Few changes in my life have eliminated as many annoyances from my life as simplifying my wardrobe has. I used to have so. many. clothes. My closet was absolutely packed full, and I had several drawers, shelves, and baskets around my room also stuffed full of clothes, along with all of the clothes that never made it to their homes and just lived on the floor.
Clothes were everywhere. It was hard to walk through my room, hard to dress myself, and hard to find what I wanted. Plus, I never really felt quite satisfied with my outfits.
Paring down my wardrobe and creating a personal uniform has simplified my life, made me feel more confident, and made it easier to choose outfits.
(Disclaimer: there are a couple of Amazon affiliate links in this post. If you make a purchase using my link, I make a small commission at no cost to you. I only recommend things that I truly love.)
Well, I just listed a few of the things that I’ve gotten out of simplifying my wardrobe, but my Why may not match your Why. This task can be daunting and a bit time consuming, so it’s good to find your Why before you start.
A few reasons that you may decide to downsize the amount of clothes you own and create a personal uniform are:
It helps prevent decision fatigue by lowering the amount of choices that you have to make each day. It’s been shown that the more decisions we have to make, the worse our judgment eventually becomes. Wouldn’t you rather save that decision making energy for something better than clothes?
It makes laundry day easier. All of my clothes are similar colors, and they’re all machine washable. I can just dump them all in the washer. Plus, matching your socks is trivial when they’re all the same sock.
It’s easier to find things when you don’t own so much stuff. I know what I own. I know where it is. I never reach into the back of a drawer and think “oh, I forgot I even had this.” All of my clothes hang easily in my closet with space to spare so I can see what I have.
Speaking of having space to spare, it’s also easier to put clothes away when you’ve curated a reasonably sized wardrobe that fits within the confines of your clothes-storage spaces. No more drawers that barely close.
It’s so much easier to get dressed. Since I have a personal uniform, I can get dressed in a clean, put-together looking outfit in less than a minute, no matter the weather. Even if I choose not to wear my personal uniform, all of my clothes mix and match easily, they fit me well, and I know what my style is, so getting dressed isn’t such an undertaking.
Less shopping! When you know what you have and what you wear, it makes it way easier to turn down pieces that don’t suit your tastes which results in buying less stuff. I used to buy so many clothes because I didn’t know what I liked, and I barely wore a lot of them. And since I know what clothes I own, I never buy duplicates by accident.
Having a personal uniform that fits your style makes you feel more like you. My clothes now feel like an extension of myself, and they make me feel more confident, instead of being something that I'm unsure about.
The Fashion Spectrum
Before we get into this, I want to address what I’ve decided to call the “fashion spectrum.”
Depending on your lifestyle, attitudes, culture, and plenty of other things, your opinion of fashion and expressing yourself through clothing will vary. You may see clothes as an all-around nuisance. You may hate shopping and dressing yourself and would wear the exact same thing every day if you could.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are those people who see fashion as one of their passions. Maybe you love finding new clothes, exploring trends, and creating new outfits.
Fashion serves different purposes for different people, and everyone who reads this article is going to get something unique out of it. Don’t feel like you need to apply every tip that I give to your life. Take what works for you and leave what doesn’t. Fashion is a complicated and diverse world, and there isn’t one right way to live in it.
That said, for most of my teenage years, I thought I liked fashion. I thought I liked shopping and having lots of clothes and all that jazz. Turns out, I don’t. I just thought that’s what I was supposed to like because that’s what 14 year old girls are told, and I didn’t realize that the whole thing was more hassle than it was worth. I was too worried about being “cool.”
Then, toward the end of high school, I went the opposite direction and wore sweatpants every day because I didn’t care about how I looked anymore and just wanted to be comfortable. This wasn’t the worst decision I could’ve made, but I know now that I do prefer to put a little effort into my appearance—not that I don’t still adore a good pair of sweats.
I’m now somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum. My highest priority is still being comfy, but I do have an underlying style that makes me feel confident and put-together. Few things compare with the level of badassery you feel when wearing an outfit that fits just right and looks great.
