Just as changing gear in a manual car can make the engine stall, so the sartorial gear-change of a new season can bring you to a sudden, grinding halt. The temperature dives or soars, and you can’t remember how your clothes work. You open the wardrobe and find it’s full of complete strangers. Or you dimly recognise a few of your clothes, but can’t recall how they relate to each other – like hosting some nightmare party where you’ve forgotten who knows whom and which couple recently got divorced.
This is wardrobe amnesia, a common affliction that strikes most often in latitudes with what are defensively known as “proper seasons”. Anyone who prefers wearing separates to suits or dresses is particularly vulnerable, because of all the possible combinations. You may have the bits of the jigsaw but you’ve lost the lid with the picture on it, and once-simple answers to questions such as how to keep your legs warm, or your feet cool, seem impossible to piece together.
It is into this moment of doubt and forgetting that commerce tries to insert itself, with its “must-buys” and “new-season investments”. And because the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is upon us, we are ripe for the picking. Zombie-like, we head for the shops with our wallets hanging out. But surely there is a better – and cheaper – way for wardrobe amnesiacs to tackle the change of seasons?
No one wants to be the person who sticks Polaroids on their shoeboxes to show what’s inside. All the same, a system of some kind could be helpful. My friend Pip has one: she rotates her clothes with the same rigour as farmers rotate their crops. So earlier this year, when the weather hotted up, I invited myself round to her house to observe her ritual and to take notes. “Come soon,” she said, a note of desperation in her voice, “I’m overheating.” Drawback number one.
The next morning I sat in her bedroom and watched as she deftly filleted everything warm, woolly, furry or fleecy from her wardrobe hangers and folded it in piles on her bed. Then she got a large, zip-up storage container down from the very top of her wardrobe, and took out of it clothes in cotton and linen. She greeted each piece affectionately, like an old friend, before putting it on an empty hanger: trousers on the left, dresses and skirts in the middle, evening wear on the right. There were quite a lot of laundry-intensive white and cream linen trousers, I noticed. Drawback number two. Then the winter clothes were zipped away and manoeuvred onto the top shelf. In the chest of drawers, Pip explained almost apologetically, was a hard core of T-shirts, jumpers, sports kit and underwear that stays accessible all year round.
I am in awe of Pip’s self-discipline and her orderly cupboard, in which there is room for the hangers to swing. When I try to analyse why her system works, I realise it’s because it’s part of a bigger system that governs the whole way she dresses. She wears a limited, largely neutral palette: black, white, brown, grey, beige and pale blue (in winter the darker tones predominate, in summer the lighter ones). Few of her clothes are patterned, and the shapes repeat themselves – tunics, wide trousers, drapey cardigans, 1950s-style dresses that go in at the waist. She worked out her personal style early in her life and stuck to it. “I knew what my wedding dress would be like long before I saw it,” she says, “and 17 years on I would choose the same one.” She doesn’t like shopping, so her ears are stopped to the siren call of the new season, but she would like new versions of what she already has – like replacing the parts of a car when they wear out.
So that’s what it takes to have a wardrobe like a smooth-running engine that never stalls: an unwavering sense of your personal style and a heightened immunity to passing trends. Next to my wardrobe amnesia, Pip’s way represents total recall. She’ll never come across an orange-and-pink paisley shirt and wonder what on earth she wore with it. She knows which crops she planted and is happy to reap them, whereas my fellow forgetters and I view our clothes more like a wild-flower meadow, where anything might take root.
For some people, I have come to realise, clothes are about the destination, and for others they are about the journey. My way is not time-efficient or streamlined. Pip always looks good and always looks like herself, whereas I can spend a day feeling uncomfortable because what I’m wearing doesn’t feel right. I hang on to outlandish clothes just in case I want to wear them one day, even though I probably never will. But I know my wardrobe is sorely in need of some ruthless editing. And I know just whom to invite round to help.