The 30% Theory

You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our wardrobes.


I hate to brag. But I have to say I found it surprisingly simple to pack for my four-month trip to London. As someone who has spent spent the past decade of her life on a mission to streamline her style to the point of functional uniformity, I like to think I’ve earned it.

We’ve talked about this before. The contents of my closet are barely distinguishable from one another. They tend to blur together. Spin yourself around a few times in front of my closet and point to something at random. There is a 78% chance it is jet black. But despite their harmony, the items at home in my dressers are special to me. I handpicked each and every one of them. I treasure them all. Except — of course — for those dozens I hardly ever wear.

The reality is that I only wear 30% (I was being dramatic in my lede) of my wardrobe. And I bet you do too.

The realization dawned on me several weeks before my departure. I had been packing up my room at school when I discovered a sealed box under my bed. Eight of my very own dresses and five sweaters lay neatly inside. I can only assume they had been sitting there since I arrived on campus in September.

I hastily repacked the box. I was embarrassed somehow; to have failed to even register their absence seemed wasteful and indulgent and sloppy. I resolved that I would do better in preparation for London. I would leave New York armed only with the fraction of my closet that I actually wore.

I nixed impractical tops and jeans that fit best after food poisoning. I decided against an odd orange-y dress and vetoed silk trousers. I made space only for staples: the sweaters I wore again and again, jeans that felt like a second skin, a pair of superlative ankle boots.

Clothes are not like children. It’s okay to play favorites among them. The silky dresses and cozy knitwear I decided to bring with me were mine. I was sure of it. These were the 30%.

They served me well at first. Given their limited quantity, there were only so many outfits to consider each morning. Not since the fourth grade had I gotten dressed and ready so quickly. I imagined sharing a laugh and a bottle of Malbec with Emmanuelle Alt in our identical black denim. We would discuss sartorial liberation and debate the maker of the perfect blazer. It all felt possible.

But then I got homesick for the 70%. Because tucked between layers of expensive mistakes are things that I like not only to slip into sometimes, but also just to look at and own.

I love my uniform. But I miss the drama that once punctuated its monotony. I miss the tomato-red sweater I wear once a year and a Burberry jacket that bears a striking resemblance to duct tape. I can hardly move my arms in it. It’s amazing. I grieve for those minutes during which I might have deliberated Red Sweater Day only to dismiss it in favor of jeans and a boyish button-down.

I do not regret that I left this portion of my wardrobe behind. Virgin Atlantic does not accommodate sartorial nostalgia. But I do cherish the extravagant glory of the 70%. The pieces that constitute it make fashion fun and weird and unforgettable.

It is no accident that the things I have purchased since landing in London are not black or beige. They include a green velvet sheath dress, a vintage Hawaiian-print shirt, and a battered leather camera bag that I intend to use as a clutch.

Maybe. At least once.

Image shot by Tim Walker

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  • Never thought of this! Maybe we are attached of some items more than others, but for sure I love all my clothes the same way!:)

  • emilymic

    I decided to only pack my favourite things for a five week trip to London (during which I will be doing work experience at Vogue). This article has given me hope that I will sartorially survive… with a couple of impulse Zara purchases to keep things fresh.

  • Any suggestions for a fellow student in London? I’m in Paris for two more weeks before we head over! (I also did not pack lightly, this article is making me dread having to pack up again :[ )

    • Mattie Kahn

      Dull advice, but necessary: Bring your umbrella. Skip rainboots though. They take up far too much room, weigh more than you think than they will, and can easily be replaced with a pair of infinitely more versatile combat boots.

      Also, welcome!

  • I’ve actually been culling the herd per se in my own closet and getting rid of those items that I wasn’t wearing. It feels good. It feels real good.

  • Rhea

    I love my clothes too, the attachment comes naturally. I actually use 100% of my wardrobe on rotation, (It works well for my compulsiveness) but closet editing is the worse. I can’t let go! Loved the post!

  • Great tips for packing for my next trip to NYC!

  • ThisTrendThatTrend

    This totally, completely, and thoroughly describes my current situation. I’m studying in Florence this semester and packing was diiiifffffiicult for me. But now looking at it, I really wear my all black uniform quite a lot, but its been getting warmer and my “January New York state of mind” whilst packing told me I wouldn’t need skirts or dresses. Luckily the family is visiting soon and will be armed with a few warmer weather essentials.

  • annelie

    I am totally with you on the uniform front, it really appeals to me. I hate to say it but this has really been kindled in me by going out with a guy who dresses really well-dating someone who will spend a lot on one jersey piece (hello, Sunspel) which is identical to his other two but which are the sum total of all his tops that aren’t formal shirts is an eye-opener. Womenswear has taken a lot form menswear over the last couple of years not just in style but in ethos. Around the same time I also got into the zero waste home blog and we’ve been applying the 20-30% rule to all the crap in our house. I am messy and disorgansied but I like clear spaces and I realised the only way to achieve that was to get rid of most of my stuff! I like my wardrobe to reflect that and if I ever feel drab there is always LIPSTICK.

    • annelie

      (I totally fail at shoes though. I just want more shoes)

  • i totally agreee with you!! i’m constantly swappng my wardrobe between vancouver and toronto so it sort of helps slow down the buying. i get a ‘new’ wardrobe every few months. but even then, i tottally forget what i have at the other location and barely even miss them.

  • 10% of my wardrobe is on show (black skinny jeans, gym leggings, jacket, black tops, dresses and tights). The rest is in storage for next season.. or to never be seen again depending on the item.

  • Trilby16

    I use a pretty good percentage of my wardrobe (which I laughingly refer to as my “timeless classics”). I do the thing where on New Year’s Day you turn all the clothes hangers around, then turn them back around as you wear each thing. This is supposed to help you chuck stuff you never wear, but given my thrifty nature, the effect on me is that I end up “rescuing” clothes items by wearing them.

  • Irene Laura

    maybe not even a 20 ahaha

  • Masood Saadi

    Very Useful tips thanks for sharing with us..

  • Adrianna Grężak

    I wouldn’t say that I get anxiety about it, but it does bother me when I do not wear my entire wardrobe. I make a point to wear all my tops, and flip the hanger in the other direction in my closet to signify that I wore it. My intention is not to repeat until I figured out how to style/wear everything in that closet.

    My current problem is that after leaving my corporate/publishing job, I no longer wear my Worker Bee clothing – the entry level “business casual” wardrobe staples we all purchase in Banana Republic and Gap for our first job out of college. I wear the button down shirts untucked with a pair of jeans, but I own some dresses, slacks and pencil skirts that are just too formal for my current fashion photography job (I can wear what I want, but comfort is neccessary because I’m active all day).

  • I may only use 30% of my wardrobe, but when it comes to
    clearing it out they all become staple pieces. I still have ‘I cant get rid of
    this red silk blend dress that I wore in my clubbing years’ even though I would
    have to go on a drip diet for at least two weeks before I could get it over my
    hips. I can pack light for travelling, my only problem occurs how many and
    which bags to take?!

  • Lipstick on Lattes

    I’m the kind of person who once a year decides to completely, drastically change my style of which is usually, like mentioned, all black and I proceed to throw EVERYTHING out and buy an entire new wardrobe only to find that the new closet is almost identical the previous one.

  • bong