How Many Clothes Do I Really Need? Part 3

In Part 2 of this little series, I talked about how we often buy clothes for the person we want to be and the lifestyle we want to have (our “aspirational selves”) rather than who we are the lifestyle we live now (our “real/true/present selves”). Once we distinguish the difference between these two versions of ourselves, we can begin to recognize what items we should actually be purchasing when we shop as well as the items that we should be getting rid of from our closets.

But after we stopping buying clothes for our aspirational selves and get rid of those aspirational items from our closets, how do we know how many items that we need?

Wardrobe Planning

In Part 1, I discussed several wardrobe planning methods to help determine how much clothing you need. The Laundry Method, the Percentage by Frequency Method, and the Repeat Offender Method are each different ways to help you decide how many clothes you really need in your closet.

The Laundry Method is based on how often you do laundry and you simply own as many clothes as needed for the time in between washings. This is all well and good if you plan to go to the laundromat weekly or bi-weekly but less helpful for those of us who do our laundry whenever we run out of clean clothes. In some cases, it could even be beneficial to own more clothes in order to stretch the time between washings, decrease wear on individual items, save on trips to the laundromat, and to conserve water, time, energy, and money by doing fewer loads.

The Percent by Frequency Method is useful for budgeting and ensuring that you don’t have too much of one kind of clothing if you rarely have occasion to wear that kind of clothing. It keeps your closet proportional to your lifestyle and what you spend your time doing but it doesn’t let you know how many clothes to have over all.

The Repeat Offender Method is used to determine how many items of clothing you would need in order to avoid repeating an item or outfit. I based this method off of Massie Block, a character in The Clique novels who made up a rule stating that no one in her clique was allowed to wear the same item of clothing within a two week time frame, and no one was to repeat an outfit for at least a month. This is a bit excessive for most people and chances are if you’re here reading this, you want to pair down how many clothes you have but we’ll get to how this can be useful later in the post.

A blend of these three methods is the key to knowing how many clothes you personally should have. While there is no definitive answer and I can’t answer for you, I can help you decide for yourself how many clothes you really need.

If you want to reduce the number of clothes that you own, it’s essential to have a plan. We plan what we’ll be having for dinner this week but most of us don’t really plan our wardrobes. We just buy whatever we fancy whenever we happen to see it and things just pile up over the months and years. But you know what they say, “failing to plan is planning to fail.”

I hope that you don’t feel like you need to start from scratch and go out and buy some super special capsule wardrobe of new clothes. Keep what you have and what you like and what fits you and then fill in any gaps from there.

Step 1: Determine how often you would like to do laundry

If I am correct, then most people do laundry based on when they need to, the limiting factors usually being how many clean pairs of socks and underwear they have available. Personally, I have 4 sets of pajamas so that’s about how often I do laundry- every 4 days or so. I’d rather do it less often since the loads are so small, it’s not really worth the water and detergent. So now that I think about it, it would be appropriate for me to buy some more pajamas.

If you would like to do your laundry once a week, then I would say to have at least 7 pairs of socks, underwear (and I include bras as underwear because boob sweat so I say you’d need 7-10 of those too if you wear bras), and pajamas, and a maximum of 10 pairs to give yourself a couple more days of wiggle room in case some weeks you just don’t get around to it on time. If you want to do laundry bi-weekly, I’d suggest 14-17 pairs of each. This of course assumes that you wear one pair of socks, underwear, and pajamas per day and that you wash them after one wear. At least I hope you do. 😉

The laundry based method can also be used for people who wear scrubs or a uniform to work and who need a totally clean outfit for each shift. It’s also ideal for workout clothing (e.g., you workout 3 times a week and do laundry once a week so you have 3 sports bras, 3 pairs of shorts/leggings, 3 tank tops, etc).

For those of us who don’t wear scrubs, other items such as jeans, sweaters, jackets, suits, and some blouses/tops don’t need laundering as often and can be worn multiple times before needing to be cleaned so the laundry based method is less useful.

Fun Fact: In days of yore (when our grandparents were young), people owned fewer clothes and washed them less often. The slats on many closet doors were originally designed to allow the clothes to “air out” between wears. At my grandparent’s house (built in the early 60s at the latest), all the closets had these kinds of doors but the closets in my parents’ current home (built in the early 2000’s) do not have louvered doors; they are solid.

