When you hear the phrase “minimalist fashion,” chances are a few things come to mind. You probably picture those tightly curated wardrobes you see all over Pinterest filled with wispy, shapeless-looking pieces in various shades of black, grey, and taupe, with the occasional color thrown in there for good measure.
Or maybe it’s a general feeling or vibe. The possibility of a few items of clothing might excite you because getting dressed in the morning would be that much easier, or it might make you cringe because getting dressed in the morning would now be super boring.
All of these things represent pieces of a much larger puzzle, but none give the complete picture of what a minimal approach to fashion looks like.
Those wispy, neutral-filled wardrobes are one aspect of minimalist fashion, specifically minimalist fashion as an aesthetic. Similar to minimalism as a décor style, where you’ll find nary a tchotchke on the white furniture in the room with white walls. You can have a maximalist wardrobe, filled with hundreds of pieces, but have a minimal aesthetic just as easily as you can have a minimalist wardrobe, filled with a limited number of pieces, but with a maximalist aesthetic.
A Minimal Approach
A minimal approach to fashion, as opposed to a minimal aesthetic for fashion, is more about the attitude and thought process behind things than it is about your color palette (or lack thereof) or the specific number of items in your closet.
Having a minimal approach to fashion means that you approach your closet with intentionality, not aiming for the largest (or smallest) number of things. Rather, your aim is a wardrobe that fits your lifestyle, and is filled with high-quality pieces you absolutely love that will, hopefully, last years.
The goal isn’t getting your shoes or dresses down to single digits. The goal isn’t only having shades of black, grey, cream, and taupe. The goal isn’t to make you hate your closet. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.
Did you know that the average person only wears 20% of their wardrobe on a regular basis? That means 80% of those clothing items we simply couldn’t live without spend the majority of the time on a hanger in the dark, while we reach for the same well-loved dress or sweater again and again and again.
If you’ve ever looked at your closet and thought, “I have nothing to wear!”, that probably isn’t the case. Rather, you’re most likely plagued by decision fatigue or the paradox of choice—the more choices you have to make, the harder it is to make a decision, and the less confident you are in the decision you ultimately make.
But what if that didn’t happen anymore? What if every single day, you opened your closet and saw only things you absolutely love so that no matter what you picked, it would make you feel confident, amazing, and unequivocally you? That is what a minimal approach to fashion is all about.
Declutter Your Closet
So you want to have that amazing feeling of looking in your closet and only seeing things you love, but how on earth do you get there? Chances are, looking at your closet is a little bit overwhelming, but decluttering it and ridding yourself of all those items you can’t stand or only feel ‘meh’ about is the first step to that dream wardrobe.
The Four Piles
We begin by pulling everything (yes, everything) out of your closet and dresser and putting it on your bed. The reason for this is it forces you to finish the process of sorting through it all before you can go to sleep—otherwise you’ll have to push it all on the floor and deal with the aftermath in the morning.
Once you’ve got it all out in one giant pile, you’re going to create four other piles—“love”, “nope”, “maybe”, and “seasonal”.
1. The “love” pile.
The “love” pile is for any piece that you adore without a doubt. These items will be pretty easy to spot because they’re most likely the ones that you reach for all the time anyway.
2. The “nope” pile.
The “nope” pile is for any piece that you look at and immediately think, “Ugh, nope!” These items are also probably fairly easy to spot because they’re the ones that you never take out of the closet.
3. The “maybe” pile.
The “maybe” pile is where things start to get a little bit gray. These are the items that aren’t solidly in the “love” or “nope” pile for…some reason. Maybe you used to love it, but it doesn’t fit quite as well now as it did when you picked it up two years ago. Maybe it looks amazing, but the zipper is broken, there’s a tear in the seam, or the straps need shortening. Maybe you don’t really like it that much, but it was a gift or you spent a lot of money on it or it reminds you of a certain time in your life. Whatever the reason, any item you don’t definitively love or hate goes here.
4. The “seasonal” pile.
The “seasonal” pile is an optional one, based on where you live. If you live somewhere with definitive seasons and different wardrobe pieces necessary for each, it’s for you. What goes in the “seasonal” pile will depend entirely upon the time of year you go about decluttering your wardrobe. If you’re decluttering in the spring or summer, then fall/winter pieces like boots, sweaters, and heavy coats will go into this pile. If you’re decluttering in the fall or winter, then spring/summer pieces like sandals, tank tops, and swimsuits will go into this pile. Saving items for their actual season allows you to go through those items when you’re already wearing them, rather than when you haven’t or won’t wear them for another 3-6 months.
