On Simplicity and the Ten Item Wardrobe

I am not sure how I stumbled upon Lessons from Madame Chic, by Jennifer L. Scott.

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It was probably suggested in my Amazon feed after reading Bringing up Bebe, which is a post all it's own.  Scott shares a number of great lifestyle tips in her book, all of which are about elevating day to day living into something a bit more transcendent, not in an unattainably posh way, but more in the pursuit of the way our grandmothers ideally did things - with excellence and contentment.  She writes on topics, such a, "rejecting the new materialism," the art of entertaining and always dressing your best, even if you are just popping into the supermarket.  One of my favorite ideas that she shares in the book is something she calls the "ten item wardrobe."  In fact, I was slightly obsessed with it for a minute.  Ok.  I'm still obsessed with it.

The basic idea is that you have ten core pieces.  The core pieces include items like dresses, blouses and pants.  All other items like scarves, shoes and outerwear are considered accessories.  You use those ten core pieces to build you wardrobe.  The accessories help you mix things up and keep you from getting bored with so few items.  She lists some amazing benefits from this practice, including self-discipline and almost instantaneous chicness.   How are these qualities related to the ten item wardrobe?  If you limit yourself to a small number of items, you won't be drawn in by fast fashion and flashy sales, because any new purchase will be bought knowing that it will be one of just ten items.  Therefore, you will not likely buy something just because it is trendy or cheap.  Ideally, you will buy only long-lasting things that you love.

I loved the idea and started googling the "ten item wardrobe" like mad.  The term is more or less Scott's own, drawn from her study abroad experience in France.  Her host family had given her a room and wardrobe with just ten hangers in it.  As she observed her host mom and a lot of Parisians, she noticed that the ten hangers might not have been just a fluke.  It seemed that most of the people she observed had a handful of core pieces that they wore on heavy rotation.

I loved so many things about this idea - the frugality of it, the thoughtfulness, the essentialism aspect, less is more, in other words.  Ultimately, however, I found the number somewhat limiting and a bit like cheating at the same time.  Not that Scott is trying to cheat her own system.  More like, if I were to apply the ten item rule to my wardrobe, as someone who chooses to cover most of my body year round (if you cannot tell from my About Me page, I am a Muslim, who wears a headscarf), not including outerwear in my number would be a big cheat for me.  For example, if I limited myself to three tops but then had 30 cardigans, caftans, ponchos or vests, that's not really abiding by the essentialism philosophy that's at the heart of the ten item wardrobe, is it?  Then, in the midst of my google frenzy, I stumbled about the phrase "capsule wardrobe."  One of the first articles I read was posted on The Every Girl about the blog Un-Fancy.

I immediately fell in love with the author, Caroline Rector's approach to the capsule wardrobe.  Not only did her number, 37 items, partly address my dilemma, her number included EVERYTHING.  Ok, not lingerie or workout clothes, but shoes, outerwear, etc.  It also didn't hurt that I loved her style.  Like Caroline, I'm a neutrals girl.  Seeing her capsule images immediately helped me to envision it for my own closet.  She also allowed for seasonal flexibilty.  Instead of 10, 20 or 30 items, period, she had a set number of items, but she had a different capsule for each season.  Now, before you get all excited and think, "120 items, I can easily follow that rule!", she doesn't have an entirely new set of items each season.  Some pieces roll over from spring to summer or from fall to winter.  Additionally, she doesn't buy a new wardrobe every three months.  Seasonal pieces go in storage and are rolled out when the time comes.

I immediately put Caroline's rules into play: (1) Come up with a number and go through your wardrobe.  (For me, the number was around 30.)  (2) Remove everything you don't absolutely love and wear that for 3 months.  (3) As the next season approaches, go through your wardrobe, think of the gaps in your wardrobe and set a strict budget for the few new items you might need.  (4) Buy those things at the start of the season and don't shop again until the next season rolls around.