Step 2: Multiple Capsules with Percent by Frequency

What gets tricky with a capsule wardrobe is when different aspects of your lifestyle and the clothes that those aspects require don’t align. For example, if you have a workplace that allows you to wear basically whatever you want or your work clothes and your regular clothes just happen to be basically the same, then you’re golden.

If not, and you have a dress code at work that doesn’t let you wear what you would normally, then you’re going to need multiple capsules within your wardrobe. Yes, that’s right. You can have multiple capsules within your wardrobe.

With multiple capsules, instead of x number of tops and bottoms for the whole wardrobe, the wardrobe should be divided into separate parts based on your lifestyle. The percentage frequency method determines how large each capsule should be.

Start by listing all the areas of your life that you need different kinds of clothes for. Here are some categories that may or may not apply to you:

  • Workwear capsule
  • Loungewear/”at home” capsule
  • “Going out” capsule (concert, festival, nightclub, bar, etc.),
  • Outdoor/hiking/gardening/painting/pottery class/getting messy capsule
  • Everyday life capsule (hanging out with friends, dates, shopping, museums, movies, etc).
  • Fancy occasion capsule (theater, fine dining, yacht club, etc.)

For many people their work wear and everyday life capsules could very well be one in the same. It’s up to you to decide if you should have one capsule for work and daily life or two separate ones. You may also have zero need for an “outdoor capsule” or a “fancy occasion” capsule. Maybe you need a capsule for something I haven’t listed yet or maybe you don’t need a capsule for one of these categories because the laundry based method would be preferable. It’s all up to you. But once you’ve got all your categories listed, now you want to determine how much time you spend doing those things. This will determine the size of each capsule.

My aspirational self likes to believe that she spends at least 20% of her time at the theater or in a yacht club (I’ve never been to a yacht club and I barely understand the concept, I just know it’s fancy). Don’t fall into the trap of letting your aspirational self plan your wardrobe and overestimate (or underestimate) how many clothes you need.

For my actual self (pre-coronavirus) my time was spent doing something like this:

  • School- 48%
  • “Every day life”- 27%
  • Lounging at home- 25%

These numbers don’t account for sleeping since my pajamas fall under the laundry method. So instead of calculating my weekly time with a full 168 hours, I used 112 (168 – 56 (8 hours of sleep, 7 nights a week) = 112 hours of waking time. Your percentages don’t need to be exact, rough estimates are fine.

My school time and every day life time would be one capsule since my school has no dress code and I could wear whatever I wanted; unlike work, there’s no pressure to dress “professionally.”

The rest of my time was spent lounging at home and I included this category because personally, I think it’s nice to have clothes that you can just schlep around home in while still looking and feeling cute & semi-put together. I could just wear my pajamas all day but I think changing your clothes for the day or for the night can really impact your mindset. Just like the morning sunlight tells your brain “It’s time to get up and do things,” changing your clothes can be a trigger in your mind as well, whether it’s for winding down in the evening or doing things during your day.

The percentages help you to know how many clothes you need by providing a ratio. For me, the ratio is 3:1 for school/every day clothes to loungewear. This means that for every 3 items I have for school and everyday life, I would only need 1 item of loungewear. If I was working instead of going to school and I wanted or needed separate capsules for school/work, everyday life and lounge, the ratio would be 2:1:1. (I know it’s not exact but the ratio of 48:27:25 is just that, which is much harder to think about than 2:1:1.) So for every 2 work items, I would have 1 everyday life item and 1 lounge item.

Step 3: Use the Repeat Offender Method to determine the exact number of clothes in each capsule

From there, the repeat offender method determines how many items you need in each category. Before I wrote this post, I never thought about how each of the methods I wrote about in my first post so long ago could work together. I came up with the Repeat Offender Method and sort of dismissed it as silly and excessive. But the truth is, it can be really useful.

Because part of the subtext that underlies the question “How many clothes do I really need?” is How can I still be fashionable with fewer clothes and won’t people judge me for wearing the same thing over and over?

And the answer is no one is judging you for wearing the same item of clothing or the same outfit over and over again. No one. If you wear the same items for several days straight and you smell like you haven’t showered then people are probably gonna look at you sideways and not want to sit next you. But as long as you shower and your clothes aren’t smelly, no one is judging you. And if they are, do you really need that kind of attitude in your life?

The editor in chief of Vogue Paris wears the same outfit over and over again.

