Friday, 1 February 2019

The Orange Swan Guide to Wardrobe Planning

Over the past six years or so, since I've been in straitened financial circumstances and have been authoring this blog, I've put a lot of thought and research into the subject of wardrobe planning and strategies, and now my ideas have percolated long enough that I've gotten to the point of deciding to lay out my wardrobe planning theories and advice in a punishingly long blog post in the hope that my ideas will be of some value to my readers. Buckle up, everyone, it's going to be a long and wordy ride!

Some Wardrobe Planning History

Prior to the mid-1960s or thereabouts, when people in Western society had smaller wardrobes, they used to plan their clothing purchases much more carefully and holistically than they ordinarily do now. People figured out what they needed for their daily lives (i.e., clothes for work, school, sports, religious services, evening or other social occasions, around home) and systematically bought whatever number of outfits they needed for each activity, along with whatever hats, gloves, handbags, shoes, coats, undergarments, or other items were required to complete each ensemble. They also made sure the different components of their wardrobes worked together well. If a woman had a modest budget, she'd specifically select a hat or a handbag that would work with several or all of her coats and outfits rather than buy a different hat or handbag for each outfit. Wardrobe planning was a skill that was taught in home economics classes, where students learned to plan a comprehensive, coherent, lifestyle-appropriate wardrobe for themselves according to a given budget. And if you look at any street photography from 1965 or earlier compared to street photos taken now, it becomes painfully clear that on average, people who lived back then dressed better than we do today, even though most of us living in 2019 usually have much more clothing than was common fifty or more years ago.

What changed? Clothes became relatively cheaper, societal rules about what was sartorially appropriate became more relaxed, and we began shopping and dressing in a much more laissez-faire style. (Linda Przybyszewski also argues in her book The Lost Art of Dress that it's due to the decline of home economics education in schools.) There were some very good aspects to these changes in terms of comfort and freedom of choice (please note that nowhere in this post do I lobby for the return of the girdle or the banishment of yoga pants) but there were some bad ones as well. Excessive textile production has been terrible for the environment. Excessive clothing shopping is bad for our personal finances. And even if we've wound up with two or three times the amount of clothing in our closets than was average for the closets of 1950, we can still feel we don't have the right clothes, be unhappy about how we dress, and wind up running out at the last minute to buy something for some event that's come up.

Many men of today still buy their clothes more or less strategically. This is understandable given how uniform men's clothing is compared to women's. That is why I've decided to gear this post specifically to female clothing, since men don't really need advice. In cultures where Western-style clothing is worn, if a man has a suit, a jacket, and a modest selection of shirts and ties, sweaters, t-shirts, khakis, jeans, and shorts, he has at least one appropriate outfit for every occasion but a very formal one, for which he can rent a tuxedo. If his clothes are well-cut, of good quality, and fit well, he will be considered impeccably dressed. Women's clothing, by contrast, is so much more nuanced and diverse that a minimal woman's wardrobe would require approximately three times that amount of clothing, and then she will likely be considered well but simply dressed, because women are expected to dress with a certain level of individuality and creativity that is not expected of men. A man can wear the same suit to a job interview, a wedding, and a funeral with perhaps a simple change of shirt and tie, while a woman's suit would only be really suitable for two of those occasions at most. However, my stance on the matter is that even though female wardrobe planning and strategizing is more complex a matter than male wardrobe planning, it can still be done and is well worth the effort.

My Tragically Haphazard Personal Wardrobe Planning History

My own wardrobe planning has undergone a gradual but radical shift over the past half dozen years. When I look back to the way I used to shop and make clothes, I just shake my head. I mean, I thought I was so organized. Even as a teenager, I made lists of things I wanted and then systematically acquired them. However, that list was not truly the result of strategic planning, but was rather a sort of documented impulse buying. I never really looked at my wardrobe as a whole, made sure I had a sufficient number of outfits for each activity my life included, or made sure each item I bought or made could be turned into a complete outfit given the other items I had on hand. I was also quite clueless about what suited me, and what a good fit was. Again and again I'd get carried away with wanting to make something without considering whether it would look right on me, where I would wear it, or what I could wear it with, which in turn meant that I perhaps never wore the item at all, or had to go to great expense in buying the things that went with it. I'd get dressed only to realize I didn't have the right shoes or coat to wear with an outfit, and wind up having to change. Or at the last minute I'd find I had nothing suitable to wear for an ordinary occasion like a funeral. I didn't improve much even through my twenties and thirties. One day several years ago when I was cleaning out the basket of hats and scarves that sits on my hall closet shelf in winter and started to think for the first time about which hats went with what coat or jacket, I discovered I had hats that didn't go with any of my coats, and coats for which I had no coordinating hat or gloves.

A coral tam and scarf I made years ago and never once wore because it didn't go with any of my coats. I ended up giving it to my sister, who *did* have a coat to wear this set with.

There were other such epiphanies. Soon after I first began working at home in March 2012, I found myself hiding from the UPS guy one day because I was too embarrassed to open the door given what I was wearing, which felt like one of the lowest points of my working from home experience. (Another contender for "lowest moment" being the time I found myself trying to learn to do the hustle from a YouTube video using the cat for a partner when I was supposed to be researching Canadian tax law. But then perhaps that one was actually a high point. After working from home for nearly seven years, I don't know any more.) When I had to take a few unpaid hours out of my day to go to the UPS office and pick up that package of work myself, I wised up and bought more "around home" clothes (i.e., thrift shop yoga pants, hoodies, and long-sleeved t-shirts), something I needed extra sets of once I wasn't working in an office anymore. And after that I began to think more and more carefully and systematically about what clothes I really wanted and needed for my life, with the result that my current wardrobe is a big improvement on what my wardrobe was seven years ago, even though I have less money to spend now.

