Why Keep Clothes You Never Wear?

Because you need them for something else entirely. (Also, you know perfectly well that the minute you toss out all your white jeans, somebody'll invite you to spend a month on the Riviera.)

Caption-01: The description on eBay said these vintage sensible shoes were AAAA -- extra narrow -- but I didn't really believe it. Until they arrived and there was just no way I could get my feet into them. But they reminded me of my grandmother and of Yves Saint-Laurent, so I kept them and, a few years later, along came a brainstorm and I saw how I could make them fit. Photo: Patricia McLaughlin

I've come across the 80/20 factoid a zillion times: We wear 20 percent of our clothes 80 percent of the time, blah blah blah ... The usual implication is that this shows that we're idiots. Like, if we had any sense, we'd pack up the other 80 percent of the clothes that just sit around taking up space in our dressers and closets and cedar chests and garment bags and ironing baskets and under-bed storage units and send them to Goodwill, which would bale them up with other people's exiguous clothes and ship them off to Africa or somewhere. So folks in the Third World could waste 80 percent of their clothing maintenance time washing, ironing, folding, hanging up, putting away, looking for and tripping over clothes they'll probably never get around to wearing either?

It was only when I Googled it the other day to see what research this ubiquitous stat was based on that I learned it's one of 9 zillion applications of a rule of thumb developed by the economist Vilfredo Pareto in 1906 after he noticed that 80 percent of the land in Italy belonged to 20 percent of the population.

Why the pattern of Italian land ownership at the dawn of the 20th century would have anything at all to do with the summer clothes that have been wadded up, unironed, at the bottom of my ironing basket for at least several years now I cannot begin to say. But efficiency experts and management gurus and life coaches have glommed onto it in a major way: Twenty percent of your product line produces 80 percent of your profit. Twenty percent of your customers account for 80 percent of your general botheration. Twenty percent of the time you spend at work accounts for 80 percent of the work you actually get done. Twenty percent of your food choices deliver 80 percent of your excess calories.

Go ahead. Try it yourself. There are no rules. Just spin 'em out off the top of your head, and watch people nod thoughtfully.

It's seductive. Once you believe 80 percent of your profits come from 20 percent of your product line, why would you go to all the trouble of designing/sourcing/manufacturing/redesigning/retooling and ordering/reordering/storing/inventorying/distributing and marketing/merchandising the less profitable (maybe even in some cases unprofitable) products in the other 80 percent? This is why the tea sandwiches and strawberry shortcake at John Wanamaker's Crystal Tea Room are only a memory. It's why sport shirts don't come in different sleeve lengths. It's why department stores no longer have floorwalkers -- or delivery trucks. It's why there are no Windows Vista drivers for my HP Officejet t45 printer. Vilfredo Pareto -- or his indiscriminate popularizers -- has much to answer for.

But back to the 80 percent of your wardrobe that you wear only 20 percent of the time. (If that! I'm thinking of a long black velvet skirt that, thanks to its cut, has an extraordinary swirl to its hemline. I think I wore it once. And there's a glittery-coppery-silvery black jacket that hasn't been outside this house since the day I bought it because, on the rare occasions that seemed to call for it, it didn't fit. But it's a perfect match for a giant glittery-coppery-silvery four-leaf clover brooch my Aunt Patsy gave me. So of course I still have it.)

Seriously, does it really make sense to deaccession the 80 percent of your wardrobe you never (or almost never) wear, free up all that lovely closet space, simplify your life and, instead of wearing your favorite clothes 80 percent of the time, wear them all the time?

The prospect has its attractions. Never again wear control-top pantyhose or 4-inch heels. Never wear anything less comfy than pajamas. Never wear anything fancy enough to look weird with your habitual battle-scarred tote bag. Never wear anything you can't toss in the washing machine. Never wear anything you can't sit on the floor in or wipe your hands on? Jeans, leggings, T-shirts, oversized fleece pullovers, puffer coats you can stuff under the seat without a qualm at the movies, clogs or sneakers or (for special occasions) ballet flats?

Plenty of people dress this way -- check out the scene at any regional mall if you don't believe me.

Ah, but at what cost?

I'm still not persuaded that closet space is wasted on clothes you never (or almost never) wear.

Consider passionate stamp collectors. They never use any of those stamps. Does that mean the stamps they collect are useless?

The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said of totemism -- the practice of tribal peoples who identify with a particular animal, see it as kindred, and hunt and eat it either ritually or not at all -- that it's "not for eating, but for thinking." Members of the bear clan use the bear to see and say who they are, and how they're different from the moose people across the river. Just so, clothes aren't just for wearing. They're for ritual and ceremony, for play and for drama, for pleasure, for beauty, for communication, for imagination, for reinvention, for exploration, for indulging eccentricities or envisioning alternate realities, for keeping various possibilities alive, for remembering who you were or who you might've been.

You'd have to think none of that matters to insist, as so many "experts" do, that any garment a person hasn't worn in the past year should be expunged from that person's wardrobe without a second thought. Who knows? Next year that person may be thinner. Or fatter. Or in a better mood. Or a different mood. Or somebody that person knows may invite her to a wedding, or a cocktail party, or to spend a month on the Riviera.

As former Girl Scouts with overstuffed closets know, one must be prepared.

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