What to wear when you feel like you have nothing to wear

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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

The feeling of "closet full of clothes but nothing to wear" used to curse me: I'd find myself standing in my closet, combing through the hangers, trying things on only to toss them on the floor while feeling like I needed to go out to buy something to solve the issue.

In the process of dialing back over the past several months, I started noticing that the pieces that I wear the most have a few characteristics in common:

#1 They're almost all neutral in color (navy, black, cream, white, olive, pale pink)

One of the reasons I gravitate towards neutrals is because I love to wear bold shoes, bags and jewelry. Basic neutral clothing goes with nearly every color and metallic tone, and has the power to balance unusual tailoring, a wild accessory, or hot pink lipstick. 

#2 Each piece has either a simple, slightly oversize cut, or has been tailored so it fits me really well

A simple cut means that a piece will stay relevant longer, and oversize means that it will be comfortable and have the ability to layer. The pieces I've had tailored (including jeans, believe it or not) are by default the most flattering, so obviously will continue to be pulled from the masses of other just-not-quite-right items.

#3 They're conservative, even if slightly offbeat

When I first started working at 22, I remember going out with my friends in a (fabulous) white (short) dress and subsequently bumping into someone from work. Immediately, I second-guessed my hemline and exposed shoulders and spent the next few months purging my wardrobe of college-era items and replacing them with pieces that needed to pass the test of "Would I be OK if I ran into my boss while wearing this?" That experience was a just-in-time reminder that my outfit choices send messages, and I wanted them to be positive and classy. Since then, the only "sexy" thing about my outfits have been my smile, wit and charm. (And occasionally shoes, but only with long hemlines, of course.)

#4 They tend to either look expensive, or truly were more expensive than other items in my closet

Neutrals in general tend to look more expensive, but pieces that exude investment are ones that are made of high quality fabrics and construction. Natural fabrics like silk, cotton, linen, wool and leather always look amazing if you take good care of them. My small collection of Vince silk blouses have been part of my wardrobe for years, and earn a lot of compliments. Buying them up on sale, in multiple cuts and colors, was one of the best wardrobe investments I made! A black wool Transit Par Such car coat bought at a D.C. consignment shop for $75 has been a staple in my fall/winter wardrobe since 2012.

#5 Almost every piece is versatile, with the ability to be dressed up or down

Versatility is actually a pretty easy quality to assess in a garment if you put a little bit of extra thought into it. Considering if a blouse or sweater would work with a suit, a pair of skinny jeans, a leather skirt, etc. and imagining it in your mind can help to quickly suss out a piece that will collect dust. If I had put this filter on most of my purchases in the past 5 years, I would have saved thousands. THOUSANDS! (Enter post on financial education that came a little later than ideal...)

Recognizing that there was a pattern to the items I wore consistently led me to start taking the time to identify each of these foundation items in my wardrobe (and donate the items that couldn't compete). It's actually very easy to proactively build outfits around these foundation pieces, because they're such a cohesive group that not only play well together, but also with my accessories. 

In previous posts, I've mentioned how taking iPhone documentation helps, and I'll repeat that again: the pictures in this post were pulled from my iPhone archive, and I used these reference photos to pack for a weekend trip to NYC and wore each outfit a couple of times this spring and summer! 

If you follow my Instagram account, you may have seen a post about my recent move. My new closet is about half the size of the one I left behind, a closet that Old Colleen would have abhorred and forced her husband to give up his closet to accommodate. Fortunately, I see this as a much-needed constraint that will help fuel my journey to a more minimalist wardrobe (and life). I'm currently in the process of ruthlessly cutting my wardrobe down to these foundation pieces only. When I'm done with this year of cutting back, anything new that I purchase will need to displace or upgrade an existing foundation element - meaning that I'll have to be extremely thoughtful in any and all investments.

That's all for now! Thank you for reading, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the key staples in your closet and any ideas on how to maximize space in my small closet while I'm in the process of pruning!

9 comments on "What to wear when you feel like you have nothing to wear"
  1. Another great one, Colleen! Would you please come to my house and be my friend and drink wine with me and help me make outfits? I live in Hawaii, if that offers any incentive...

    My key stapes have been, like yours, simple and versatile. I recently conducted a thought exercise whereby I thought about my style over the years and identified the pieces that have made a place in my closet over and over again, transcending time and space to appear in different incarnations: a black t-shirt dress, a denim jacket, leather boots, a chambray shirt, a great coat, an interesting jacket (in canvas or tweed, etc), and jeans that make me feel like a million bucks. Interestingly enough, some of the items that regularly appear on the "must-have" lists for closet essentials have worked for me sometimes, but not always. Case in point: the white button-up that sometimes feels effortless and slightly irreverent, but right now feels a little too staid. Chalk it up to changing tastes!

