Why You Only Need 6 Items of Clothing

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Confession: I punted on wOw’s Question of the Week about which five things – things, as Joan Juliet Buck pointed out, not people, pets, places, but things – I wouldn’t want to live without. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about it. I feel like I’ve been living it for the past month.

It was July 21 that I read a story in The New York Times about a shopping diet. It goes something like this: You pick six items of clothing, then proceed to wear them and only them for the next month. Shoes, accessories, underwear, exercise wear, bathing suits and outerwear don’t count. The point is that you save money by not shopping and time by not standing before your wardrobe agonizing over what to wear.

Despite the fact that I had to dress for both work (some of it on television) and play (weekends at the beach), I decided to give it a try. The first five were easy: a purple wash-and-wear dress, a black pencil skirt, a black cardigan, a white tank and a pair of khaki shorts. I didn’t pick the sixth – a light-blue sheath – until a need, in the form of an invitation to a cocktail reception from my husband’s boss, presented itself a week later. And I dove in.

Interestingly, at least as far as the newspaper of record was concerned, this seemed to be the month to explore what it’s like to have fewer choices. Frank Bruni wrote in The Tipsy Diaries about the two Terroir wine bars, where the selection of white wines during the summer is “Riesling, Riesling or Riesling.” And two days later Stephanie Rosenbloom chronicled the life of a couple who had taken on a challenge to pare down to 100 personal items.

I read them all and did a little research of my own.

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, explained that when you decide to limit your options – rather than having them limited for you – you’re less likely to feel it’s an imposition and more likely to feel it’s a relief. Think of schoolgirls who are forced to wear uniforms. They roll the waistbands up, use their ties as belts, and do whatever else they can think of to individuate. “People want and need control and autonomy. If someone else imposes the system, you’re depriving people of autonomy. If you control the agenda and you limit the number of options you may get bored, but you won’t get crazy.”

That made total sense to me. As did the explanation from Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, that in a universe in which you are an expert, you tend to have a really good understanding of what all the options are. In that case more options are good. But in an area in which you’re not an expert – like fashion, for me – where you don’t know how to categorize all of the options and sort the wheat from the chaff, more than ten, Iyengar says, may in fact be too many.

“Memory wise you are not going to be able to keep track.” That’s why, she explains, in a typical woman’s wardrobe (“unless she’s really into clothes”) she isn’t really making use of all of her clothing options, but perhaps 50 percent. Many women do this unknowingly, Iyengar says. It’s when you do know that it becomes problematic. “To the extent that she’s aware she’s not making use of her available options, she’ll get frustrated. ” That’s why cleaning out your closet feels so good!

I just finished and despite one bad coffee spill (the wardrobe folks at “Today” saved me) and one day when I was desperate for pants (it was cold and rainy), it was – well, it was fine. The first week was difficult. Then I got good with scarves and necklaces and belts. Then, as Schwartz said I would, I got bored. Then I just stopped caring. I gained a little money (it’s rare I do no shopping for a solid month) and a lot of time (for me getting dressed in two to three minutes is a victory).

But mostly I gained perspective. Except for the people I let in on the Sixperiment, no one noticed what I was doing. No one. Every time I threw a different scarf on the purple dress or a necklace on the blue one or belt on the black skirt, I got compliments. No one realized they had seen the same pieces, in different combination, the day before.

That confirms the fact that I really do have more things – more clothes – than I need. So I am going to do a thorough closet cleaning in the next week or so in an attempt to maintain the one true benefit I reaped from the Sixperiment: My newfound alacrity getting dressed. Not having the option of (once again) trying on those things I never seem to wear (despite the fact that I spent good money on them) will definitely save me time and likely relieve some guilt as well.

And when I shop this fall – and I will – I am going to do it differently.

I have been a volume shopper, thinking that what I put on my body (especially on TV) had to be different each and every time. So instead of six so-so skirts, and three tops that will do, I am going to buy a couple of really great dresses, and that pair of black boots I’ve been dreaming about. And I’m going to try to remember when I put them on in the morning, that the only one I’m really getting dressed for is me.

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  1. [...] Jean Chatzky Confession: I punted on wOw’s question of the week about which five things – things, as Joan Juliet Buck pointed out, not people, pets, places, but things – I wouldn’t want to live without. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about it. I feel like I’ve been living it for the past month. Click here to read the rest of Jean’s answer. [...]