I’ve figured out what shapes, fabrics, and colors I like. I know how I prefer to dress, and I feel very confident and very myself in the things I now wear. Having a wardrobe that feels like “me” makes me feel content and powerful.
Take some time to consider where you may fall on the fashion spectrum. Do you like to dress up for special occasions? Do you take time choosing your outfit every day, or just throw on whatever’s closest? Does comfort matter more than style? Chances are, though, that you fall closer to the middle of the spectrum than you think you do.
If you feel you fall closer to the “clothes are purely functional and I don’t care about how I look” end of the spectrum, consider that finding well-fitting clothes and a style that you like will make you feel more comfortable and confident. You’ll also make better first impressions if you put a bit of effort into your outfit. A simple, but slightly upgraded wardrobe may benefit you. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be complicated.
If you have a lot of clothes but don’t wear the majority of them, you’re probably less into fashion than you think and are just influenced by ads. (I know I was for a very long time. Even now, it’s sometimes difficult to pass on things that I think I like.) Paring down a bit will make your life much easier. Plus, you’ll probably find a way to express yourself more clearly that feels better and more “you.” You’ll be able to appreciate the clothes that you have and have fewer pieces that fit well, rather than lots of pieces that you only sort of like.
My (Fairly) Minimal Wardrobe
Okay, now that we’ve covered the fashion spectrum and how this can benefit you no matter where you fall, I’d like to take a brief interlude to walk you through my wardrobe. Hopefully, this will give you some visuals to pair with the things I’m talking about later in this post, and maybe a bit of inspiration if you don’t know where to start.
My style centers around simple, comfortable black on black. Grey, blue, and green all make fairly frequent appearances. I own no yellow, brown, or orange, and only a couple of red, tan, and purple pieces.
The most basic version of my personal uniform consists of black jeans, a plain black t-shirt, and classic black Vans:
If it’s cold outside, I can add a cardigan or a flannel on top:
If it’s hot outside, I can switch my jeans out for shorts:
For a bit of variety, I can add a hat, switch up my shoes, or wear a different color shirt or pants:
For slightly more formal occasions, I can top my outfit with a blazer or button down, or wear a sweater, and wear heels instead of sneakers. I also have formal black pants if the occasion isn’t jeans-appropriate:
When I’m in the mood to bump up the badassery of my outfit, I add a jacket and switch my Vans for boots:
For date night, I, of course, have a few LBDs (little black dresses) that can be worn with heels or sandals, depending on the weather and the occasion:
And, of course, I have the gym version of this outfit, for both warm and cool weather:
That more or less covers all of the occasions I have to dress for regularly. By starting with one basic outfit and making swaps and adding layers as appropriate, I can take the same basic concept and apply it to nearly any occasion. This makes getting dressed really easy, and I don’t know about you, but I quite like all of these outfits.
To make things even easier, I own multiples of most of these items. I’ve lost track of how many plain black t-shirts I have since I wear one nearly every day, and I have two pairs of those black jeans. (I had three, but the third wore out. They’re Old Navy's Rockstar jeans, although I am looking for an ethically-made alternative to these. But these are the comfiest pants I have ever worn.)
This isn’t to say that I don’t have other clothes. I have some accent pieces in other shapes, cuts, and colors so I can play around with those when I have the time, energy, and desire. But most of the time, I don’t have the desire to venture outside of my basic uniform.
Knowing how to quickly throw together these variations means I can get dressed in just a few minutes with little thought or effort.
Also, in case you’re curious, this is what my closet looks like:
(not pictured are a couple of baskets of gym clothes, t-shirts, and sweatpants.
So how did I get here?
The first order of business is to pare down what you own. The act of paring down will start to lead you in the direction of your personal style because you’ll gravitate toward the things that you like most, and get rid of the things that don’t fit your style.
It’s also very difficult to determine what you have, what you need, what you wear, and what types or styles of clothes you gravitate toward when you have heaps of clothes.
As someone who struggled for years to downsize to a manageable amount of clothes, the strategy that finally ended up working for me was the kon-mari method. I know it’s kind of cliche at this point, but there’s a reason it’s so popular. Marie Kondo’s ideas really do work.