What Wardrobe Planning Can Do for You and Your Knitting

The idea of systematic wardrobe planning may seem a little joyless and mechanical to you at first glance, but the paradox of rules and routines and limits is that they sound repressive but are actually freeing, because they help us reduce all the noise and clutter and get down to the business of doing what we most want to do and enjoying the things we love. I believe that careful planning and regulation can give us much more real pleasure out of our clothes in the long run. Wardrobe planning is better for the environment, can save us money, time, and stress over the longer-term, can make us better dressed and more attractive, and can help us get much more pleasure and wear out of the clothes that we buy. What's not to love about that?

A hat and scarf set I made and have been able to enjoy wearing a lot because I selected yarn that I not only loved but that would go with both my old green parka and my new teal parka.

If you're wondering why I've published a wardrobe planning piece on a knitting blog, well, I believe knitting project planning goes hand-in-hand with wardrobe planning. If you're knitting a piece of clothing or a wearable accessory for yourself, you need to think about how that item will look on you, whether it will work with the rest of your wardrobe, how you're going to style it, and whether you will get a good amount of use out of it, because it sucks to put a lot of work into making an item and then realize that it's unusable for some reason. And you won't be able to answer the questions you need to ask yourself about whether a specific pattern is right for you if you don't have a larger understanding of what your wardrobe needs are.

How to Plan Your Ideal Wardrobe

How does one plan one's wardrobe? I believe the best starting point is to create a specific list of everything you would need to be well-dressed for your life. Think about what your ideal wardrobe would look like, make a list of all the items you need in order to be appropriately and sensibly dressed for your lifestyle, and test the list by coming up with every possible scenario in order to make sure it's as comprehensive and well-edited as possible. How many outfits do you need for school or work or the gym or around home? What would you need to wear to the beach, to a friend's BBQ, to a dinner date, to a funeral?

I'll give you an example of what that list might look like by providing you with a slightly fictionalized version of what my own ideal wardrobe list might look like. In actuality I work at home and don't go out socially very often because of my chronic fatigue issues, but in order to make my advice as useful as possible, I want to plan for a lifestyle that's more mainstream than that. So let's suppose that I'm planning a female-presentation wardrobe for a 9-to-5 office job, have the usual commuting, housekeeping, and errand-running to do, and also generally go out socially two to three times a week. I live in Toronto, Ontario, where it gets fairly hot in the summer and quite cold in the winter, which means I need clothes for all weathers. I always do laundry once a week, so my metric for what constitutes enough clothes is "what do I need for a week".

Please note that I am not providing the lists that follow as some sort of all-purpose recommendation, but rather as a helpful example. Your list of necessary items probably differs radically from mine, depending on your gender presentation, age, physical needs, lifestyle, climate, taste, budget, length of laundry cycle, etc., and while you might use my list as a starting point, your own list must be tailored to your individual needs or you won't wind up with the right wardrobe for you.

Here's what my list might look like for spring and summer:

  • three dresses
  • five short-sleeved or sleeveless blouses/tops
  • six t-shirts
  • three skirts
  • two pairs of jeans
  • five pairs of shorts
  • pair of cotton/linen trousers
  • bathing suit
  • beach cover up
  • a cotton cardigan
  • a linen jacket
  • windbreaker/rain jacket
  • a trenchcoat
  • a pashmina
  • a pair of high-heeled sandals
  • a pair of flat sandals
  • a pair of espadrilles or flats
  • a pair of runners
  • a shoulder/tote bag
  • a purse
  • a backpack

Out of this selection of clothing, assuming that I've chosen items that mix and match well, I can make 14 outfits without repeating any items, and could easily get through a week at an office, several evening/weekend social events, and my at-home time. If I have these items, I won't have to think much about what to wear all summer long. If I'm invited to the beach, a backyard BBQ, dinner out, or a casual party, I can be confident that I'm covered. If I make sure one of my dresses is dark and of a relatively conservative cut, I've got a funeral-appropriate outfit should I need one. Planning ahead for funeral wear may seem morbid, but as someone who has had to go to a funeral a year for the past seven years, I can tell you that funerals usually happen at three days' notice and that if you've just lost someone you love you may not feel up to the task of doing any shopping during those three days. I haven't provided for gym wear because I get my exercise by walking a lot and doing exercise videos in my living room, but if I belonged to a gym and were in the habit of heading to the gym 3-4 times a week, I'd probably just add 4 more t-shirts/short sets and perhaps another pair of runners. To keep things simple I haven't included things like socks, stockings, underwear, bras, sleepwear, bathrobes, belts, hats, and jewelry, but of course those things will need to be planned for too. My own actual wardrobe list includes specifics as to what kind and how many of those things I need.

My list doesn't also provide for a formal event such as a cocktail party or a black tie wedding that would require a cocktail dress or evening gown. I almost never have formal events to go to, and when I do I have months of notice, so I've decided that for me the best plan is to prepare formal wear and accessories as needed. A woman who routinely goes to such dressy events weekly, monthly, or even a few times a year might decide that her best approach is to make sure she always has a current, wearable little black dress and a bright cocktail dress or two in her closet, along with suitable evening bags and evening slippers or sandals to wear with them.

