Above, you’ll see an outfit featuring a pink, ruffly skirt that I bought at Anthropologie in 2005. I saw that skirt on the rack, keeled over from object lust, picked myself up off the shop floor, and forked over $80 for it quite willingly. And although I hung onto it for six years, it rarely got worn. By and large, this skirt qualifies as a closet orphan.
What is a closet orphan?
“Closet orphan” is a term that I picked up from Angie, but I think we define it slightly differently. To me, a closet orphan is an item that you love, but that proves very difficult to pair with other items. It seldom gets worn because it doesn’t play nicely within the context of outfits. It just hangs there, lonely and sad, languishing away while your wardrobe workhorses get worn again and again.
Why do we end up with closet orphans in our wardrobes?
If you’ve got closet orphans, they likely worked their way into your wardrobes via one of the following insidious methods of infiltration:
- They were once part of a set or an outfit purchased all at once, but the other components have been outgrown, lost, or donated.
- They represent a past style or body shape or emotional state, and you just can’t bear to part with them. Even though the rest of your closet has moved on.
- They were SO PRETTY that you couldn’t resist buying them. Even though they really don’t work within your established personal style.
In working with makeover clients, I’ve found that last one to be the most common. It can be very difficult to remember that there’s a difference between, “I adore that item” and “I adore that item because it would work for me.” Major retail culprits? Anthropologie and Modcloth. Bless them both, they’re packed to the gills with gorgeous, fun, funky, completely lovely garments … but very few of those garments are versatile or easy to style. So they get purchased in the heat of the moment, worn a time or two, and then relegated to the back corner of the closet.
How do we deal with closet orphans?
Unlike many stylists, I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that clothes that have gone unworn for X number of months should be donated. Certainly works for some, but is not a rule that applies to all women. Clothes can go unworn for many reasons and just chucking them after some arbitrary expiration date can be downright wasteful. Closet orphans actually present opportunities to stretch your creative wings and push your stylistic boundaries. Here are some steps you can take to understand your underutilized items and work toward assimilating them into everyday wear.
Revisit why you love the item: Closet orphans sometimes reflect your “imaginary self.” You may be extremely active and need to wear washable knits, but own a frilly dry-clean-only silk blouse because you admire and adore that delicate, ethereal aesthetic. You may have a carefully cultivated wardrobe of warm neutrals, but own a blazingly hot pink pencil skirt because the color just makes you happy. You bought that item for a reason, hung onto it for a reason. What is that reason?
Define why it’s a difficult piece: Is it an unusual cut or color? Does it fit differently than most of your clothing? Did you purchase it as part of an outfit, and now that the other items are gone you can’t imagine it worn without them? Is it delicate? Too sexy or flashy for everyday wear? Pinpoint what makes your closet orphan so ornery. If you don’t know why you don’t wear it, you’ll never figure out how you can wear it.
Find your orphan some siblings: Unless your closet orphan is something like a pair of leather chaps or rainbow-striped legwarmers – something that both clashes with your personal style AND has limited application – it can be paired and worn with other garments that you already own. It can! I swear! Pull your orphan from its corner, and haul out anything else that has a prayer of working with it. Clothing, shoes, accessories, you name it. Just pile it all on the bed and take a look. Find similar colors, complementary textures, patterns that play nicely together. Start by building three to five outfits around your orphan, and make sure to deploy them within a month or two. Once you’ve greased the wheels, you’ll be amazed by how easily you work that once-troublesome item into outfits.