For most of my life, I’ve had absolutely nothing to wear.

Not literally, obviously. Quite the opposite, in fact: I have so much to wear than that when we bought our current house, we converted a box room into a dressing-room. So I’m definitely not short on clothes, let’s put it that way. For a long time, though, I WAS short of clothes that suited my lifestyle. I had tons of 50s-inspired dresses and stilettos, but time and time again I’d find myself invited to something really casual, and would stand there in front of the clothes rail, saying, “OMG, I have NOTHING to wear! NOTHING!”

These days, things are looking much better in the ol’ closet. I wouldn’t say I’ve got it totally figured out, because I still have the odd, “What the hell am I supposed to wear to THAT?” moment, but they’ve become far less frequent, and I’m feeling a whole lot happier with my closet, and my style, overall. Here are some of the techniques I used to get to that stage…

how to build a wardrobe that works and always have something to wear1. Clear out your closet

Pretty much ALL of my fashion/lifestyle advice starts with the words “clear out your closet” or “clean your house”. Not only is it really therapeutic (or, at least, it is for me: I can’t think straight if my house is dirty or the laundry is piling up…), a cluttered closet crammed full of clothing you don’t need and don’t wear will really hamper your ability to get dressed in the morning, forcing you to sift through tons of crap to get to the useful stuff that’s burried in there somewhere. You’d think the more choice you have, the easier it would be to find something to wear, but I actually find the reverse can be true, and a crammed closet will only add to that “OMG, I have nothing to wear!” feeling – especially if it’s full of items that don’t really work for you, but which you’re clinging onto anyway.

I’m not saying here that you need to stop shopping, or have a strict limit on the number of items you own (I mean, do I LOOK like I don’t ever shop?), but I DO really recommend having a good clear out every so often, getting rid of all of the things you know you won’t wear, and then organising what’s left, so you can actually see what you have, without having to rummage for half an hour every morning.

2. Define your style

Having a very defined “signature” style isn’t for everyone, and it’s something that can take a long time, and a lot of trial and error to develop. If you find that you never seem to have anything to wear, though, or you always end up feeling uncomfortable in your chosen outfit, it can really help to work out:

a) What you like

and

b) What suits you

Unfortunately, these two questions might not have the same answers: I’m forever trying to make 60s-style shift dresses work, for instance, but they never fail to look like third-trimester maternity wear on me, so filling my closet with them would be a really easy way to make sure I always feel uncomfortable in my clothes (and get to answer a lot of awkward questions about my due date, into the bargain…).

If you’re not really sure what “your” style is, a good place to start is on somewhere like Pinterest, where you can browse lots of different looks, and maybe put together a Pinboard of the ones you like. After a while certain trends should start to become apparent, which you can use as a starting-point to developing your own look.

3. Create a capsule wardrobe: or a capsule-within-your-wardrobe

As is probably really apparent to anyone who knows me, I’m probably never going to have a true capsule wardrobe: as much as I like the idea of having a small amount of well-chosen basics, which will work for every single situation I can think of, I love clothes far too much to ever want to limit myself to just those pieces, and I’m constantly having my head turned by the kind of “statement” dresses and shoes that don’t really fit within the confines of a capsule.

Collecting clothes (or shoes, or accessories, or whatever…), however, doesn’t mean you can’t still have a small amount of well-chosen basics that will work for any situation, though. Over the last few years, I’ve been working on building what I think of as a capsule within my wardrobe, as opposed to an ACTUAL capsule wardrobe. In my case, I’m lucky to have a lot of storage space, so I have a designated rail which I use to hold all of the items which would make up my “capsule” wardrobe if I had one: so, a selection of classic, mix-and-match pieces, which I can throw on in the morning without giving it much thought.

I don’t wear items from my capsule every day (in fact, some weeks I don’t wear them at all), and I obviously still have full access to everything else I own, but I find that separating out the “basics” makes it much easier to decide what to wear on those days when I’m not getting “dressed up”, and just want something quick and easy, that will still look reasonably pulled-together. The items in your capsule are basically the building blocks of your wardrobe – the foundations from which you can start to add in other items, which can be in whatever kind of style you like, because they’re the “bonus extras” rather than the wardrobe essentials. I also find separating my “capsule” from everything else has helped me focus on what I NEED to buy, rather than what I just WANT to buy. Once you have everything you NEED to get dressed every day, you can move onto buying the “fun” stuff as and when you find it!