I would need a autumn/winter list too. That list might look like this:

  • three dresses
  • 5 long-sleeved tops/blouses
  • 10 sweaters, assorted styles
  • 3 hoodies/sweatshirts
  • 5 long-sleeved t-shirts
  • 3 skirts
  • 3 pairs of wool trousers
  • 2 pairs of jeans (summer list duplicate)
  • 4 pairs of yoga pants
  • leather jacket
  • trench coat (summer list duplicate)
  • windbreaker (summer list duplicate)
  • puffy vest
  • parka
  • short wool jacket
  • long wool coat
  • loafers
  • leather flats
  • pumps
  • runners (summer list duplicate)
  • ankle boots
  • knee boots

Again, with this list, I have thought about work clothes, clothes for social occasions including a funeral, and clothes for around home. The cold weather list is longer and more complex than the hot weather list, because colder weather requires more layers, and consequently more coordination. The selection of coats can be a bit of a challenge for the female wardrobe, as one needs to somehow acquire a suitable coat for every cut and length of jeans, trousers, skirts, and dresses without winding up with twenty different coats, but as I discuss in this Modwardian post of mine about the long tweed coat I made for myself last winter, I believe that if I have a parka, a short neutral-colour wool coat, and a long wool coat, I can brave the Canadian winters with fortitude and in reasonable style. I've got a good selection of coats in my hall closet at present and, going forward, I will make sure I don't acquire any outfits that doesn't go with one of my existing coats or wraps.

Colour Palette Strategies

How do I make sure that the items on my list are interchangeable? I will need to think about colours and patterns. If my linen jacket and cotton cardigan are cream, and my trench coat is tan, they'll likely go with any of my summer outfits. I would probably want to get a pashmina that complemented all three dresses, while my windbreaker would be chosen to go with my jeans and shorts. My winter coats would all be similarly neutral, or at least a colour that complements the colours I wear. I'd get all my leather shoes in brown, and make sure every item of clothing went with brown shoes. I also make sure I have a number of basic items in neutral colours to make my wardrobe more flexible. Of the summer wardrobe items listed above, for instance, one of the three skirts might be in a plain khaki, while the t-shirts and tops would definitely include at least one ivory one, and one brown one.

When I bought this yarn with its crazy mix of rust red, plum, green, ivory, and taupe, I did so knowing I could wear the resulting sweater with my brown skirt and dark brown leather knee boots, my dark brown velvet leggings and knee boots, or my brown trousers and loafers. I also have a dark brown coat to wear over it.

For maximum wardrobe ease and versatility, I strongly recommend working from a select colour palette. I'm a big believer in the seasonal colour theory, and buy everything according to my warm, rich autumn colour palette. Not only am I wearing my best colours, but everything I buy works together so well that I need fewer clothes and shoes and accessories. My sister is also an autumn, but thinks the seasonal colour theory is all nonsense, so she just buys what she likes, though I've noticed that her wardrobe is roughly based on a cool/winter palette (she loves black), and consequently works together well. So, you can find out what season you are and dress according to that season's palette, or, if you don't happen to like "your" colours or believe in seasonal colour theory at all, you can put together your own palette of colours that you like.

The most important rule about putting together a colour palette is that you need to pick either a cool or a warm colour scheme, because cool and warm colours don't mix well. A cool colour palette could contain a mixture of any these colours/shades: black, white, gray, navy, blue, burgundy, crimson, pink, fuchsia, forest green, purple, lavender. A warm colour palette could contain any mixture of these colours/shades: brown, ivory, olive, rust, orange, plum, poppy red, old rose, turquoise, teal, lime green, apricot, peach. For the ultimate versatile wardrobe, you could go with a very restricted colour palette of just a few neutral shades, such as black, white, gray, and a single, favourite colour, which might be red, pink, purple, or blue. I haven't chosen to do this myself because I love colour too much to restrict myself to only a few colours, but it certainly is an easy, super practical, and even chic palette.

Because I dress from a warm palette, I generally buy brown shoes and purses in a few styles and sizes and then I usually have the right shoes and bags to wear with my outfits in all those colours. If I had clothes in both warm and cold colours, I would need both black and brown shoes and purses. Then, because I'd need different size purses and different styles of shoes in different heel heights for various outfits/occasions, it would soon add up to me needing a lot of shoes and bags. Extrapolate this example to include not only shoes and bags but also jackets, jewelry, and scarves and you'll see what I mean about colour palette dressing making it easier and less expensive to look put together.

Another possible colour strategy that will help make your wardrobe more versatile is to keep the prints and patterns restricted to either your upper or lower half. It's easy to find a coordinating top for your plaid skirt or striped trousers if all your tops are a solid colour, or to find something that goes with your polka dot blouse or fair isle sweater if all your skirts and trousers are a solid colour. As with the very limited colour palette idea, I haven't done this myself as I find it too restrictive, but I do make sure I have both tops and bottoms in solid neutrals, which helps me pair up the colourful/printed items.

This particular brown sweater is neutral, yet far from boring.

I would suggest striking a happy medium between the two extremes of buying all wild prints and patterns, which will mean that nothing you have goes with anything else, and buying all neutrals, as there is such a thing as being too practical. Years ago a friend of mine complained to me that she was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with her wardrobe, and that she had felt like a frump when out at lunch with a group of smartly dressed friends. The root of the problem was that she was buying all her clothes in solid, neutral colours so that everything could be mixed and matched. This might be a necessary measure for a woman who has very few clothes, but it was an unnecessary stricture in my friend's case given that she had plenty of clothes. I advised her not to be so practical, that not *everything* had to go with *everything else*, and that if she could mentally assemble two to four outfits out of an item she was considering buying, that would give her plenty of versatility. When she bought her spring clothes a month or so later, she began branching out into some colours and prints, and also bought a pair of green shoes, a pair of red shoes, and a red purse. The following fall she told me she had loved the way these items spiced up her summer wardrobe and that she was much happier with the way she was dressed.

