The case for a limited wardrobe

There are always gasps, a few misconceptions, and an awful lot of questions when I let people in on my little secret; Aside from jeans and workout wear, my wardrobe consists of less than 30 items. I call it a capsule wardrobe, but you may call it crazy.

I’ve lived this way officially for nearly three years now and I see no reason to ever go back to the days of having a limitless wardrobe. I’ve honestly not thought much about it as it feels so normal to me by now. In fact, I’d long been doing a version of this already, prior to having officially decided to do it in earnest.

I recently included a snapshot (shown below) of my wardrobe on my personal Instagram account stories. To say I got a lot of responses would be an understatement. Those who responded were either incredibly suspect or rather intrigued, but both had questions.

Some of the questions had the tone of shock “no! but what about work clothes and going out clothes?”, “I don’t believe you!” “do you not like to shop?”. 

Most just wanted to better understand how it worked so they too could enjoy such a freedom. “Is this just current season? do you have off season stuff packed away?”, “are the items planned in advance?”, “could you tell me how to do this too?”.

The answer to the latter is “Yes!” and that’s what this post is about. The answer to the former questions will be answered by the end of this post.

I think it caused so much interest because it seems so implausible. I do see where that perception would come from, but I promise you it’s not just plausible, it’s EASY.

It’s so much easier than you’d think and doesn’t require the types of sacrifices people assume are involved.

I understand the intrigue and upon some further thought, have even nailed down the secret.

And, it does appear to be a secret. In all the research I did in preparation for writing you this guide (which is to say, very very little), I didn’t find anyone really doing it the way that I do.

Are you ready for this?! It’s the magic sauce, the secret ingredient, the hack! And it’s so simple you’re going to feel a bit silly it didn’t occur to you at first. Are you ready?

The secret that makes this so much easier than you ever imagined is…

The wardrobe isn’t static.

Meaning, I don’t buy 30 pieces in April and declare this my Spring/Summer wardrobe and then not shop again until August, for Fall. It’s not a static wardrobe. It’s changeable, variable, continuous!

I spent a large part of my career working as an apparel buyer, apparel merchandiser, and trend forecaster. I care about fashion as any person who loves good design does. Not to mention, special occasions come up where I need something special. Or, I’ll travel and of course, want to do a little shopping wherever I’m at. The point is life isn’t static so I don’t think a wardrobe really can be either (at least not for me anyway).

So, If I’m not saying I don’t limit my buying and I’m not saying that I buy a fixed wardrobe for each season, then what am I saying?

I’m saying that I keep 30 items or less in my wardrobe. Period.

So, that means if….

something new comes into my wardrobe, then something old has got to go out.

If I don’t love it, it goes.

If it doesn’t currently fit me, it goes.

If I haven’t selected it to be worn in weeks, it goes.

If I go shopping and bring home something new, something old goes.

Where does it go? Well, that’s entirely up to you. Initially, for me, a few friends and family members were on the receiving end of my regular clothing purges. Nowadays, it is mostly donated. Goodwill, Dress for Success, Second Chances, are a few I know of and donate to. A cursory google search will likely yield even more.

IF YOU GET, YOU GIVE. IF YOU LEARN, TEACH. – MAYA ANGELOU

It really isn’t difficult at all for me to maintain this. I still get to shop. I still get to seek out and buy clothes that I like. I always have something that I’m happy to wear. And if I don’t, I immediately know that I have to do some purging. I say, “Well, there are 30 items (read: more than enough to find ONE thing to wear) in here. What’s the problem?” And I purge accordingly.

So, to answer the question about seasonal clothing. Yes, sure, I have a few sweaters and cardigans packed away and as the weather begins to shift, I’ll start to integrate some of them into my 30. It’s not an all at once proposition. I don’t pick a Sunday in early Fall and pack up or donate Spring/Summer and unpack Fall/Winter. I STICK TO 30 PIECES in my closet. So I wean out Summer and wean in Fall. This pretty much always results in a number of saved pieces getting donated as I find that I’m not the same size or that they didn’t hold up as well as I’d thought etc.. And I buy more, always maintaining the 30 piece limit.

A few people asked about work clothes and going out clothes. Within my 30 item or less limited wardrobe are items from casual tanks and tees to blouses and blazers. Fortunately for me, I can wear jeans to work and my style isn’t really changing from day to night, work to play all that much. So most of the same pieces can do double duty. Also, jeans are not counted in my 30 items (though I still usually have no more than 5-6 pairs).

