diy wardrobe

i am not fashionable, in any sense of the word. everything about clothing has always been anxiety inducing for me. when i go shopping for clothing, i get frustrated easily because nothing fits right, which leads to low self esteem about my body, which leads to me impulse buying things i don’t even like, which ends in guilt about spending money on clothes. choosing what to wear is even worse, i try on everything in my closet and decide i hate it all when i’m already 15 minutes late for an appointment. and i hate wearing clothes that don’t fit right, it makes me feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. in true christine “fashion”, over the last few years i have starting making shifts around my wardrobe – today’s post will detail my journey with my clothes.

a few years back, inspired by zero waste home, i began becoming more conscious about my clothing. in the book, bea johnson talks about how maintaining a large wardrobe is both stressful and expensive – too many choices, plus the storage energy of all the clothing. this resonated with me. at the time i had two closets full of clothing and shoes, and much of it i didn’t really care for. it was simple habit, ingrained in me that as a woman i needed to have all these clothes. i stop shopping at clothing stores 8 years ago, so most of it was either 1) old, 2) a hand-me-down, or 3) from a thrift store. a lot of what i owned was cheaply made, and poor fitting.

reading zero waste home was the beginning of starting to be more mindful about my wardrobe. a second shift occurred for me last year while i was studying at the folk school. i was living with some beautiful women who had beautiful wardrobes with handmade, hand dyed pieces. one of my room mates opened my eyes to all the different types of fabrics our clothing is made of, and we talked about synthetic fabrics vs natural fabrics. in case you don’t know (i didn’t!) anything made of polyester or nylon, the two main synthetic fabrics, are made of plastic! this was a *huge* turn-off for me and i was immediately -woke- to natural fabrics, especially falling in love with linen during this time.

i have often told myself – it doesn’t matter what i wear. it’s just clothes. as a frugal lady, spending money on clothing has always seemed wasteful to me. who cares what i look like? for many years i have just worn what’s comfortable even if it looks sloppy – yes, that means sweatpants in public.

but the truth is, i do care what i look like. clothing is a form of personal expression, and what i’m wearing often dictates my self esteem – when i wear clothes i love, i tend to feel better about myself and more confident. i knew i wanted to make some big changes to my wardrobe – but i also didn’t want these changes to come at a massive expense. i didn’t want building a wardrobe i love to turn into a consumer frenzy. as it turned out, slowly i have been able to evolve my wardrobe at minimal cost, and i’ll describe my process below.

if you also struggle with clothing and appearance, know you are not alone! it is SO possible to have clothes you love without spending a fortune, and becoming more mindful of your wardrobe is a fun, creative process.

a camisole i made from an old housecoat


to begin, i needed some guiding principles for how i was going to assemble my wardrobe. there’s a whole section in the zero waste home book, and an abbreviated post on her blog here that i found really helpful. here are the principles i came up with that have worked FOR ME. yours might be different!

  1. be ruthless about fit. if it doesn’t fit right and it doesn’t make you feel good, get rid of it or don’t buy it. or alter it to make it fit properly.
  2. have a small selection of each type of piece (sweaters, short-sleeve shirts, pants, skirts, etc) (this has helped me avoid the “closet full of clothes and nothing to wear” feeling).
  3. buy high quality. in zero waste home she states that clothing and shoes should last at least 5-7 years and underwear/ base layers 3-5 years.
  4. avoid trendy clothing and fast fashion by investing in neutral base clothing that can be worn in a variety of ways (think layering, dressing pieces up with accessories). try to keep/ purchase pieces that can be worn interchangeably with each other to give you a variety of outfits with a few pieces of clothing.
  5. always seek secondhand first. only buy new if second hand compromises quality or you simply can’t find what you need secondhand.
  6. utilize primarily natural materials.

as you can see, besides #6 these principles aren’t about my personal style – they are guiding principles for how to put together a functional wardrobe that takes into account my values of frugality, sustainability, and simplicity.

if you have a specific size or amount of clothing you are aiming for, that would be helpful to write out at this stage. i drew up a “model wardrobe” for myself that consists of the following:

  • 3 thick sweaters
  • 3 light/ open face sweaters and cardigans
  • 2 pairs of jeans
  • 1 pair of slacks
  • 1 pair of light/ linen pants
  • 2 colorful skirts
  • 2 work skirts
  • 3 short sleeve dresses
  • 2 long sleeve winter dresses
  • 3 short sleeve blouses
  • 1 pair nice boots
  • 1 pair nice flats
  • 1 pair sandals

plus the essentials like t-shirts, underwear, camisoles, etc.


to start getting my wardrobe moving in the right direction, i roughly followed the process from the zero waste book, which is as follows:

  1. evaluate what you have
  2. purge
  3. {ongoing} adding and swapping out pieces

evaluating what you have

i set aside an entire day to go through my wardrobe. it was a chilly, dark winter day in 2015. i made a pot of tea (then a bottle of wine), got out a notebook and pen, put on some records, and made sure i had my full length mirror ready. the little things really are important to make this a mindful and enjoyable experience.

