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.”

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?

Re-enter the black velvet blazer from Paris. Was it staying or going? I gave myself a stern talking-to. The jacket isn’t my youth; it’s just fabric. It’s not a vacation in Paris; it’s just stuff. But—no go. This is where the Wear Everything in My Closet Experiment broke down. I could not send that blazer to Goodwill as if it were a dusty teapot. Instead, I tucked it -gently into a keepsake box and carried it carefully to the cellar. Call me sentimental or even weak, but I believe that clothing is powerful. I love the memories that blazer whispers to me. I just don’t need a daily reminder.

Make the Closet Project Work for You

Masking tape is your friend
To keep track, I put a piece of tape on the shoulder or waist of every item. Then, when I wear it, the tape comes off. That way it’s clear what I’ve worn and what I haven’t—no cheating. (Once I forgot to discard the tape, which made a funny story for the colleague who picked it off my back.)

Do the work to sell it
Finding a consignment shop that handles the level of designers you own is a huge pain (I asked around, then tried two). But the effort paid off. I found it much easier to discard expensive clothing (rather than hang on to it “just in case”) when I planned to sell it. I worked hard to earn the money to buy these clothes, and it seems somehow more respectful of that effort to make sure they go to someone who wants them. My first consignment experience was humiliating—I felt judged when the salesperson examined the armpit on an Etro button-down and then passed—but I got used to it. And I did make several hundred dollars.

Stop shopping
I didn’t buy anything while I was doing the experiment, and I didn’tparticularly want to. That discipline turned out to be helpful: By not adding anything new, I was better able to focus on wearing what I already had. 

Take your cues from other women
On the street, in the office, on the subway, I started to become a keen observer. What is everyone wearing? What works and what doesn’t? I learned that once you hit 40, sparkly jewelry, unobtrusive makeup and nice shoes go a long way toward elevating a ho-hum ensemble. That and good tailoring. Wear clothes that fit!

Forgive yourself
Much as my colleagues loved to vote on my clothes, they almost always said I should keep whatever I was wearing. The takeaway: I am more critical of myself than my friends are. You may not give yourself a fashion pass, but others often will.


CLICK HERE to see some of the outfits Jennifer put together for her closet project

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First Published Tue, 2012-09-04 14:57

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