The exquisite bliss of a minimalist wardrobe

The Exquisite Bliss of a Minimalist Wardrobe

Much has been written about the benefits of a minimalist lifestyle, and the reduced mental stress its simplicity can bring. Living only with possessions that see frequent use is a spectacular way to prevent unused clutter from accumulating in rarely-visited corners of unnecessarily large homes, thus preventing it from spreading like a horrific plague and devouring the house completely.

Your things end up owning you Fight Club quote
I would tell you where this is from, but the first rule of _____ ____ is you don’t talk about _____ ____.

With the potential exception of a garage, the closet is probably the best place to look for possessions to cut from your life. It’s easy to find yourself with a gigantic wardrobe full of clothing you never wear, as some items may have been impulse purchases, or can only be used on special occasions; dress clothes that are only dress clothes are problematic, for example. Same goes for relaxing outfits that would be a humiliating embarrassment if ever worn in public. Thus:

Achieving a minimalist wardrobe, step by step

1) Be versatile

Beyond any other factor, the key to a minimalist wardrobe is versatility. If you can make use of the same items in a variety of situations, you won’t need massive quantities of specialized pieces that collapse off the shelves every time you open the closet.

The laziest way to achieve this is to keep everything semi-casual. Items that can be dressed up for fancy socializing (or dressed down for casual lounging) are far more useful than “special occasion” outfits that only get worn once or twice a year.

A good example is a pair of jeans, which can be classy or casual, depending on the rest of the outfit. Adding nice shoes and a button-up shirt can effortlessly convey the illusion that you have some semblance of sophistication and style, even if the truth remains embarrassingly otherwise.

From lazy to presentable
You can pack pretty light if all you need to look good is a single collared shirt.

This won’t work for everything, of course. You might still want business attire, workout gear, and other specialized outfits, which often can’t be used in any other setting. That’s fine, but unless you plan on wearing these on a regular basis, you can probably get away with owning just one or two outfits for each situation.

The silver bullet is still to find pieces that’ll work for everything (workout clothing can look just like ordinary clothing, except for designers being stupid and failing to do so), but admittedly it can be something of a challenge. Just keep the special-occasion-only outfits to a minimum, and you’ll be okay.

2) Everything goes with everything

People often assume that a minimalist wardrobe gets boringly repetitive. I would argue that if you only ever bother wearing half your clothing anyway, it’s probably not much better, and besides, if everything goes with everything else, you can get plenty of variety with a small number of items. 20 tops and 20 bottoms would mean 400 possible combinations, meaning you could wear a different outfit every day of the year, with plenty left over, and no repetition.

Of course you don’t need everything to work together, but the more you’re able to mix and match, the less you’ll need to accumulate. Items that clash with just about everything else should probably be replaced.

Luckily for me, I only enjoy dark and depressing shades of blue and grey, with occasional earth tones thrown in for fun. I can pretty much grab whatever I want and it’ll work out just fine, which is every bit as glorious as it sounds.

Color-coordinated minimalist wardrobe
It’s like a puzzle where all the pieces fit all the other pieces. For ages zero and up!

This doesn’t just apply to color. I had a jacket that had tight, high-friction sleeves, so it was difficult to wear anything underneath, and somehow it was still oddly bulky, so I couldn’t wear anything over it. It was nearly impossible to layer it with anything but a t-shirt, meaning I could only wear it under very specific weather conditions, rather than using it as a layering piece that could be combined with other items to work year-round. And thus…off to eBay it went. Which brings me to my next point:

3) Eliminate unnecessary pieces

Yes, it can be painful and horribly demoralizing. I don’t particularly know why, since it makes no sense to be emotionally attached to possessions you barely use, but such is the case.

A good trick I’ve seen is to flip all your hangers backwards, then flip them back when you use that particle article of clothing. A year later, throw out everything that’s still on a backwards hanger.

If you don’t have hangers, come up with an equivalent system. Shove all your clothes into a drawer, and move them elsewhere as you use them, or something like that.

A further step is to eliminate not only the items you barely use, but potentially redundant ones. Undershirts, pajamas, and bathrobes are good examples. It’s perfectly easy to live a long, healthy, happy life without them. Away they go.

Lucky sheep
Lucky bastard.

4) Low maintenance is a basic human right

Remember sock garters? No? Good. That’s because they were stupid, and nobody bothers using them anymore. Same goes for suspenders. We’ve invented things that keep socks and pants from falling down so you don’t have to buy extra garbage to keep everything from collapsing all around you.

Sadly, the world has not yet embraced easy-care clothing to the exclusion of all other clothing. The world of button-up collared shirts remains an embarrassing, wrinkly cesspool of human imbecility, for which I have neither time nor sympathy. We must march in the streets with torches and pitchforks in numbers of historic proportions to set this injustice right.

Mitch Hedberg's shirt is dry clean only
Just needs a vigorous shake. (That’s Mitch Hedberg, for those with the misfortune of not being familiar with him.)