And I should probably add a few words about choosing neutral pieces. Neutral is not a synonym for boring. When buying neutrals such as a brown purse or a pair of black trousers or a cream blouse, don’t just buy any brown purse or black trousers or ivory blouse, as that’s a good way to wind up with shapeless, dowdy, blah pieces that you hate. Look for a smart cut, a flattering fit, good quality, and some interesting textural details. Your neutral pieces should look just as sharp and make you feel just as good as your more colourful or patterned pieces, if not more, because you’ll be wearing them more often.

Other Wardrobe Planning Strategies

There are a lot of other wardrobe strategies besides that of using a given colour palette that can help make it easier for you to dress better with fewer clothes -- in fact, there are far too many for me to cover in this blog post -- but I'll just touch on a few. One of the simplest and best strategies that I have ever heard was a standard work outfit concept for women who work white collar-type jobs: a knit top and a pencil skirt. It's easy to put together, easy to wear, easy to maintain, it's suitable for many figures and all ages and all professional levels, it won't go out of date, and it looks good, especially when you add interesting jewelry and great shoes.

An outfit I put together, using a knit top I made from a 1930s knitting pattern, and a thrift shop pencil skirt.

Another strategy is to think in terms of whole outfits, rather than trying to assemble the more complex mix and match type wardrobe I outlined above. With this approach, you might decide that you need, say, ten outfits that are suitable for work, and ten more that are suitable for casual wear or for around home, and then plan each outfit complete with shoes, coats, and accessories. (You can still use a colour palette strategy to minimize the number of shoes, coats, and accessories you need to go with your outfits if you wish.) What you lose in versatility you'll gain in being able to get dressed with maximum efficiency every morning because you'll know exactly what goes with what. This might be an especially good approach for someone who is in some transitional stage of life such as pregnancy, or the process of major weight loss, or who is starting over after a house fire or flood. Someone who must acquire new clothes to wear right away, but doesn't want or isn't able to spend much money on their wardrobe for the time being, might decide she needs a minimal wardrobe of ten outfits: six outfits that are suitable for work/going out, and four "around home" outfits.

Another possible strategy is the French style of dress for women, in which a woman owns a selection of well-cut basics (i.e., a leather jacket, a blazer, a black suit, a trench coat, jeans, trousers, silk blouse, a button-down shirt, a Breton-striped shirt, plain pullovers, tank tops and t-shirts, etc.) in a neutral palette of black, white, gray, navy, camel, and pale pink, which she wears with simple jewelry such as a gold ring or a pair of diamond studs, classic footwear such as black stilettos, flats, loafers, ankle boots, and sandals, and a good bag, sunglasses, and a scarf. It's an easy formula to understand and apply, and I must admit it looks great, but though I once spent an hour or so on Pinterest educating myself to the point where I felt I had a grasp on the fundamentals of French style, I decided on the spot that it wasn't for me. That cool palette that would look so good on the common French colouring of dark hair, dark eyes, and pale skin, would make me look washed out, and while I might occasionally put together a French-style outfit out of my own neutral items, I'd find the style too boring and restrictive to live with on a daily basis, as my tastes run to more colourful, interesting clothing and jewelry.

The Breton stripe top I got inspired to make after reading about French style.

But I did find some usable ideas in the course of my "French style" Pinterest research. Afterwards, I made more effort to make sure I had wardrobe basics in neutral colours. I made myself the green and cream striped jersey top you see pictured above, because Breton-stripe tops are such a classic, casual look. I added "loafers" to my buy list, and soon after bought myself a pair of classic tasselled Bass loafers that have turned out to be one of the best shoe purchases I ever made: they go with every single pair of trousers and jeans I own; they never look either too dressy or too casual; and they're both comfortable and very durable. I'm also making an effort to incorporate scarves into my wardrobe, as they truly are a great way to add a lot of style and polish to a simple outfit.

This, by the way, is the kind of critical, self-aware approach one should take towards all clothing strategies and advice, and one I've made every effort to demonstrate on this blog: I did not adopt the French style wholesale, but rather just used the specific tips that would work for me. It's important not to act on anyone's advice blindly (including mine), as clothing strategies that work well for many other people may not work at all for you. To dress yourself well, you need to learn which colours and styles and cuts suit your looks and which don't, to know what styles you're comfortable and happy in and which ones you can't stand, to know what your budget is, and what items you really need to be appropriately dressed for your lifestyle. Whenever you come across new style advice, think carefully about whether it is truly right for you before you take any steps to implement it.

How to Translate Your Ideal Clothing List Into Reality

Once you have your list of ideal clothing made and you're sure it's going to work for you, your next step is to look through what you have in your closet and dresser drawers and see how your existing wardrobe compares to your ideal wardrobe. This will help you identify what you need to buy, what you might want to weed out, and equally importantly, figure out what items you need to stop buying for the time being because you have enough or even more than enough of them. If you have more items than what is specified on your list (I certainly do!), but you like them and wear them, keep them. There's no point in getting rid of perfectly wearable items for the sake of a list that's ultimately rather arbitrary. You'll lose those "extra" items by attrition sooner or later (i.e., they'll wear out, go out of date, get torn or stained beyond repair, cease to fit), and because you're no longer buying extra items, eventually you'll get to the point where you have just what you truly need and want in your closet. If you have surplus items that you don't wear or like, then you can weed them out secure in the knowledge that you don't need them anyway. If you find any items that you don't wear but do like, whether they are on your ideal wardrobe or list or not, consider why you don't wear them and whether you can address that. If you don't have anything to wear with the item in question, is it worth the expense and trouble of acquiring the items to go with it, or would you rather just donate the item to a thrift shop? If a piece doesn't fit, can it be altered? If it needs repairing, can it be repaired?

