The Closet Project: The Fashion Stylist Who Stopped Buying Clothes

It all started with a flippant remark to my husband, (well, these things do, don’t they?). On hearing me proclaim that I had nothing to wear, he gave a somewhat textbook-male response asking ‘what about all of those clothes taking up 98% of our wardrobe space?’

‘None of them are suitable – in fact, they’re awful’.

If this were true, how about I get rid of them and allow us to reclaim some much-required storage space?

‘Because I need them, all of them’.

Shortly after this exchange, we moved house, again. On this most recent occasion, we downsized from a townhouse into essentially two rooms. By now, even I had become exhausted by the accumulation. Not just the lugging of countless pieces of clothing from wardrobe to garment bag, to box, to van, to smaller wardrobe – repeat – I was exhausted by the weight of owning so much and not knowing what it was I was hanging on to. The fact is, I’m actually not a big shopper. Most of what I have I’ve had for years; that in itself being part of the issue. I’m sentimental, you see; emotionally attached to so much of what I own… which has led to me owning so much. A capsule wardrobe my closet is not.

And so, for the past number of months, I undertook a self-imposed challenge that I rather grandly named The Closet Project. The aim: to wear absolutely everything in my wardrobe at least once. The hope: to learn why exactly I felt the need to keep it all these years.

Beginning by setting out my intention on Instagram – the millennials’ equivalent to swearing on the bible – I undertook the task of wearing every single item I owned before repeating an outfit. ‘Outfit’ rather than ‘garment’ because I knew that items like jeans would need to be repeated lest I offend onlookers by pairing my Breton stripes with only knickers and freckly thighs. I pledged to not buy anything new during this time. The gauntlet was laid, the hashtags decided – #theclosetproject #wearyourbloodyclothes – and daily outfit posts committed to (a challenge in itself). This was so much more than just a closet clear-out; this was an investigative clear-out.

It began in July 2017. I predicted that it would take some time, perhaps even the entire summer. Little did I know I would find myself looking out the window at Storm Emma wondering when I might get the opportunity to don my backless cotton number.

But if there’s one thing I have learnt during my Closet Project, it is how to make any clothes work for any occasion. In fact, I’ve learnt lots along the way: about me, my habits, perception, sentimentality, the world of fashion. I work as a stylist so should have known plenty about the latter already but these were new hard-earned nuggets; intel if you will.

One of the unexpected joys of this challenge was giving myself permission to wear all the items from which I had subconsciously shied away. This included the ‘I’d need to lose a few pounds first’ ones; the ‘I’d really want a nicer skin complexion’ ones; the ‘I’d have to be invited somewhere glam’ ones; and then, my personal favourite, the ‘I should really only wear for fancy dress’ ones.

Soon I looked at everything through a new prism and delighted in finding different ways of styling pieces without the weight of ‘norm’. A sleeveless backless jumpsuit that wouldn’t immediately scream ‘funeral-appropriate’ became just that – once a ribbed black knit was added. Sequins skirts were soon casual wear. Then there was the resurrection of my old noughties favourites, dresses over trousers. Now I’m not saying that the world’s SS18 catwalks were inspired purely by my Closet Project but my Instagram page is public if you get my drift.

I also took to theme-dressing – by way of choosing which piece from my clothing catalogue to wear, I took inspiration from absolutely anything. Wimbledon started? Perfect! I can wear that white vintage dress that looks exactly like a tennis outfit. A dinner cruise? Ideal! I can don the far-too-short nautical print mini dress. Christmas fashion slot for TV? My blue Mrs. Claus number is just the ticket. Saturday brunch? My seventies jumpsuit made for such an occasion. Snowstorm? It’s as if it was sent just to give me the chance to pair my ball gowns with my Hunters. I mean, people, grown men were wearing print wellies to the pub and their children had plastic bags for hand protectors – if I couldn’t dazzle them with sartorial brilliance I could at least baffle them with extreme overdressing.