If you haven’t read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I very highly recommend it. I read it last summer when I kon-maried most of my belongings, but I’m hoping to reread it before long just to see if I missed anything. I also plan to do a second pass through my clothes because I’ve refined my style quite a bit over the last year and some of the things that previously sparked joy may not anymore.
Keep Only Your Favorites
A question that I’ve asked myself often that has helped me to decide what to keep and what to donate is, “Do I have anything that is similar to this that I would choose to wear instead of this?”
For example, if you have three jewel-toned sweaters that would all be worn for the same types of events and like all of them a lot, but would always choose the green or blue one as long as they’re clean and only wear the red one as last resort, that’s a sign that you should donate the last one.
Even if you like a piece, unless it’s one of the first one or two pieces of its type that you’d reach for, it probably won’t get worn much. We typically go for our favorite few pieces and choose the ones that are “great” over the ones that are “pretty good.”
Often, this concept means that the bottom 50% or so of any given category can go. The more you have, the higher that percentage is. If you have 12 pairs of jeans, chances are that you choose to wear your 2 or 3 favorite pairs often, and you’d never miss the bottom 6 to 8 pairs if you donated them.
You don’t need 4 black blazers, because you’re always going to choose to wear your favorite.
Check The Fit
Just because it zips doesn’t mean it fits!
I’m going to let you in on a powerful secret: wearing clothes that fit you well will always make you look better.
Whether you’re trying to look larger or smaller, properly fitted clothes will always be more flattering than trying to squeeze into clothes that are too tight or swimming in a t-shirt that’s four sizes too big. The number on the tag is not a reflection of your worth as a person. Choose clothes that fit you well. Plus, you’ll be more comfortable.
This means that when you’re paring down your wardrobe, anything that doesn’t fit needs to go. If you really like a piece, get it altered. If it sits in a bag in your car for five months but never makes it to the tailor, you don’t like it enough to bother, and it needs to go.
All of the clothes that you have need to fit you now, with very few exceptions. Don’t keep those “one day” clothes for when you eventually lose weight unless you have actually been losing weight.
Don’t Make Laundry Day Difficult
Unless you’re one of those people who manage to make regular trips to the dry cleaner and hand wash your “hand wash only” clothes, you probably shouldn’t own them. I know I’m guilty of not wearing certain clothes because I know laundering them is a pain in the butt and I'd rather not do it.
At this point, everything goes in the washer. If it doesn’t survive, then it wasn’t something I was meant to own. (Obviously, I don’t own anything expensive. I’m talking about my Forever21 blazer here, not expensive silks.)
I also no longer buy anything that isn’t machine washable. Checking the tags before I even try on clothes has helped me cut down on spending a lot because anything that isn’t machine washable goes back on the rack no matter how much I think I like it.
Narrowing down a color palette has also made laundry much easier. Because I only wear a few colors and they’re all dark, all of my clothes can be washed together.
Back to Basics
Consider simplifying your socks and underwear by choosing your favorite style and buying it exclusively. This is probably obvious to some people, but for many, especially women, we’re told we need all sorts of fancy underwear.
I also didn’t even realize until quite recently that only owning one type of sock was an option. I have a handful of other pairs for specific occasions, like cold weather or to layer under boots, but for the most part, I’m switching all of my socks over to this style. They’re great for working out, hanging out at home, or wearing with most types of shoes. They’re a bit pricey, but the quality is outstanding. I have a few pairs that are seven or eight years old and still in great shape.
How to Find Your Style:
Now that we’ve started the process of paring down, you can start to identify your style. Figuring out your style and how you prefer to dress most days can assist the paring down process. More importantly, nailing down your style makes it way easier to get dressed every day, and helps you choose outfits that make you feel more like yourself.
Finding my style marked a significant shift in my life. It allowed me to finally curate a wardrobe that I love, filled with pieces that actually get worn, not forgotten about. It was one of those things that allowed me to say, “Yes. This is right for me. This is part of who I am,” in the same way that my veganism and my tattoos make me feel more like myself.
