For some people, getting dressed in the morning is a joy. Good for them.
But for many men and women, the daily task of digging through an overstuffed closet to mix and match items of different fabrics, weights, and colors into something resembling a coherent outfit can take more time and brain power than they care to admit.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Unless you’re organized enough to lay out your outfit the night before, or you’re ready to dive into full “uniform dressing,” the best solution is very likely cutting down your wardrobe drastically, until you’re left with just a handful of basic essentials.
That’s because one of the biggest culprits turning that simple daily routine into a stressful, intimidating chore is an overabundance of clothing in most of our closets. “It’s called the paradox of choice,” explains personal stylist and writer Peter Nguyen, in an excellent post for his site, The Essential Man, on how to create a minimalist wardrobe. “That is, the more options you have, the less likely you are to make a choice.” (Mark Zuckerberg similarly cites “decision fatigue” to explain his preference for a daily uniform of a grey t-shirt and black hoodie.)
Nguyen’s guidance on the subject comes from real time spent thinking about how to solve his clients’ sartorial problems, while making sure they look good. He was a longtime fashion designer who worked for the New York menswear talent Robert Geller for five years before launching his own brand and ghost-designing for some big-name companies. [Disclosure: A fashion company I previously worked for carried t-shirts from Nguyen’s line.] In 2015, he started working as a personal stylist to guys in need of expert assistance, though much of his advice can apply to women as well.
Contrary to what you might expect, Nguyen’s job as a stylist mostly involves getting rid of clothes, not adding more. “I would say 60% of the people that come to me want some form of a smaller wardrobe,” he explains. About 30% specifically request a minimal wardrobe. In fact, adding to your closet out of frustration usually aggravates the problems of getting dressed. He calls it “panic mode shopping,” and lays out the vicious cycle it creates:
The better solution is to decrease your options. Here’s how to do it, based on Nguyen’s advice:
Step 1: Ask yourself, ‘How often do I want to do laundry?’
The less clothing you own, the more you’ll wear what you have—and the more often you’ll need to wash it. How frequently you want to do that depends on your laundry system, among other things. That’s why, odd as it sounds, Nguyen says the key to planning your minimalist wardrobe “isn’t how many pieces you’ll have, it’s how often you’d like to do laundry.”
His default wardrobe for most of his clients includes one week’s worth of clothing, meaning they would need to do laundry once a week. If that’s too much laundry for you, and too minimal a wardrobe, don’t worry. You can—and should—adjust the recommendations that follow to suit your needs.
Keep in mind, not every item need to be washed every time it’s worn, or even weekly. Many people wear their jeans several times before washing them, for instance, and sometimes a steam is all a garment needs. But certain items, such as t-shirts you wear a few times in a week, might need a rinse. Here’s a handy list of washing tips (pdf).
Step 2: Decide how many pieces you need
Nguyen’s one-week wardrobe includes just 14 pieces of clothing, not counting socks and underwear. Here’s his list:
- two jackets (one blazer, one casual)
- eight tops (a mix of t-shirts, polos, button-ups, and Henleys)
- two pants (one pair of chinos, one pair of dark wash denim)
- one pair of boots
- one pair of classic white sneakers
This pared-down closet provides a few basics you can repeat often, such as jeans and chinos to alternate between during the week. It also includes enough shirts to allow one for each day, or to mix as needed. For instance, you might want to wear a t-shirt under a button-up one day, and then on its own over the weekend. It factors in a buffer shirt as well, because the reality is most people will get lazy at some point and miss laundry day. (Likewise, for socks and underwear, eight pairs of each is a good idea.) Use accessories to mix things up, and again, feel free to adjust that template according to your needs.
Make sure the clothes match your lifestyle. If you never wear a blazer, you probably don’t need one in your closet. If you have to wear a blazer to work every day, one may not be enough. Corporate dress codes are relaxing, whether you work in tech or finance, but if you’re a suit-wearer, swap in a couple of business suits. You may also need to consider sweaters for cold weather. The beauty of Nguyen’s list is that it offers a template you can easily customize for yourself. It also makes it exceedingly easy to decide what to pack for a trip.
Step 3: Now pick the right items
However you adjust your list, there are a few characteristics you want in the items that fill it, according to Nguyen:
Every piece should be as versatile as possible, since it will need to work in a variety of outfit combinations and environments. You may like heavily distressed jeans or really colorful sneakers, but you’ll likely get more use out of dark-wash jeans and classic white sneakers.
Try sticking to solid, neutral colors, such as black, white, gray, navy, and khaki. Clothes in those colors are more easily interchangeable and simpler to match, compared to bold patterns or obvious logos (or for women, striking dress styles), which will stand out to those around you if you wear them multiple times a week.
Importantly, you should choose items that are high-quality. “You’re going to be wearing and washing the same pieces more than you would if you have a fuller wardrobe,” Nguyen explains. “That can greatly reduce the lifespan of your clothes. So it really pays to pay more for better quality clothes if you’re going the minimalist route.” (Here’s how to identify clothing that will last.)
You often have to pay a premium for better clothes, but you also don’t need to buy as much of it (and will contribute less to the millions of tons of clothing that flow into landfills each year). Nguyen’s clients like Outlier’s OG chinos, for instance, which look good and are water- and stain-resistant. They cost much more than J.Crew chinos, but they also perform better.
Step 4: Get rid of the rest
Once you know which items in your closet you’re going to keep, get rid of the rest. Whether your method is Nguyen’s or the one popularized by decluttering guru Marie Kondo, shedding your unneeded stuff can have the added benefit of being genuinely cathartic.
Before you take everything to your nearest donation center, though, just take a few minutes to research what the organization does with them. Most donated clothing in countries such as the US ends up shipped off for resale in regions such as eastern Africa and South America, often choking out local textile industries. Some organizations, such as Housing Works in New York, make better use of your unwanted items than others.
Step 5: Feel—and look—better
It may take some effort to figure out the minimalist wardrobe that works for you, but once you do, it gets rid of clutter and simplifies the decision-making involved in getting dressed. Shopping gets simpler, too, since you have strictly laid out your criteria for determining what will and won’t work as part of your closet.
Best of all, Nguyen says, a minimal wardrobe makes his clients better dressers who feel more confident about their clothes.
“A well-designed minimal wardrobe ‘works automatically,'” he explains. “What I mean by that is, you could literally pull pieces at random, like a blazer, a shirt, pants, and shoes, and it would ‘match’ and make a great outfit.” It upends the notion that you need to have some innate eye for style in order to dress well, he adds.
Be aware, however, that a minimalist wardrobe doesn’t suit everyone. By design, you’ll have little variety in your outfits. (Accessories can help.)
People who enjoy staying on top of what’s new and playing around with their look can get bored with minimalism: Nguyen himself says a minimalist wardrobe isn’t for him. He’s a fan, for example, of Dries Van Noten, whose most exciting pieces often work in prints and unexpected details—the sort of thing you want to collect because each season offers something novel.
“But to a lot of guys, the idea of having a clean, minimal ‘uniform’ is extremely appealing,” Nguyen says. “If that sounds like you, then a minimalist wardrobe is the wardrobe you should consider building.”