While wearing each outfit, I would ask myself how the garment functioned for me? Did it bring out the best in me? I would notice how it felt on me, how I felt in it. How did it get on with the fellow threads with which it had long shared a crammed closet; did they complement each other? What did our future together look like? Or sometimes I just, you know, checked if it felt itchy on my back.

Piece by piece, I emptied my closet taking each item out as I wore it. Afterwards, I hung it on a rail outside of my wardrobe to keep progress visually clear. On rail: worn. In closet: to be worn. I then needed a second rail. And a third. As I witnessed with equal horror and fascination as the three rails filled up and groaned under the addition of another wobbly hanger, I pledged to address my attachment issues – I had Stockholm syndrome and my clothes were my captors. I promised myself that I would only return pieces to my soon-to-be-bare wardrobe if I truly, madly loved them. Those items getting back through the wooden door were ones that exclusively brought me joy, that made me feel confident, happy and most of all, myself. The rest would meet varied fates.

During the process, I rediscovered pieces that I adored. What became glaringly obvious was that it was never the clothes I had bought impulsively that I got excited about wearing. Rather, it was those that I had really invested in, coveted, dreamed of and saved for – these were the ones that I had cared about and in turn, cared for; it was the considered purchases that stood the test of time.

There were days that I longed to re-wear some of the ‘worn’ pieces. I craved the feeling of certain garments against my skin for comfort, like the friend you might call after receiving certain news. But my self-imposed rules said I couldn’t repeat, and so instead, I got zips fixed, buttons replaced, stains treated, seams let out and hems shortened, all in an effort to make my long-ignored clothes the very best they could be. My mother-in-law’s seventies bridesmaid dress was elevated from ‘nice to have’ to ‘nice to wear’ when The Zip Yard repurposed it into both a mini dress and skirt, now two of my very favourite possessions. Soon it was like I was shopping in my own wardrobe, discovering entirely new dressing possibilities.

Originally, I had assumed that by the end of the challenge I would be bursting for retail therapy, longing to indulge in the instant gratification of conspicuous consumption (oh sweet, sweet conspicuous consumption). Instead, I was eager to dress in the pieces that had been reawakened through fresh styling, creative upcycling or simply another spin around the block. And so, in an effort to attach purpose that had been long forgotten over the many months, I decided to bring things full circle and keep up the challenge until July 2018. No buying of clothes, just wearing what I had, albeit now an edited pool. I donated, gifted, sold or consigned those pieces that never made it back through the wooden door. And that particular weight loss was the most satisfying of my life.

These days I always have ‘something to wear’, because ‘nothing to wear’ was a fallacy, just confusion borne out of too much choice. Sure, shopping in your local vegetable market wearing a long sixties gown may not be for everyone, it may not even make for particularly comfortable crouching when squeezing some low-lying avocado, but ultimately it gave us both an outing that was stylish, satisfying, ridiculous and eye-opening, much like the entire undertaking, really.

Tips for your own Closet Project

Remember that you once loved every piece in your wardrobe enough to spend your money on it. Rediscover why by committing to wearing it at least once.

Begin by organising your wardrobe like a boutique – sort by garment type and colour. This will makes for much more pleasant selection and pairing.

Find a second space to store your ‘worn’ clothes – this will give you a great visual guide on how much you have worn and how much you have yet to wear.

If you don’t have extra space, rehang worn clothes at one end of your wardrobe using an easily identifiable hanger or garment bag for separation. The nearer that divider comes to the other side of your wardrobe, the nearer you are to completion.

Planning your outfits the night before will help avoid early morning panic or loss of nerve that might risk you reaching for the oh-so-appealing ‘worn’ rail.

Only return to your closet those items that you feel really good wearing. It sounds simple but we are all guilty of saying something ‘will do’, only to end up feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable every time we wear it.

Show your clothes some love – mend, restyle, update, make use of what you already have.

Donate only what is good enough for others to wear, recycle what isn’t.

Sell those pieces that you’re only hanging on to because you spent so much on them in the first place. Release yourself! Use the money to fund those alternations.

For goodness sake, wear your bloody clothes!