I’d venture that you could still pull this off with more specific work clothes and specific play clothes, but I’d also offer that you may find an advantage in considering ways to blend those two currently disparate categories into a more blended variety.

A casual tank top on the weekend or under a cardigan on a workday. Or a silk shirt on a weekday and paired with jeans to go out that night. There are ways to make these pieces work harder.

The other key for maintaining such a limited number is buying items in a coordinated palette that is interchangeable. I also recommend you have layer able items that can be mixed and matched. Sure, it’s easy for me as I tend towards neutrals (black, white, gray and blue) and simple (stripes, solids, and textures but not much in the way of a pattern). But even if color is your thing, you can still buy colorful pieces which can be mixed and matched or some colorful or patterned pieces along with some solid layer ables. I don’t restrict myself. If I’m feeling the need for color, I welcome it.

One thing I’ll add is that I have a limited clothing budget. I always have something I’m happy to wear and I always have 30 items or less and I also can bet you I have the same or a lower wardrobe budget each month. I don’t budget very much for clothing at all. It’s not that I don’t like new things, as I’ve said, but if you buy smart and you have pieces which can work harder, you just won’t need as much.

Have your wardrobe work smarter AND harder.

Quality vs. Price

There are pieces in my wardrobe that are quality and cost more and there are pieces in my wardrobe that are fast fashion that I buy to satiate an interest in a trend or that are so specific I know I won’t get a lot of use out of. I wear jeans every single day and tend to invest in those. I invest in good basics I’ll get good use of. I spend less on trends I won’t want to be seen in more than a few times!

When it comes to special events, I can go either way. I have a dress in my current line up of 30 that I bought for a wedding 4 years ago! It’s one of only a few pieces I’ve held on too for so long. It’s black, it’s silk, it was expensive but I also have worn it in the Winter, in the Summer, with sandals, heels, jeans and tights. It’s versatile and has paid for itself many times over. On the other hand, I bought a blush pleated dress for an even this past June that was on a rack at the Shaker Sq. Goodwill by July. I bought it on sale, and in the end, didn’t love it. So it had to go.

So, by now I’ve elaborated a bit on the “what” of capsule wardrobing and the “how”. Here’s the “why”:

The short answer for me is “decision fatigue”.

“In decision making and psychology, decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making. (wikipedia)

As a designer, as a business owner, as a mother, as a HUMAN, I make decisions all day long.

ALL.DAY.LONG.

That’s all I do, really. Make choices. What route should I take on my morning run? What should my daughter wear today? What color paint for this clients dining room? Wallpaper the entire room or just a statement wall? What healthy lunch can I come up with for my toddler? Or for me? Which coffee shop to work out of? Square or rectangle cropping for my instagram post? You get the point…big, small, important, frivolous, no matter the context of a decision, they all add up and eventually we make not great ones before we even have a late afternoon snack. (May explain that unhealthy late afternoon snack choice too!).

So for me, any possible way I can be more decisive, mitigate decision fatigue and free up my time, I am all for it. I do not belabor the decision of what to wear. You could blindfold me, I’d reach into my closet, pull out anything and be happy to wear it. And if I’m not, it goes.

And guess what happens then? That shirt goes to someone who will love that garment more and who will get it for free or at thrift store pricing. Maybe they wear it and feel amazing in it and wear it to a job interview or a date. Could it impact someone else’s life?! It makes me happy to wonder.

And, I get to shopping.

win – win. no?

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Danielle DeBoe Harper

Danielle DeBoe Harper is the owner of DeBoe Studio Interiors and has been a Cleveland entrepreneur for 10 years. As a proud Clevelander and passionate purveyor of design and style, Danielle has opened two retail stores and hosted a handful of CLE-centric events including Made in the 216 and Roar Along the Shore.

7 CommentsLeave a comment

  • This is INSPIRING. I recently had a closet cleanse done and eliminated 1/2 of the items in my closet, I don’t miss a THING. This might be my next goal! Thanks for sharing and inspiring.

    • Funnily enough, I arrived at that number just based on it being the number of clothes that I currently was working off of after a big purge when I decided officially to start doing a limited wardrobe. But, last year when we moved into this house it was actually the only number of wooden hangers which fit into my side of the closet. So for me it was mostly happenstance -it felt like a good low number, but when I did a little research prior to this article I noticed that 30 was the magic number for others as well! Having worked on this number now for years I honestly think it’s just a doable number. Thanks for reading!

  • Love this smart system! I’m inspired! I’m pretty sure I only wear about 30 items from my closet full of clothes now. I definitely have my favorites that work for me, i just needed help to get rid of the excess. Thank you!

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