In Which I Explore My History of Closets
People mistake closets for wardrobes. All the clothes in your closet = your wardrobe, right? Ah, fashion grasshopper, that isn’t true! Your closet is just the physical husk to store and house the powerhouse of beauty, imagination, possibility and creativity that ideally are your clothes. A wardrobe is really a collection of garments. But of course, it is much more than that.
We’re all collectors of clothing — society forces us to be, since we have to wear clothes most of the time. (At least in my world — maybe your world is a pro-nudity one! Lucky you!) Some will just buy things pell-mell just to satisfy these societal requirements and then move on with life. And that’s just fine — those are fine and worthy lives, and they’ve got other interests and priorities.
But many of us — visual-tactile types, those who have an interest in style or fashion or at least the creative, emotional and quasi-spiritual possibilities of dressing ourselves — have a mind-set, deliberate or otherwise, towards collecting and curating our wardrobes. This mindset can be conscious, like when you decide to buy only green or eco-fashion, or if you decide that “kindergarten sophisticate” or “70s L.A. witch” is your fashion concept for the season. But many times when it comes to clothes, we operate on a combination of instinct, guilt, fantasy, obligation, unconscious assumptions, doubt and confidence, depending on our mood and what we’re shopping for.
I’ve long been interested in not just clothes themselves, but the relationship we have towards them — towards fashion, self-presentation and shopping. Sometimes this underlying psychology and mindset fascinates me more than the actual clothes themselves, to be honest. (Sometimes I think I missed my calling as a kind of fashion/style therapist.) I began to truly understand the intensely intimate archaeology between the self and style with my strangely seminal experience of doing a massive closet clean-out during my grad school years. For some reason, the thoroughness and difficulty of the task finally gave me a bird-eye’s view of the motivations and mindset I brought to fashion, style and shopping.
When I was done, I had concrete evidence right in front of me — the sartorial survivors hanging right there in my closet — of the life I truly lead and the person I truly was, as well as the fantasies and dreams that felt true to myself. In my various discard piles, I also had concrete evidence of the wishes, delusions, longings and outgrown ideas I had as well. It was eye-opening and set me on a course to reframe and reshape my life. I still can’t get over how cleaning out my little Manhattan closet was the start of a great and lovely journey in my life, bringing me authentic contentment and a sense of inner peace. I still have my foibles and struggles, but there’s a core feeling of rightness: I’m right where I want to be and living the life I was meant to, and wearing the best clothes to suit that. And knowing that core feeling keeps my sense of style and shopping on track, and helps make sure my wardrobe is a source of pleasure and creativity, and not guilt, anxiety and confusion. Perfect feedback loop!
Of course, it was the tininess of that Manhattan closet that prompted the whole closet cleanout in the first place. That was the tiniest closet I ever had, in fact, but strangely, it was one of the few closets in my life I could call my own. I grew up sharing a closet with my sisters. As a teen, I stored my clothes all over the place — I had some in a dresser in my room, some in my closet in my room, some downstairs hanging on a rail in the basement, some in the hallway closet. No wonder I just wore the same jeans, skirts, combat boots and striped Gap t-shirts again and again! I was just too lazy to go to all these different closets to pull together an outfit. (Teenage me = lazy.)
Even in college, I had to share a big closet with my roommates…or I lived out of a suitcase, since I was visiting my college boyfriends so often. And when I moved to New York, I didn’t have a closet, thanks to the vagaries and eccentricities of Manhattan apartments! I just had everything stuffed away into drawers, being too poor and unable to lug an armoire into my apartment.
In San Francisco, I had a closet, but it was a strange one. It was what I called a “crawl-in” closet. It’s hard for me to describe, but imagine if a little nook was cordoned off in an attic for a closet, and you had to crouch down low to even walk inside of it. I could store clothes, but I didn’t really have the ability to see my wardrobe as a whole…so again, I stored mostly everything in drawers.
