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I’ve Limited My Wardrobe to 8 Pieces and It’s…Amazing
05.24.17

I do not care about my style looking concertedly “effortless” in the same way that I really do not care about the racket that is “no-makeup makeup.” The longer I’ve spent as a beauty writer doing horrifying and potentially dangerous things to my skin for a laugh (eyebrow microblading, Fillerinaing, cryotherapying like Yolanda Hadid), the more I’ve realized that that’s where the fun is. I love the idea of my clothes being the least stand out-y element of my physicality. My top knot can be a foot tall if it’s not competing with oversize ruffles or neon color; my dewy face can be dripping orange sweat like a Gatorade commercial if it isn’t in dialogue with, like, a bolo tie.

About a year ago, I became aware of a set of eight Eileen Fisher pieces called The System. The System is a modular wardrobe of highly elegant silhouettes that consists of four pant styles, two shells, a tank and a tank dress. (You know it’s elegant when it’s called a “pant” and not “pants.”) Uniform dressing was pretty hot about a year ago. And women my age — who love to complain about how tired they are — seem to be constantly fantasizing about dressing like an elder Diane Keaton in a Nancy Meyers movie. I’m never tired because I have a lot of free time, and my all-time-favorite Keaton look is when she wears like 35 costume pearl necklaces at once in Because I Said So, but still, I became obsessed with the idea of The System.

I want to make it clear here that I’m not chic. I’m not even well-dressed. But I was looking for a change. I’m usually wearing four too many layers, three too many neckerchiefs, two too many bras. I’m bogged down, and unsure of to whom clothes currently hitting fast-fashion stores are meant to appeal. Women actively proud of their clavicles who work in an office whose dress code necessitates the wearing of pinstripes?

The more I piled on, the more I realized I simply can’t be bothered to keep up. So I tagged out of the game entirely, focused my energies on moisturizing and rooted for everyone else still participating. Enter The System.

The System’s pricy, though (these pants, which are basically nothing on purpose, are $238, for example), so for a year I tried recreating it with Uniqlo to varying levels of accuracy and success. These $19.90 jersey cropped flare wide pants are essentially the same look, just as this $19.90 drape sleeveless blouse can stand in for the $178 Eileen Fisher boxy shell. But the material’s cheaper and I find that some Uniqlo pieces, particularly the brand’s tops, fit me strangely. For some reason, probably because I fetishize expensive things but have no idea how to make any money, I wanted the real thing.

I had a genius idea. What if I tried The System for Man Repeller? Luckily, my editor approved. Even more luckily, Eileen Fisher sent me the eight pieces. After a few touch-and-go moments (the large pants were a touch too large, and I feared that the medium would be a touch too medium), I got to the challenge. I love a self-imposed challenge. Within eight minutes, it stopped being a challenge.

For almost two months straight, I wore The System exclusively. (I guess this is also where I divulge I never washed anything because it’s dry-clean only and I simply can’t be bothered.) Most days, I didn’t even shake The System up. I wore the black Straight Cropped Pant and the black Boxy Shell at least three days a week, usually with my most matronly of Danskos or a pair of woven leather oxfords.

Nobody noticed, as was my plan. I wore The System to school, to my new part-time receptionist job that I am extremely bad at, to meetings and to the single time in that seven-week period that I went to “a bar” with “peers” instead of reading about Disney World secrets on internet forums alone in my bed for three hours at a time, which is my favorite hobby even though I’ve only been once in the last ten years. Guys, Walt’s cryogenically frozen body is not entombed there no matter what rumors you’ve heard!

I loved the look so much that I even considered buying all the pants in white, but decided against it as I have a bad history with period blood and salad dressing.

I’m going to anticipate your two questions here: 1) Did I ever feel a loss of personal identity? No, because I shook it up with varying controversial statement tote bags every couple days. My current favorite is an over-the-shoulder canvas tote from Flying Tiger that says MY ALL TIME FAVOURITE COLOUR IS DEFINITELY BLUE in red print. 2) Why am I endorsing The System when it functions the exact same as a knock-off version that retails at about ⅛ of the price? Because it’s not like Eileen Fisher holds a patent on “black pants” and “white shirt.”

I don’t have an answer to the last one, aside from the fact that sometimes, it’s nice to feel secretly sumptuous, even if nobody else knows. That there is the plain beauty of The System.

Graphic by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; iPhone photos by Claire Carusillo. 