When it comes to unwearable items, if you've got needlework/crafting skills (and given that you're reading this blog, you probably do), do think beyond the basics of replacing a missing button or fixing a seam that's come apart. Wardrobe reconstruction is another skill set that seems to have become almost lost. Women of modest means used to use all sorts of tricks and techniques to make their old clothing look new and fresh. They'd "turn" their dresses by ripping the dress apart, cut and shape it to suit the coming season's styles, and then sew it back together with the formerly "wrong" and unfaded side of the fabric on the outside. I'm not advocating turning your clothes as modern fabrics aren't at all suited to that, but I do find it's a good idea to research and brainstorm ways to extend the life of an item of clothing. The past can be a goldmine of ideas for how to do that -- especially in the case of 1930s and 1940s-era fashion advice, when many people had to dress themselves within the limitations of tight budgets and strict clothing rationing.

This copper silk scarf was originally a greenish gold silk scarf that didn't look good on me or go with any of my clothes.

Time and time again I've saved items that I was on the verge of discarding with the realization that there was a way to salvage it. Over the years, I've replaced a snap in a favourite faux suede shirt, replaced broken bra underwires with new ones (they sell them in fabric and sewing supply stores), updated a blouse by replacing its nineties-era fabric-covered buttons with new bone ones, changed unflattering hemlines, turned long-sleeved t-shirts with worn elbows into t-shirts, turned a pair of yoga pants with bleach marks on the lower legs into a pair of shorts, dyed a hideous pair of splotch-patterned corduroy trousers my mother had bought for me (circa 1987) to a solid navy, turned ill-fitting/dated dresses into skirts, dyed a sickly greenish gold silk scarf a beautiful copper colour, freshened up a old dingy white summer hat by dipping it in tea, re-trimmed hats, and reconfigured and restrung dated, broken, or worn thrift shop necklaces into something much more attractive. These projects all took less than two hours each, involved minimal expense, and were more than worth the effort, because I got so much more wear out of all those items once I'd reworked them a bit.

Sometimes an item can be turned into a completely different piece. Once years ago a co-worker told me that she had a beautiful custom-made long gold silk bridesmaid dress that she would like to have shortened to cocktail length so that she could wear it again, but she hated to cut off all that fabric as it had cost so much per yard. I said, "Well, if you're not wearing the dress, it's going to waste anyway," and she said, "Yes, that's true," and then I said, "Maybe you could have a matching evening bag made out of the fabric that's cut off," and she said, "Oooooh!" I currently have a plan to turn a beautiful silk bathrobe I own that makes me look dumpy into a lovely silk top that flatters me -- this will take more time than the other reconstruction projects above, but not more time than it would take me to make a new top out of fabric I had to pay for, and I can't remember the last time I even saw a comparable bolt of silk in a fabric store. I also sometimes take apart unsatisfactory knitted projects and make something I like out of the yarn. Ravelling out a knitting project doesn't usually take any longer than it would take to go shopping for new yarn, and then I've saved the not-inconsiderable price of a new lot of yarn and kept an item out of a landfill.

A top I made using yarn from a top I didn't like, and a skirt I made out of a botched dressmaking project.

I don't always refer back to my ideal wardrobe list religiously when I'm cleaning out my wardrobe or planning purchases, but I do try to think in terms of, "How many of this particular kind of item do I really need/want/use?" I often follow something I call the Rule of Three, by which I mean that I don't usually need more than three of any one thing (i.e., three sets of pajamas, three winter dresses, three pairs of jeans), unless we're talking about very basic, daily-wear items such as socks, underwear, t-shirts, or sweaters, in which case the Rule of Three might become the Rule of Ten. Knowing that I already have what I need is such a good way to safeguard myself against getting tempted to buy or make things I don't need. I also try to think in terms of complete outfits. I must be able to make at least one outfit, if not more, out of every item I have, and also need to think about whether I have shoes, jewelry, a handbag, and a coat to wear with the item rather than just about whether I have a top or a bottom for it.

Wardrobe Planning Going Forward

To keep my buying/clothes making in check, and my wardrobe at a reasonable size, I keep lists of things that I need and want to buy or make, and I've made every effort to try to decide what what goes on those lists on the basis of what I will make good use of rather than a basis of OOOHHH PRETTY!! MUST MAKE/OWN!, and to not buy off list when shopping, because if I really need something, it should be on my list before I go shopping. Sometimes I do have to make exceptions, and then come up with strategies to govern those exceptions. I love knitting so much that it's hard for me to keep my knitting projects down to a strict needs-based rationale, so what I did was make a rule that I can only make myself six items a year (and making something for my household counts as making something for me), which I consider a fairly reasonable limit. If I were to make myself, say, two new sweaters, a hat and scarf set, two pairs of socks, and a set of Christmas tree ornaments, that's not an excessive amount of new knitwear for me to acquire in the space of one year, especially if I used some stash yarn to make them. I'm doing a lot of sewing these days because I have a stockpile of fabric to get through, and it would be wasteful not to use it, but once the fabric I have on hand is gone I'll be making myself just a few items each spring and fall.

A cream hat and scarf I made from the same pattern as the coral set pictured above. This set goes with *all* my coats and outfits.

