Wardrobe Revisioning: How Understanding the Clothes You Have Can Be More Satisfying Than Buying More

dresses hanging on a standing rack closet analysis

Getting dressed is hard — like really, really hard. This is especially true when you are trying to accomplish a variety of things at once:

  1.  put your best face, and body, and self forward
  2.  be comfortable
  3. be stylish
  4. be true to you
  5. match your identity to the one you project to the world

No wonder the genre of women-telling-other-women-how-to-dress-and-live is a media mainstay. There’s no possible way to satisfy these needs without conceding something important, so we get 156 different authoritative takes on what it is we are doing wrong and how one quick fix will change everything immediately. These appearance management pressures and double standards for women have only seemed to intensify the last few decades, not relaxed or reversed course like we would have hoped in a globally interconnected modern society. We don’t actually need the next great fad, tidying system, or cleanse to make our lives better; we need the ability to participate in society meaningfully, equitably. So why are we being sold solutions to civic inclusion in the form of fashion? It is unfathomable to me that the lifestyle gurus, consultants, and the tone-deaf Gwyneth Paltrows of the world seek to profit off women’s conditioned insecurity and precarity when their success is largely already determined if they are white, elite, cis, and able-bodied.

AND YET, how do we live in the meantime, getting dressed everyday?

One of the best remedies for the problem of getting dressed and the problem of fast-fashion is actually right at our fingertips and something we don’t have to go out and buy: a Closet Analysis.

What is a Closet Analysis?

A Closet Analysis is an assignment I use in classes to get students to see their clothes in a new light. In this project students approach their closets and wardrobes holistically in order to contemplate their relationship to clothing, fashion, and personal aesthetics. It is a practice I do at least once a year as well to free up space and try to understand myself better, and rediscover clothes. It is also fun for me to evaluate my closet and unpack some of its memories: am I the same person now who picked up this fringed leather jacket six years ago? If I no longer wear the jacket but appreciate it as a container of particular memories, why not pass it on and let someone make new memories in it?

The aim of the closet analysis is also to go through our wardrobes systematically, procedurally: it is possibly less overwhelming, less uncomfortable, and less painful to confront older versions of your self when given a discrete set of instructions and purpose:

  1. Take everything out—take all your clothes out of your closet and group into piles on your bed according to whatever logic you find most useful (have a notebook on hand to jot down thoughts and memories that come to your mind as you perform this task)
  2. Embrace the sort! Classifying, organizing, sorting is edifying and deeply satisfying work, but emotionally draining work nonetheless. Soak it up, recording everything you are thinking and feeling and paying attention to why you are drawn to particular materials, silhouettes, colors, drapes, patterns, etc.
  3. Record your data. After sorting into categories, make sure to also find out, if you can: where every garment was made; what brand it is; what fabric it is; what color it is; and what properties it has.
  4. Analyze! What do your numbers tell you? After looking through the piles and compiling the data, what can you say about your preferences? What is your relationship to clothing and shopping?

Students reflect and analyze their data, seeing if the bulk numbers and facts bring anything about one’s purchases, preferences, or style to light.

For example: someone may have 23 tops, 18 dresses, 7 pairs of pants, and 90% of those items are black, 8% florals, 2% stripes.

Or someone has 52 cotton items, 13 rayon, 3 silk, 7 leather, and of those items 63 are made in Bangladesh, 6 in Vietnam, 3 in Italy, 1 in France etc.

They develop their creative writing and analytical skills in telling the class what the numbers mean and possibly say about their fashion sense and sense of self. This exercise also allows students to connect with each other over shared agony as they realize they are not alone in hating their stomach, ankles, arm hair, or whatever “flaw” they have been routinely told they have by larger capitalist & patriarchal society.

I like this assignment because it makes us reevaluate central claims, images, and narratives we craft about ourselves and who we are. “Oh I only wear black” is an assertion I often make, but when doing this assignment I threw all my clothes in piles on my bed and they spoke for themselves: “On the contrary, Jen, you really like a long-sleeve form-fitting bodice with full hips or an A-line cut in stretchy sumptuous fabrics in gem tones that are patterned, shiny, sparkly, and/or floral.” So much dark floral and so many patterns make me understand that my style is now really “Gothic bohemian”* if I had to settle for one category. After this closet analysis I feel more confident and secure, knowing I have a wonderful array of beautiful clothes at home that make me happy that tell interesting stories and have also lived interesting lives. The tempting new fast-fashion impulse purchase does not compare when I reframe acquisition in this way, and it turns out I have already invested so much time scrutinizing what to wear that I have plenty of options (ha! Suck on that, beauty industries that exploit and manage impossible beauty standards!).

By forcing ourselves to systematically look at our closest, the closet analysis also informs us of the silhouettes we prefer but haven’t realized yet or tells us that our favorite items are actually just comfy clothes with relaxed fit. We can let go of fitting into one brand identity or one size when we see those items cumulatively take up so much space on our hangers, wallets, and self-esteem—we are better off without it. These realizations are crucial for changing our reliance on shopping. After we see what we have and what works we can hopefully come to the conclusion that we really don’t ever need new clothes, trends, or impulse purchases.

The Trouble with “New Year, New You” Fashion

My New Year’s resolution for 2019 is to stop relying on shopping as a solution to some deep-seated issue; to break my reliance on this form of instant gratification in order to solve something like body image problems or as a (skilled — damnit!) technique of avoidance. Especially since I am getting older and putting on weight, this obsession with finding garments that simultaneously 1) fit a changing body I am less happy with, 2) are stylish, and 3) reveal the ‘real’ (aspirational) me is becoming more hazardous. If I’m unhappy or stressed I am likely to fling myself into a store “to see what’s new” and it often corrodes my self-esteem more if I don’t find that one magical cure-all piece. Big box stores will of course spell disappointment, too, because of two main problems of fit (terrible sizing in fashion means you have to spend more time figuring out if you are a L or XS or M today) and money (lacking it) … much less finding the style that actually excites you. It is in this desperation and procrastination/avoidance of larger issues that I tend to make new impulse purchases I regret later and never get around to wearing — big surprise. With fast-fashion clogging up our waste streams and thrift stores we should commit to ending impulse purchases because our decision-making processes are so compromised when we grab these items in the first place. So part of this resolution is to also stop purchasing new fast-fashion.

I find this really hard because we are inculcated to believe that fashion allows us to transcend the immutable and deliver us to success. If only our dress or suit fit better and made us look better then we would have really shined and landed that thing or won more praise (nothing is structural or institutional to the neoliberal self in this belief). The thing is that I know better — theoretically — but I can’t give up fashion as a means of self-expression and also comprehend my own internalized fatphobia. These are the things I wrestle with. We all know better than to continue to engage in a system that benefits few besides the rich. But the pleasure of consumption is a hell of a drug to quit on our own. And no amount of do-gooder New Year’s Resolutions to avoid or eliminate one aspect of consumption will restructure society to an equitable one, hold producers and the state accountable, or absolve us of our collective responsibility to each other.

Hopefully by starting the new year off with an inquisitive eye towards our closets and towards the systems we develop to getting dressed we can emerge victorious, true to ourselves, in a game where the odds are stacked against us.

*not to be confused with emo hippie. I am not and have never been emo thanks!!11!

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