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  • Emily Kirn

    Omg the HOURS I’ve spent reading WDW secrets/tips/facts… I act like a professional tour guide any time I go to a Disney park.

  • I love having a stream lined closet, it makes mornings 10x easier!!
    https://thedianaedition.com

  • EP

    I think you mean bolo tie?

  • tmm16

    I’ve really considered doing this and selling most of my clothes to make my life 10x easier (plus have so much more money). Claire, you may have just convinced me. Now, I just need Eileen Fisher to send me 8 pieces too! 🙂

  • Cristina

    I don’t think I knew this about you Claire, and I feel like it would be tough to remain casual/effortless/simply dressed working at MR. Just reading MR and I suddenly feel like my style is LAME and boring, so thank you for representing! I’m definitely more casual-cool, with simple maxi’s jeans and tees. The fast-fashion here I think is geared toward the off-duty stripper and anyone a size 6 and under, so… I don’t shop much but also because I watched The True Cost (damn it) and now I feel too guilty when I don’t buy something ethically made. But then those pieces are like a bajillion dollars for what’s basically a shapeless, cotton shower curtain. So I guess what I’m saying is I also have like 8 pieces of clothing but maybe not by choice LOL.

  • theysayshycity

    This:

    “I love the idea of my clothes being the least stand out-y element of my physicality.”

    I think there was definite transition from college (where I could use clothing to send whatever statement I wanted) to management consulting, where I wanted to look good…but God forbid, no one should be paying attention to my clothes first. It bled into my ‘fun’ wardrobe, and I can’t say that I’ve looked back yet.

  • This is essentially what my wardrobe already is, except swap out the Eileen Fisher for Things I Got on Sale at J. Crew and/or Madewell. I only let myself buy neutrals because I know how to mix them and I don’t get sick of wearing them and therefore I get more bang for my buck over time. Kinda feels like sacrilege to write that on MR but it is true.

    Can I also say I love you for the following words you wrote: “I’m never tired because I have a lot of free time.” It gets old to see people wearing their hyped up busyness and subsequent exhaustion as a badge of honor so that was very refreshing.

    • Willa Konefał Davis

      Same re: quote. I had to read that sentence again haha!

    • kate

      Agreed! I can’t stand it when people use busyness as an excuse to brag about how productive they are. I loved the author’s low key approach to life (which I understand is a privilege just like mine and that some people really do need to be that busy. It’s just that some people clearly do not, and really love bragging about being overextended).

      • wow thank you! i have a new thing in my life called “I Hate Hard Work” because what is the point and who even CARES if you stay at your desk until 8? that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making better art or spreadsheets or whatever!!!

        • prairie dogs

          Tote bag idea???

      • are they just bragging or is it a helpless cry for…?
        do they actually know that they do not need to be that busy?
        they may not have the awareness you have in that regard.

        (or the ability to ease off that narcotic of activity)
        when you’re caught on the hamster’s wheel, that’s all you know really. until you make that perilous jump OFF!

        …you’d be surprised the realities that others are living…!
        existence is <<>>

  • Ciccollina

    Ok so my issue with the uniform style of dressing (which I basically live by Monday to Friday) is…..what about going out? Ya know, dancing, karaoke, nice dinner, dates with the boyfriend etc? I like to look sexy occasionally, even if it’s only about once every three weeks, and my French-girl wardrobe just doesn’t take me there.

    • Margaret McKever

      you’d be surprised how amazing the EF “The System” viscose jersey dress looks on a lady who wants to look sexy occasionally. just saying. #eileenfisherevangelist #lol

  • Aydan

    the problem is my “uniform” is so identifiable, as it mostly consists of different cut jumpsuits in black–now my coworkers (men and women alike) comment on them and I always laugh that I own six of these! ha

  • Elizabeth Van Schaick Armstron

    I get the concept of the “core basic” set, but I hate Eileen Fisher.

  • Margaret McKever

    OH my GOSH I LITERALLY JUST DECIDED TO GO EILEEN FISHER. This is amazing. Not enough women our age appreciate the amazing simplicity, versatility, and quality of Eileen Fisher clothes these days.
    After years of frustration buying dozens of cheap things to approximate what I actually wanted and feeling crazy in my clothing, I just can buy one high-quality EF garment and somehow its more perfect than I would have imagined???