Once you’ve divided everything into the four piles, place everything from your “love” pile back into your closet and box up your “seasonal” pile and set it aside. Then the analysis begins.
Once you’ve gone through everything, start with your “love” pile (that’s now hanging up in your closet again) and “nope” pile and search for similarities and patterns.
It could be the cut, color, silhouette, or fabric, but chances are, there are some similarities between the items you absolutely love and the ones you didn’t hesitate to get rid of. As you look for these similarities, make a note of them on your phone or a notepad. You’ll be coming back to them later.
Next, go back to that “maybe” pile. Just like with the love and “nope” pile, look for some of those similarities or patterns. Do you have a few shirts with a cut you love, but the fabric is a little itchy or the color isn’t your favorite? Maybe you have a few dresses that would all look amazing, but the straps are too long. Whatever gives you insight into creating that dream closet, write it down.
Now it’s time to make some decisions.
Starting with your “nope” pile, decide whether you’re going to sell, donate, or trash those items. If they’re still in good shape but just not for you, they’re probably great candidates for selling through local yard sale groups or online sites like ThredUp, or for donating to a local homeless shelter or thrift store. If they’re not in good enough condition to do either of those things, consider finding ways to reuse them—like turning old t-shirts into cleaning rags—and if you do actually dispose of them, look for a textile recycling facility in your area rather than dumping them in the trash.
With your “maybe” pile, look at your list of notes again. If you have items that would be perfect if you took them to the tailor, do that. If you have items that would be perfect if they were made of a different fabric, make a note of what you love and don’t love about it for future reference and set it aside for selling, donation, or recycling.
If your “love” pile is looking a little sparse, supplement it with your favorite items from the “maybe” pile, then box everything else up and store it along with the seasonal items. Pick a designated amount of time, like three months, and when the time has passed, pull out the box again. If you haven’t missed or wanted any of the pieces in the box, sell or donate it all.
Now that you’ve boxed up and stored your seasonal and maybe items and handled your “nope” items accordingly by selling, donating, or recycling them, it’s time to take a breather.
Shifting to a minimal, intentional approach to slow fashion is a big change, so give yourself some time to get used to having a smaller wardrobe. If you struggled to identify commonalities between your favorites, use this time to do so. As you spend more time with your minimized wardrobe, you’ll become even more aware of the things you love and the things you wish were in your closet.
Define Your Style
Once you’ve finished decluttering your closet, it’s time to define your style.
The distinction between your style and your closet is similar to the distinction between decluttering and minimalism. Your style is the expression of your personality through your clothing choices and other elements like makeup and accessories. Your wardrobe is the actual pieces of clothing that help make up that style.
You’ll always have a wardrobe, but chances are, if you don’t take the time to define your style, a few months or years from now it’ll be just as cluttered as it was before you began this journey.
1. Get visual with your clothing.
One of the best ways to start figuring out your personal style is by making it visual. Create a Pinterest board or a designated file on your desktop and pin or save to that anything you find that represents great style to you.
The board can include everything from full outfits to hairstyles, makeup or jewelry choices, editorial shoots that give off a specific vibe, and even color palettes.
2. Identify patterns with your wardrobe..
Just like you did with the piles in your wardrobe, once you’ve created a visual representation of great style according to you, start analyzing it and identifying those patterns again.
Make note of the colors or patterns you’re drawn to. Which silhouettes, styling choices, outfit formulas, or accessories show up over and over again? Take note of everything from the obvious like colors and patterns to the subtle, like the way an item drapes, the type of fabric, or a quirky element that makes an outfit pop.
Once you’ve done this, compare it to that list you made during the decluttering phase. This will help you begin identifying the gaps between how your wardrobe currently reflects your style and how you want it to change in the future.
3. Experiment with your minimalist fashion.
This is where things can get really fun, because it’s all about experimentation.
Start playing around with some of those silhouettes, pops of color, or styling techniques you kept pinning to your style board. It’ll push you outside your comfort zone, make you think outside the box, and help you figure out what you like in reality and what you like in theory.
You may love how a certain color or silhouette looks in photos, but aren’t quite as pleased with how it looks on you. Or maybe it’s a pair of shoes or a styling technique that do look really amazing, but they’re too high maintenance for you to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
4. Use color palettes.
Part of your experimentation will deal with colors and finding a color palette that works for you. There are three major approaches to color in a minimal wardrobe.