In the meantime, try to find easy-care clothing that doesn’t require ironing or silly cleaning procedures. Though a variety of fabrics exist that would accomplish this, polyester is pretty much the only thing that’s widely implemented and readily available. Blending cotton with even just a little polyester eliminates the need for ironing, reduces drying time, and prevents shrinking. This is especially helpful when it comes to button-up shirts, but it can be useful elsewhere too. The less work you have to do, the more time you can spend doing important things, like watching funny cat videos on the internet.

5) Buy it for life

Remember how in the afore-mentioned Tyler Durden-related film, Brad Pitt says possessions don’t define you, and Edward Norton says he made sure to buy the right couch so he’d never have to buy a couch ever again? That was a damn good point! What the hell is the alternative? Buying a new one every few years?!!? Argh!

So of course you shouldn’t allow your possessions to define you, or hold you down in some way, but it’s worth taking some extra time to find something that you’ll enjoy for a decade, whether that refers to functionality or durability. And although I don’t pay much attention to the fashion world, I have been informed that classic styles don’t get marginalized as quickly as hip and trendy ones do.

I can’t say I’ve been wildly successful in this category, as I am a complaint-filled Goldilocks that can never be pleased, but it definitely feels nice when you find something that stays a favorite for years and years. You won’t always find a winner, but try to avoid impulse purchases by asking yourself if you plan to use it frequently. Buying only from places that have amazing return policies is helpful too.

Building a minimalist travel wardrobe

Wait, this is a travel blog, right? Right.

I have always advocated in favor of traveling with as little as possible while still having everything you might need to handle any and all situations that come your way. Minimalism isn’t necessarily about cutting corners; it’s about maximizing functionality with only minimal provisions. If you feel minimalism is holding you back, you may have gone too far.

I’ve always said the sweet spot is to bring enough clothing for a week, and do laundry once a week, which allows for some variety while still keeping laundry errands relatively rare. But the real advantage is that you’ll be able to travel with just a carry-on, allowing you to skip the luggage lines and baggage fees. You can certainly go lighter, particularly if you’re doing laundry in the sink, but I think this provides a good balance that practically anyone can accomplish, without going so minimal that you’ll go crazy.

Lucky sea turtle
“I need no trailer. I AM the trailer.” Original photo by Albert Herring.

I’ve written extensively on the specific items you’ll need for a minimalist travel setup, but the basic idea is to include maybe 5 or 6 tops and bottoms (maybe a few more in the summer), a nice shirt or two, a sweater, some ultralight winter gear if necessary, sandals, and just a single pair of shoes (though girls might want two, since society has more annoying rules for them). As long as everything is versatile enough to handle all sorts of social situations and climate fiascos, there isn’t much reason to carry much else, particularly if they all work together and look reasonably presentable.

What’s nice about a setup this versatile is that it makes a decent basis from which to build a real wardrobe, beyond simply being useful while traveling.

Other minimalist wardrobe essentials

One of the nice things about building a quality travel wardrobe is that if you do it correctly, you shouldn’t need much else. You should be covered for situations ranging from casual lounging to semi-classy evenings, and, depending on what kind of travel you enjoy, you should be able to handle some outdoorsy activities like swimming and hiking as well.

Aside from simply having more items in each category, all you’d really need in addition to this basic setup would be fringe-use outfits, like fancy business suits and help-friends-paint-a-wall rags. Maybe some workout gear too. But that’s about it. Building off a structure of well-crafted minimalism means you’ll only need a few specialty outfits for weddings or yoga practice or whatever.

Question yourself!

A major part of any project is developing the right frame of mind, and minimizing possessions is no different; you might find yourself shifting from merely wanting things to considering whether they’ll be useful or not. Whenever you’re about to buy something, clothing or otherwise, it helps to ask yourself a few questions like these:

  • Will I be able to use it in a variety of situations?
  • Will this integrate nicely with the rest of my belongings?
  • Is it comfortable enough that I won’t get annoyed using it?
  • Is it going to last for years?
  • Do I have a similar item that already works just fine?

That last one is probably the biggest one…though I’m always happy to remind people that eBay is the world’s biggest garage sale. If you can replace something, rather than merely accumulate, then you’ll be fine.

I rather enjoy seeing people take this as far as it’ll go, from living out of a suitcase, or embracing the tiny house movement, or adhering to the 100 maximum possessions rule. It’s interesting to see how little people can live with, and how rarely they run into problems. Different people will find different levels to suit their individual needs, but I think you can go pretty far without much trouble, and slimming down the clothing collection is a good place to start.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook or Twitter.

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16 Comments on “The exquisite bliss of a minimalist wardrobe”

  1. Ugh, the the minimalist wardrobe…something I’m always striving for, yet never fully attaining. I only travel with a carry-on, and that’s all fine and dandy. But at home? I’ve convinced myself I NEED all of my neon-colored workout clothing. And those purple suede thigh-high boots from my mother’s closet circa 1983? Not going anywhere. Sadly, I actually wear all of these obnoxiously colored things, so I really envy your affinity toward neutrals. My closet would be so much more streamlined if I didn’t like looking like a rainbow threw up on me.

