A few weeks back I had a trip with some colleagues to Amsterdam. It was a single night, eating dinner at a semi-formal restaurant, going out for drinks, with a day of walking the city to follow (in some pretty inclement weather). As I prepared to pack I realised how—for all my emphasis on capsule and uniform dressing—I had let things slip.
A trip that forces you to pare your luggage to the bare minimum exposes holes in your fantasy of the perfectly versatile wardrobe. My crisp white shirt was no longer as crisp or as white as I would have liked it. My derbys not quite as smart as I remembered them and my navy tee shirt a bit more faded than I cared for.
It was a much needed reminder that the reality of a capsule wardrobe is harder to maintain than the breezy notion. When your wardrobe is smaller it needs to be better cared for and when it is deficient it needs to be updated. It can be comforting to look at the piece hanging in your dresser and tick it off the list of staples, but if you’re not happy wearing it then it’s no more than a form of self-deception.
When I returned from my trip I spent the weekend sorting through my clothing: drycleaning, re-soling and altering what could be salvaged and discarding the rest. I revisited Joan Didion's packing list from her book The White Album (1979) which she taped to her wardrobe door during her time as a roving journalist in the early 1960s.
“This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes."
TO PACK AND WEAR:
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
nightgown, robe slippers
toothbrush and paste
2 legal pads and pens
Its simplicity had an effect on me. It acted as a challenge and asked me the question: What do you actually need? and why? It's the kind of question that we as consumers constantly try to wriggle and squeeze out of. We lie to justify the pile of clothes at the bottom of a drawer:
... well I might wear it for... I have a friend who might like this... It would look good with this item...
We lie to justify holding on to an item ragged beyond use and we lie to keep the ill-fitting item we should have returned, especially if it's expensive and really should have been returned.
At the end of this bout of self-reflection, I don't find myself closer to some sort of profound answer to clothing creep or consumerist ennui. I am however reminded that keeping things simple is easier said than done. It requires honesty with oneself and a commitment to reassessing priorities as well as needs. It's not just a manic weekend of sorting followed by a trip to the charity shop. It requires patience and constancy. Here's hoping I don't find myself writing this piece again in 12 months.