You can go primarily with neutrals and the occasional pop of color, which makes versatility super simple. You can go with a very defined palette of neutrals, mains, and accent colors. This takes a bit more work on the front end to choose a palette that works for you, but the result can be a colorful but still versatile wardrobe. A third option is to focus your colors in items that will never be worn together so it doesn’t matter if they coordinate or clash. This is a great approach if the thought of sticking with all neutrals or even one coordinated color palette doesn’t appeal to you.
Tips for Future Curation
After you’ve decluttered and started identifying and developing your style, you now step back into the world of shopping, but with a different and more intentional mindset.
Shopping for the first time after simplifying your wardrobe and defining your style can feel a little overwhelming, and with good reason, but there are a few techniques that will help make it less so.
1. Set rules before you buy.
Rules may sound like a pain, but they can be a lifesaver when you’re agonizing over a potential purchase and do wonders for reducing—and ultimately eliminating—purchases you later regret.
Start by deciding what your non-negotiables are—those few things that an item has to have in order for it to go in your wardrobe. They don’t have to be super specific, but defined enough that it will help you during that critical moment of, “Should I really buy this?”
Your rules could have to do with an item’s quality, versatility, shape, color, comfort, fabric type, or how they make you feel, and you can have non-negotiable rules and ideal rules, so long as they help keep your wardrobe limited to pieces you love.
2. Embrace outfit formulas.
If reducing decision fatigue was one of your primary reasons for minimizing your wardrobe, the outfit formula will probably be your best friend.
Practiced in its extreme by people like Mark Zuckerberg, who are literally wearing the same clothes every day, an outfit formula works much like a formula in math—you set the parameters and plug in the specific numbers, or in this case clothing items, from day to day.
A formula could be as general as jeans, a shirt, sweater, and shoes or as defined as a flared skirt, fitted button down, statement necklace, and ballet flats. Chances are, you have a couple of subconscious outfit formulas already, but if no ideas immediately come to mind, go back to that visualization board and see what kinds of outfits pop up again and again.
3. Develop a wish list.
Hands down the best way to fight against overwhelm when you’re shopping is by developing a wish list. This means you go in with a specific plan for what you want, which makes finding items that will seamlessly integrate into your wardrobe that much easier.
Just like with the outfit formulas, a wish list can be general, like a structured pair of jeans, or super specific, like a striped 3/4 sleeve peplum top. Make it specific enough that it’ll help with those inevitable, “Well, maybe” decisions, but not so specific that you nothing matches the picture in your head.
Capsules v. Year-Round Wardrobes
Even if you’ve only done a small amount of research about minimalist fashion, chances are you’ve at least heard about the capsule wardrobe. In some respects, a capsule wardrobe appears to be almost the exact same as any minimal wardrobe—a limited number of more versatile pieces you absolutely love—but there are some distinct differences.
Every minimal wardrobe is not a capsule wardrobe and you don’t have to create a capsule wardrobe to have a minimal wardrobe.
There are a couple of different ways to approach the number and type of items that go in your capsule, but the general premise is the same—choose a set number of versatile, high-quality items you absolutely love for a season. When that season comes to a close, repeat the process and choose the same number of versatile, high-quality pieces that work for the upcoming season.
Many people start their minimal fashion journey with a capsule wardrobe because it puts specific parameters around how many items they can have and a time limit on it. The limits force you to really think about the items you love, and more seriously consider their quality and versatility than you might have in the past, and even if you start getting bored with certain items as the capsule season nears its end, you can look forward to pulling out fresh items from storage at the end of it.
Capsules also work well for people who have more than one type of wardrobe necessary for their life. You may have a work wardrobe appropriate for corporate America that is quite different from a wardrobe for evenings and weekends, so creating a capsule for one or both of those wardrobes can help keep the number of items from getting out of hand.
One major downside of the capsule is you put all off-season clothing out of sight in something like a separate closet or underbed storage. This works well if you live in an area where the weather is consistent each season, but if you live somewhere with an unpredictable climate and you can experience major temperature swings no matter what time of year, the capsule can be difficult.
In those situations, or simply due to personal preference, a year-round, but still minimized wardrobe often works better. You can apply the same principles of a capsule—only high-quality, versatile clothing you love—and even decide to limit yourself to a specific number, but rather than rotating pieces out each season, everything stays in your closet no matter what the season.