Emmanuelle Alt, Editor-in-Cheif, Vogue Paris

If the Editor in Chief of Vogue Paris (of all people) can “get away with” wearing the exact same outfit only different, you can too. And I hesitate to even call it “getting away with,” which is why it’s in quotations. The term implies that you’ve got some dirty little secret that you have to hide, like asking if you can “get away with” something that short or with showing your midriff or not wearing sleeves. You’re not getting away with anything because there is no fashion police that could come take you away for violating a rule.

This is just about the only time that being a “Repeat Offender” is a good thing. And it’s totally up to you how often you feel comfortable repeating items and outfits. If you want to stick with the 2 week/1 month rule, go for it. I find it to be a little excessive since you would need at least 14 bottoms, 14 tops, 14 jackets/blazers/sweaters, etc. and this would give you a theoretical minimum of 196 different outfit combinations (assuming separates rather than one piece dressing like dresses and jumpsuits/rompers).

But you can make up your own rules here. At this step, it’s also helpful to know the difference between your real self and your aspirational self. Your aspirational self may be the type of person who follows that 2 week 1 month rule, but perhaps your real self tends to stick to the tried-and-true favorites rather than going for lots of variety. I know for me, I have a select few garments that are favorites, I’ve had them for years and I rarely pick something different from my closet.

Here are some other variations on the  2 week/1 month rule that are a bit more reasonable.

  • 1 week/twice a month:  Wear each item only once within a week and the same exact outfit twice within a month. This necessitates 7 of each kind of item (rather than 14) and gives you a theoretical 49 possible outfit combinations, enough for a month and a half. However, that number only accounts for separates. Replacing 1 top or bottom with a dress/jumpsuit/romper would result in 42 different combinations of separates plus one outfit with the dress/jumpsuit for a total of 42. If you’d like more dresses/jumpsuits rather than separates, you could go down to as few as 3 tops and 3 bottoms for 9 combinations plus as few as 6 dresses/jumpsuits for a total of 15 outfit possibilities. This minimum number of items allows you to only wear each item once a week and the 15 possible combinations, which include dresses, mean you won’t have to wear an outfit more than twice a month. There are many possible combinations between 7 of each with no dresses, and 3 of each with 6 dresses. It’s all up to you and if you prefer one piece dressing or separates
  • thrice a month: If you don’t mind wearing the same outfits every week and wearing the same items multiple times per week, you can do with even fewer clothes. This would mean that you would only require a maximum of 10 outfit combinations. You could do 3 tops, 3 bottoms, and one dress/ jumpsuit or 5 tops and 5 bottoms. Even having 10 dresses would be doable (unlike having 30 for the 2 week/1 month rule). But do keep in mind how often you would need to have these items laundered or dry cleaned. In the summer months when we get all sweaty and sticky, shirts and blouses will need to be laundered more frequently, perhaps as often as after every wear. This can get tedious if you prefer to do laundry as little as possible or if the items are handwashed only, and it gets expensive to dry clean items so frequently. I recommend having several good undershirts, slips, or those armpit sweat shields that you can wash regularly to decrease the laundering of your outer clothes.

The problem with capsule wardrobes is that it only works if everything goes with everything. I never liked the capsule wardrobe trend and was always hesitant to jump on the bandwagon because some parts of our wardrobe are of a different style or meant for a different time and place. Most people have multiple styles within their wardrobe that they like to wear. This is precisely why I recommend using the percent by frequency method to divide up your wardrobe into little mini capsules that are proportional to your lifestyle and activities rather than trying to have one capsule wardrobe for every occasion.

Furthermore, you may need separate “capsules” or collections for fall/winter and spring/summer, at least partially. While some items can easily be worn in both seasons, certain items just don’t translate, e.g., long sleeves in the summer.

How to Combine Steps 2 & 3

The 2 week/1 month rule and variations thereof work best for the minicapsule that you wear the most frequently. In my example for myself, I would use the thrice a month repeat cycle to determine how many clothes I need for my school capsule first because I (used to) go to school just about every day of the week. I also tend to wear the same thing over and over again anyways and I prefer my familiar favorites which is why I picked the “thrice a month option” rather than the twice a month option.

If you want more clothes than just 3 tops and 3 bottoms, that’s ok! I don’t think it makes you any less of a minimalist to have 7 of each rather than 3 or to feel like you need more variety. As long as each item is being worn regularly, that’s what counts – it ensures you get your money’s worth out of each piece rather than have a bunch of clothes with the tags still on.