    • gracesface

      any recommendations? i know i can find her stuff “cheap” at the rack or neiman marcus last call

      • Margaret McKever

        so i would suggest going to an actual Eileen Fisher storefront to see what sizing works best. also, i definitely feel way more ~cool~ and open-minded trying on these clothes at the actual store where they have everything in all the sizes.
        I’ve snagged some on-sale items at Nordstrom and the Rack. i think i only have 6 Eileen Fisher garments, 3 of which I just bought in-store full-price. BECAUSE I NEED THINGS SIMPLE.

      • Margaret McKever

        or, wait. were you wanting recommendations on which items to get? because i could dish out that type of advice too, if needed.

  • Liz Warners

    Uh, where can I get this ‘favorite color’ tote? I am intrigued.

  • kate

    It’s not “the system,” per say, but my winter uniform is an oversized (merino or cashmere) sweater (Eileen or J Crew) with leggings (Eileen or J Crew) with over the knee boots. These are mainly in neutrals b/c that’s what I prefer. The boots help add some sex appeal and distract me from the fact that I am wearing Eileen Fisher, which I still associate with the concept of “giving up.” I also have some great, slouchy Eileen pants for D.C. summers, which call for very lightweight shapeless clothing.

    • gracesface

      OoO living in hot hot texas, need the deets on these eileen fisher pants!

  • Shahi Biscus

    i have a “uniform” but i could never ear the same things over and over, i cant even wear the same outfit less than a week appart it makes me saaadddd , how do you do that

  • gracesface

    Compared to my husband’s 15+ sweaters (we live in Texas!!) I have a pretty small wardrobe all ready. I am looking for a skirt for summer and maybe one more dress to make things feel light and summer-y (and not so dark like my winter clothes) so I fully endorse this.

    • Margaret McKever

      YES. J JILL AND GARNET HILL AND NYDJ ARE ALL ON THE TABLE NOW.
      COME TO THE DARK SIDE.

      • gracesface

        thanks so much for your reply(s) Margaret! I had never heard of Garnet Hill!! And I’m still trying to find my perfect NYDJ size. As a plus size gal, finding sizes IN store can be rough. Thankfully Nordstrom has expanded their plus size selection and I am an expert thrifter.

        I have cousins who have been wearing Talbots since they were like 15 and they definitely introduced me to some serious hard-wearing staples. I found a shell + cardigan at a secondhand store here from Talbots for $11 and it wears like IRON. Now I need to get myself to the local J.Jill!! I’ve been drooling over their dresses online…

  • cryptdang

    Girl, you don’t need to dry clean that stuff! Get some Laundress Delicate Wash and hand-wash in cold water (which is easier than it sounds, I swear. It is mostly letting it soak in soapy then clean water) or wash in the machine on delicate! If you want that crisp look, just iron. Most silk looks ok un-ironed though (in my opinion).

  • Cait

    I love Eileen Fisher– I resisted for a while and then accepted that my mom and I now shop at the same place. I live in their skinny crepe pants, silk jersey tanks, pencil skirts and dresses. I have never dry cleaned any of it, I just wash everything on cold and air dry. (I also machine wash my cashmere sweaters with Laundress wool wash– my clothes only go to the dry cleaner if they need to be ironed, but I think I’ve gotten rid of everything in my wardrobe that required ironing.) I have found a lot of EF pieces at Nordstrom Rack, there’s also an EF Outlet about an hour away from my house. If you shop at the EF store they have a loyalty program and often send coupons. It is painfully expensive at full price, but it has survived my abuse so it is worth it.

  • Sajani Mindula Fernando

    Honestly the authors selfies are kinda disappointing! Where are the shoes and bags she accessorized with?

  • Halina Rose

    I really appreciate this article and can I just say, your eyebrows look gorgeous.

  • mcv123

    THIS IS THE DREAM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I would toss out almost my entire wardrobe (cannot give up my Madewell summer jeans, or my weird jumpsuits, but those are only for #occasions) for The System. My dad thinks I should buy a new car when I finally finish stupid grad school and get a “job” but Eileen is clearly better to listen to than that old dude. *wistful sigh!!!!*

  • Bo

    Top notch work. I’m considering making my own system but with more affordable pieces from Everlane + the drawer full of unworn JCrew tees I already possess

