How Much Clothing Do I Really Need?

That’s like Thomas Aquinas asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin: impossible to answer in a quantifiable, practical sense (and anyone who tells you there is a single answer is lying), but interesting to consider in theory. A few years ago, a survey by ClosetMaid, the closet company, found that the average American woman owned about 103 pieces of clothing.

That sounds like a large number until you consider that, as part of her memoir, “Clothes … And Other Things That Matter,” Alexandra Shulman, the former editor of British Vogue, counted the items she owned and came up with 22 coats, 35 dresses, 34 jackets, 37 skirts, 17 pairs of pants, 16 shirts, 18 sweaters, 12 cardigans and 35 T-shirts. There was more, but that’s already 226. Even given her job, it’s a lot.

Especially because what is known as the 20-80 rule, or the Pareto principle, applies to what we wear just as well as it does to many things in life. First described by Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, in 1896, it states that 80 percent of consequences come from 20 percent of causes. Or, in the case of clothing, 20 percent of what’s in your wardrobe is worn 80 percent of the time.

Which is to say, 80 percent of what is in your wardrobe is not worn most of the time.

That in turn suggests that your husband is correct in believing you don’t need a lot of clothes. Indeed, an unavoidable part of the current discussion around sustainability is that consumers need to reduce their consumption and thus waste, which means buying fewer clothes that last longer.

Yet I don’t think the answer is to go all Jack Reacher on your wardrobe, imitating the Lee Child hero who wears one outfit at a time until it gives out, then disposes of it and gets another so that he never has any clothing baggage.

There’s also an emotional component to clothing that is important to take into account. We hold on to garments because we are convinced that one day they may be the answer to a problem, or because they represent moments in time we cherish, or because they cheer us up or make us feel powerful or happy. Clothes feed our emotions and our imagination, and that can help get us through the day as much as clothes that function.

To try to get to the bottom of the issue, I asked Marie Kondo, the queen of decluttering and author of the soon-to-be-published book “Marie Kondo’s Kurashi at Home: How to Organize Your Space and Achieve Your Ideal Life,” what she would advise. Here’s what she said:

“Taking the time to assess and make sure each garment serves a purpose and sparks joy in your life is more important than focusing on the amount of what you have. Some might find that multiple pairs of jeans might make them feel comfortable, because they appreciate options, while others may find that a few is all they need. I like to have a few of everything with my clothing so that I have a backup item available in case something is being washed.”

In other words, there’s no magic number. But going through your closet and really thinking about why you keep each piece may result in all the compromise you need.

Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.

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