Closet Conundrum

Dear Sensible Midwesterner,

We are a family of four living in a very small house in San Francisco. I am constantly going through the closets and getting rid of clothes. If anything is stained or torn or too small, out it goes. But still, our closets are stuffed. As someone who enjoys clothes and fashion, I am not looking to go all Yankee austere, but I’m wondering what you think is a reasonable amount of t-shirts, jeans, sweaters, etc. for each person to have. I want to have a ballpark figure to aim for to keep things from getting out of control (you should see my children’s t-shirt drawers, for example). So, if you were starting from zero for each person, how would you stock up?


Closet Conundrum

Dear Closet Conundrum,

Let it be known that as a city dweller in an old house, the Sensible Midwesterner feels your pain. Quarterly clean outs and an absolute intolerance of stained, torn, or ill-fitting items are the order of the day; I’m happy to hear you are already on that train.

Contemporary practice, from my anecdotal observation, is to take whatever space one has for clothes and fill it to bursting. Live in a gracious suburban ranch with room-long closets? Fill ’em up! Is your abode a century old with closets barely a foot deep and do you live with someone with a yen for funky old dressers with drawers too shallow to properly house a chunky wool sweater? You’re going to be a tad more picky.

It appears you need to be more picky (and one assumes enforce it throughout your family) and think absolute numbers are the answer. Any sensible Midwesterner would have to agree. I have been called in to help friends clean out their closets on many occasions, but always with more of an eye to style and fit, rather than absolute number. This is, I must say, a real treat and I’m pleased to have an answer for you. Assuming you or someone in your home is willing to do laundry once a week, the answer is ten.

Some things you need about ten of; for other things ten is an outside limit to provide non-austere variety but keep your closets from exploding.

With children it is relatively easy. Rather, it is easy to imagine and impose such limits. Ten days worth of outfits suffices quite nicely. For things where choice is less important – i.e. underwear, pajamas, socks – keep it to ten maximum*, that gives you a nice buffer for that weekly laundry (an extra day to get things put away, etc.) without overloading your storage system. Even for bottoms (jeans, shorts, skirts), keeping the total number to ten at the most will ensure things get worn before they get outgrown or need a seasonal (summer-to-winter-to-summer) change. Since tops tend to get layered more, stretching the number a bit makes sense, but only a bit. Younger children will need sweatshirts or sweaters that get washed after every wearing during cooler months, but as they get older having just two or three will become possible. One or two (again, depending on how dirty your kids get) seasonally appropriate jackets is sensible.

For adults the same guideline can apply. The closer to ten outfits, the better, but one can make a sensible argument for up to fourteen. When I’m feeling particularly sensible, I dream of owning a uniform (I’ve made a drawing) that would include a few layers for seasonality and would look stylish, be flattering, and be appropriate for (most) activities I engage in. In that sensible fantasy, I have seven of them and my closet is a gloriously spare thing. In any case, it is far better to have fewer outfits one is really excited about, wear the life out of them while they look great, and move along to something new than to have a stuffed closet you feel you are constantly cleaning out.

Choose your ten favorite outfits from your wardrobe. Put the rest in boxes or otherwise out of sight. See how that goes.

For people who need truly different work clothes and home clothes, ten work outfits and ten home outfits, fewer, though, if you only wear them on weekends. Note that a pair of jeans or a flattering skirt (why would one own any other kind?) may count as a component of more than one outfit.

Of course modern life means we have a fair amount of specialized clothing. Most of us need exercise or work-out clothes. You get seven, max (although if you only work out four days a week, you only get four). Formal wear or party dresses? That number depends on your social life, but for most people having more than half a dozen to choose from seems overdoing it.

As far as the children’s t-shirt drawers go, one can only wish you luck. The critters seem to track them in like mud, don’t they? Every camp, team, birthday party, and trip down the block seems to generate a new specimen.

* Lest you think the Sensible Midwesterner doesn’t walk the talk, when my son went to camp for two weeks, we needed to buy him more underwear and socks since he needed the full two weeks worth. We instructed him to wear his shorts more than once.

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