  2. I’m not proud to admit but I am decidedly maximilist when it comes to my wardrobe… but then again my excuse is that I’m female! My travel wardrobe, though, is pretty minimal and like you, I stick to neutrals – greys, khakis, whites and navy – so everything goes with everything else and I jazz things up with accessories. Great post, Matt!

  3. The difference between “presentable” and “lazy” is not big :)
    But the more “lazy” you look like, the less you’ll become a target of thieves, swindlers, fraudsters and other criminals while on your trip… just don’t overdo the “look poor” thing.

  4. So you are one of those guys with just 2 pieces of underwear like Tim Ferris?

    Btw just followed you on Twitter as well – great travel blog you have :) Looking forward to connect!

    1. I own more, but I only travel with three at a time. I think next time I’ll go up to four, so I can hold off on sink washes and do “real” laundry in a machine, at least sometimes. Extra underwear and t-shirts don’t take up too much space, so if you’re going to pack extras of something, that’s what to pack.

  5. I have traveled only a few times in my entire life yet have only ever taken 2 bags one personal and one for either a carry on or to put under the plane my outfits consist of 2 pairs of jeans (dark in color), 3 tops (I usually prefer tank tops), 3 oversized sweaters (I prefer traveling during the fall/winter seasons), 1-2 pairs of shoes (1 of the shoes which would be boots is the one I’ll be wearing), 1 jacket (for rain unless it’s winter than 2 jackets 1 rain jacket and the other a thick jacket although I like the cold I still don’t want to end up a frozen corpse) of course unmentionables, scarves (mine is quite big when opened so it doubles as a blanket if it gets super cold although I prefer cold/freezing weather) I don’t ever go to high end or dress up restaurants so I don’t need fancy clothing and since the trips I have been on consisted of moving to one state and than moving back to my home state and a vacation trip (I could buy what I needed when I got there) 1 exercise outfit (just in case) and 1 sleeping outfit (shorts/top) and a few necklaces (I don’t wear earrings or bracelets (not sure if I spelled that right) although my closet is like a shopping mall for some reason I seem to pack lighter than other people I know also I stick with the colors/styles I like I don’t buy/pack what’s in style you end up with clothes you may never wear on your trip and paying more baggage fees than the ticket cost (Paris Hilton: if you don’t know Google Paris Hilton and luggage).

  6. In April 2015 I am taking my son to China for 8 nights for his HS graduation. My father (RIP) took me on a life changing canoeing trip at 17 so I want to give my son a life changing trip. I am determined he & I will travel with no more than a typical bookbag size bag. I have found your blog in my search for good information. I thought I liked you but when I saw that you like Mitch Hedberg, I know I will become one of your followers!

    My favorite MH quote: “Sometimes I wake up and think I should start wearing a beret, but I don’t do it. One day I’m gonna though. You bet your ass, I will have a beret on.”

    1. Haha. That is great. I managed to see him at a live performance before he died, and people in the audience started shouting out requests for his jokes. It was pretty great.

      I met a mom and her daughter on a yearlong round-the-world trip, and I think it’s a great way to give your kids the sort of experience they’ll never forget, and they’ll have perspective that’ll be helpful forever. Go for it.

  7. My wife and I just did 3 weeks in Paris with daytrips and overnights out of the city, we packed like you preach and took only a carryon and a backpack/shoulder bag each. We LOVED skipping baggage check and baggage claim. I’m a believer in minimalist packing now!

  8. I’ve been perusing your articles for several weeks/months now and I really like your articles but there is one thing that has been troubling to figure out. I can’t find (or remember) you mentioning some kind of nice jacket for clubbing or fine dining. I see the rain jacket/down jacket but nothing that would work for this situation. Did I overlook something? Because none of the jackets shown will cover that situation. Can you give recommendations for these occasions? Thanks!

    1. I wish…WISH…that somebody out there would make better-looking functional outerwear. Rain jackets don’t have to look silly. Down jackets don’t have to be bright and shiny. Stylish wool sweaters are a little easier. You can use a regular jacket from a regular store, and if it’s nylon or polyester it’ll do fairly well in the rain, so it really isn’t so bad, but they’re usually bigger, heavier, colder, and just don’t work as well as the high-tech stuff. Fashionable, functional outerwear is hard to find, and besides, I usually just take the jacket off when I get inside anyway, so it’s not that big a deal. Still, I wish everything could look great.

      I would recommend taking a look at everything on this list, plus Nau, Aether, and a tiny company called One Man Outerwear. I can’t promise you’ll find what you’re looking for, but those are good places to go, because they don’t have silly logos, Las Vegas fluorescent color schemes, or other nonsense. And if you’re going somewhere with moderate weather, just a regular casual jacket from whatever regular store will probably be fine.

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