[P.S. You can see some examples of my capsule wardrobe here and here…]

4. Only buy items you truly love

A couple of years ago, I made it a rule to only buy items I really LOVE – so, when I’m trying something on, I have to get that, “OMG, I can’t possibly live without this!” feeling, or I don’t buy it. You can’t apply this to absolutely everything, obviously – sometimes you need to buy something like a white t-shirt, for instance, and you’re probably not going to look at it and think, “WOW! OBSESSED!” – but if you apply the rule to the more expensive items in your closet, it’ll help stop you ending up with a ton of clothes that are just OK, and the constant feeling that you never have anything to wear.

(I’ll put my hands up here and admit that I sometimes fail to stick to this rule 100% – sometimes I’ll find something that I really WANT to work, or that I manage to convince myself I WILL love if I just have it altered/find the right shoes to wear with it/completely change my style and personality, or whatever, so it’s not a fail-safe. I do try to stick to it MOST of the time, though, so at least that’s something!)

5. Shop for your real life, not your fantasy life

For me, one of my biggest style-related problems is my habit of buying things I absolutely LOVE (so they totally comply with point 4 above: score!), but which I have no hope of actually ever wearing. I mean, I live in a small village in Scotland, and work from home, as a full-time blogger: I rarely have an opportunity to wear evening dresses, or anything even REMOTELY “fancy”, and yet I have a closet full of the things, having seen them, fallen madly in love with them, and convinced myself that I’ll regret it if I don’t buy them. So, if I’m invited to tea with the queen, or a cocktail party in 1952, say, I’m totally sorted. If a friend invites me to have coffee at a local cafe, though, I’ll have to turn up looking like either a) Betty Draper (I mean, I WISH I looked like Betty Draper: you know what I mean, though…) or b) Someone who just finished an exercise class and didn’t have time to change. Because I shop for my fantasy life, not my ACTUAL life. Or, at least, I DID.

I’ve touched on this a few times here, but over the past year or so, I’ve been making a big effort to stop buying fancy dresses (or to stop buying SO MANY fancy dresses, I should say…), and buy the things I ACTUALLY need and will wear instead. The whole “capsule-within-my-wardrobe” thing has been a huge part of that: my capsule is mostly made up of smart/casual clothes, which were the items I was most lacking. Now that I’ve started to stock up on those, and make sure I have the basics covered, it’s easier for me to justify that amazing dress that I really can’t live without, because I know I’m not buying it at the expense of something that’s actually going to be useful. So, as with the first point on this list, I’m not saying you have to stop shopping altogether, I’m just saying you should make sure you have the foundations down first, before you start to build on them.

When I was putting together my capsule, I found a useful  way to approach it was to think about the things I do most often, and then to ask myself what I’d wear for each of those scenarios. In my case, those questions were things like:

What would I wear to work from home?

What would I wear to a casual lunch with friends?

What would I wear to a (casual) house party?

My list of questions unfortunately did NOT include “What would I wear to a ‘Mad Men’ themed cocktail party?”, but that was how I’d been approaching shopping, so I was left with rails of dresses that are too “fancy” (By the standards of my current lifestyle) to wear very often, and a huge “nothing to wear” dilemma to solve every time I hung out with friends, or whatever.

Your list of questions will obviously be different from mine, but the important thing to note is that the answers must include items you already own – that’s the whole point. (So you can’t answer, “What would I wear to work?” with, “A fitted suit, tailor-made by Vivienne Westwood – unless you actually own that. You lucky, lucky, thing.) If don’t already own them, you then make it a priority to buy them (Buy which I mean, “You prioritise them over other clothing purchases,” obviously, not that you prioritise then over food, bills, etc. Let’s not get carried away, here…)… and once you can answer all of the questions on your list, you’ll be well on the way to having an amazing wardrobe, and to never having to say the words, “But I have nothing to wear!” ever again.*

Anyone got any other tips?

29 Comments
  1. I’m moving at the end of the year and I have already told my partner that the new house needs to have an extra room for me to use as a dressing room – this is non negotiable. I’m looking forward to clearing out a looooooooot of stuff I have fallen out of love with! I’ve decided from now on when I’m shopping my rule is that I ask myself: can I see myself wearing this 10 years from now? This is especially the case when it comes to more expensive, investment pieces. My style hasn’t changed for nearly 5 years now which is a bloody long time in my opinion, and I’m confident that it will be the same in 10 years too.

