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

Fourteen years ago, when my husband and I fell in love, we took a vacation to Paris. I was nervous before the trip—worried that it would be tough to travel with a new boyfriend, that we would fight—but it was magical. We strolled the Luxembourg Gardens, lingered over chèvre and rosé, ate Popsicles under the Eiffel Tower. And shopped. At least I did.

At a secondhand-clothing store near Les Halles, I bought a black velvet blazer. It fit, it was French, it conjured Paris in the fall. And it has hung in my closet, virtually unworn, ever since. Our son is now seven, and that blazer still hangs there.

I love what it represents, but I don’t love it. The velvet, of poor quality, is too stiff. The shoulder pads, too prominent. Also, try as I might, I’m not a blazer person, and wearing this one makes me feel like Morticia Addams on a job interview.

But I trotted it out the other day, layering it on top of an ancient blue-and-black silk Ferragamo shirt with a pair of skinny Acne jeans. I forced myself to wear it because of a vow I made last fall to wear every single item in my closet. And I don’t mean pull it out, take a look, then hang it up again. I mean climb into it, figure out what goes with it and wear it to work. All day. My rule: If I put it on and then take it off, I have to give it away. No holding on to anything I won’t even wear out of the house. If I wear it to work and feel uncomfortable, out it goes as well.

A lot of people tell me they clean out their closet every season. Since embarking on this wardrobe project, I no longer believe them. I’ve learned that forcing yourself to wear something is very different from tossing it on the “keep” pile. For instance, there’s the Missoni button-down that I bought on another trip to France. At the start of every season, when I weed out the obvious giveaways, I always assume I still like this shirt. But when I wore it to work recently, I realized it’s a little tight and a little loud, and I don’t wear button-downs anymore. Or my tweed Tory Burch sheath from an outlet mall. Nice, but possibly boring. Dowdy, even.

The day I wore the shift to work, I imagined running into someone I hadn’t seen in 10 years or being called into a meeting with my boss’s boss. Is this how I wanted to present myself? Hi, nice to see you, I’m boring and dowdy! At the end of my workday, I checked in with the bathroom mirror. Looking at how the dress draped over my hips, I realized I felt self-conscious. Did this outfit reflect who I am and who I want to be?

If that seems too heavy a burden for a garment that cost less than $100, I need to confess that I’ve always believed that clothes can talk. I just haven’t always been very adept at controlling what they say. At Harvard, I had a wardrobe so dramatic that I was repeatedly asked to costume student theater productions. Once, a guy I’d never seen before approached me in the dining hall and said, “You have no idea how many people talk about what you wear to meals.” I remember my outfit that day: a black velvet Betsey Johnson miniskirt, white knee-high go-go boots and an oversize houndstooth sweater. But the attention wasn’t all flattering. I arrived for my thesis tutorial one morning in a pair of net pants that I wore over white tights, with a T-shirt woven out of unbleached rope. The professor laughed when she saw me, and I thought, “What’s so funny?” I was 20.

After I graduated, I moved to New York and set out to work at fashion magazines. One of my first jobs was at Seventeen, where I continued to treat my outfits as performance art. I wore anything and everything—in the brightest colors possible. One standout was a dramatic floor-length orange-and-white Marimekko skirt that I had made myself from remnants. I thought that skirt said, “I’m creative and cool!” Instead, I now realize it was telling people, “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

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