growing a minimalist wardrobe: step 2

September 25, 2014

Step Two: Master the Art of Basics and Layering
See Step One, right HERE.

For a long time I felt like the word basic used as a noun was mere marketing fluff. But over the past year, I’ve changed my tune and become a basics devotee.

Here’s the idea: to build a small collection of simple—and for me that means largely unadorned—clothes that can form the base of the majority of my outfits. For me the key is that these basics can either be worn separately, or topped with other things to make them feel more special.

minimalist wardrobe - basics

The specifics of your basics will vary widely according to budget and taste and personal preference. In my particular wardrobe, the clothes I love the most are comfortable, fairly androgynous in style and simple in design and my basics follow suit. All of my basics require little in the way of special care. I’ve accidentally shrunk too many shirts to continue buying basics that require handwashing—or worse, dry cleaning.

Before I started paying attention, I never had enough of the basics, I always had too many outliers.

Over the past year, I’ve been trying to home in on what basics can help me through the week, with the ultimate goal of having fewer clothes that I rarely wear and more clothes that can work in multiple scenarios. I’ve said goodbye to the random camisole with a little embellishment along the edge that I could wear with exactly one sweater and swapped it for camisoles that work with many.

minimalist wardrobe - basics

My basics right now:
5 simple tank tops (I’ve found that these ones fit consistently and hold up well to frequent wear. I’d love to find a domestic replacement.)
4 short-sleeved cotton t-shirts (These v-necks are the nicest.) (A certain someone’s recent proclivity for spitting up means I just ordered two more.)
3 long-sleeved cotton t-shirts (I’m on the hunt for ones to really love.)

Also counted among my basics are some heftier items, including:

1 pair of leggings
4 pairs of jeans (these my favorite among them)
3 cardigans (this my favorite among them)

Basics on my wish list:
1 creamy sweatshirt
1 pair (or two) of comfy non-jeans
1 simple (nursing-friendly) dress


Not all of the basics I currently own are what I’d call perfect. One of my four t-shirts has a tear. One pair of jeans is too uncomfortable to wear for more than a few hours, one is slightly too short. One sweater has pilled strangely. I have three basic dresses that I can’t wear because I’m nursing. This is the stuff of real life. Which is to clarify, that I haven’t gotten rid of every single thing I own to start fresh, but I have started to pay attention. It’s been a slow process of finding what works best and deciding to reinvest in something similar or to try something new. I’ve flagged certain things as in need of replacing, I’ve wish listed other things as being nicer versions of what I already own.

In addition to these basics I have a few button-up shirts for layering, a favorite tunic, a few stand-alone dresses for being fancy in, a blouse to love (and hopes to add a few more to the mix), a colorful sweater for dreary winter days, a favorite pair of overalls, a few cozy things for blustery days. My entire wardrobe, including dress up clothes, but excluding pajamas, exercise clothes, and a few maternity items, is comprised of 52 pieces of clothing. It is not the wardrobe of a fashionista. Yours might well include things that decidedly more fabulous. But whether the layers are simple or showy, I’ve found it to be awfully nice to have a solid base to build from.

Still needing to purge? Go HERE. Missed Step One? Head HERE.

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  • Reply KP September 25, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Hello. I love your palette idea from Step One — finally, a justification for all of my black and white!

    Do you think 52 would be a realistic number of total items if there were a "corporate-casual-dress-and-occasional-suits required" job involved (or how might that alter your approach)?

    Also, what about shoes?

    Thanks, keep up the good writing!

    • Reply Erin September 25, 2014 at 2:52 pm

      Hi there! I think could likely get away with a number that hovers somewhere near that mark (52 is just the number that I happen to have, BTW, not the result of an actual formula! I think the key is probably getting comfortable with having less! There can be pressure to have something new all the time in an office setting, but I think if you find things to love, that helps stave off some of the pressure!

    • Reply Lisa Gordon September 25, 2014 at 3:49 pm

      You definitely can! I have a very colorful and corporate appropriate wardrobe of 35 items (not including gym clothes or pajamas). The key is to have great quality basics, constantly try new combinations, and make use of your accessories. I love it!

      The breakdown is something close to this: 10 skirts (I love them!), 5 slacks, 15 blouses, 3 blazers, 2 cardigans. I chose a palette of colors that I love wearing together and I stick pretty close to it (3 neutrals, 2-3 brights).

      Note: I do keep a black dress (for funerals), a silk dress (for fancier weddings) and a suit (for interviews) stored in another closet because it's not in my daily wear.

    • Reply Erin September 26, 2014 at 12:35 am


  • Reply Ashley September 25, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    Erin, I've been reading your blog for about a year now. I just want to say that it's getting better and better. All of your mini-series keep me reading – every single one. Thanks! Ashley

    • Reply Erin September 25, 2014 at 2:48 pm

      Thanks so much for your note, Ashley! So very glad to have you here!

