Why a Minimal Closet Doesn’t Work for Everyone

For the past few weeks, I’ve been thrifting a lot. It’s sometimes a stress-coping activity for me, and it’s resulted in a number of new pieces, and while I love each one, my ‘wardrobe cohesion’ that was barely hanging on is now completely out the window (again). I started banging my head against that familiar wall: “Why can’t I just pick/find my true style and stick with it?!” 

That particular mental wall has, optimistically, about fifteen years of dents and fist holes in it.

The Short(ish) Story

Most of my life, it’s been an ebb and flow: Find ‘my style,’ stick with it for a while, then shift (sometimes impulsively, sometimes calculated; sometimes a kind of ‘manic purge,’ sometimes a slow change). And it hasn’t always been aimed directly at my closet: Life necessitates changes much of the time, such as graduating from college and getting a job, having babies and all the weight and lifestyle fluctuations that go on for years, career changes, going back to school as an adult, mental health and body image shifts (for better or for worse)… 

My life has always been a bit ‘non-cohesive.’ Even before I had kids seven years ago, I had been in a perpetual state of transition and identity crisis. After I graduated with my Bachelor’s, I flailed in classic Millennial fashion, with part-time jobs, entrepreneurial side gigs, and an actual career opportunity that I turned down (not my finest hour). 

We won’t even talk about what a mess I was, and by extension my closet: I didn’t know how to shop or thrift successfully, didn’t know how to find my style or dress for my body, and didn’t want to accept that I wasn’t a carefree, yoga-pants-and-hoodie-wearing college student anymore. 

It’s easy to see why I struggled with even dressing to leave the house back then. But fast-forward a decade with countless hours of pouring over minimalism Ted Talks, ethical fashion and style blogs, buy-and-return/donate cycles, and fights with my husband about the subsequent financial churn while I ‘explored my style,’ and, though I’ve come a long way, I’m still banging my head against that same wall of ‘true style.’ 

A few years, I had a breakthrough. On a whim one day, I started sorting my closet into distinct styles, and I immediately wondered why I hadn’t noticed it before: I had at least four different styles going on. I loosely defined them as ‘90s College Student,’ ‘Post-Apocalyptic Renaissance Festival nerd,’ ‘Downtown Art Gallery Opening Minimal,’ and ‘Athleisure Mom.’ As you can see, there’s not a whole lot of crossover between them, either. 

To this day, I still have versions of each of those going on. My ‘nerd costumes’ are mostly packed away in a bin (that’s a story for another day), and my ‘Mom wardrobe’ has evolved and solidified as my weight has stopped fluctuating so much (60+ lbs gained and lost twice) and my babies have grown into more self-sufficient kids (no more breastfeeding outfits and less worries about everything getting hopelessly stained!). 

Sometimes I’m ok with it, and sometimes I rail against it, usually wrapped up in fantasies of getting rid of everything we own and running off in a renovated, Scandinavian-chic RV. I think this is a common fantasy, and a big part of why Minimalism is becoming so popular, even just as a dream or a thought experiment. We’re drowning in stuff and we know it, but it’s vastly more difficult than just donating and selling everything, especially with kids and careers and all the complications of modern life. 

The Science

I’ve studied Evolutionary Biology and Psychology the past few years, and the one huge takeaway for me has been that we’re not at all equipped to handle the complexity of our modern environments, emotionally, psychologically, or physically. Without going on a soapboxy academic rant, the important point here is that it’s not usually simply ‘all our faults’ that we can’t live that dream and pare every corner of our homes and lives into Pinterest-worthy moments. 

Besides these ‘evolutionary mismatches’ (when something that was once adaptive in our ancestral environments becomes maladaptive in our modern one, such as our desire for sugar, fat, and salt) there’s also the related concern of hormones and mental health. Especially for women, our hormonal cycles can have a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves, how we see our bodies, how we choose to express and reveal ourselves (or not!), and even down to how well we can handle complexity and stimulation. For example, I am more tolerant and even excited about a closet full of different colors and styles in the first two weeks of my cycle. In the second half post-ovulation, I get more easily overstimulated and overwhelmed by too many options.

I am by no means qualified or educated enough to advise anyone on the intricacies of these complex psychological and biological functions (see the end for a list for further reading), but I do definitely recommend taking mental note or a very brief journal of your reactions to things like general home clutter or wardrobe complexity at different points in the month. You may find some of your opinions and capacity to handle complexity have a cyclical component. 

If you do discover this to be the case, my best advice would be to not permanently purge during the more ‘easily overstimulated’ or more depressed periods: By all means, pack it away and box it up; just going through that exercise can be very relaxing, and exercising ruthlessness can yield some amazing results! But don’t actually let it go until you’ve cycled back around to all other parts of your cycle and reviewed your choices in different states of mind and body. 

So, What To Do? 

In any case, here I am again, in the four-billionth iteration of trying to figure out whether I will ever even have just one style. If it was just a matter of following the stock Minimalism/Capsule advice to ‘find what works for your body and your lifestyle, be brave, and go for it!’ then I would have had a perfect wardrobe for years now. I’ve been brave, I’ve done all the style workbooks (Lee Vosburgh’s Closet Mission is by far the best, I can’t recommend it enough; it propelled me lightyears ahead in my understanding of my style!), but I still feel like at least four distinct people in one body with the completely unrelated styles to go with it. At least I can name them and understand them and refine them now, which is hopefully a step in the right direction.

