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Nothing New for a Year: How to Shop Your Closet


Image: InStyle March 2006, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

After a week of living with my newly edited closet, I realized something: my clothes were much better organized, but I still had nothing to wear.

I’d stand there hoping for some sort of revelation; when none came, I’d put on the same jeans and shirt I’d worn the previous day.

It was frustrating. Sure, I’d gone shopping before and come home empty handed, but it seemed ridiculous that this was happening at home — hadn’t I already hand-picked all this stuff?

I knew I needed to shop my closet, but I didn’t know how.

So I decided to use some of the time I was saving by not shopping to figure out how to actually wear the clothes I already owned — and discovered two easy tricks.

Trick #1: Change it up.

I came across an article I’d clipped from the March 2006 InStyle (aptly titled “Shop Your Closet) that offered this tip:

“Pull out your top 15 pieces of clothing, plus accessories, and lay them on the floor. The goal is to break up your usual outfits and consider new ways to wear old standbys.”

So I pulled out my favorites — the black pants I wore to work at least twice a week, the nautical striped top, the camel-colored sweater, my blue Theory blazer. I tried a feminine, DVF-style wrap dress with black knee boots instead of the usual pumps. I paired my gray pants with a brown zebra-print cardigan instead of my go-to black blouse.

In just a few minutes, I came up with 10 new outfit combinations. It was even kind of fun.

The article next suggests taking pictures of each new outfit to create a personal “look book” – like this:

Image: InStyle March 2006, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, photographed by Alex Cao.

I liked this idea, but it was more work than I was up for, so I just made a list of the new combinations and tacked it up on my closet wall. And I still do this from time to time.

Trick #2: Be a copycat.

When it comes to fashion, I’ve always been a better imitator than innovator — so for my next trick in shopping my closet, I needed some inspiration.

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Keep a Style File. For years, whenever I’d see an outfit I liked in a magazine or catalog, I’d rip it out and put it in a file. Occasionally I’d flip through the file, keeping what I still liked and throwing a few away, but I never really did much with it.

Turns out it’s a great source of inspiration for shopping my closet. This time as I looked through my ‘style file,’ I divided each outfit into categories, by season — work, casual, holiday, evening, etc. Then I tackled each category to see what I already owned that was similar to it, or if I could alter something to look like it.

For example, this feature I’d saved on interior designer Erin Martin from (the sadly now defunct) Metropolitan Home magazine:

Image of Erin Martin via Metropolitan Home July/August 2009, p.22

Although I am a fan of her design work, I clipped this article because I had similar wide-legged navy pants I hardly ever wore. As I examined the photo more closely, I realized I also had a jacket in a similar cut and color, and could easily scrounge up a white top, brown shoes and similar jewelry.

So here’s the outfit I pulled together from the inspiration photo, minus my head:

Of course it’s not exactly the same (wish I had her belt), but that’s what this exercise is all about — get inspired, then make it your own using only what you already have.

Lots of resources also suggest hanging a visual inspiration board in (or near) your closet — a collage of looks and ideas you love to help guide the process of getting dressed. I’m a big fan of inspiration boards — I have three in my office — but so far haven’t found (or rather, made) room for one in my closet. Here’s an example from the InStyle article:

Image: InStyle March 2006, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, photographed by Alex Cao.

There are plenty of sources for style inspiration beyond print, too — favorite movies, people I see on the street, friends whose style I admire, etc. When I see something I want to copy, I snap a photo or jot it down, then refer to it when I’m shopping my closet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Go online. When I did my Nothing New for a Year project, there was no Pinterest or Polyvore — in fact, there were hardly any fashion blogs at all (or at least none that I knew about). Now the Internet can be an endless resource for closet inspiration — but it also can be overwhelming. I’ve found it’s really helpful to go in with a plan, e.g. “what to wear with my black pants” and stay focused on what I’m looking for

Take Pinterest, for example. Instead of spending hours wading through the zillions of pins, I use the search function to narrow the options.

A Pinterest search just now for “black pants” yielded two outfits I could easily recreate using what I already have (circled in red; click on the image for a larger view):

My Pinterest ‘Style File‘ board is basically an online version of my magazine clippings file, but it also needs to be edited. After two years, the board has only 132 pins; I remove things that no longer inspire me, and I’ll only add something new if I already own at least one piece that’s similar.

Blogs can also be a good source of inspiration — if I stay focused on using what I already own, rather than adding more stuff to the ‘want’ list.

There are a zillion outfit-related blogs, but a few I’ve found helpful for occasional closet inspiration are Atlantic – Pacific, Pink Peonies and Sincerely, Jules. And although the J’s Everyday Fashion blog is not necessarily always my style, it can still be a good source for ideas since it’s devoted almost entirely to using inspiration to reinterpret things you probably already have in your closet:

These shop-your-closet tricks served me well when I wasn’t buying anything new, and they continue to prove useful for those times when I ‘don’t have a thing to wear.’

Lest I forget, there are also some good resource books that address the topic:

Nothing to Wear? A 5-Step Cure for the Common Closet by Jesse Garza and Joe Lupo. Published in 2006 but still relevant.
The Style Strategy: A Less-is-More Approach to Staying Chic and Shopping Smart by Nina Garcia. Covers the basics; the “Fashion Foundation” chapter is particularly helpful.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Angie permalink
    09/19 10:44 PM

    Seriously Jen, I’m so inspired by your ideas and not buying anything new for a year. I’ve been thinking it over and am working on a start date to commit to a year. I have to admit I am a little nervous and of course I think I don’t have the right clothes and outfits to make it a year and feel good in. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Right now I have three key pieces I want to purchase before I start but may go ahead without them! Thanks for the inspiration, I’ve always loved your style!

    • 09/20 6:58 AM

      You have fabulous style (and a great wardrobe) already, Angie — I have no doubt you can pull this off. (And I’m sure no one will ever suspect you’re doing it.) I hear you on the key pieces thing; I’d really wanted to buy a new pair of jeans before I started, but I somehow managed without them. :-) Keep me posted! xx

  2. 09/30 5:26 AM

    Ohhhhh! You’ve given me a great idea for something I already own: there’s an empty wall next to my closet and a C&B world map that I bought with a CORKBOARD ON BACK, sitting next to it. I need to get my closet working for me using that board.


  1. Nothing New for a Year: The Edited Closet « Edit by Design

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