The double-edged sword of this is that you have access to all your clothing all the time. On the one hand, it means you’re always prepared for unpredictable weather and can creatively style off-season clothing to mix things up. On the other hand, it has the potential to cause a bit of boredom when you’re looking at the same limited number of items all the time.
Both approaches have their pros and cons, but if the result of both is a wardrobe you love, the specific path doesn’t really make too much of a difference.
Minimalist Fashion Experiments
When you’re first getting started with a minimal wardrobe, experimenting can be one of the best ways to get a feel for what you love and don’t love and how you want to move forward curating a wardrobe and defining your style.
You can come up with your own experiments as they pertain to whatever part of your wardrobe and style you’re trying to figure out or join in on an experiment designed by someone else.
1. Project 333
Started by Courtney Carver of Be More With Less, Project 333 is quite possibly the most well-known minimal wardrobe experiment and challenge. It’s a capsule wardrobe and a minimal wardrobe experiment rolled into one, which can make it a great starting place for figuring out what does and doesn’t work for you in a more minimal wardrobe.
The way the project works is by choosing 33 items to wear—including clothing, accessories, jewelry, outerwear, and shoes—for three months. Since accessories and jewelry are included, it’s a bit more strict than most other approaches to the capsule wardrobe, but can be a great reset for those who are new to a minimal wardrobe and veterans alike!
2. 10×10 Style Challenge
If you’re looking for an experiment that takes a bit less time than something like Project 333, the 10×10 Challenge might be the perfect thing for you.
Created by Lee Vosburg of Style Bee, the 10×10 Challenge takes place once a season. You choose 10 items—including clothing, shoes, and outerwear—and attempt to create 10 unique outfits worn over 10 different days.
It’s a micro-capsule wardrobe experiment of sorts that can be a wonderful way to get you thinking outside the box and prove just how much you can do with a small amount of clothing.
Quality v. Quantity
When you begin talking about reducing your wardrobe and shifting from five pairs of sandals to one or 10 shirts to three, the question that inevitably comes up is, “How will my clothing last?”
This comes from a generation accustomed to $8 t-shirts from Target that wear out in a season or two, even if they’re worn in rotation with 30 other items. As a result, you think that if you’re wearing (and presumably washing) an item more often, you’ll wear through it faster.
The answer to the problem, of course, is to shift your buying habits to purchase items of higher quality. In short, focus on quality over quantity and buy less so you can buy better.
Does price really matter?
In a capitalist culture, we are taught to associate a higher price with higher value. Thus it’s reasonable to assume that a $30 shirt is of a higher quality than an $8 shirt. But is that really true? Does price really matter? The answer is both yes and no.
Generally, yes, an item that costs more is going to be of a higher quality, and there are other arguments to be made for purchasing expensive clothing, but that isn’t always the case. I’ve had a $15 dress last almost a decade and a $250 purse start to fall apart after only four months. Price often indicates a higher quality, but it’s not the only determining factor.
Brand recognition can often be the difference between an expensive shirt and a cheap one, even if the shirts were made from the same fabric in the same factory.
What makes something “good quality”?
This of course begs the question what makes something, specifically clothing, of good quality?
Unfortunately, we as a culture have shifted almost completely away from an awareness of how to make our own clothes and thus what makes a garment well-made or not. Though it’s likely obvious, it’s important to note that a brand name and the price tag that goes along with it do not necessarily denote quality. In fact, they can sometimes represent the opposite.
High quality items are determined by the weave of the fabric, which affects how it bears up under multiple washes, or the stitching and seams, which indicate how well the garment was constructed and how long those seams will hold up after years of use. Whether or not an item is lined, how well the patterns line up, and the presence (or lack thereof) of loose threads can all be indicators of the time and care that went into constructing a garment.
In order to learn how to better recognize high quality garments, consider stopping by a store known for its quality or visiting a tailor and asking questions. They will likely love the fact that you are interested in being able to better recognize a quality garment when you see it.
Ethical and Fair-Trade Fashion
If the numbers in our closets don’t show it, the numbers in our landfills certainly do. Over the last several years, clothing has shifted from being something you invest in and hold onto for as long as possible to being something as cheap and disposable as the food we buy.
We no longer have four fashion seasons a year, but closer to 52. New items come into stores all the time and we’re encourage to buy, buy, buy. So we do and then do the same next week, when new items show up on the racks, and the result is closets overflowing with poor quality items we feel mediocre about and 15 million tons of textile waste being produced in the US each year, 85% of which sit in landfills.
