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 was edited down from an original draft of 4,200 words.

49 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 |

    Christian:

    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. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    Thoughts?

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

    Amen, brother.

  10. 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.

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

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

  13. 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

  14. 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!

  15. Ne Plus Ultra | October 26, 2016 at 12:34 am |

    The one necktie for a minimalist wardrobe should be a navy grenadine.

  16. Rene Lebenthal | December 18, 2017 at 9:25 am |

    Christian,
    Great post!!
    The less you own the more you will appreciate.
    You become even more creative when you have less.
    Unfortunately I do not always do what I say, but this will certainly be one my resolutions for 2018!!
    René

  17. Gucci as “Ivy”?
    And what about Sulka?
    Then we also come to Charvet.
    If “Ivy” is just to be the style of the American elite then all of these were worn.
    If “Ivy” is just to be the style of college boys then not so much. Some, but not many.
    The name “Ivy”, if literally interpreted, is a handicap. It was more than just the colleges. It was a world. Aspirational for many, real for some, but bigger than any campus.

  18. What of Lobb and Lock?
    “Ivy”!
    Many of their wears on campus?
    I doubt it.

  19. Editing is necessary and, to me, actually enjoyable: you spend time thinking seriously about what you want to keep, and in that way you are ‘re-appreciating’ them.

    I, myself, am assisted in this annual or semi-annual task by owning an old home where each room has only a single closet about 20″ deep and 48″ wide. There’s not much room for superfluous stuff!

  20. This New Yorker cartoon immediately came to mind:

    http://imagecache6.allposters.com/LRG/65/6587/HCK2100Z.jpg

  21. This post inspired me to try to seriously reduce the items in my wardrobe: I’ll start with red ties and burgundy ties that looked great in the store but that I have never worn even once. It will be more difficult to divest myself of some of the items I actually do wear, but how many solid navy grenadine ties does one need? How many navy grenadine ties? How many navy-and-white striped ties? How many navy ties with Churchill dots or small white figures? All my shirts are either solid white, solid blue, or white with blue/navy stripes, but I can certainly do with fewer of them. I do wear all of my tweed jackets (Donegal and herringbone) as well as my navy blazers. Gray flannel trousers and chinos I have far too many of, but what is the right number?

  22. about two years ago I went from a two bedroom apartment, full kitchen, living room etc to a 380 square foot studio-don’t miss a single thing I got rid of

  23. Is there an opposite of a small wardrobe? Is there a maximum or correct amount of suits, ties, etc. that are in an Ivy wardrobe?

  24. Wentworth, depends on one’s definition of ‘Ivy’ clothes. I imagine that purists only wear clothes that were worn by students on college campuses from about the late 1920s to the late 1960s (ballpark estimate). However, when said college students left college and got jobs in major cities they added to, or edited, their wardrobes. I imagine that at that point their wardrobes became more ‘trad,’ rather than pure ‘Ivy,’ which encompasses all those old, classic brands that you’ve mentioned. I doubt that college students during that period wore Gucci bit loafers, Burberry trench coats or shirts by Charvet and Sulka. But, once they grew up and got a job on Wall Street they just might have.

  25. Henry Contestwinner | December 19, 2017 at 12:23 am |

    I don’t think that there is a single “right number” of wardrobe items that works for everyone. I’m pretty sure that for me, the right number is a smaller figure than what a count of things in my wardrobe would yield. In general, I’d say that the “right number” fluctuates, and that fluctuation is due to numerous factors, including mood, age, stage of life, employment, lifestyle, preference, climate, and more.

    There’s also the difference between want and need, and even need varies. If you do your laundry yourself, and don’t mind wearing the same shirt two, or maybe even three, days without washing it, then you don’t even need a shirt for each day of the week. At the other extreme, some late 19th-century San Franciscans would send their shirts out to be laundered—to China. With the round trip (including time for laundering) being about half-a-year, those men needed six months’ worth of shirts.

  26. Officer Trad | December 19, 2017 at 9:14 am |

    Fleming’s literary James Bond, unlike his movie screen counterpart, was a minimalist dresser. 007 almost always wore a dark blue single-breasted tropical-weight suit, a white sea isle cotton shirt, a black silk knit tie, and polished black leather moccasins.

  27. @GS
    I can’t help but agree.
    The “Ivy” wardrobe came from a wider culture and continued to be a part of that wider culture long after it ceased to be student wear.
    I find “Ivy” to be a useful shorthand for this style: It was all about referencing the East Coast elite, even if you were not of that lineage.
    What’s in a name?

  28. @Henry: I don’t see how it’s possible (from a practical standpoint, not a style one) to wear a dress shirt for more than one day. I have a brother in law who does this (in a C-suite position in a Fortune 100 company ,no less), and I’ve never understood it. He’s a frugal old-school Yankee (to a fault), but still. At some point, don’t ring around the collar and other unpleasantries start to factor in?

  29. I’m about to cull my ties by asking myself:
    1. How often do you really need to wear a tie?
    2. What percentage do wear one for business (more sober) and for social (more drunk, I guess)?
    3. Which ones go best with the suits and sport coats you currently own?
    4. Why did you buy that piece of crap?
    5. Why are you hanging on to this one that fails on all the above questions?
    6. Which one did she say she liked?

  30. CC,
    I would have been delighted to send you the burgundy ties, but I discovered this morning that they looked great with a white shirt rather than a blue one. The blue and burgundy smothered
    each other.

