Shop Your Closet

Last night, instead of going to a swank fundraiser with my friend Molly and her husband, I curled up in bed with a family size box of Kleenex and a really boring biography of Fanny Burney and fell asleep at 8:15. Whoo hoo! My outfit was not so much cocktail wear as it was Old Navy yoga pants from five years ago and a souvenir Florida t-shirt that I stole from my dad. Mmmm, sexy.

Did I mention the Kleenex?

My goal for the fundraiser-that-wasn’t was to pull together an outfit WITHOUT buying anything; in other words, I was planning to Shop My Closet and see what I already had, because I KNOW I have all sorts of cocktail party appropriate clothes in there. Somewhere. I love to shop just as much as the next girl, but I’m always a little stressed out by the whole idea of shopping for An Event; I can never find EXACTLY what I want and I typically wind up with something that doesn’t fit right or isn’t comfortable or would look significantly better on someone else. Plus, I tend to wind up going to fancy events at the last minute, which means that often there is no time to really Shop Smart. Finally, there is the whole issue of spending money for clothes that I may or may not wear again any time soon, if ever.

I know you are familiar with all of this.

So let’s talk about how to Shop Your Closet.

You’ll need two bags or boxes, one for Give Aways and one for Tailor/Dry Cleaner. Things that don’t fit go in the Give Away box; things that need to be cleaned or tailored go in . . . you get the idea. This is also a good time to assess your hangers. I like a nice padded hanger for tops and some sturdy plastic or wood hangers for pants. Target has great hanger options for not a lot of money. Toss those dry cleaning hangers; they’re horrible. Horrible! Joan Crawford was right.

Start by trying on everything you own. EVERY SINGLE THING. Set aside an hour (or a day), put on some music, pile the contents of your closet (and your dresser and all those plastic storage boxes) on the bed and work your way through it all. I know, it’s a lot to ask, but how will you know what you have if you don’t know what you HAVE? I suggest that you do this in pieces, starting with bottoms, since that seems to be what everyone always complains about. Put on a neutral t-shirt (white is best) and try on EVERY pair of pants, EVERY skirt, EVERY pair of shorts. Anything that doesn’t zip or cuts off the circulation to your spleen has to go. Anything with a crotch that hangs at your knees or an ass that dips to your calves has to go. Anything stained or pilled or faded or just plain worn out HAS TO GO.

After you’ve done the bottoms, start again with the tops. Try tops with a neutral bottom (khakis or jeans) and the proper undergarments. Bend over to check for excess cleavage; reach up to check for stomach exposure. Check for pit stains on your t-shirts. YES, I SAID IT! Pit stains are NOT stylish. THEY JUST AREN’T.

Do the same with your shoes. Get rid of anything ratty or worn. Have shoes that need new heels resoled. Polish or clean shoes that are dirty. Even if you’re a mom who wears practical flats most of the time, hang on to your sexy shoes (you never know when you might want to feel sexy!), but think twice about keeping those beautiful pumps that make you feel like someone is amputating your toes. Limping isn’t sexy.

Keep only the pieces that fit well AND are in good shape. Set aside anything that needs repairs, and then set a deadline for having them done. I currently have a beautiful black cocktail dress that I wore to my brother’s wedding six years ago, a mere three months after Henry was born. It’s a GREAT dress, the perfect length and with a FANTASTIC neckline and a lovely beaded hem, but it needs to be altered. Right now it’s hanging on the bedroom door with a post-it note with next Friday’s date on it. Either I take it to the tailor by next Friday or it goes in the Give Away bag. Because it’s been in my closet, unwearable, for SIX YEARS. It’s time to take action.

Put the keepers back in the closet. You can use whatever system you like for arranging your clothes–by color, for example, or style or even by outfit–but avoid dividing your clothes into Everyday and Dress-Up. Fashion stylists estimate that the average woman only wears about 30% of her clothes, primarily because we get it into our heads that certain pieces are ONLY for playgroup or ONLY for dress-up. A black tank top can be perfect with a cocktail skirt; a dressy jacket goes nicely with jeans. I have my pants arranged by length and the tops by color. I have a nice brocade jacket hanging with my jean jackets (yes, I have multiple jean jackets; shut it). Fold sweaters and t-shirts, as they will stretch if you hang them, but be sure to keep them where you can see them.

Now that you have a whole closet full of clothes that fit and are presentable, try everything on AGAIN, this time with an eye to what goes together. (You might want to do this on another day–sometimes it helps to have a fresh eye. Or a cold martini. Whatever.) Put together complete outfits, INCLUDING shoes; this lets you see what you have and what you need. Do you have a great pair of pants that go with all your tops but no shoes to wear with them? Shop for shoes. Do you have a terrific white blouse but no appropriate bra? Shop for a bra. And so on.

Try different combinations–have a great cocktail skirt? Try it with a fancy sweater and your twinset and a turtleneck and a fitted tee and a tank top and . . . you get the idea. Try EVERYTHING on with your jeans–blouses and sweaters and jackets and tees. Be honest in your assessment–when you bend over, what’s the view like? When you sit down, does the top meet the bottom? Can you REALLY walk in those shoes? Is it a problem if you can’t?

By now, you should have a clear idea both of what you actually HAVE and what you actually NEED, which should help you focus your shopping. I’ve been buying shoes lately, because when I went through my closet I had pants and tops and nothing but flip flops, which really weren’t going to go with my wool trousers. I’ve bought ballet flats and strappy suede wedges and low-heeled, pointy-toed slingbacks. I think I’m good to go now. (It sounds like I’m all done shopping, doesn’t it? Hoo, that’s funny . . . )

My plan for last night was to wear a black v-neck cashmere sweater with a black-and-white silk skirt and a pair of black slingbacks. I rediscovered a cool red bag in the back of my closet last week, the perfect size for a lipstick and a cell phone. I would have looked totally hott.

Instead, I was looking totally feverish, which isn’t the same. But at least I didn’t buy anything new, and I had an outfit that I really like and that I will certainly wear again, when I find myself going to a swank cocktail party at the last second. My schedule is open this weekend, if you’ve got anything in mind.

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