  • Kay Nguyen

    Does it count that I have a lot of clothes but they all look almost identical to each other? I guess… Limiting your wardrobe/style makes my life so much easier every day and sometimes it forces me to be extra creative so I don’t look like I wear the same stuffs all the time <3

    https://www.myblackcloset.com/

  • Julie

    I just discovered a web store called Vetta that is selling a similar concept. I personally like to make my own choices and shop around for the key pieces. But Vetta does have a nice edit at fair price, and they are environmentally friendly conscious and practice ethical manufacturing. Check, check, check. https://www.vettacapsule.com/

  • Emily

    “An elder Diane Keaton in a Nancy Meyers movie” is my literal eternal style inspo HOW DID YOU KNOW

    —a Millennial woman

  • Ava

    Love this piece! Especially the part about the Disney secrets and the tote bag – which I must buy now

  • Joe Mama

    I hate the prices but I freaking love EF clothes. They really do last Forever if taken care of properly (i.e. NEVER dried in a dryer). They’re cut incredibly well, as always classy but fun as well, plus comfy. It’s hard for me to buy non EF clothes these days.

    • KB

      Try consignment or Ebay. Consignment places that carry nicer lines usually charge only 70% or less of the original price. You must be selective but if you are patient you can get the EF quality for a fraction of the cost. Eileen Fisher also has a site called Eileen Found (look on Facebook) where people donate their EF clothes and all profit goes to charity.

  • Claire Kamenish

    Actually, almost all her System pieces are totally washable at home (cold/delicate cycle), and they do great! The only dry-clean only ones are the bone silk pants (due to their lining). Just another reason why I love EF! Simple, comfortable, and elegant. <3

  • Valentina

    When I was traveling for 5 months in South America I apply a self-designed system consisting of 4 tank tops from Zara Basics (black, salmon, grey and white), 1 black slim jean, 1 black slouchy pant, 1 pair of vintage Levi’s shorts and a pair of leggings (considering that i was going to do some trekking, which reminds me i also brought a rain jacket, a couple of sweaters and a statement leather jacket that i had to leave behind in Chile because it was taking all the space in my backpack :/ )

    Anyway the thing is that for 5 months i used my “system”, and it actually went pretty well, I didn’t feel underdress having dinner in any city nor overdress in my pictures in Machu Picchu. My outfits were all pretty comfortable and all the clothes matched with each others, which was the hole idea.

    But still, I most confess that one of the happiest moments of my trip was when i finally decided to stay in one place for a year, so I had to go shopping to make a new wardrobe. In that moment i realize how much i missed to mix and match my clothing, to accessorize it, to try crazy silhouettes and re create myself everyday.

    With that experience all i have to say is that the “System” works perfect, but like any routine the best part is when you break it and go for excitement!

  • Jayme

    I have to say I prefer EF’s clothing over any cheaper versions, because the quality level is so much higher. EF uses a lot of natural materials i their collection and they ensure the clothing is made ethically. All my EF pieces have lasted a very long time and EF is woman-created and owned. I work very diligently to take advtantage whenever they have sales!

  • Neats

    Almost everything I wear is Eileen Fisher. Let me start by saying that the $168 plain black pant is made if viscose and nylon. Wears like iron. Is as black 5 years later as they were the day I bought them. Do not wrinkle. Look as good with a tee and denim jacket as they with a silk tunic on Sat night. A piece bought this year and another bought 5 years ago will match and be the same color black. The pieces in the System are great. If i had one complaint it would be that much of her stuff is sleeveless. Helps if you love your upper arms. I also feel stupid in sleeveless in January in the Midwest – even if I am not cold. Find comparable less expensive substitutes if you wish. But not for the viscose pants.

  • xtine

    I love this idea but I would definitely need some cardigans or I’d freeze to death.

  • ThePetiteBrunette

    I love this idea, but my issue is that I’m a fashion girl. Which means I’m always up on the trends and love colour and prints. And that’s not taking into consideration seasons changing. Living in Toronto means you have 4 distinct seasons! I just don’t think this is realistic.

  • Black&White

    I’m a bit disappointed that you didn’t really do any research on this brand. They have so much more to offer – even through just The System. You didn’t even bother to read the care labels because if you had you would have thrown those pieces (even the silks) on a delicate cold wash instead of walking around in dirty garments for a week.

  • Danielle

    Yup, this is how I want to dress all the time. But what do you do in the winter with The System? Layer with cardigans/sweaters/jackets?

  • Laura

    I’ve bought a few pre-owned Eileen Fisher shirts on E-bay and let me tell you, the construction of her pieces are beautiful – those seams…amazing. One cannot even compare it to $10.00 shirt.