Paring down your wardrobe and finding your style is an iterative process. Each time you sort through your clothes, you’ll find yourself a little closer to where you’re supposed to be. Have patience with the process.
Figuring out your style can be complicated and there isn’t one right answer or one right path to finding that answer, but here are a few tactics you can use to guide yourself in the right direction.
Arrange Your Closet by Color
This is the thing that helped me the most, and I’ve never seen this advice anywhere else. I stumbled across it on my own a couple of years ago.
It’s fine if you ultimately choose to store your clothes using a different system, but take an afternoon to put anything hangable on a hanger, and arrange all of your clothes in rainbow order. Make sure you include the neutrals as well.
Hanging your clothes by color allows you to see which colors make up the largest proportions of your wardrobe and which colors only show up here and there. The colors that make up the bulk of your closet are likely the ones that you should consciously gravitate toward moving forward.
I’d been hanging my clothes by color for a while, but the first time I took a step back to just look at it, I was a little surprised to realize that almost half of my clothes were grey or black, and a large portion of the remainder was blue and green. Clearly, I gravitated toward certain colors and had something of a style without even realizing it.
Since realizing that I prefer black, grey, green, and blue, I’ve leaned into that color palette. At this point, more than 90% of my clothes are one of those four colors, and I love it. They all match together, those colors make me happiest, and it makes it so easy to get dressed and feel confident in what I’m wearing.
Choose a Base Neutral
Unless you are an exceptionally colorful person, most of your outfits probably center around a neutral or two with only a couple of colorful pieces added in. By figuring out which neutrals you gravitate toward, you can focus on building a substantial collection of basics in that color so that you can create the base of your outfit from those pieces and thoughtfully accent with brighter colors.
Personally, my primary base neutral is black, with a bit of grey thrown in for variety. (I promise I’m not as boring as I sound. Black is a power color.) Aside from black and grey, white, tan, brown, nude, and navy blue all work as base neutrals. Even something like millennial pink or olive green could work as a base neutral if you know what you’re doing.
Once you’ve figured out your primary neutral, consider picking a second or third to supplement the main color. Stock up on pieces in these colors so that you can easily mix and match them. As exciting as loud, colorful pieces can be, for most people, they’re not the focus of the outfit and we end up with too many fun clothes and not enough of those workhorse pieces that get worn regularly.
Choose Supplementary Colors
Currently, my supplementary colors are blue and green, though despite not owning anything pink in years, I do quite like millennial pink and have considered adding a bit of it to my closet.
Your supplementary colors are where you get to have more fun with your clothes. Choose bolder pieces that will pair well with your staple neutrals. Or don't, if you don’t like bold—this is about finding whatever suits you.
If you want, you could periodically choose new supplementary colors based on trends or seasons. You could choose them based on what matches well with your hair and eye colors, or skin tone. You could do what I did and stick with whatever colors you already own a lot of.
Narrowing down your wardrobe to a limited color palette may sound like it takes the fun out of getting dressed, but it doesn’t. When everything you own pairs well with everything else, you give yourself so many more options than you’d have if each piece only matches two or three other pieces.
Not to mention, one of my absolute favorite ways to force more creativity is to impose arbitrary limitations. Limiting colors will push you to explore more with shapes, textures, and patterns.
And if exploring the fashion world isn’t your thing, then a limited palette should sound great to you. Easy matching? Sign me up.
Consider Your Silhouettes
Are you a big pants and small shirt person? Big shoes and big shirt person? Do you like your shirts form-fitting but long sleeved? Or do you want everything big and baggy all over?
Consider which areas you’d like to emphasize and which you’d like to keep covered. Are you a jacket person? A hat person? A bag person? Do you want your clothes to look cozy and casual, or like you spend three hours choosing the perfect outfit every morning? What vibe do you want to project to the world?
Answering these types of questions will point you in the right direction. At the same time, it’s okay if you have multiple answers for the same question. You can have more than one style.
What makes you feel the most confident?
