Lose the Clutter, Find Your Style

I’ve always believed that clothing reflects who we are. But if we hold on to stuff, it starts to reflect who we used to be. How can we grow if we can’t let go? A surprisingly simple strategy for stepping into your best look now 

by Jennifer Braunschweiger
Photograph: The Coveteur

When I hit my thirties, dressing went on autopilot: I spent five years working at home in jeans and two more either pregnant or breast feeding. Then I reached 40—and with a lurch realized I had to re-evaluate. What once looked good and felt appropriate no longer seems right. I’m not on autopilot anymore: I’m more ambitious and goal oriented than I was in my twenties, more focused on work than in my thirties. I’m also older—and I don’t want to look as if the elevator broke down at the teen department. Now I want my clothes to communicate that I’m attractive, up to date, professional and competent. I want to look like someone who has achieved a lot—and still has exciting places to go.

But being mindful of my presentation isn’t always easy; getting ready in the morning feels like speaking a new language. Does this outfit make sense? Does it say what I want it to say? On the street recently, I noticed from behind a woman with lovely legs and a black pleated skirt that swung just below her butt. She turned around—and I saw a lined face out of sync with her youthful outfit. She was pretty, but that short, flouncy skirt drew attention to her years in a way that a knee-length pencil skirt, with heels to show off her legs, would not have.

All of this is on my mind as I wend through my closet. I’m not dealing with weekend clothes (I barely have any) or jewelry (is there such a thing as an age-appropriate necklace?) or shoes (that’s a project for another time). But I have a lot of work clothes to sort through, thanks to years of sample sales, outlet treks and hand-me-downs from my well-dressed mother. After many painful days of wearing clothes I felt unhappy in, I sold a dozen items at a consignment shop. I gave a bag of clothes to a friend who’s my size. I donated another armload to Goodwill. As the experiment continued, my colleagues and family started to demand a say.

“Keep it,” said the creative director about a vintage gold knit dress with tiny buttons. I did.

“Eh,” said the entertainment editor about a navy-and-teal Tory Burch dress. I sold it.

“Fabulous!” said the fashion editor about a lace bolero from my mother. In.

“Very nunlike,” said the executive editor about a cream silk Cacharel shirt. From her, a big compliment. In.

“Yuck,” said my son about a too-big color-blocked skirt from Etro. Out.

It’s weird having people vote like Caesar on your clothes—thumbs-up, thumbs-down, live or die. Still, I was happy when an old Pucci shirt looked fresh and when a gold wool skirt with sequins scored a “Chic!” from the fashion director. Things I wasn’t sure of on the hanger—like a blousy white Tucker shirt with metallic thread—suddenly made sense when I styled them with the right items. (“I love it!” said the beauty editor.)

Making my way through one rarely worn item after another, I started to think that if aliens beamed into my closet, they’d be convinced that several people used the space—and in a way they do: fossilized versions of me, over the years. But a closet isn’t a museum or an archive. It should be a simple storehouse of clothes that reflect who I am today and that I can wear to work tomorrow. I hated getting rid of a trashy black leather biker jacket that made me feel tough and rebellious. But that jacket doesn’t suit my life anymore, and I never wear it. I haven’t been to hear live music at a dive bar for years—hell, I haven’t been out past midnight for years. That’s why this experiment is sometimes painful: Letting go of clothing is letting go of who I used to be. Of course, that’s also the pleasure. How can we grow if we can’t let go?

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