind what I really need or could use to refresh my style. And always fine tuning.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I loved your blog, Mo, and I miss it (but I get that keeping up a blog is a lot of work…). I forgot that you had that tagline, but it’s perfect! I like the strategy you mentioned in this comment and I think it would be helpful for me to adopt it for 2019 (I don’t plan to do much more shopping this year). The influx is far more my problem, too, than the sheer volume in my closet. I can see how limiting how many of a particular type of item I bring in (vs. the number of overall items) would help me to be more selective and not “settle” quite so much. I often resist limits, but I see the value in them. You always seem to do so well with your wardrobe choices. I know you still make some mistakes, but there don’t seem to be many. If you decide to try the 5 items per season limit, I will be cheering you on! For me, I think limiting by category would be more beneficial for now and I think that’s what I’m going to do 🙂

  2. Jenn says:

    I just arrived home after being gone for a few days and will dig deep into this post and exercises later. For now, I want to say “Thank you!” and tell you this is one of the things you said that really resonated with me: ‘I often “settled” when I shopped because an item was on sale or it ticked some of the boxes but not all of them. Perhaps the color was right but the fit was off, or the silhouette worked but the fabric was scratchy or too synthetic.’ When it comes to shopping, I bring home (and keep!) more mistakes than cherished (or at least valued) clothing items and accessories. Doesn’t do much for my already low self-esteem.

    Thanks again!

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      You’re very welcome, Jenn! I’m always happy when what I have written resonates with people. I agree that bringing home mistakes isn’t good for our self-esteem (I struggle with low self-esteem, too). I have a tendency to beat myself up when I see the mistakes, but I’m sometimes hesitant to get rid of them, which has led me to ill-advised alterations (trying to “rescue” or “save” pieces that are just all wrong for me). It can be hard to take off our “sales goggles” or leave empty-handed when nothing is worth buying, but we really benefit when we can do it. It’s a process, though, and I don’t know if anyone ever ends up with absolutely NO mistakes. If you opt to do some of the exercises, I hope you will report back and let me know how it went for you!

      1. Claire says:

        Jenn/Debbie, argh that’s rough when bringing home the “mistakes” hits you so hard in the self-esteem – especially when that can happen so easily! I feel like maybe it’s less of a personal failing so much as it is the state of our clothing options these days, where you just can’t depend on fabrics and fit and availability? I mean, it’s not like we buy this stuff knowing it’s definitely a mistake. I know if I settle it’s usually because I *had* to. I return if I can, but if not sometimes I can get a little mileage out of something by doing at-home alterations or re-purposing. A little creativity can help. But it is frustrating/tiresome. I just want to buy something and it works out like I thought, dammit! 🙂

        1. Debbie Roes says:

          Thanks for your support and encouragement, Claire! I agree that we can’t always tell whether or not a particular clothing item will be a mistake AND that clothing quality is sub-par much of the time these days. That accounts for SOME of the mistakes, but certainly not all. When I tend to feel bad about the mistakes is when I should have known better, like when I buy things for a lifestyle I don’t have or when I know a purchase is risky but do it anyway. Fortunately, those things are happening less often, so I AM learning. I hear you about wanting to buy something and have it work like we think it will!

    2. Maria Hockett says:

      I realize I never defined my style. Several of these exercises are helping me define that. Shopping mistakes just help me have a cleared understanding of what my style is. Becoming aware and noticing is the first step to change. celebrate that! Don’t waste the lesson and write down why it didn’t work. My friend uses the method something in, something out method.

      1. Debbie Roes says:

        I’m glad this post has been helpful for you, Maria. You have a positive attitude and I love what you had to say here. Yes, mistakes can teach us and it’s better to focus on the lessons rather than beating ourselves up. The “one in, one out” approach can be helpful for a lot of people. I shared some thoughts from my previous Facebook community on this topic back in 2015:

  3. Lori says:

    Thank you for this post. I am going through my seasonal closet transition right now and I am going to try the Plate exercise as that sounds “just right”!

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I’m glad that exercise resonated with you, Lori! I plan to do the “plate exercise” myself, too, as I dreamed up it while writing the post and didn’t want to delay publishing it until I had a chance to actually do it. I think I have some time this weekend to do it, though, and I look forward to seeing how it goes. Good luck with it and I hope you report back on how it went for you.

  4. Di Collins says:

    As usual a brilliant post that resonates with me.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thank you so much, Di!

  5. Wendy says:

    Another fantastic post Debbie! My biggest challenge is finding the ‘right’ items for the categories of activities. After years of buying for a fantasy life and numerous items that have come and gone, I finally admitted to myself that my life only needs two categories of clothing – 80% super casual lounge wear and 20% casual going out clothes. I live a rural area, I have 2 young kids, I NEVER go out in the evening, I cook 95% of all meals at home and even when I do go out, it is usually for a casual lunch when my kids are at school or casual dinner with friends and their kids on the occasional weekend. I almost have the ‘just right’ amount but still adjusting to buying the ‘appropriate’ items. Since I cook so much, I really need clothes that I can take a lot of wear and wash. I don’t like jeans. I have one pair that I sometimes wear in the winter when I go out but once the weather is slightly warm, I don’t look at them at all. So finding the right items is really a challenge and this has definately contributed to a lot of wardrobe churn.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I have the same problem Wendy! It does take some “trial and error” to figure out what pieces will serve our needs. This can’t always be avoided, but I agree that it’s frustrating! Kudos to you for not buying for a fantasy life anymore! That’s excellent progress right there. I hope you will be able to find the right items for your casual at-home life soon. I’m on a similar hunt, so fingers crossed for both of us!

  6. Miriam says:

    A very interesting post! I have these three rules that guide my choices:

    Buy as little as possible
    Buy second hand
    Knit, sew and refashion

    This works quite well for me and I think I don’t look frumpy, because I can make the clothes fit my body and get the proportions right. At least I hope so 🙂 I don’t worry about making mistakes and have calmly frogged and reknit a few sweaters after working out why they did not work for me. If a sewing project is unwearable I can make it into a pillow or dog bed. There is always a next time to apply the lesson!

    Come to think of it, I can not imagine having a perfect wardrobe. It just would not be me! But of course I work towards something good enough!

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thanks for sharing your rules and experience, Miriam. How wonderful that you are knitting, sewing, and refashioning your clothes! I have often thought that maybe I should learn how to sew because I spend a lot of money on alterations. Great idea to turn sewing “fails” into pillows or dog beds! You seem like a very creative person and I admire your commitment to buying little and second hand. I don’t think a “perfect” wardrobe exists and even if one attains that goal, it likely won’t last for long because things always change. It sounds like you might have a “just right” wardrobe, though, which is what I and many others are working towards.

  7. Miriam says:

    Hi Debbie
    making my own clothes gives me hours of entertainment (and bursts of frustration) and appreciation for well made ready to wear. A bit like cooking. The more you do it, the less interesting a gas station sandwich appears to be 🙂

  8. Marie says:

    I discovered your blog tonight, and this is a fantastic, thorough post. I’m enjoying reading as you explore the complexities of what it means to build and maintain and cull a wardrobe that works for you.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Welcome, Marie! I’m glad you enjoyed this post and found it valuable. I have written extensively on the topic of wardrobe management on my previous blog, Recovering Shopaholic. You can find all of those posts HERE, but you may also want to check out my “Start Here” page on that site for some of my favorite posts (scroll down to the second half of the page). Also check out a great guest post on the topic of building a workable wardrobe (see part two HERE). It’s not an easy path, but it’s certainly a worthwhile one. Best of luck to you with the process!

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