What Does it Mean to Have a Utilitarian Wardrobe?
Hello Tumblr. I’m sorry I abandoned you for almost a month straight. I had my reasons but they were mostly stupid. I spent so much time logging my wardrobe that it kinda didn’t occur to me for some time that none of this information was going to be interesting to others beyond the methodology. Then I kinda stewed about the wasted time. Then I started to wonder if I really had anything to add when there are a ton of menswear blogs that are much better informed about menswear than I am.
I haven’t been idle for the past month though. I’ve finally narrowed down the initial list for MVW for one thing.
For another I’ve spent a whole heck of a lot of time thinking about menswear. One of the things I’ve spent the most time thinking about is what exactly we mean when we say we want our wardrobe to be utilitarian. I think I’ve used that term to describe the ideal of MVW before in the blog and I certainly have in conversation, but the more I tried to pare down my wardrobe based on utility the more I realized I had basically no idea what that meant.
As I stared at my wardrobe I realized that there are really two types of utilitarian clothes: there are items that are utilitarian within your wardrobe, and items that are utilitarian within your life.
Let me give you an example of each. I have a white oxford button down shirt (in fact I have more than one) that can go with basically anything in my wardrobe. I can wear it with jeans or khakis or grey wool pants. I can wear it under practically any sweater I own and any coat I might see fit to wear. In terms of my wardrobe it may be the single most functional piece of clothing I own.
In terms of my life however it doesn’t serve much of a function at all. It doesn’t protect me from the elements, it does not fill a much needed gap in my wardrobe for a special occasion, it doesn’t even work particularly well if I have to wear a suit. This doesn’t make it a BAD piece of my wardrobe it just means that it’s utilitarian in one very specific sense.
The opposite would probably be my black rain-coat from Ben Sherman. Considering the lack of other blacks in my wardrobe it goes with practically nothing I own. However, when it rains in San Francisco, which it does a lot, it is the most useful coat in my closet.
The best items (like my navy peacoat that goes with all the other blues in my wardrobe AND keeps me warm on the windier days in SF) are both. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to construct a wardrobe entirely out of clothes that perform a function both in your wardrobe and in your life.
Ideally this is what we would mean by “essentials” items that are highly functional for our lives AND our wardrobes. The problem is that utilitarian tends to be highly situational. If you live in Arizona you probably wouldn’t find my raincoat to be a very utilitarian addition to your wardrobe at all. If the rest of your wardrobe consisted entirely of english suits you probably wouldn’t find much use for my OCBDs.
So a huge proportion of the items on any “Essentials” list are items that are essential to the person making the list. I’ve seen more than one Essentials list that told me I HAD TO own a tuxedo but literally the only times I’ve worn a tux in the last five years was to go to parties that I made up to have an excuse to wear my tuxedo. To give you a sense of what the actual essentials of a wardrobe are I took 5 essentials lists (from Put This On, Minimal Musings, Mr. Porter, You Have Broken The Internet and Abrakadabra Sartorialist) that all had at least 20 items, and then subtracted each item that wasn’t on all 5 lists.
Obviously this is a totally unscientific survey (I literally just grabbed the first five I could find through random tumblr searches on the essentials tag of a few menswear blogs) and the more lists I add the smaller the overlap will become. Still, I think the results are pretty illuminating:
- Navy blue blazer.
- Mid-gray wool pants.
- White and light blue oxford shirts.
- a tie.
- Brown dress shoes.
- Belt to match shoes.
That’s it. And to get even that much I had to cheat and say that the Mr. Porter list’s 3X blue suits and 3X grey suits counted as a blue blazer and gray wool pants. I had to cheat to get just 5 lists to agree on enough clothing for you to walk out the door.
Now obviously these lists were covering wildly differing degrees of formality in wildly different parts of the globe but that’s kind of the point. When it comes to wardrobe utility almost everything is relative. Almost everything that you wear is a niche item for your lifestyle. This all leads in to the most surprising discovery of my Minimum Viable Wardrobe list: That getting UP to 27 items may be more difficult than cutting down past it.
But I’ll expand on that further tomorrow when I finally reveal my Minimum Viable Wardrobe.