July 14, 2014

Clothing Counting

Do you want to be wearing the same clothes ten years from now — the exact same clothes that you have in the closet right now?

It’s an easy question to answer if you imagine wearing, tomorrow, your clothes from ten years ago. As I write this, it is July 2014, so I would try to remember what I was wearing in July 2004, and try to imagine wearing something of that tomorrow. In a word, yikes!

There is a reason I ask this question. It is related to the question of how much clothing you might want to keep. This is a relevant question to consider, because if you live in a typical late 20th century American house, your closets will hold far more clothing than you actually need. And it is easy to add more — there is a good chance that every season, you go out and buy at least one new article of clothing. If you hold to the traditional idea that you should keep clothing till you wear it out, you might be keeping your clothing for a very long time.

Clothing lasts longer than it did a generation or two ago. A rule of thumb I like to use is that an article of clothing will last approximately 91 days, or the number of days in a season, before it starts to show obvious wear. Of course there are exceptions. Jeans last longer, sweaters not so long, but the 91-day rule of thumb still gives you the right general idea.

If you have the idea that you will wear out your clothing, it is only sensible to ask how long this will take. And the answer, of course, is that it will take years. If you have 40 articles of clothing in a category – 40 shirts, for example — that’s enough to last you for ten years. So if you have a moderate amount of clothing, and you save clothing until you wear it out, you really could be wearing the same clothing ten years from now. Yikes!

But if you believe you should keep clothing until you wear it out, and you are older than 25 years old, you probably have a lot more than 40 items per category. You could easily have 300 shirts, and think this was perfectly normal. And in fact, in America, it is — lots of people, not necessarily millionaires, do have 300 shirts, even 500, and don’t realize it. It is common enough that it can’t be considered weird. But it not an economically efficient way to live. It is not a good use of your storage space. You will literally be better off in a material sense if you have less clothing than this.

You think I’m exaggerating with these numbers? Have you counted your own clothing lately? Pick just one category and count it. Count what’s in the closet and the dresser, count the box in the attic if you have a box of clothes in the attic, count the brand new clothes you’ve never worn, count what you’re wearing right now. Estimate what’s in the laundry pile. Definitely don’t skip over the laundry. I know people for whom the laundry pile alone is more clothes than they really need to own.

I counted my clothes this week. There were lots of socks especially. Eighty pairs of socks. I know I have more socks than I need. The socks I have won’t really last for 20 years, but that estimate is not that far off either. I don’t think I throw away more than six pairs of socks in a year. I have promised myself several times I wouldn’t buy any more socks. But then I needed better socks for running a marathon. Then I was traveling on business and I needed more black socks than I had along. Then there were these tie-dye team socks in just the right three colors at a ridiculously low clearance price. You’ve heard this story before, I’m sure, if not in socks, then in some category of possessions.

It is easier to acquire clothing than to wear it out. I was alluding a minute ago to the question, how long would it take you to wear out all your clothing? It is, in fact, a trick question. It is mathematically impossible to wear out all your clothing as long you are sometimes buying more than one new outfit in a season.

I’m not saying you have to go throw away some of your clothing right now, or give it to charity. But own things more consciously than this old idea most of us grew up with, that you can eventually wear things out. Here are some rules of thumb for your clothing counting. By the numbers:

  • 10. If you have ten articles of clothing in a category, there is no need to buy more of the same. You should only buy new clothing if it is obviously better in some way than the clothing you already have.
  • 20. If you have 20 items in a category, that’s enough to last five years. You can be sure that you will be throwing some of them away before you wear them out.
  • 40. If you have 40 items in a category, that’s enough to last a decade. You can be nearly sure that there are items of clothing among them that you will never wear again. In theory, you could throw those specific items away right now, if only you knew which ones they were.
  • 100. If you have 100 items in a category, that virtually can only happen by buying duplicates. Duplicate items aren’t necessarily the same color, but they convey a similar emotion and make a similar statement, so that hardly anyone would remember the difference between one and the other. And, you wear them one time a year or less. Clothing lasts a long time as it is, but if you wear something so infrequently, it lasts forever — or until you finally make a decision about it. If you have duplicates like this, who would know if you were to take one of them away right now?
  • 365. If you have 365 items in a category, that’s one for every day of the year. You will never wear even half of them — and it would be a fashion disaster if you did, because you would be wearing so many different things that you would no longer have a personal style. Who are you kidding?

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