It wasn’t until I arrived back in NYC for grad school that I had the biggest bedroom of my life — yay for grad school housing! — along with an accompanying normal closet. Okay, so it wasn’t big, but it was mine, and I could open it and see everything I owned in one lovely place. Little did I think this change in closet was a revelation, but it turned out to be so.
You probably think this is of little consequence, but think about it — if your wardrobe is in part an encapsulation of who you are, the life you live and the person you want to be, what if you never really have the chance to see it as a whole? Do you compartmentalize yourself? Do you ever see how the different parts of you add up…or don’t? I didn’t think much about it at the time, but I think about the compartmentalization of my closets in my first tenure in New York and then San Francisco…and the sometimes unhealthy way I compartmentalized my life and my emotions. It was easy for me to stuff away what I didn’t want to deal with — in the same way it was easy just to stuff my wardrobe mistakes away in a drawer.
Now I live back in my hometown and I have a nice apartment all to myself with, with bookshelves and a turntable and a proper kitchen and a porch to grow plants on and…wait for it…THREE WHOLE CLOSETS! But thank god I got all Zen Wardrobe-y before I moved into here, because otherwise they probably just would be filled with all kinds of ill-conceived fashion whims and experiments that my younger, more madcap self would’ve indulged in. (Nature abhors a vacuum, and fashion gods abhor empty closets!)
I made a few key decisions early on, by necessity and by wisdom: I would only keep one closet — the smallest one, the one in my bedroom — for what I think of as my “working wardrobe.” What I mean by that is my everyday wardrobe: the stuff I put on my body day-in and day-out. The closet size is a natural limitation so I don’t buy clothes mindlessly often. And I wouldn’t want to anyway: after my epic cleanout years ago, my wardrobe has a nice personal harmony when I look at it that I’m loathe to muck up.
But this one closet is small. It is smaller than even my Manhattan one! I could fit everything I own into it, but it means that the space is STUFFED. Like, Grrrr, I can’t take out this button-down without pulling out three other tops stuffed. Do I want to deal with that kind of aggravation everyday? No, I don’t, not unless I want to punch someone (mostly myself) in the face.
So I decided to split my wardrobe into seasons. I put the current season in the tiny closet, and then got two storage bins, put the other season’s clothes in them, and put them on the shelf.
This felt weird at first, because I realized in the past I sort of just eschewed the idea of seasons altogether when it came to clothes. First of all, I had lived in San Francisco, where you wear jackets in July because it’s cold and windy and there are really no seasons there. Then I had this assumption that to get the full use of your wardrobe, it was nice to wear things all year-round, so I’d wear little summer dresses with sweaters and boots, just to keep extending the wear. Did I deliberately think these things? No, but they were unconscious beliefs and assumptions I had…which only came to fore when I had to go seasonal.
I’ve been living here over a year now, and therefore living with a seasonal wardrobe for that amount of time. And you know what? I love it. I love, first of all, the ritual of changing over my wardrobe, part of my whole “fall is the real new year” thing. But I also love the feeling of getting a whole new wardrobe! It’s like, Wow, look at all these kinda new clothes I haven’t worn in five months! It seriously staves off a good amount of fashion boredom. I love how I get to have two fashion identities, too: spring/summer is my prints-happy, neon-loving, boho-wearing side, but fall/winter is my faux-student-librarian, equestrian-influenced, tomboy-punky cozy-sophisticated one. And there’s a time that each side gets honored, and that feels good. Taking a seasonal approach to my wardrobe has really just increased my appreciation of clothing, as well as bestowed some pleasure and peace whenever I peek into my bedroom closet. I’m constantly amazed at how these little things can really add pleasure and self-knowledge in your life.
One of my unfurling life philosophies as I get older and hopefully wiser is that everything has a time and a place — everything has a season. In the same way that there’s no need to try to do everything at once and squeeze it all in, there’s no reason to wear everything all the time. It’s nice to feel that I evolve, my closet is following suit, and the macro and the micro are aligning themselves quite nicely.