If you were going out and you knew that you were going to run into your ex/rival/high school crush/whatever and wanted to look absolutely killer, what outfit would you wear? What aesthetic makes you feel powerful and confident? What accessories make you feel like you could kill someone with a look? Aim that direction.
Bringing elements of that outfit into your everyday wardrobe is a huge confidence booster. Sure, maybe wearing six-inch heels every day isn’t an option, but those wide-legged white pants that you paired with them? Those are versatile and can be brought into plenty of everyday situations. Your everyday wear can look like a toned-down version of your ideal “I’m a badass” outfit.
Set a 60-second timer, and pick an outfit.
If you want, you could actually go do this as an exercise, or just mentally decide what you would wear if you only had one minute to choose an outfit. What about if you only had 30 seconds? 10 seconds?
The outfit choices that you made under this kind of time constraint are your favorites. These pieces should become the staples of your wardrobe because, whether you realize it or not, these are the ones that you reach for often. They’re the ones that you know will look okay and fit you well. They are reliable, so rely on them.
Make a Pinterest Board
I’ll be honest, this isn’t my favorite tip, but I know it helps some people, so I’m throwing it in here.
In my experience, creating a Pinterest board for clothing is helpful when I need to dress myself for a new situation. For instance, I created a “work clothes” board just before I started my role as a developer and had to do the business casual thing for the first time in my life. The Pinterest board was helpful in this instance because I had no idea how to integrate business casual into my current style and still feel like myself.
Most of the time, however, I find that looking for style inspiration on Pinterest leaves me feeling like my closet is inadequate and wanting all of these clothes that don’t mesh well with my life as it currently stands. No, Abby, you do not need a velvet, wine-red-colored blazer or boots with gold spikes on them.
My advice if you head the Pinterest route is to go in knowing what kind of events you’re dressing for. If you already have a vague sense of what you need to be wearing and just need help to figure out how to style it nicely, Pinterest is helpful. If you go in aimlessly, you’ll come out wanting to buy a bunch of new clothes that you don’t need but still want because they looked cool on someone else.
How to Create a Personal Uniform
Once you have an idea of your style, you can start to figure out a personal uniform. If your style is a subset of the clothes that you already own, then your personal uniform is a subset of that subset.
What do I mean by “personal uniform?”
When I say “personal uniform,” you probably think of the Steve Jobs black turtleneck and jeans. While, yes, this kind of thing is an option, I don’t think wearing the exact same outfit every day is quite what most of us are looking for.
What I mean by personal uniform falls more along the lines of having a basic silhouette that you can add to and remove from to create an outfit that works for any occasion.
For example, my personal uniform when I worked in an office consisted of black jeans and a sweater. I had enough sweaters that I could wear one every day of the week and have a couple of extras in case I was slow about getting my laundry done. If I needed to impress the higher-ups, I could wear heels and a blazer as well, but most days I just paired this with boots.
Keeping this uniform in mind made it very easy to pack my gym bag each night before work because I knew exactly what I needed to grab. And on the occasional days that I felt like getting creative, I could mix it up with a dress or button down.
By creating a uniform, you give yourself a baseline to work with and can be confident that riffs on this theme will look good and fit your style.
As you can see from the photos at the beginning of this post, my current personal uniform, at its core, is just black on black. Having already made this decision, it’s easy for me to get dressed quickly, and because I’ve created a wardrobe that matches my style and has all the basics, I have everything I need to make this outfit work for any occasion.
Obviously black on black is a fairly simple choice when it comes to choosing the colors of my personal uniform. You could play around a bit more and decide that your personal uniform consists of a fitted pastel top and loose grey pants. A nice purple top and dark grey pants could make for an easy office outfit, or you could grab a pink t-shirt and some classic grey joggers for going to the gym.
All we’re doing here is setting a few constraints so that you can easily choose an outfit no matter the occasion.
Know Your Priorities
Your personal uniform will vary based on what matters most to you. Personally, I care more about comfort than anything else. The jeans I wear are as comfortable as leggings, and obviously, sweaters, t-shirts, and flannel are all quite comfy.
