Introducing The Sampler Wardrobe: A Cure for the Maximalist

Okay, so you've made the commitment to transition to a more sustainable, modestly-sized wardrobe. Good for you! Perhaps you've identified the clothes that spark joy and arranged them in artful folds on your closet shelves. Maybe you've started curating a seasonal capsule. Chances are, if you followed the myriad of instruction on how to declutter your wardrobe, you now have a pile of clothes that you've decided just aren't your style. You'll do your best to find them a new home through donation or sale, and the rest you'll take to textile recycling, because that's the sustainable fashionista you are. The special unicorns among us will float into a land of dreamy, curated bliss, perfectly pleased with their selected pieces and never again at a loss for what to wear.

This is what is promised to us by so many well-meaning bloggers. This is what I too imagined would happen when I started the capsuling process three years ago.

The hiccup in the capsule transition is that the majority of us -- including those who fall in the relatively modest ownership average of 103 wardrobe items -- will end up with the following:
  • a reasonable wardrobe of clothing we love
  • a likewise reasonable donation pile
  • an enormous pile of not-quite-perfect items which are nevertheless still interesting & possibly useful.
For years I found myself obsessing over that final category. Was I supposed to simply bid farewell to the formal dress I hadn't worn in three years -- the one which still fit and, more importantly, still made me happy to twirl around in? Should I stuff my hiking boots in the Goodwill bag and greet my next uphill journey with a pair of hip sneakers? What about the oversized Christmas sweater I saw only once a year, but which somehow found its way onto me seven mornings in a row? Yes, I had a more reasonable sweater in my capsule, but I don't always want to be reasonable, do I? Some days simply call for a bit of extra spice.

Despite my devotion to the capsule system, it was heartbreaking to have to continually subvert my quirky thrift store finds (arguably the pieces that meant more to me) to the more practical items that happened to all fit a singular color palette. From a sustainability standpoint, I was also struggling with the idea of excusing myself from responsibility for my belongings. I'd purchased these clothes for a reason, hadn't I? In most cases, I realized those leftovers sitting in storage weren't unusable or unfashionable -- I was just bored with them. And I wasn't content to let that boredom invite more mindless shopping.

There had to be a better solution, I thought. Something that would force me to get creative with what I already owned yet still allow me to feel stylish and comfortable in my day to day life.

About a month ago, it came to me. Rather than continuing to build the work and weekend capsules which left me bored and overwhelmed by season's end, why not select a smaller sample of pieces from my closet inventory and wear them more frequently for just one month's time?

Part of the joy of styling for me comes from innovation and mixing things up. But the paradox of my creativity has always been that the more options there are (i.e. the more decisions I have to make), the harder it is for my brain to pull something together. The idea of working with a smaller pool of clothing was comforting to me, and the monthly opportunity to swap out what was no longer inspiring reintroduced a creative freedom to my personal styling process. (I also won't pretend I wasn't attracted to the totally ridiculous luxury fashion concept of never repeating an outfit.)

Of course, the method didn't come without drawbacks. When working with less options, it becomes even more important to make sure your pieces coordinate, however wacky they may be. Since I was working within the confines of outfitting myself for three different life modes (nanny work, restaurant work, and weekend activities), I had to ensure that my selections could continually see me through an average week.

Enter The Cluster Method. A few weeks earlier, I'd stumbled across a blog I hadn't heard of before, The Vivienne Files. One of Vivienne's closet-decluttering posts advised using "clusters" to identify one's most versatile pieces. Clusters typically consist of four items: three tops, all of which can be paired with a single bottom piece to create a complete outfit. The idea is, so long as those foundation clusters coordinate, you will never be without something to wear. I applied this method to each of my three wardrobe categories to calculate how many pieces I would need. The result was a wardrobe that I was truly excited to experiment with; one that suited my minimal closet dreams without limiting my creative ability.

If you're struggling to wear everything you own right now, or if you're lacking that creative spark, you may find that this process works for you too! Here's how to get started:
  1. First, take a moment to determine how many clusters you will need. You may want to approach this by considering your laundry habits. Those of us who do bulk laundry loads twice a month will need more items than those who wash their clothes every week. If you don't mind repeating outfits, you may need even fewer pieces.

    Here's how I calculated my cluster total. I ended up with seven total clusters, for a total of 28 pieces. Later, I broke up the third weekend cluster to distribute coats and shoes (for practicality's sake) and some dresses (for variety) across all categories.
      • NANNY: x8 outfits / month
        • = 2 clusters
      • HOST: x8 outfits / month 
        • = 2 clusters 
      • WEEKEND: x12 outfits / month
        • = 3 clusters
  2. Remove all your clothing from hiding -- be sure to check closets, hooks, hampers, racks, drawers, and storage containers. It's important to see everything.
  3. Sort out any items which do not align with the current season. (In summer, for instance, you're unlikely to need winter coats, gloves, or boots.) Find a place to store these items and label them clearly for later retrieval.
  4. From the remaining items, decide what you're intuitively drawn to. Perhaps you're having a love affair with the color teal right now, or maybe you have a bohemian summer vibe that is perfectly encapsulated by hippie dresses. Group each of these pieces an appropriate cluster. (For example, your favorite pair of jeans might cluster well with that printed blouse you can't stop wearing. A flashier statement skirt might stand alone for the time being.)
  5. Now, locate the pieces which will complement these intuition items. (In the instance above, you would select an additional two shirts to pair with your favorite jeans.) If you have a lot of stuff, this will take some time. Treat it like a party: put on some music, and take note of which outfits make you feel excited to go somewhere.
  6. Add as many coats, jackets, and shoes as your lifestyle calls for. These items should pair with most of the other pieces, so you may want to stick to neutrals here. You may also wish to add singlet items, such as dresses, during this time.
  7. Store any unused clothing out of sight -- it's off limits while you focus on making the most of your monthly sampler!

In the upcoming posts, you will see the pieces I've selected for my own sampler wardrobe. Then I will illustrate how they combine to create enough unique outfits for one month of wear. See you on Monday!


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