In Praise of the Small Wardrobe

Perhaps because I scribe for a living, and know that a piece of writing always benefits from cutting,* I’ve always been a ruthless editor of my own wardrobe. There’s always something that can be discarded for being redundant, having fulfilled its use, or not being quite right. The simple test is to look at an item in your closet and gauge your gut reaction to it: If you’re not immediately filled with fondness, get rid of it. Clothes are the perfect means to practice the striving for a state of perfection, even if that state is never reached.

As a result, I’ve never understood the web’s notorious clotheshorses and their compulsive acquiring. Money is not the issue, as some spend lavishly while others are inveterate thrifters. At some point both must reach a stage of surfeit, when it’s impossible for every item in their wardrobe to be fondly cherished. It’s the difference between having a dog and having a kennel. At some point it’s just variety for its own sake, and at that point are your clothes really an extension of you?

And just because an item is already broken in doesn’t mean it will automatically feel second nature to wear it. Whether it’s an old rep tie or a vintage Harris Tweed, an item new to you is still new, and will take time until you’re wholly unaware of wearing it. But before then the item will not feel like a part of you, but a kind of awkward sartorial prosthesis.

Sure, wearing something new can often put a spring in your step, but only one new item should be worn per outfit. Don’t inaugurate a new jacket, tie and shoes all at the same time.

Consider this passage from Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley”:

Evenings looking at his clothes — his clothes and Dickie’s — and feeling Dickie’s rings between his palms, and running his fingers over the antelope suitcase he had bought at Gucci’s. He had polished the suitcase with a special English leather dressing, not that it needed polishing because he took such good are of it, but for its protection. He loved possessions, not masses of them, but a select few that he did not part with. They gave a man self-respect. Not ostentation but quality, and the love that cherished the quality. Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed.

I find this an inspiring argument for fewer, but better. — CC

* This blog post shortened from 1,800 words.

16 Comments on "In Praise of the Small Wardrobe"

  1. Very well stated. I too love going in each season and trimming up my wardrobe down to the essentials and staples…and giving away/selling the excess. I practice a rule: “If I haven’t worn it in a year, I pull it.”

  2. Reminiscent of the rather Spartan wardrobe of the late Tony Biddle.

  3. agreed, but uh, ripley’s kind of a psychopath, no?

  4. Yeah, kind of.

  5. Paul Stillman | September 29, 2009 at 7:06 pm |


    I love this piece you wrote. At the beginning of the summer, I enjoyed getting rid of most of my wardrobe due to the rather unfortunate expansion of my middle over the last 22 mos. Some of the garments were over twenty years old and, unfortunately, were of better quality than most of the pieces I own today. But that’s beside the point. My clothes couldn’t fit in my closet and most of the pieces would never again fit me. I threw out the pieces with holes or stains and gave the rest to some worthy organization. My remaining garments had room to breathe in my closet and my spirits were buoyed by the fact that I had helped folks who were less fortunate than I. Thanks again for this great essay.

  6. Thanks, Paul. I should’ve added fit to the reasons for discarding something. I’m sure the new owner of your cast-offs will be pleased, especially if it’s a compulsive thrifter.

  7. My God, that’s my closet — before the pole broke.

    Owing to a simplified lifestyle, even though I live in Manhattan, I wear neckties no more than forty times a year. And I wear the same six or seven over and over, sending them to Tie Crafters for cleaning at exorbitant rates. (Exorbitant, that is, considering how many of them were purchased on sale at the Museum.) I’d love to pass on the rest, if there were only a worthy recycling shop.

  8. Great post. I’m working on the ties now. Ties are the only thing I compulsively collect these days and quite a few never live up to expectations. They gotta go. Don’t need any feel bad ties lying around.

  9. Christian – it’s interesting post and would love to read the original 1800 words.

    Each season – fall/winter and spring/summer – I edit wildly both discarding unnecessary, ill fitting, poor quality items, but also as I refine my own style and perspective.

    That being said, I would describe myself as clotheshorse because you can’t get away from having a certain number of items if you appreciation of clothing and the necessity to have the right togs for the right event/activity – black tie, hunting, beach weekends, winter getaways, casual and formal business, etc – leading to both a full wardrobe and full closet.


  10. RJ, stop dragging your ties through the soup.

    I’ve always said there are many ties that are beautiful to look at, but only 3 percent are fit to wear around your neck.

    This post was a bit disingenuous, as every clothes-wearing man enjoys getting something new. But I still believe editing is very important. I see some of these guys on the exchange thread at AAAT who are unloading a ton of stuff, and think, “Why did you have that all in the first place?”

    Oh, and just kidding, DAM: This post was not originally 1,800 words.

  11. Michael Mattis | September 30, 2009 at 4:46 pm |

    Amen, brother.

  12. There is, somewhere, a happy medium between clotheshorse and minimalist. I’m afraid I’ve always veered towards the former, but then again, I was definitely the latter in grad school. It’s nice to be able to afford more, and better, clothes now, though your point is still excellent. Besides, reducing the wardrobe makes the wife happy.

  13. If you need to only have one tie, that’s the one!

  14. Occasionally I get a new tie or a shirt with a different stripe, but wind up giving them away.

  15. Just gave a bunch of ties to Goodwill. Still have around 10. Only actually wear 2, navy and red repps similar to above. I bought a beautiful maroon foulard around 10 years ago, never wore it, but it became part of my Dad’s burial attire. A year or so ago, I bought a replacement foulard, I guess for my own burial.

    It’s amazing the stuff one accumulates through the years. Things you feel you can’t live without, but once bought, are never used. Like smoking pipes, in my modest collection of around 30 briars ranging from a Dunhill, Savinellis, vintage Kaywoodies, and Petersons, I will almost always choose a corncob to actually smoke. Anyhow, I digress, but it illustrates the point exactly

  16. Extreme closet organization with bare essentials here due to OCD-retired and love what I have. (lots went to charity)
    Current inventory
    12 Brooks reps
    4 Mercer-2 white & 2 blue
    4 Lacoste-2 white & 2 navy
    12 prs Bills (range of sizes since my OCD will not tolerate alterations except cuffs–all 1 1/2″ cuffs-no break-slight touch)
    NO shorts or jeans
    1 pr swimming trunks
    2 prs navy OTC hosiery
    2 Navy bazers-identical manuf and bought same year!
    Set for life at age 60 (should be, and if not, I am lucky if I need more!)
    Live in PJ pants unless I leave my home!
    Invent a new medicine for me and the check is in the mail!

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