As it is with so many things, probably the most courageous, brave, and honest thing I can do is to accept myself the way I am, and to accept that my life is complicated, with a wardrobe that reflects that.

Most days, I am a mom stuck in the house doing laundry and dishes all day, or going to the park/zoo/nature center/wading pool in joggers and a hoodie, just trying to be comfortable chasing after the kids. Some (rare) days, I’m a wife on a date to the symphony or a fancy restaurant in the city, balancing ‘sexy urban minimal’ with my most comfortable walking shoes. And for the past two years, many days I’m a student or Research Assistant bus-commuting to classes and office hours and meetings, trying to distinguish myself from the undergrads as a ‘professional, unfussy grownup.’ 

Each of my distinct wardrobes are pretty minimal, but when you put them all together, I definitely don’t qualify as a Minimalist. But I’ve learned from experience that if I try to ‘be brave’ and cut out entire styles, I eventually cycle back around to them and feel trapped, like I can’t express myself and it’s my own damn fault. Sure, some things do go permanently: I have basically grown up in the past ten years, and my style has permanently evolved to reflect that in a lot of ways. But I have to also accept that costuming will always be a part of my life, even if I only find opportunities to play with that style a few times a year. And sometimes I feel good about my body and want to wear more form-fitting clothing, while other times, I want to just be comfortable or hide. Sometimes I want to stand out, and sometimes I want to recede into the background. Sometimes, I want to highlight my maturity, and other times I want to express playfulness.

Some people are like my sister: Principled, deeply driven, and secure as an individual with very specific tastes (my sister is a rockstar of sustainability, health, and discipline: She’s currently getting her Master’s in Agroecology and somehow still manages to put in the time to maintain incredible physical and mental health through yoga, meditation and amazing home cooking!). For those people, a good style workbook and an understanding of Minimalism will probably be all they need to start down a path towards a great, streamlined wardrobe that reflects who they know they are inside. Especially if clothing or shopping isn’t a particular source of joy or entertainment, or an important aspect of self-expression for them, a simple, great wardrobe is not an unreasonable goal at all, and just a matter of putting in the work. 

But many of us are scattered, or pulled in many directions: The proverbial ‘wearer of many hats,’ flailing, cycling, trying, failing, trying again, finding, losing, finding something new… And no amount of Minimalism documentaries or books, or Konmari-ing, or years of seasonal capsuling will result in a single cohesive wardrobe that fully encapsulates who we are. 

If you love shopping or thrifting or playing ‘grownup dress-up’ games, if you find re-organizing your closet to be a relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon (guilty), if you feel deeply irritated if you want to express or highlight something about yourself and you lack the proper outfit to execute your vision, you may find that attempting to capsule or pare down your closet results in an endless cycle of purging and building cycles, with most items not lasting more than a few years before they’re sold or donated. 

The question is this: If you’re cycling, how do you feel about it? Is it an endless source of inspiration and excitement for you? Or do you often feel like a shopping addict, compelled to try to find the ‘perfect items’ that never end up actually sticking around for more than a few months? Do you feel a sense of pride and relaxation when you’ve found something great, and recognize it right when you see it? Or do you question every purchase and struggle to even know what ‘perfect’ or ‘great’ even means to you? 

If you answered ‘yes’ to the first options, feeling deep joy and inspiration in the exploration, then don’t change a thing! As for me, while I do get a lot of joy out of being able to express myself and explore, I usually find myself in the latter versions of those questions: I often feel like an addict (well, I am, by definition, when it comes to thrifting–let’s be honest here), I often end up with things I don’t ultimately like even when I love them initially, and very few items ever stay in my closet for more than a year or two. 

As someone perpetually in the midst of it, I don’t know if my advice should count for much. But it should probably be a sign to me that even though I’ve learned so much and come so far in my understanding of Minimalism, style, ethical fashion, and psychology and biology in general, I am still struggling towards that ‘perfect cohesive wardrobe.’

Either no one has written the documentary/book/blog post that will solve all my problems, or I just need to accept that who I am is complicated, and that is OK.

It also tells me that the solution to my wardrobe frustrations probably won’t come from yet another reorganization or purge or style workbook. Most likely, it’s part of a greater dissatisfaction with life, with being pulled in too many directions at once and ultimately not going anywhere. With not feeling like I’ve found ‘my place’ in the world yet.

The good news for me is that in the last two years, I’ve started down a path that actually has been sustainable for me, that has engaged me consistently and never faded or gotten boring. I’ve slowly started to believe in my own intelligence and capabilities in a way that I never have before, and that slow progress has started to build to the point where everything feels just a little bit better. We always want progress to be instantaneous, to be able to announce a big new change or success, to great fanfare on social media, but sometimes it’s the slow stuff that feels like nothing but eventually builds into a mountain.

I know my clothing choices have also been higher quality and my sense of personal style has been much clearer as I’ve felt better about my life in general, but I think it’s time to accept that some things will never come together perfectly, and that’s life, and that’s ok.

For further reading on the science I mentioned, these authors are far more qualified than I to explain these subjects in-depth! 

Moody Bitches by Julie Holland, M.D.

The Mood Cure by Julie Ross

The Moral Animal by Robert Wright

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