Maybe you care more about following trends, finding clothes that are easy to care for, standing out in a crowd, or blending into a crowd. Decide what your priorities are and then consider how that translates into clothes.
Work With What You Have
Like I said, your personal uniform is likely a subset of what you already own. Finding a uniform likely involves more careful curation of your closet than it does going out to buy new things. If you can find 20 to 30 pieces that you already have that mix and match well, that will give you a good starting place.
Work from those pieces to build up a uniform. Is this set of clothes missing an outfit suitable for hot weather? Find a pair of shorts that matches all or most of the tops in the set. Rather than starting from scratch, build the basics of your personal uniform from what you already have, and fill in the gaps as you discover them.
Create Variations on a Theme
What basic outfit could you wear variations of every single day? The classic answer is "jeans and a t-shirt," as it’s easy to find and style, and there are lots of ways to play with these pieces to spice up your outfit.
In fact, my answer to that question is “jeans and a t-shirt,” but both the jeans and t-shirt are black. Playing with your color choices is the most obvious way to alter this style. Grey jeans and a black t-shirt have always been a favorite of mine, and black jeans and a white t-shirt always looks put-together. There’s also the classic white t-shirt and blue jeans.
Swapping the colors vertically also adds some variation to a classic look. White jeans and a black t-shirt is still jeans and a t-shirt, but they’re more unexpected than a white shirt and blue jeans.
It’s also very easy to play with silhouettes and accessories when it comes to the t-shirt and jeans combo. Baggy shirt? Looser fitting pants? Crop top? Add a hat? Some sunglasses? Boots? Birks? You’ve got options. The great thing about simplicity is that it’s much more versatile than pieces with very specific styles.
If you want to step outside the jeans and t-shirt box, consider different fabrics or types of clothing. Wearing a dress every day means that you don’t have to wear pants. How great does that sound? When it comes to fabrics, consider knits, corduroy, linen, whatever. You know your life and your day-to-day activities better than I do. What clothes suit your lifestyle?
How to Maintain Your Simplified Wardrobe
The number one thing to do to keep your simplified wardrobe from expanding out of control again is to be picky about what you buy. Unless you absolutely love it and it fits in well with what you already own, don’t buy it.
Consider the same types of things you asked yourself when you first pared down your closet. Would this new piece be one of your favorites, or do you prefer the things you already own? Does it pair well with most of the pieces that you already have? Is it the right color? Is there anything that you don’t like about it that would cause you to choose a different piece over this one?
Personally, I’ve implemented a few rules that keep me from buying things that I won’t end up wearing. I no longer buy any pants or dresses without pockets. I won’t buy anything that isn’t machine washable. I also don’t buy anything that doesn’t integrate well with my current wardrobe and match most of what I already own.
Yes, these rule limit my buying, but that’s the point. I know that I’ll love and wear the few things that I do decide to buy, and thoughtfully adding a couple of pieces to my closet each year is so much more rewarding and easier to deal with than a never-ending flow of clothes into my home.
That said, don’t be afraid to grow and explore. If you’re really drawn to a piece that is outside of the realm of what you usually wear, as long as it matches some of the things you already own, give it a shot.
Our tastes do change as trends change and we get older. It’s fine to do some careful exploring.
I almost bought a pair of millennial pink shorts the other week because I’ve found myself drawn to black, gold, and pink together despite not owning anything pink for quite a few years now.
The shorts didn’t fit well, so I didn’t buy them, but if I find a piece that I really like that’s outside of my usual style, that’s okay. Thoughtfully exploring outside of your current style can slowly shift your wardrobe in a new direction that you may like better than the previous one. People change and our style evolves with us. As with anything else, the important thing is that these shifts occur with intention so that you don’t mindlessly spend on anything that catches your eye for a moment.
I know my fashion tastes have been shifting lately. Recently, I’ve been more into lighter, flowier pieces, and I’m more willing to experiment with colors than I had been. Because I have a solid idea of where my style lies right now and what I like regardless of color or cut, I know what to look for when I go to integrate new trends into my current wardrobe.
When in doubt though, I know I like black.