  2. Firstly, that bag is beautiful!

    My wardrobe is crammed full of stuff I really don’t wear. I always go back to the same old favourites – and they aren’t even favourites, they’re just tried and tested ‘they’ll do’ pieces for work.

    When I’m buying clothes now my question is always “can I wear this to work?” I work in a quite formal office so half the things I want to buy I can’t have.

    When I put all my spring/summer clothes out I put the hangers on backwards so I can tell what I haven’t even taken out. I have so many pretty summer dresses from previous jobs which were more casual and I don’t think I’ll ever get to wear them again.

    I started budgeting this weekend and came to the realisation I spend far too much money on clothes, so I really think I need this capsule within my wardrobe thing – I can’t part with my pretty summer dresses, but I need a capsule work attire.

    I really want that shoe storage!

    Debbie x http://www.hellodeborah.co.uk

  3. Great post Amber. Like you, I can’t restrict myself to a capsule and lately I’ve been having an internal battle because my head says capsule wardrobe, my heart says ooh pretty vintage dresses. I never thought to build up both. X

    1. It was a total game-changer for me when I realised I could just do both: I’ve always been really drawn to the idea of capsules, but I know it just wouldn’t be realistic for me to try and resist the pretty dresses!

  4. i have to ask, what’s a box room?

    Also, the best thing about working full time having either worked part time or not at all for quite a few years is being able to “dress up” every day 🙂

  5. I think I’ve commented before on one of your other posts like this. Seriously could have been written by me. So many beautiful dresses but not enough causal wear. In the last year I’ve made small steps towards increasing the number of trousers and separates. In fact I’m off out for a walk in Edinburgh city centre today (lucky enough to live in middle of it) and I’m determined to come home with at least a causal piece of knitwear and jeans.

  6. I love love posts like these. I recently redid my wardrobe too and have several rules for shopping, which include 4 and 5 from your list. I also ask myself if I would want to wear the item 5 years from now. Really puts me into perspective. When purging, I asked myself if the item was destroyed, would I want to repurchase it? If the answer was “no” away it went! Like you, I will never have a true capsule, but it’s nice to have a series of outfits to fall back on!

  7. I hate those capsule wardrobe blog posts that I see everyone doing. Full of boring basics and all in boring neutral colours. Nothing exciting or anything that makes me want to open a wardrobe and wear anything from it. Part of the reason I can’t deal with this capsule wardrobe concept. If all of the basics included were in bright colours and patterns, then yes but they never actually are. Thus I will resign myself not to having a capsule wardrobe. Unlike most other people, I wear everything I own several times over several years and because I swap most of my clothing (saving a tonne of money), I don’t feel so guilty buying when I do so I feel fine without a capsule, it’s not been a problem so far

      1. I’m not sure if these comments are aimed at me (I have written quite a few posts about capsule wardrobes on my other blog and obviously talked about them in this one, too – I’m not sure if this is the post you’re saying you found dull?), but my taste has always been very simple, and I’m going through a phase where I’m really into basics, and capsule wardrobes, so be warned! I’ve actually found that my style has got more and more “neutral” the older I get – as I said, I’ll always want to buy pretty dresses etc, but right now I think I have enough of those, so my focus has shifted more towards trying to nail the basics – for someone like me, it’s actually been more challenging than it probably should be!

        1. Not at all Amber, I’m talking about all of those fashion and style bloggers who almost always extoll the virtues of a boring wardrobe. For people who are known for fashion and style, they are damn boring with their grey shirts and tshirt dresses. Your wardrobe is a paradise in comparison, for me

  8. I’m glad to see the new chair getting an outing in a blog photo already 😉 I think the reason my wardrobe works for me, personally, is because I take the approach of a) mostly buying separates that can be mixed and matched, smart or casual depending on what they’re paired with and b) I’ve got a habit of buying things that could be smart or casual anyway, depending on how they’re styled. I basically try to buy multi-purpose clothes! That means I’m actually usually screwed when it comes to occasions where there is any kind of formal do – weddings etc – because those are the moments I genuinely don’t have anything to wear. But it’s fun shopping for them when I’ve got a purpose!

  9. I agree with all these points, but can I just say how much I love these photos, and photos of your walk in closet in general? I just go back after reading the posts and admire them for a while! 🙂 Wish I had a closet like yours.

  10. “So, if I’m invited to tea with the queen, or a cocktail party in 1952, say, I’m totally sorted.”
    I almost choked on my coffee laughing at that. It describes me to a T!

