The narrow closet has a bar for hanging, a shelf, and a door, but little space for anything else. It isn’t even possible to close the door when clothes are hung off the bar on regular hangers, and my laundry basket just barely fits in to the nook. A few suits, skirts, and a lovely haori jacket that I’ve never worn are stored there with the door open. I go through small panics occasionally that the clothes in there are getting dusty or faded and do strange tucking rearrangements to “protect” them without committing to anything practical like garment bags. The shelf above holds old floppy straw-looking summer hats and our three travel backpacks.
The majority of our clothes are in our external closet, reconfigured black metal wire shelving that takes up the rest of the south wall beneath a print of The Poor Poet. When we took possession of the apartment we spent most of the afternoon putting the bed together, and as evening approached ambitiously took on constructing the clothing shelves. We had decided to take two sets of the shelving with four shelves each, give each of us three shelves (with a large section beneath the first shelf for hanging clothes) and connect the two with a bridge of two shelves. Pleased with our ingenuity, we set to the fiddly work of connecting metal with plastic ring bits. The afternoon faded into early evening. As the sun sank, we realized a rapidly approaching problem: the electricity was not turned on yet. We had requested that the electricity be turned on prior to our arrival, but it wasn’t. In addition, the landlord had failed to turn on the heat to our apartment and we had no immediate food options in our area.
Instead of congratulating ourselves on our ambition, shoving the plastic bits in a pile together in a corner, and going in search of dinner, we decided to move faster. We could have looked for the box that contained flashlights or headlamps, but the self-induced race against the sun, cold, and hunger instilled a panic. It must be done; it would be done. As I grimly snapped together the last piece of plastic bit and we shimmied the shelf down the supports in the sulfur glow of streetlights, we collapsed exhausted. We have never disassembled or touched the construction of the shelves since.
In the past few years, I have taken steps to considerably reduce my wardrobe’s palette. In my late twenties, I realized that clothing had been a great source of anxiety for me throughout much of my adolescent and adult life. In high school, I wrote down the outfits I wore on a calendar to make sure I had appropriately spaced out rewearings of each of my articles of clothing. In college with the shuffling schedules and not really seeing anyone every day, the sartorial stress decreased. I developed a kind of uniform: cardigan, tank top, pants, with only the occasional morning panic as I would try to put together something that matched from my clean (or cleanish) clothes. Starting a real job brought back the someone-seeing-me-everyday high school fears, and I resolved to phase out any clothes that were not blue, white, gray, or black.
This first resolution was difficult. Unlike men’s clothing, which each season makes a range of shirt and pants styles available that will almost always include one of these colors, women’s clothing runs deeply counter to any desire for repetition. Also, I have a decidedly un-female underarm situation: I sweat profusely. I am not talking about infrequent dampness brought on by extraordinary stress or high activity. At the smallest twinge of heightened stress or even just talking to someone, I soak my shirt. Soak it down my sleeve and along my ribcage. On particularly stressful days, they will gush at varying degrees, and at the end of the day I can track the day’s stress timeline by the salt edges of the dried sweat patches left on my shirt.
In the early stages of the palette transition, I would occasionally buckle and buy something in a color out of sheer desperation for a needed item, but I would always pay for it when there would only be navy pants and a black shirt left before laundry day. Slowly over the next few years, I got rid of all color variations and settled into the monochrome range of white, gray, and black, which not only had the benefit of total wardrobe interchangeability but effectively masked the sweat. This reduced anxieties considerably. Now, if I needed to replace something and what I found didn’t come in one of these tones, I just didn’t buy it. Shopping for clothing became more like buying staple groceries: there may be occasional brand switching, but the purchased item does the same basic job.
Once I didn’t have to think about clothing anymore, not buying it, not staying in fashion, not obsessing over it in the morning, I felt some part of my mind unclench. I was able to appreciate fashion aesthetically instead of assessing it for myself and how it would fit in my life. I could look at the darling gowns and striking combinations as I would a painting without feeling the guilt of not looking that great and the creeping inadequacy that I never would. Color appreciation reentered my life when I was no longer deciding the worth of a color by how it would look against my skin or if it went with the rest of my wardrobe. Clothing stopped having an emotional component; it is not an external indicator of my passions, diverse tastes or interests. I have even recently slipped into an even more narrow combination: black top, dark gray bottom. I will sometimes switch it around, but I am infinitely more comfortable in and generally appropriate for a wide variety of circumstances in my standard uniform. And black tops are great for the sweat.
Author’s note: Since these initial palette limitation experiments, I have boldly expanded my wardrobe to include black and white op-art prints. Also great for the sweat.