Spring Cleaning: Closets, Consumerism, and Who Cares

I’m bad at clothes.

This is not new, and over the years I’ve spent many, many (shamefully many) more hours thinking about my wardrobe than I want to admit. As a teenager I had the typical issues: wanting more expensive clothes than my family could afford (how I coveted anything with a Guess or Esprit label!) and later trying to be “nonconformist” by shopping thrift stores (I still kick myself for letting go of a blue-and-red-plaid leisure-suit jacket). First I wanted to be richer than I was, then I wanted to be funkier than I was. I still remember saving a teen-magazine photo of a DIY skirt I wanted so badly to make and wear: it was the cut-off top of old blue jeans, with a bunch of red bandanas sewn on to make up the skirt. Cool, right?

Ultimately I was most comfortable in jeans, t-shirts, and Keds (later Converse All-Stars). And I still am. Maybe at some level I still wish I were richer, and I certainly wish I were funkier. I still save photos (now on Pinterest) of upcycled (now we have a word for it) clothes that make me think “I wish I were the type of person who could wear that.”

Adult problems.

I’ve had a lot of years since then to figure out how to have clothes; it feels ridiculous that I’m still fussing over this. But adulthood brings its own issues. At first the problem was workwear, which in the conventional mid-’90s meant I purchased a couple of “suits” that were both stodgy and silly for a 20-something in her first real job. Kids today don’t know how good they have it!

Maybe if I’d been working all these years, my wardrobe would have grown up with me. Instead, my adult experience of graduate-studenthood, military-spousehood, motherhood, and stay-at-home-hood has introduced other challenges.

I’ve lost and gained weight half a dozen times, and rarely had years in a row that I could fit in the same clothes. Because of that I always seemed to be buying new clothes—whether smaller or larger. In both directions, I shopped as cheaply as I could because I knew everything could (and likely would) change. I’m hopeful that I’m finally stepping off that carousel (intuitive eating is a post for another day!).

On top of that, our family moves (I may have mentioned this before, haha) every 3 years, sometimes even more often. We’ve lived in places with long, frigid winters, places with yearlong moderate temps, and places where you sweat from March ’til November. Combine these geographical climate shifts with body-size shifts, and the idea of a lasting wardrobe goes out the window.

I hate to think about how much money I’ve spent over the years on cheap clothes (in every sense of the word), because my body was always changing and our life was always changing. It’s shocking how costly it can be to buy things just to get by on. I’m tired of getting by.

What I really want.

What I want is simple: ease.

I want to feel at ease in my body and in my clothes; not just physically comfortable, but comfortable with the “self” I’m presenting. I want ease in shopping. When I leave the house, I want ease in choosing what to put on. It sounds so… easy, doesn’t it?

Spring cleaning my wardrobe.

Several years ago the capsule wardrobe became popular. A quick Pinterest search yields seemingly infinite images of tidy, curated collections for every possible life situation and season. A limited number of pieces, all in the same palette, mix-and-matchable. I’d love a minimalist, tightly-planned wardrobe where everything goes with everything else, but I’m more inspired by the concept than the reality. The vast majority of capsule collections seem to be variations on a theme of black, white, black-and-white stripes, gray/beige/greige, denim, and a trenchcoat. I may not be upcycled-bandana-skirt funky, but I love color and pattern and texture. I want a wardrobe that is thoughtful and intentional. But I also want it to be fun.

I’ve become aware of two habits in myself. One: I consistently reach for the same few items in my closet. I’m learning to pay more attention to the pieces I pull out again and again. And I’m being honest about which items seemed like a good idea at the time, but never leave their hangers.

And two: my Pinterest pins are the same basic looks again and again. One of the guided activities in What Color is Your Slipcover is meant for home design but works for clothes too. You collect images that you love at first sight, then look at the whole group and note the common themes. I want my closet to be as cohesive as my Pinterest boards, for the occasional days when I need to do more than jeans/t-shirt/Chucks.

A true capsule wardrobe may never work for me, but I will happily live in “uniforms” of a few basic looks (the ones my Pinterest is full of) in fun colors that feel good to wear, and that can cross seasons. Going forward—as a shopper and as a maker—I’ll be working from this base.