    1. Erin, thanks so much for this comment! It made my day! I would obviously LOVE to come to Hawaii to drink your wine and make outfits, basically my two favorite hobbies and a state I've never been but on my bucket list... but maybe you can be my guinea pig when I start virtual styling services?

      I love your point about essentials that sometimes fail, like the white shirt. My problem is suits: I have many, but they feel too stuffy these days. In fact, I'm wearing one right now in my Marriott bar and feeling like it makes me look like I'm boring and risk averse.

      Anyway, thanks again for reading and commenting! And, when we have that experimental virtual styling session, we can also make a tip sheet on moving for dummies. (Since you're a military spouse, I am confident you can examine and improve my process...)

    2. Consider me a willing beta-tester when the time comes!

      I'd like to hear more about this stuffy suit situation -- if you could wear anything else in place of your suit, in instances where you normally wear a suit, what would you choose? I'm intrigued by your use of adjective to describe your suit, as they're always described as so "versatile" and "classic"... Maybe inspiration for another post? :)

    3. Haha awesome! You are first on my list. And you are so right about suits - most people describe them that way, not as stuffy! Have it on my post ideas list, thank you for the suggestion!

  2. P.S. I am an expert mover (hello, military spouse), so we can trade skills.

    Congrats on the new home!

  3. Dear Colleen! Sorry I am so late leaving your comments here. I read it and loved it but I wanted to think about what to say to you, the next thing I know, it's a few days later already!

    Anyway, I really love reading your thoughts on how to utilize our clothes more. It always helps me.

    I find myself liking the neutral color and simpler style more and more, because they are easy to wear, alone and together, and they are timeless. I can also add accessories to brighten them up, with them you can always do the "plus game" I call it. Personally , I love blazers, shirts with soft collars(i hate shirts with very stiff collars), turtle neck sweaters and soft tops that are flowy, and jeans of course.

    It's funny how we do change from time to time. a few years ago I almost wore dresses/skirts everyday, but now I am more of a pants/jeans girl. And, only a year also ago I did not own a blazer, but now, I am obsessed with it(and I have more than 2 dozens of them!)

    As for the thoughts on how to maximize the closet, I might have mentioned it before already: I like to roll my t-shirts, sweaters, some shirts. That way they are easier to store and less likely to wrinkle. But I do hang my linen and silk shirts/tops whenever I can.

    Are you all settled and unpacked at your new house? I am so so excited for you guys! Cant wait to see the pictures of your place :)


    1. Echo, thank you as always for reading and providing your thoughts! It always makes me happy to read them. The "plus game" is genius and I totally agree with your neutral basics. The J.Crew tissue turtlenecks are a staple for getting more out of my wardrobe in cold months. Also, I've started doing the rolling for my packing and it totally helps!

      Alllllmost done with unpacking the new place - will be posting about it soon, I promise! Hope you are having a great week!!

  4. Curiously, I find that many of the same changes have happened/are happening to me this year due to the #nonewthingschallenge. And, surprisingly, I rather like what I'm experiencing! For most part, I keep reaching for clothes with simple, timeless shapes in neutral colors that look and feel special because they're made out of luxurious fabrics. (Who knew pure cotton would be considered luxe one day!!) A huge lover of prints, I now go back to only the most favorite pieces while the rest hangs in my closet abandoned. The things that made it to my wish list carry on with the same theme: stylish black or grey bottoms, simple neutral tops that leave the emphasis to showy accessories and shoes. Even the bags that I want (totes, mostly) are very plain. My personal challenge for the upcoming year will be to build a cohesive wardrobe while maintaining shopping restraint.

    As for tips on maximizing your closet space... It would seem you've answered your own question, sweet girl! Prune much and be ruthless while doing so. (Easier said than done, I know. :)

    1. Pure cotton is absolutely luxurious! And I am with you on the bags: simple, but better quality and more durable! A couple have become worn out this year from overuse... We have the same challenge for next year. I am really excited to have more focus for my wardrobe investments starting in January (have more pruning to do before then...!!!) My wish list has also totally changed, after spending a lot of time learning what drives my "want list." In fact, thinking a lessons learned post will be necessary... such as not letting brand names influence me! (Used Chanel flat regrets...) Would love any of your thoughts on this. Anyway, hope all is well with you and thank you as always for your support!