How to Build a Downsized Wardrobe You Love

A massive clothes moth infestation triggered my minimalist wardrobe philosophy. The hard lesson I learned from the bugs that destroyed my favorite coat was this: There's no point in having a surplus of anything if I can't protect it. The moths that chewed quarter-sized holes in my cashmere sweaters had probably been munching away for weeks before I noticed their work.

The moth infestation required a total closet reboot. To find and annihilate the Moths' Secret Headquarters (a wool coin purse I'd had since childhood), I had to pull every single item of clothing out of my closet and inspect it for damage. Then I washed everything, including the closet itself. It was a loathsome chore that I never want to repeat. (See also: 5 Wardrobe Basics for Women That Are Worth Investing In)

With that in mind, I set some parameters about what items of clothing would be a part of my newly downsized wardrobe. My closet would contain only clothes that:

  1. I love; and
  2. I actually wear on a regular basis.

Now, the only clothes in my closet are clothes that I love wearing so much that I can't wait for them to be laundered so I can wear them again. The speedy rotation of clothes through the laundry now allows me to catch problems early. Getting dressed in the morning gives me a little bump of happiness.

To achieve this aspirational wardrobe, I made the following key decisions.

I Gave Up Dressing My Fantasy Self

While cleaning out my closet I realized that I had been buying clothes without considering my typical, daily schedule, or the climate. This was an enormous waste of money and storage space.

In my fantasy life, I dress like I'm Robin Wright on House of Cards. And, although I do need corporate attire for an occasional business meeting, in my actual life I don't need 13 of the 15 little black dresses in my closet, especially since I work most days from the comfort of my cat hair covered sofa.

In my fantasy life, I also live someplace cold. I had tons of wool clothes. Because I live in sunny Los Angeles, I decided not to replenish my sweater and coat collection. Although I pine for autumn in New York, in Los Angeles it's basically summer from Valentine's Day to Thanksgiving. More than half my closet space was devoted to clothes I could only wear 60 days out of the year. That was dumb.

In my fantasy life, I'm also the same size as I was in college. Contrary to popular belief, I was not inspired to get thin by the too-small clothes in my closet. Instead I was reminded daily that I spent money poorly on clothes that would have been out of date by the time I lost weight, and then not even be flattering on my skinnier body.

My actual wardrobe for my actual life now consists mainly of jeans and blouses that are super comfortable, but still appropriate to wear to casual business meetings and dinners.

I Got Rid of Clothes That Didn't Make Me Feel Great

I put off selling an expensive handbag that had been given to me by a previous (bad) boyfriend, because I knew I would never be able to afford to replace it with something comparable. But, every time I used the bag, it triggered bad memories. Was owning a Status Purse worth the bad feelings attached to it? (No). I ended up selling it, and don't miss it now that it's gone. (See also: Successful Women Have These 7 Things in Their Bag)

Life is too short to wear uncomfortable clothes. I sold off beautiful shoes that made walking hard, and ditched anything that felt too tight or itchy. I realized that the clothes I wear the most are also the most comfortable.

I Learned Fit Is as Important as Price and Quality

Although the standard advice for buying anything is quality over quantity, buying $200 designer jeans is a huge waste of money if the $40 pair from Target fits perfectly. In addition to saving money on the price, well-fitted clothes give the illusion of quality and luxury. People who project wealth and success wear clothes that fit.

I have to have the vast majority of my clothes tailored to fit my body, as I am very hard to fit off the rack. Through mortifying trial and error during my youth, I discovered that buying trendy clothes is my road to fashion and financial ruin. It doesn't matter how cool it looks on the hanger or on the model. If it looks terrible on me, it's not a good deal.

Only fashionistas notice or care if I am on-trend, but everyone can see that my clothes aren't flattering.

Since 95% of my wardrobe is made up of used clothing, I am now extra cautious about shopping at thrift stores. I used to use thrift stores and department store clearance racks as a way to experiment on clothes with a lower financial risk. At least this is what I told myself. A truly good deal is based on price-per-wearing. A $10 dress that I wear once is ultimately more expensive than the $50 dress I wear weekly.

I Got Realistic About Wardrobe Projects

I am lucky to be surrounded by women who shop retail as a hobby. As a result, I get a lot of my clothes for free at Girlie Swap Parties. However, just because something is free, doesn't mean I should take it home with me. If something needs to be hemmed, professionally cleaned, or repaired to make it wearable, I really think long and hard before I bring it home. Do I really love something so much that it's worth the time and money it will take to make it perfect?

What are your best tips for building a great, minimalist wardrobe? Please share your genius in comments!

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Guest's picture

"I have to have the vast majority of my clothes tailored to fit my body, as I am very hard to fit off the rack."

That's true for most of us, actually. The "after" wardrobes on What Not To Wear have all been tailored in one way or another.

Guest's picture
Guest Patty

I am just about to the point of downsizing my wardrobe, and this is a fantastic article!

Max Wong's picture

Hi Patty!

Good luck with your downsize. (Just don't let the moths choose for you). I actually love having a teeny weenie wardrobe.

Guest's picture

When I retired, I kept only 4 dressy jackets to wear to church or to events in the fall/winter. Each can be worn with black slacks. Scarves and jewelry can be interchanged with each. For summer I have 3 dressy tops; again each can be worn with tan slacks.
I have 1 pair of dressy sandals, 1 pair of black dress shoes, 2 pairs of walking shoes, 2 pair of mules, and 2 pair of house shoes. That's it.
For every day, I wear jeans. I have a few nice sweaters (3), 2 sweatshirts, a few tees. I have 2 sleeping sets, 1 robe, and wool socks for winter.
I have a trench coat with a zip in lining, a jacket for walking in the winter, 1 fake fur jacket I love, and a jacket for fall/spring.
That's about it. When I buy an item, I get rid of another.

Max Wong's picture

Hi Betsey--

Thank you for the detailed list of your mini wardrobe! Since I live in a warm climate, I'm glad that someone posted a cold-weather version. I just have one question: do you have 4 dressy shirts or 4 dressy jackets you wear with black slacks?

Guest's picture
laura m.

Betsey: we're retired, and cleaned out hubby's stuff and mine, we declutter and go thru clothes end of summer and end of winter knowing they won't be worn again for various reasons. Your ideas of dressy clothes I will follow likewise, neutral bottoms and several tops for cold and warm seasons. Moths: I own polyester everything, some cotton capri pants for summer, poly running shirts in every color I like, and several pairs jogging shoes. Use dryer sheet in closets in various places to repel insects.

Guest's picture

Just clearing my wardrobe out today .not too successful.but somethings have gone !!!