    • Reply Sophia September 25, 2014 at 4:07 pm

      I have to say, I agree with Ashley! It's just so good here on these tea leaves:) I just finished reading yesterday's NY Times article, "When Blogging Becomes a Slog," and I felt happy thinking that you seem to somehow have a good formula for blogging at what is hopefully a manageable pace (cause it'd be great to have you around here for awhile). I think what I love most is that you clearly are living a life that is separate from the blog, while your posts are kind of like rhythmic markers of some of the beautiful and contemplative moments of it. Also, I often look back on old RMTL posts and they never feel outdated–they're always relevant and lovely. Thank you!

    • Reply Erin September 25, 2014 at 4:59 pm

      Sophia! Thank you for the world's nicest blog comment. I read that piece yesterday too. Such a good reminder that there are complexities if not outright dangers in making your life your living! I might drag a table into the sunlight to get a good shot, but I try really hard to make this space one that reflects real life, not a simulacrum! Thanks so much for noticing. xo!

    • Reply Erin September 25, 2014 at 4:59 pm


  • Reply laurendoeslife September 25, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    I also love the Everlane tees and have four different colors in their v-neck. The strange thing is that some of the colors pill and others don't. For example, my grey shirt got very pill-y and looked pretty beat up so its a pajama shirt now, but the muted black has held up (for 3 years) beautifully. I only say this in the event that someone tried one and didn't love them. Maybe give a different color a shot?

    • Reply Erin September 25, 2014 at 5:00 pm

      Ah, interesting! I've had three and I had slight pilling on one, but I chalked that up to hiking 10 miles into the Oregonian wilderness while wearing a backpack with a hip strap! Muted black has definitely been my favorite so far!

  • Reply Shyle Brandi September 25, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    I feel like we are closet twins. Or, I wish we were closet twins, anyways – getting there slowly! I love your writing, and your topics; so glad I found your blog a few months ago. (Also I feel like I am going to copy every aspect of your baby-raising if the time ever comes; love your extremely minimalist approach)

    • Reply Erin September 25, 2014 at 4:55 pm

      Ha! Thanks so much for your note! (Slow and steady is the only way to go!)

  • Reply villagecultureclub September 25, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    Great series, thanks. Step 1 went a long way towards helping me simplify my wardrobe. I recently purchased one of the long-sleeved French Terrys from Everlane and love how soft and comfy it feels and am keeping my fingers crossed that it wears well. I look forward to reading your future posts.

    • Reply Erin September 25, 2014 at 4:55 pm

      Oh, good to know! Might have to try!

  • Reply netanya September 25, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    You've mentioned Everlane tees before (I want one!) but I'm wondering, do you not like their tanks and long-sleeved?

    • Reply Erin September 25, 2014 at 4:54 pm

      Hi there! I've never tried one of their tanks, so I can't comment on those! I've had one of their ryan long sleeves (and two of the short sleeved versions) and those guys didn't work as well for me. They're made from rayon which means you have to handcwash. I promptly ignored that step and ended up with very misshapen tees! User error for sure, but in the future I'm sticking to their cotton basics!

    • Reply netanya September 27, 2014 at 4:25 am

      Good to know! Yes, my mom taught me at a young age to check the tags while shopping–dry clean or hand wash only? Next!

  • Reply Carrie September 25, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    I've been doing the exact same thing! Some people develop hoarding tendencies as they get older and I'm experiencing the opposite. Earlier this year I pulled out all the clothes I didn't love or didn't fit and put them in a bin in my basement. I recently went through the clothes again and donated virtually everything. I went back to my closet for round two and will check the current items again in another 6 months. Most of the clothes are easy to part with but I have a weakness for dresses that is hard to overcome.

    • Reply Erin September 26, 2014 at 12:35 am

      I say if you love it, keep it. The problem for me was so often *not* loving something!

  • Reply Kate September 25, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Love this series, Erin! Thank you. Your writing style (and clothing style) is refreshingly down to earth. I'm hooked. 😉 Also, I too am in desperate need of some quality long-sleeved ts for the winter. Please let us know if/when you have a recommendation. Or anyone else! Thanks!

    • Reply Erin September 26, 2014 at 12:33 am

      So nice of you to say, Kate! (Will keep you updated!)

  • Reply Hannah Desan September 26, 2014 at 12:22 am

    Ermerhgerd thaannnk you for putting this together. I love the basics thing. I've noticed that when I buy stuff like this those pieces end up being my favorite and this makes it a little clearer about what I should be looking for.

    • Reply Erin September 26, 2014 at 12:33 am

      Totally! (So glad you found this helpful!)

  • Reply Sarah September 26, 2014 at 2:03 am

    Thanks for this post, it really excites me to get working on my closet as the weather changes. I do have one question, doesn't this create more frequent laundry? I like to be able to get through a week which might mean 7 or 8 tees for instance. Do you just wash more frequently?