  31. Grey Flannels | December 19, 2017 at 2:01 pm |

    Henry,
    Not only do I do my laundry, but I iron my shirts as well, and I can’t imagine wearing a shirt for more than one day (two in one day if one is going out for the evening, of course). It hardly takes any time at all to wash and iron a shirt. I’m 75 years old and have been doing so since my freshman year at college.

  32. Charlottesville | December 19, 2017 at 2:05 pm |

    I freely admit to having more clothes than I need, and am in the process of editing. So far this fall, 2 young friends have profited from 6 tweed sport coats that I felt I no longer needed. Goodwill Industries has acquired a number of shirts, pants, ties and shoes, and some other odds and ends have made their way to a local thrift shop where they will benefit the SPCA. Spring will find me making additional donations. And yet, I still have a bulging closet, and in idle moments dream of a pink Shetland sweater, a really perfect pair of khakis to replace the worn Bill’s M2s, that elusive brown tweed with a hint of blue and red that would pair perfectly with a certain shirt and tie … . Tie. That reminds me; I just saw a brown repp with an interesting blue stripe. It never ends.

  33. Henry Contestwinner | December 19, 2017 at 5:48 pm |

    Hey, I’m just reporting. I can’t stand to wear a dress shirt more than one day before washing it, but if you wear a T-shirt and don’t stink up your clothes too much, I could see wearing a shirt more than once.

    Let us remember that the detachable collar was invented to deal with this issue: shirt not soiled enough to need cleaning, yet collar too soiled to wear again.

  34. Henry Contestwinner | December 19, 2017 at 5:50 pm |

    Charlottesville, I’ve been hankering for a nice brown tie with blue stripes for some time now—it must be something in the air.

  35. Charlottesville | December 20, 2017 at 10:44 am |

    Merry Christmas, Henry. I used to have a brown tie with blue stripes, but it disappeared somehow and I have tried in vain to find one I liked for quite a while. After a few failed attempts on eBay (bidding got too high), I have founds a 3.25 inch vintage Brooks Brothers #1 stripe in brown with blue and cream stripes. It was shipped today and with luck should arrive by Saturday. Good luck in your search.

  36. Henry Contestwinner | December 20, 2017 at 11:44 am |

    And a Merry Christmas to you, too, my dear Charlottesville! I actually have one, brown with narrow blue stripes and equal-sized silver stripes on either side of the blue, but I’m looking for a two-tone tie, brown with blue stripes. I get notifications from eBay, but most of what shows up is, well, not to my taste. Yours sounds very nice, and I hope you get many years of enjoyment from it.

  37. Charlottesville | December 21, 2017 at 1:08 pm |

    Thanks, Henry. And also with you, as we Episcopalian’s sometimes say.

  38. Each season – spring and fall – I donate my entire wardrobe to charity and order a replacement for every item from my favorite suburban independent menswear shop. Occasionally I adjust the standard order, substituting an additional white broadcloth shirt for a blue oxford, for instance. But generally it is the same trunk of clothes year after year. The arrangement allows the thrifters to have a consistent flow of nearly new garments and keeps me looking crisp. The shop-owner welcomes my semi-annual purchase and has all but ceased trying to tempt me to introduce variety into the selection. Out-virtue THAT.

  39. EVAN EVERHART | August 31, 2018 at 4:48 pm |

    I just acquired (Ebay) a nearly identical tie to the one in the photograph for the article.

    Christian, did you get rid of that one too? Hahaha!

    While I agree with the ethos of this piece in theory, in fact, I apparently voraciously hunt down and hoard trad garb. I should start selling off the various pieces in wrong sizing or which just does not suit me. Income stream #5!

  40. Very fine article-has really forced me to rethink my wardrobe as I sail into retirement. I confess to being a little obsessive about clothing-where purchased, the name of the salesperson,the day of purchase. Actually, more than a little obsessive. I love clothes as well as the process of purchasing. But as I ease into the autumn of life and consider downsizing, the inevitable question comes up-what do I do with my stuff? I have started giving some away and I have begun the process of winnowing through what is needed and what can go. Also, no new suits. The only thing that I have purchased on Savile Row is a bespoke face mask for the pandemic.
    I am heartened to see that others go through this process although I must admit, I love those J. Press Donegal sport coats.

  41. I’m the exact opposite. I think that there are perfectly good reasons to have lots of clothes. The most compelling, at least to me, is that it’s very useful to have a wide range of things to choose from to let you implement whatever crackpot idea you come up with after you shower in the morning. It’s the adult equivalent of having a big collection of Lego blocks that let you build whatever you think of. And when you’re doing that, there’s nothing worse than missing the block with the exact right color and shape to let you build that spaceship that you want to build.

    The clothing version just costs more and takes up more space.

  42. This link to the New Yorker cartoon worked this morning:

    https://www.cartoonstock.com/cartoonview.asp?catref=CC66628

  43. We are back to the neo-paganism of Marie Kondo, it seems? It’s no better than bowing to fashion, rigid adherence to a former, imagined propriety, etc.

  44. Old Bostonian | March 28, 2021 at 10:43 am |

    BenK,
    Hardly adhering to neo-paganism, rather, some of us have come to our senses and realized that unbridled acquisition of clothing is meaningless, and that the joy of divesting of one’s clothing lasts forever, while the joy of acquiring clothing is short-lived.

  45. BenK, thank you for putting a name to my particular brand of spirituality.

  46. I agree in part. However, there are a number of items I owned 30-plus years ago that I wish I had hung on to. Sweaters, coats, etc. The few items I still have from that era are treasures.

  47. The rule is fill your closet to the max and then get rid of one item for every new item.

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