The immediate benefit was a huge sigh of relief!!  We've all cleaned out our closet from time to time, ill-fitting and worn out clothes be gone.  We've probably all applied the "one-year rule",  you know the one "if you haven't worn it in a year..."  But it was only the second time in my life that I was ruthless in applying the "love-it" rule.  I probably had five blouses, four pairs of pants, a few tunics, a few cardigans and five pairs of shoes by the time I put my closet through the edit, but I was so content with it.  Just a month before, I would stand in my closet, with more clothes in it, and think the dreaded: I have nothing to wear!  After the edit, I ALWAYS had something to wear, because I loved those few things that I had.  Also, being a neutrals girl, those few thing all happened to go well together.  By the end of the season, and just when I was starting to get a bit tired of my items, the Houston summer kicked in and I couldn't wear a number of the things that I loved.  (Synthetic fabrics and sweat are not a good mix.  Cardigans of any fabric or denim in 100 degrees is unbearable.)  So, I set a budget and bought about 6 pieces, added those to my spring items that could take the heat, and wore that heck out of those until November.

I have been working with this capsule idea for a year now.  What I've learned a year later, is that I actually have a style, I now know almost instantly if something has staying power in my wardrobe.  Because I stick to the 40 or so item rule, including shoes, blazers etc., it's so much easier to discern how much I like something.  If I know I'm not getting any more tops for the foreseeable future, I can cut through the seductive sales signs and shopping euphoria.  Who cares if it's only $10?  If it looks like it will only make it through two washes, then I might as well throw that $10 in the trash.  Who cares if it's super cute and trendy on the mannequin?  If I don't feel like a million bucks and will only reach for it once a month, or even less, there is no space in my capsule for it.  I'm not saying I haven't made any bad purchases along the way, but shopping decisions are much less agonizing and my style confidence is through the roof!  Win, win.

There are plenty of capsule bloggers out there, so I'm not going to get into my capsules, but I will leave you with links to some of my favorite bloggers and books on the topic.

My absolute favorite is of course, Un-Fancy.  Caroline now blogs more about shopping principles and her new ideal - converting her wardrobe little by little to only conscious/ethical clothing.  However, her old capsules are still available on her site, under the tab "Capsule Experiment."  She offers a free capsule planner e-book, too.

Another thought provoking site is Into Mind.  This blogger really gets into the gritty of planning out your own style and wardrobe, with posts like, "How to pair colors: a short intro to color theory" or "24 Outfit Formulas for Spring."

I also loved Scott's book, Lessons From Madame Chic.  It's an easy read, great for the beach, but it's also really inspiring.  Many of us, at least the people who have time to read this, or any other blog, are probably incredibly blessed.  We live in relative safety and comfort.  Have the basic things in life at our fingertips.  Why not truly be grateful for every moment?  Cook a meal for yourself and your loved ones with care and concern.  Give a darn about how you present yourself when you walk out of the house.  Cultivate hobbies that add meaning to your life instead of turning on the TV and watching just whatever happens to be on.

Finally, on a slightly different topic, but in line with simplicity and curating your life, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is also an amazing read. 

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I was skeptical when I first started seeing it all over the blogosphere.  How can anyone add anything more to the topic of cleaning up?  And how can it be that good?  Everyone who has written about it swears it is truly life-changing.  I'm going to jump on the bandwagon and say that author, Marie Condo has some incredibly unique tips on the subject.  For example, when you clean out your closet, take every single item out and put it on your bed, so you cannot sleep until you finish the job.  Then, go through item by item, asking: does this spark joy?  If it doesn't, out it goes.  Now, do this in every room in the house.  Try it.  See if you don't feel a thousand times lighter and more content.  She even recommends doing the clean out in a specific order to get around the overly sentimental attachment we might have to specific items.  It's well worth a read.

Have you tried a capsule wardrobe?  Have you read the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and tried to apply it?  How did it go?  I would love to hear about your experience!