Having a list of what I need to buy in my planner helps me budget and figure out the best way of acquiring something. I can decide if I can or will make an item, whether I can possibly get it from thrift shop, or whether I will need to buy it from a regular retail outlet. Right now, I see that according to my various sewing/knitting/shopping lists, I plan to knit an ivory cotton pullover because the one I'd been wearing for about twelve years got irreparably stained last summer. I want to sew an ivory linen jacket to replace the one that got stained by battery acid from the hall closet light. (I thought I was saving money by not replacing those batteries, sigh.) I want to buy or make a peach and brown silk scarf that I can use as a finishing touch for an outfit consisting of a plain peach skirt and plain brown top. And I need to replace a pair of beautiful but wretchedly uncomfortable cognac leather pumps that I currently own with a similar pair that doesn't hurt my feet. I am confident these are justifiable purchases, but sometimes I can make a mistake even in putting something on my list. Unnecessary stuff has a way of sneaking on there if I'm not vigilant and mindful.

If you're thinking of adding a new item of apparel to your make or buy lists, ask yourself, "Where am I going to wear this?" and "What will I wear it with?" The process of answering these questions may help you realize that you don't really need or want the item after all, or that it's simply going to require too much of an investment of time and/or money. About two years ago I got rid of a denim jacket (purchased circa 2001), that had become too worn and ripped to wear, and initially I automatically added "denim jacket" to my shopping list because I'd had one denim jacket or another in my closet since my teens. But then I started thinking about where I'd wear the denim jacket and what I'd wear it with, and I realized that I couldn't think of a single occasion or outfit that my leather jacket, linen jacket, windbreaker, trench coat, or one of my sweaters and hoodies wouldn't be a better choice for, and I struck "denim jacket" off my want list. Alternatively, if you realize that you'll have nothing to wear with the item if you buy it, you may want to rethink the purchase somewhat. Perhaps buying it in a different colour or a slightly different style from the one you originally intended will make it work better with your existing wardrobe.

Long-Term Planning

Another grimmer question that I have started to consider when planning a purchase is whether something I want is age appropriate. I'm 45, and while I'm ageing not badly and can still dress somewhat youthfully, since I'm aiming to make my clothes last five years or more, I need to think not only in terms of "Can I get away with this at 45?", but "Will I still want to be wearing this at 50?" If I'm forced to admit to myself that I won't want to be caught dead in the item in question when I'm 50, I heave a sigh over the indignities of aging, and relinquish my plan to acquire the item. If you've got a big lifestyle change coming up, such as leaving school for the professional workforce, leaving the workforce for retirement, pregnancy/parenthood, or a move to a different climate and/or culture, those are all life changes that will require new wardrobe strategies.

Which leads me to another point I wanted to make in this post, which is that I think it's important to think relatively long-term in wardrobe planning. Disposable fashion, by which I mean clothes that date quickly and/or are of too poor quality to stand up to reasonable use, is doing so much damage to our planet, gets so expensive long-term, doesn't look that good on anyone, and clogs up our closets with crap clothing. I buy or make my clothes with the expectation that they will last at least five years, and I make them last as long as I can by treating them with care and mending and reworking them whenever possible. Of course, much of what's available in regular retail these days is poor quality and won't last that long, and you may not even have many better options depending on your location or budget. This is a systemic problem beyond the scope of this blog post, but I would recommend avoiding the purchase of poor quality clothing whenever possible by buying fewer, more expensive but better quality new items, buying secondhand, and/or making your own clothes with care.

Thinking longer-term in your clothing purchasing generally means not only planning more carefully, but also steering towards simpler, more classic lines and being cautious about adopting trends. Though some trends, such as the cowl, do come to stay, others tend to look silly and dated in fairly short order. It also means you need to be sure you genuinely like something on you, that it fits well, and that you will wear it before you buy it.

The long tweed coat I made last year, and that I hope I have planned well enough that I can wear it for 5 to 10 years.

We the living of 2019 do have a few huge advantages that those who lived during the last two centuries never had, and the first is that our clothing styles have become so myriad and flexible and are changing so little overall that nearly anything goes these days. This is a recent phenomenon. My mother, who was born in 1938, tells me that when she was a young woman in the late fifties and early sixties, there was one look, one silhouette, one hemline length in style at a time, and if a woman didn't have that particular current look, she was outré. Prior to 1950 or so, women of modest means routinely refashioned and retrimmed their clothing every season in order to keep in style. Through much of the twentieth century, fashions changed so quickly and were so specific and rigid that if a woman wore something even two or three years old, it looked it, and she'd be considered dowdy and out of date. Even in the 1980s, when I was growing up, fashions changed radically over the course of the decade. In the 1990s the pace seemed to slow somewhat, and fashions haven't changed so terribly much since 2000. When I watch movies from the early aughts I often find myself thinking that it would only take at a few tweaks to update some of the looks the actresses are wearing, or maybe even that they look quite contemporary exactly as they are, and I have many pieces of clothing that are ten to sixteen years old that still pass for reasonably current. In 1999, 1989, 1979, or 1969, it would have been next to impossible for a woman to wear much clothing that was a decade or more old without looking like an oddity, whereas now it's easy to style decade-old clothing so that it looks quite up to date.

These days it's possible for a woman to think much longer-term in her wardrobe planning than women could decades ago, and that means we who wear female clothing can get more wear out of our clothes. This is especially good news for those of us who make our clothes. Making your own clothing is a lot of work, and damn straight do I want a good return on all that effort. Another advantage of making your own clothing is that it tends to date better than commercially made clothing. Because handmade clothing isn't as easily recognizable as having been on the market at a certain time, it never looks quite in style... and therefore is much less likely to look out of style.