Fast fashion has shifted the way we buy and think about clothing, but at what cost? It takes 2,700 liters of water to make enough cotton to make one shirt using traditional means and the chemicals used in harvesting that cotton seep into the soil and eventually render it useless. Beyond the environmental impact, countless big name brands utilize sweatshops in the production of their clothing, paying little or no attention to local labor laws and safety regulations.
While price isn’t always a good indication of the quality of a garment, it is almost always an indication of the ethics and sustainability of it. It’s nearly impossible for a shirt that cost you only $7.99 to have been made from sustainable materials in an environmentally friendly way in safe working conditions by a person who is being paid a living wage.
Fortunately, in the same way that the tide of consumerism is changing in the culture at large, the tide is starting to change in the fashion industry and there are many wonderful companies out there fighting for higher quality garments made from sustainable materials, in environmentally conscious ways, under ethical and safe working conditions.
Much like minimizing your wardrobe requires a shift in how much clothing you buy, taking ethics and sustainability into account requires a shift in what you buy and where you buy it from.
In addition to its implications for the environment and ethical practices surrounding the production of garments, one of the major benefits to purchasing ethical, sustainable, and fair trade clothing is that it is almost always of a higher quality. This means garments last longer, and when they do show signs of wear, companies encourage you to repair the item if possible, rather than replacing it.
Some, like Patagonia, allow you to recycle in store and provide guides for repairing and caring for other items. The Patagonia Fair Trade Clothing movement is definitely setting bar high for outdoor clothing manufacturers.
Now, there is a distinction between ethical and fair trade clothing. Fair trade fashion, which must be certified by Fair Trade USA, specifically focuses on the compensation for workers and farmers associated with its production, while ethical fashion aims to reduce the negative impact on the environment and the places the clothing comes from.
Finding fair trade and ethical companies is not always easy, which can be a deterrent in shifting your buying habits, but companies like Good On You and Buy Me Once are making it easier, and the positive impact a little bit of extra time researching can have on the environment and individuals you may never meet is astounding and absolutely worth it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are a few questions you might have when it comes to minimalist fashion:
1. How do I handle accessories and jewelry?
Depending on your personality, accessories may be a super easy part of your wardrobe or the part you dread most. However the thought of minimizing it makes you feel, the process is quite similar to handling your main wardrobe—take an honest look at all you have, from jewelry to purses or scarves, and divide it up into things you love, things you feel meh about, and things you know you need to get rid of.
If you’re still figuring out your style, it can be helpful to wait on this a bit until you have a better handle on what kinds of things pair well with your new minimized wardrobe.
2. How do I minimize the rest of my closet?
Miscellaneous items like workout attire, undergarments, and formalwear are rarely, if ever, included in a capsule wardrobe, which can make it hard to figure out exactly how to approach them, but similar to the accessories, the process is exactly the same as minimizing your main wardrobe.
For some of the miscellaneous items, even if you have a year-round wardrobe for everything else, a capsule is often a great way to approach it, because they’re all used for a specific purpose.
If you work out five times a week, you may have a capsule of five complete workout outfits. For something like formalwear, you may have one dress or outfit for different kinds of events like one black-tie gown, one little black cocktail dress, one summery cocktail dress, and one holiday dress. And just like the rest of your wardrobe, there don’t have to be hard and fast rules—it’s about what works for you and your life.
3. What about travel and packing?
One of the questions that comes up the most is how do you find good quality clothing for traveling. It’s simple—just fill your closet with good quality clothing in the first place. That way, when it comes time to pack your bags for a new adventure, you don’t have to worry about whether or not your boots or shirt or coat will last through the excursion.
One consideration for travel that doesn’t necessarily apply to the rest of your wardrobe is how well the fabric does while it’s packed away. After all, a high quality piece that wrinkles after it’s been folded up doesn’t do you much good on the road.
If you travel often, that’s something to take into consideration when you’re purchasing clothing for your main wardrobe. Think about not just the quality of the item but how it would do while traveling and whether or not you want to deal with the hassle of getting it wearable again after a six-hour flight.
When it comes to packing, again, the same principles that apply to your main wardrobe apply to a travel wardrobe—the more versatile the pieces you own, the fewer you have to bring with you.
There are countless facets to the world of minimal fashion, but the most important thing to remember is this—there is no one way to do it. Minimalist fashion, just like the rest of a minimalist life, is about what works for you. Period.