begin by taking everything out of your closet and dresser. make piles of each type of clothing: sweaters, dresses, skirts, pants, t-shirts, short-sleeve blouses, long-sleeve blouses, etc. i even went through my socks, underwear, camisoles, and leggings.

one by one, try each piece of clothing on. now i’ve never read marie kondo so i don’t know about the whole sparking joy thing … i looked at every single piece of clothing i owned in the mirror and decided if a) i *loved* the piece of clothing, b) was it in good condition, and c) did it make me feel good about myself when i was wearing it, or did i feel self-conscious.

this evaluation step is really an initial purge to get rid of clothing you feel so-so about. it’s a good time to check in on everything you own and the condition it’s in. if something generally meets your principles and you like it, put it back in the closet – you will do a final purge next. the evaluation step is for weeding out all unnecessary noise from your closet.

side note: getting rid of clothing

5% of what’s donated to goodwill as clothes ends up in a landfill. that doesn’t sound like much, but every year that adds up to thousands of TONS of textile waste in america! when i’m donating clothing, i always check to make sure the clothing is generally wearable – no big holes or runs, no stains. i try to be strict, because i can put damaged clothing to use in my own home. all wearable clothing is donated to goodwill.

i keep my damaged clothing in a bag in my bathroom closet, and as needed i go through and rip the clothing into paper-towel sized pieces to use as rags. we haven’t bought paper towels in over five years. i keep all my torn up rags in a bucket in my bathroom and under my kitchen sink for easy access, and use the rags just as i would a paper towel. if the job is gross (cleaning out litter boxes), i throw away the rag, but if it’s minor i simply wash the rags in my laundry and thrown them away as they get tattered.

the purge

after the initial evaluation, i had paired down my closet by a third and had more room to work. now is when you fine tune. try on everything AGAIN. while you are wearing it, try it on with other things left in your wardrobe to see if it goes with them (i had a lot of pieces that only could be worn with one specific pair of pants). if you are hoping to simplify your wardrobe, you want pieces that go with a variety of other pieces. this allows you to create more outfits with less base clothing. for me, it has also helped alleviate the feeling of “this doesn’t go with anything!”

now is also the time to put each piece of clothing you are considering keeping to the test of your principles. if you have 12 sweaters and like them all, it might be best to pick the 3 you love the most and that have the most variation between them.

try to pare what you currently own down to your ideal wardrobe size. initially, it’s best not to throw out everything you own, because then you will need to go out and buy clothing en masse!

once you have completed your purge, make a full written inventory of your wardrobe. i separated what i had left into two categories:

  1. love it, permanent fixture in my wardrobe
  2. works for now, would like to replace

for pieces in category 2, i wrote down exactly what didn’t work about each thing – too big, too bold of a pattern, doesn’t go with my current sweaters, etc. i put my wardrobe inventory into a google doc so i can view it from my phone while i’m out shopping, which has been immensely helpful!

i even went as far as to take photos of outfits i had put together that i thought looked good, so i could refer back to them later.

building a wardrobe you love

the hard part is over! for me, the fun part has been swapping out pieces in my wardrobe over the last 4 years to work towards building an inventory of clothing that i love wearing, that makes me feel good, and that is a reflection of my personal style and values.

as mentioned before, i primarily shop second hand which is like a fun treasure hunt. i don’t go to thrift stores and just browse because this gives me anxiety. instead, i refer to my wardrobe inventory and have an idea in advance of what type of clothing i’m looking for – i.e. grey, flowy open face sweater or long sleeved winter dress in a neutral color. i follow my principles and don’t buy anything unless it fits right (or can be altered to fit correctly), i works with my wardrobe, and i love it. this has led to me spending very little money on clothing yet feeling rich with a wardrobe i love. i am patient and will go thrifting a few times a month, waiting to find just the right piece. it’s like a treasure hunt!

some things can’t practically be found at thrift stores. i knew i wanted a sturdy pair of brown doc marten boots, which is way too specific to happen upon at a thrift store. instead, i scoured ebay for months until i finally found my dream pair – half off retail price. craiglist, facebook marketplace, threadUP, and poshmark are also great places to find pieces. my mom found an exact replacement of a fossil purse i had for 10+ years on poshmark for $15, and a pair of 100% merino wool leggings on poshmark for $10 (sadly the leggings had a bunch of runs i had to sew up).

i have discovered a new element which is sewing my own clothing, but that’s a whole ‘nother story! however, teaching yourself basic sewing skills, even by hand, can be immensely useful. hemming pants and patching clothing will save tons of money. it’s also far more sustainable to mend what you already have then to get rid of it and buy something else. mending matters!

i hope you found this article useful, because simplifying my wardrobe has been a game changer for me. i have less clothing taking up space in my life, and getting dressed is a simpler process. please don’t hesitate to post questions and comments below!


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