    • Reply Erin September 26, 2014 at 2:10 am

      Good question! We do laundry once a week (couldn't bear to schlep it down to the laundromat more often than that!) but these numbers still work for me. I only have four short sleeved shirts, but I might wear a tank top under a dress one day, or a long sleeved shirt under a sweater on another day. Does that make sense?

  • Reply Emily Allen September 26, 2014 at 7:19 am

    Both these posts have inspired me so much, I have so many items in my wardrobe I never wear and really want to start buying good quality staple pieces, going to use your list as an outline now 🙂 xx


  • Reply Pamela Evans September 26, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    I love reading your blog from time to time! Minimalism is so beautiful. Reading this post made me think that you would adore the clothes that Everlane makes. They are so good at minimalism at its most elegant. ( I've loved their basic items for years now.

    • Reply Erin September 26, 2014 at 3:11 pm

      Thanks so much! Yes, I'm a big fan of their t-shirts (links above!)

  • Reply Erin Van Genderen September 26, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    Lovely as always. I'm also on the lookout for well-made and ethically sourced long-sleeved tees. Would you be so kind as to update us when you find ones you like? Many thanks!

  • Reply Anonymous September 29, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    I live in a black Joie tee and an antique silver and turquoise ring. I love these basics![at]

  • Reply Christine September 29, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    Love your bit about minimizing rarely worn items. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply Anonymous October 1, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    you meant *androgynous* in that third paragraph
    (obviously you can remove this comment, it's just to point out what i'm sure was a typo)

    ps: love your blog!

    • Reply Erin October 1, 2014 at 6:57 pm

      Gah! I do this every single time. THANK YOU!

  • Reply Kristen October 1, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    Re: domestic replacement for the Gap camisoles. I swear by the American Apparel cotton/spandex camisoles: They last FOREVER (even when I put them in the dryer!) and smooth things out like gentle shapewear. Yes, I have to buy a larger size than I would in other brands, but it's worth it.

  • Reply Nicole October 14, 2014 at 5:13 am

    Loved this post! I was also wondering what blue you used for your dresser, it's lovely!

  • Reply Anonymous November 8, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    As I get older, a minimalistic wardrobe is more and more appealing to me. However, I don't like to limit myself to color. Rather, I prefer to create a uniform by buying one type of shirt, such as a button down shirt or crew neck sweater, in multiple colors. I find that black, grey, white, and beige are very unflattering as shirt colors as a woman ages because we become more and more washed out. They are fine when a woman in young, but not so great as a woman gets older. Jewel tones look great on everyone, however.

  • Reply best nfl jerseys November 27, 2014 at 11:16 am

    There is an extreme about of variety in uniforms when comparing all of the different branches of the U.S. Military. Be it Army or Navy, one can tell them apart by looking at their uniforms.

  • Reply OKC Homestead January 26, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    I just recently came across your blog, I love it. The content and your writing are so wonderful. Also, in one of your above comments you introduced me to a new word: simulacrum. Can't believe I'd never heard it before, great word.

  • Reply T December 1, 2015 at 8:36 am

    I keep coming back to this series, it’s very inspiring, especially in these materialist times! I was wondering, since you seem to be doing more collaborations with different brands: Has your wardrobe grown a lot or do you not keep everything you advertise for? Sorry for being nosy about the numbers, but has your total spiked from 52? How do you deal with tempting collaborations, if that’s the case? Keep up your wonderful blog! 🙂

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 1, 2015 at 9:11 am

      Hi there: I haven’t done a recent count, but I’d guess I’m still right around 52, or maybe fewer. In the same way that I approach my wardrobe more generally, I keep things that I love and that fill a void or improve on an existing piece in my closet, but other things I return to the collaborator, pass along to sisters or friends, or donate to charity! It’s definitely a lucky problem to have!

      • Reply T December 8, 2015 at 1:46 pm

        Thank you for your answering! 🙂

  • Reply Jennifer December 8, 2015 at 5:21 pm

    Hi Erin! I was looking for some advice on cardigans and happened back on this post. The link to the Everlane cardigan just goes to their main page now, not to a specific cardigan…they have a few different ones, which of theirs have you liked? Are there any other cardigans you like these days?

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 8, 2015 at 10:24 pm

      This link referred to their original cashmere sweater! Since then I’ve also tried their luxe wool sweater (I think I’m getting that name right) and also really liked that—more lightweight and a more fitted cut than the cashmere!

      • Reply Jennifer December 11, 2015 at 12:26 am

        Thank you for getting back to me, Erin! I went with the cashmere…wow, you can not beat their price!

  • Reply Maia Hardy November 8, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    I’m wondering if you’ve found a long sleeve t shirt that you love? I’m having a hard time finding a basic long sleeve that works for me.

  • Reply Shiry May 11, 2018 at 3:24 pm

    Dear Erin, did you end up finding a good source for basic long sleeve shirts? I love the Everlane U-Neck Ts but sadly, they dont come in long sleeves. I am having such a hard time finding good ones!

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