  11. I love fancy clothes too. Fortunately I have church at least once a week to dress up for. Means I can totally justify having an entire wardrobe of fancy clothes, and nothing to wear for a walk in the park. Right? 😉

  12. You always look lovely, casually dressed or styled for a ‘garden party in 1952’, but I do know what you mean. I spent a year trying to live without wearing jeans. I don’t like them and they usually don’t suit me. I managed the year, but it was quite tricky. I recently found a lovely pair that fit well and have convinced me I can wear them sometimes. I’m now trying to find good tops to go with them. They will never be the thing I would choose to wear in an ideal world, but they are perfect for the casual days. Reading posts like yours helps to inspire me – I love similar colours to you – mint green, white, pink. You have also persuaded me to try yellow and it works! Thank you.

  13. Great post! Shopping for my fantasy life is a real downfall of mine as I tend to just buy cocktail dress after cocktail dress… I am a member of the Royal Family, really!

    Emily x

  14. I have a further dilemma – styles that suit me physically that do not suit:
    a) my life
    b) my personality
    c) my wallet!

    Royal Ball levels of dressed up – diamonds and corsets and silk dresses. Or… Cowgirl. Suede, fringes and cowboy boots.

    If I wear anything else I just look awful!

  15. That pashli… Be still my beating heart. Ok I have a mint green bag but it’s from H&M a few years ago. Not the same. Gorgeous gorgeous bag.

    Anyhoo I used to be terrible for just buying pretty things and ignoring the need for white tees, black flats etc then finding I couldn’t make coherent outfits! I’m much more mindful in my old age now that disposable income is tight and four days out of seven I’m with the kids so need to be practical. Essentials don’t excite me but sometimes you just need them 🙂

  16. “I found a useful way to approach it was to think about the things I do most often, and then to ask myself what I’d wear for each of those scenarios.”

    I love this advice, particularly because I recently quit my busy full-time job in the city for a writer’s homebody lifestyle. I want to wear pencil skirts and smart pumps, but really that makes no sense for my current life. I don’t really want to hang out in my pajamas all day, but I want to get to work asap.

  17. I always have ‘what to wear’ moments when jeans and a shirt are involved. It’s so easy to wear a dress, but picking out something to go with jeans makes me late. Great tips. I’m ready to have a wardrobe clean out.

  18. I’m totally guilty of shopping for my fantasy life, especially with shoes! I buy endless pairs of gorgeous heels that are so impractical I’ll never get much wear out if them, but I CAN’T STOP BECAUSE THEY’RE SO PRETTY!

  19. Pretty sure I break all of these very smart tips, regularly, hence the cacophony that is my wardrobe! (Also the repeat purchasing – I am all set for striped tops and “What do I wear to Woodstock/a festival/not that I’ve been to a festival in five years or plan on going to a festival this year but you know,wellingtons are an essential?!) Agh.

    The capsule wardrobe is my particular let down. I do feel like if I just had a perfect LBD/well fitted black trousers/pencil skirt/ white blouse etc. I would have a great base to operate from. But somehow despite a wardrobe that is bursting I have none of these things! I have many many other things that just don’t quite work. And I do clear out’s regularly. Anyway I’ll stop thinking about it now! I have made an effort to not buy things I don’t love lately, that is an easy (ish) one and a great starting point for anyone.

    I relate to so much of your post. I have a few dresses that are appropriate only for that elusive fancy picnic or barbecue but would just look weird elsewhere I think! So I should stop shopping for that rare occasion, I am all set! 🙂 Great advice as always!

  20. I love this post! I have tried for years (unsuccessfully) to build myself some kind of capsule wardrobe but I could never part a lot of my things – so many of them are vintage or one-of-a-kind pieces that I love but can’t wear everyday (without looking like I’m going to a fancy dress party) but it means my wardrobe, whilst full, never seems to have what I need. Like you I’ve recently been trying to go back to basics and build up my basic wardrobe with purchases that I actually need. The best thing I’ve done though? Vacuum pack and store away all of my ‘really big’ vintage dresses *ie most of the 1950s prom dresses* and my wedding dress (also tip here – take photos of each item and stick an inventory on the bag so you can see at a glance what is in there – really helpful for me if I ever need to retrieve a particular dress) – this has left me with breathing space in my wardrobe and means that instead of a whole cupboard of dresses that I don’t wear I’ve got easy access to the few that I do and room to build up my standard wardrobe. One thing I can never get rid of? Shoes! I need a box room for mine too!

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