So let’s say I have 3 tops, 3 bottoms, and one dress for a total of 7 items. Using the 2:1 ratio, I would then only need to own 3.5 items of loungewear. If I chose to have 5 tops and 5 bottoms for school clothes, I would have 10 items for school and about 5 for loungewear.

If I picked the 1 week/twice a month option, I could have as many as 7 tops and 7 bottoms for a total of 14 items. And using that ratio, I would need just 7 items of loungewear.

And if I had separate capsules for school/work, everyday life, and lounge. I would use the 2:1:1 ratio. Using the twice a month option, that would mean 14 workwear items (7 tops, 7 bottoms = 49 outfit combinations), 7 everyday life items (3-4 tops, 3-4 bottoms = 12 outfit combinations), and 7 lounge items.

The ratios ensure that I don’t end up with more items of cute loungewear from Victoria’s Secret than I need when I spend most of my time at school anyways (although with coronavirus and school being online, I’m sure we’ve all felt like we could use some more loungewear to chill at home in). The ratios also help with budgeting for your clothes. If I spend more time wearing my school clothes, then it stands to reason that they should be higher quality and I should spend more money on school clothes than loungewear. 

Sweaters, Blazers, Jackets, Coats, Swimwear, Etc.

The math can start to get a bit more complicated when you throw in layering pieces and outerwear. Personally, I would say to stick with the basic x number of tops with x number of bottoms system and then just add 1-2 sweaters, 1-2 blazers, 1-2 jackets or vests, and 1 coat for both the warmer months and the cooler months so you end up with a grand total of 2-4 sweaters, half for spring and half for winter, 2-4 blazers, half for spring and half for winter, and so on and so forth.

However, you may want to have 2 summer coats (at least one will most likely be a lightweight and breathable yet waterproof raincoat) and 2 winter coats if you live somewhere especially cold. You could have your elegant and classy fashionable “city” coats that you wear for daily use such as work and errands and then also have a more utilitarian coat for skiing and playing outdoors in the snow, shoveling and hiking or whatever else people do outdoors in the summer and such, if your personal style calls for it. Some people are perfectly fine wearing their sporty Canada Goose coat all the time and their style lends itself to having a utilitarian looking coat for all the time. But others do not want to have a nicer and more fashionable coat get dirty from all the snow and salt while shoveling or playing in the snow or hiking in the rain.

The same applies to swimwear. You may want to have 1 fashionable suit and one sporty/utilitarian suit. If you don’t do competitive swimming then 2 fashion swimsuits are plenty. I for one don’t see a need to have more than that but then again I haven’t been swimming or to the beach in at least a year. If “beach” is one of your main life categories then naturally you would need more. If you do then by all means have more but just don’t buy things you won’t wear and don’t need if you don’t go to the beach as often as you wish you could.

Special Occasions: When to Rent Clothes

You will also want to have a few items for “special” occasions such as going somewhere fancy like the theater, or any event that is outside the norm of your routine but that still happens at least once a season. These wild card events really only require one outfit. As a kind of depressing example, I have this one black dress that is my “funeral dress.” You may want to have a “funeral dress/suit” as well as a “going to the ballet/ fancy dinner dress” or whatever the occasion may be.

Alternatively, in this case you may want to rent your outfits for these occasions. While I recommend having one funeral dress/suit on hand (no one wants to plan for a funeral, let alone rent a dress for one in the midst of everything), for other occasions such as the theater, fancy dinners, or any event that requires tickets or reservations in advance or that occurs less than every 3 months, renting clothes can be the perfect choice. These are also the occasions where you’ll likely be taking a lot of photos and posting them online (if you do the whole social media thing) so it can be nice to always have something super fancy/expensive that isn’t the same as the last outfit you posted.

Renting would also be helpful during “wedding season” where you’re suddenly being blitzed by like 7 weddings within 3 months among the same group of friends or family and you don’t want to wear the same dress to the 4th wedding of the season. Plus, some weddings are in a church, some are outside, some are evening weddings and more formal so renting a dress can be the easiest option for your wallet, your wardrobe, and the environment.

And there you have it, folks – a customizable 3 step formula for determining how many clothes you need for your life. Of course our lives and lifestyles change and so our wardrobes will need to change too. But hopefully with this guide you’ll always be able to structure your wardrobe to fit your life.

Featured Photo Background by Alyssa Strohmann on Unsplash

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