Another thing that's changed radically and to our great advantage is the social status of vintage and thrift shop clothing. Thrift shopping didn't become the done thing until the late 1960s, and vintage clothing wasn't a thing at all, unless one was wearing a family heirloom to a costume party. While hand-me-downs from family or friends were common practice, before the late sixties only the poor would have worn a stranger's old clothing, and then only did so because it was an absolute necessity, and they refashioned it if they could. These days attractive vintage or thrift shop clothing is not only acceptable but admired, and even envied. I couldn't possibly count the number of times some woman has asked me where I got something I was wearing in the hope that she would be able to track down a similar piece for herself, and then got a look of frustrated covetousness on her face when I told her the item came from a thrift shop. And again, because fashion is no longer so rigid or changing so much, it's become very easy to find stylish, attractive thrift shop clothing.

My wardrobe is almost entirely composed of thrift shop and handmade clothing. I honestly can't remember the last time I bought a new item of clothing from a regular retail clothing store or online (I do buy shoes and underwear and some accessories new). And I'm perfectly happy with that. Even if I did have a comfortable income, I would keep right on acquiring clothes in exactly the same way. There is such an enormous wealth of information and inspiration on the internet to help us design and plan clothing that is exactly what we want. I can't tell you how much I love coming across a find at a thrift shop, or being able to knit myself a sweater from a 1930s pattern, or incorporate Art Nouveau-style detailing into a design, or replicate a magazine photo look I found on Pinterest in my own colour palette, size, and style using Vogue or McCalls sewing patterns, or a knitting pattern from an unknown designer on Ravelry. Whereas whenever I do set foot in a mall these days, which is not often, my internal reaction to the clothes I see is generally something along the lines of, "What is this overpriced shit?"

How to Select Patterns That Will Suit You

When one makes one's own clothes, one doesn't get to try things on before they're made. A knitter or sewer needs to know in advance what styles do or don't suit them. If you're over twenty, you probably already have a good general idea of what suits you, but do keep educating yourself on your own best look, which will evolve over time as your life and your looks and the styles change. When shopping, take time to try on new styles and trends. Even if you're pessimistic as to how they'll look on you, if it's a style truly new to you, try it on anyway. It'll cost you nothing but a few minutes and you might be surprised. And if you want to wear a trend that doesn't suit you, look for a way to modify/reinterpret it so that it does.

When bow-tied blouses came back in circa 2011, I knew I couldn't wear a bow blouse that tied right under the chin, so I looked for a scarf-tie blouse pattern that had a lower neckline.

In cases where you can't try something on in advance, do be skeptical of professionally modelled, styled, and photographed sample shots, as they can be very deceiving. Over the years of writing this blog I've come to realize that professional modelling is a service that is designed to benefit designers, editors, advertisers, and marketers, not those of us who actually buy and wear the clothes or the patterns. Professional models are forced to starve themselves down to a size zero to fit into the standard size zero samples as a matter of convenience for designers, stylists, and editors, and then the clothes are posed and photographed to make them look as good as possible. Unsurprisingly, the resulting product shot often conveys a very unrealistic idea as to what the garment will look like in real life. In some ways the product photography of magazines like Knitty is actually superior to that of Vogue Knitting. Yes, Vogue Knitting is a far more high-fashion and professional publication. But in Knitty the designs are modelled by the designers themselves, or by whatever family member or relative the design was made for, the photography itself also seems to be a "friend or family member" affair, and the result is attractive yet realistic photos that may not be as glamorous but do a much better job of serving the needs of their readers, who can use them to make down-to-earth decisions about how well a garment hangs and looks in real life.

One day some years ago while writing a knitting magazine review for this blog I fell in love with a design for a sleeveless, scoop- and ruffle-necked top that was in one of the knitting magazines that employ professional models. Intellectually I knew I had no business making that top for me because, as I am a well-endowed woman, ruffles in the bust region just add unflattering bulk to the last place I need it, but it looked sooooooo good in the photo. That design stayed in my Ravelry favourites (where I corral the designs I intend to make in the near future) for a year or more while I repeatedly tried and failed to talk myself out of the whole idea. I probably would have eventually gone ahead and made the damn thing but for the fact that one day I browsed through the Ravelry project pages for that pattern, and discovered that it didn't look all that good on any of the women who had made it. That ruffle had a heavy, droopy, awkward look in every photo but the sample shot, and it was indeed especially unflattering on women with larger chests. Once I'd browsed through 20 or more unfortunate-looking project pages, I navigated straight back to my favourites page and removed that design from it without a single pang of regret. It took realistic sample photos to convince me of what I already knew in theory.

Since then, when I search Ravelry for a knitting pattern for me, I often weed out some of the finalists by checking out the Ravelry project pattern pages for each design, especially if I have my suspicions as to how well a garment actually sits. I've come across a number of designs that don't look good on literally anyone but the professional model in the sample shot, and it's always such a relief to be saved the time, money, and aggravation making that design would have cost me. You'll know when you've found a solid, wearable design when it looks good on everyone (or nearly everyone -- some knitters have fit problems, or make technical mistakes) who made it, and you may even get some great ideas as to what colour palette or modifications you can use. If you sew, there are community websites for sewers such as Sewing Pattern Review where you can similarly view project pages for sewing patterns to see how they look on non-models.