As a shopper.

I’ve always loved thrifting (the plaid leisure-suit jacket, sigh), but over the past couple of years I’ve started intentionally shopping secondhand for everyday clothes. Though I’m not as socially aware as I’d like to be, the fashion/garment industry is infamous for its negative (read: truly horrible) environmental and worker impacts. I confess I took full advantage of fashion disposability for a long time. I was constantly changing size and changing climate, and I “needed” fast, cheap, short-term clothing. Even when I bought “good” stuff, I still ended up getting rid of it after one season or year, so what was the point?

Consumerism is the water we swim in, so it’s difficult—perhaps impossible—to break totally free from it. I’ll never be as “good” as I want to be, but I know I can always do a bit better. When I do shop new, I’ll try to buy from companies who are also trying to do better. And I’m returning to my secondhand roots; the vast majority of my clothing purchases over the past few years have come from consignment stores. In person, I had good experiences at a local ClothesMentor, and online I keep an eye on ThredUp.

I’ve settled on some tricks for secondhand shopping, especially online, so I don’t get bogged down:

  • Limit myself to brands I know. Sizing (especially in women’s clothing) is maddening, but it helps to have an idea how familiar brands typically fit. Unfortunately, though I like ThredUp a lot, my experience is that their listed measurements are… not entirely reliable. Sticking with brands I trust helps.
  • Limit my searches to “new with tags” and “like new.” I want to avoid unwelcome surprises.
  • Use saved searches. I have saved a half-dozen brands along with my sizes and the condition I’m looking for. No more looking through the entire huge “warehouse.”
  • Accept the reality of returns. Returns at ThredUp are convenient, if not speedy. Compared to trying things on in a dressing room, with online shopping I can “test drive” pieces with the rest of my wardrobe before I decide: to keep or not to keep.

The challenge for me is sticking to my “uniform” intentions and not getting sucked in by all the fun options and good bargains. This is where I need my spring cleaning to stick, so that I shop wisely, no matter where.

As a maker.

You might think that if you were going to spend a month knitting a sweater, you’d make sure it was a color/style/fit you would actually wear.

You’d think that. And of course I never make anything knowing I won’t wear it! But I’ve made pieces that always get passed over when I’m grabbing something to put on. I’ve made a lot of pieces that were great at the time but don’t fit anymore. I’ve made pieces in colors that were fabulous to spend time knitting, but didn’t fit in the big picture of my wardrobe. Sometimes I’ve made pieces that were great learning experiences but just not great to wear.

I think it’s fair to say that in much of my knitting life, I’ve enjoyed the “hobby” aspect, choosing colors and designs for the fun of making them. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But going forward I want to apply more wisdom to my making, and focus (at least most of the time!) on pieces that truly work for me.

Does it look like a sweater yet?

Spring cleaning my mindset.

The funny thing is, the point of all this isn’t the clothes.

But our clothes do communicate something about us. As a knitter, sometimes the things I wear say something about me in an even more literal, personal way. I want to figure out what communicates “me,” and build a basic wardrobe of it, so I can stop thinking about it.

It’s ironic, I know, to put this much thought into something—in hopes of not having to think about it any more!

Awhile ago I saw this quote, which apparently was falsely attributed to Winston Churchill. It’s a great quote even without him: “At 20, you care what everyone thinks. At 40, you don’t care what anybody thinks. At 60, you realize no one was ever thinking about you in the first place.”

I’m firmly in-between the 40 and the 60, both chronologically and philosophically. The reality is, nobody else should care about how I do this, and (at least according to not-Winston-Churchill): they don’t. That’s great news! It means freedom to work it out in a way that feels good, and feels right, for me. And then I can apply the same reality-check to the rest of life: what I’m writing, how I’m blogging, stoles I’m selling, communities I’m joining, causes I’m supporting… and what I’m wearing, even if it’s just jeans and tees. I want all these things to communicate who I am. Not to fit in, or keep up, or prove anything, but simply to be clear. To be known.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Stay well, friends. 🙏🏻

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