Another bit of advice I have on how to shop or plan projects wisely is don't put too much faith in name brands. If you have found there is a particular product line or designer that especially suits your taste and figure, by all means shop with them. That said, it is my experience that each item in a wardrobe ought be chosen strictly on its own merits, not for its name brand. Even the best designers turn out some bad designs, or designs that won't work for everyone. When I need to find a pattern for a knitting project, I figure out exactly what kind of pattern I need (i.e., which weight of yarn, which kind of neckline or sleeve length, what style or shape), and then I search Ravelry for patterns that meet those specifications and browse them to choose the very best one. And guess what? The design I choose is much more likely to be from an unknown designer than it is to be the work of some rock star designer or come from the pages of a high-end knitting magazine. When you know exactly what you want and need and focus on finding it, you are much less likely to be sidetracked into buying something that's not the best choice for you merely because it has a fancy label.

On Being a Continual Student of Your Own Style

I was a slow learner when it came to learning the skill of self-presentation, and I'm still learning. I was 27 before I learned in a colour theory course I took at Toronto's George Brown College that I looked best in warm, autumnal shades, not in the winter palette I had been wearing. I was in my early thirties before I learned by reading the Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine What Not to Wear books what shapes suited me. I was 40 before I learned how to plan my wardrobe in a coherent, systematic, strategic way. And I continue to pick up new ideas here and there, through how-to-dress books and articles, on Pinterest, on sites like Go Fug Yourself, and through my own work in researching and writing this blog. My skills have improved, my taste has improved, and my understanding of what will and won't suit me and what I truly need has improved, with the result that I am so much happier with the results of my knitting and sewing and other projects than I used to be.

I almost made this knitted coat according to a pattern that was fabulous but would have been wretchedly unflattering on me.

Finding your style and learning to make the most of your own particular looks is all about being attentive to what works and what doesn't, to what you like and what you don't like, taking mental or physical notes, and then keeping those notes in mind/on hand for future purchases. I've learned over the years that I cannot wear shift dresses, or crew necklines, or turtlenecks, or three-quarter length sleeves, or empire-waisted anything. I now know that dresses don't generally fit me off the rack and that I must make them myself, and I've learned how to alter them so that they'll look right on me. I've gotten pretty good at zeroing in on the styles and shapes that do suit me, and at modifying things that I don't like, which saves me time and mistakes in both shopping and making my own clothes.

As the French say, elegance is the privilege of age. At the rate I'm going I should attain elegance at the age of ninety. But it's my hope that by writing this article, and by authoring this blog in general, I can help my readers learn how to think strategically and critically about their knitting project plans and about dressing in general, and avoid some of the expensive, time-consuming, and exasperating mistakes that I've made.

Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom, and happy knitting and dressing!


  1. This is a very timely article for me. I've been thinking about this a lot. I've been sewing my own clothes since junior high school (I'll be 65 this year) and for a lot of that time I made things because the design intrigued me and not necessarily because I needed it. As I have aged I have encountered fit problems that I never had before too, and that has contributed to my dissatisfaction with my clothing. I work in the arts, so a certain amount of "flair" is acceptable but the problem with clothes that stand out is that everyone remembers when you wear them.
    I appreciate your list...I see that I need to start one of my own. Thank you for the thoughtful article.

  2. What an excellent piece- thank you for taking the time to share it. I really enjoy your reviews of knitting magazines.

  3. Great information! Thank you! I will certainly be using your tips for planning my wardrobe! Another factor in planning a wardrobe is knowing what colors flatter you. I absolutely cannot wear gold, beige, orange, tomato red, peach, or olive green, for example. I look washed out in those colors. But clear brights like blueish red, kelly green, turquoise, purple, medium to dark blue and clear pastels, that is, not "muted" pastels like ashes of roses, do flatter my coloring. If I have on a fabulous well-made and well-fitted outfit, but the color doesn't flatter my complexion and hair color, it's a waste of money.
    Thanks again! Your information is going to help me dress better and smarter!

  4. This is excellent reminder of how well our mothers planned and great they looked. I'm tired of a bulging closet with nothing good.

  5. Really excellent, useful post, thank you! It's a work in progress for me: all the rules changed post menopause, but the decision making is clearer now I have the perspective of 30+ years. I sew more than I knit, and design quite a bit. As a mature fashion student I adapted the regular sketch figure we used so it was less willowy and more normal in shape, and that has saved a number of expensive mistakes. A good shape in a good cloth has always worked best for me!

  6. Terrific article. Now id it would only work like this. When I worked outside the house everyday and was much younger, I had great in style, clothe. Then I sewed a lot. Somewhere along the line when it came to saving money, my wardrobe usually was forsaken. Not too long ago I got a load of what I looked like in a full length bathroom mirror and laughed so hard I nearly wet myself. A 'bag lady' was looking back at me, an old one at that. I went out to my nearest Kohle's and bought a few pj sets the next day. You are right about trying to stay organized and keeping in mind the favorites in your closet. I used to be so good at it! Now I find it incredibly difficult to pick out clothes. I do better in summer, I think because I am outside nearly every day. Winter I hide indoors. Thanks for the well thought out post. It's an eye-opener.

  7. Thanks for the wonderful and very timely article. I have been realizing I need to do a closet purge and your article has helped immensely. At 59 I have a lot of clothes that I know are not age appropriate but I have been reluctant to part with them. I also have clothes that have sentimental value but have not been worn for years. I am retired ( I take care of my disabled hubby) and live in the south so I have those considerations. I have my work cut out for me but your article definitely put me in the right direction.

  8. Thank-you for taking the time to write this. It has crystallized wardrobe ideas that have been swirling around in my head for a while.

  9. Very good ideas. We recently moved overseas and I had to pare down the clothes. I basically started with a black, navy, grey color grouping, added short and long sleeved tee's; a few dressier items and donated boxes of clothes before leaving. Now--closet is neat and organized and I really don't miss the "coral hat and scarf!!!!"