What Closet Orphans Can Teach Us

leopardtunic_outfit with text

I got a lovely e-mail from reader Corinne, who said:

Your book also made me realize that maybe the key to clarifying and strengthening my personal style was in my “orphans.” Practically everything else I’ve read says to get rid of them because they’re outliers. However, reading your book it occurred to me that perhaps it’s the rest of the closet is what should go quietly into the background.

Which, of course, made me unspeakably happy. And made me realize that closet orphans are basically teaching moments waiting to happen. I mean, we loved them, we bought them, we longed to wear them … and yet we didn’t wear them. If we don’t examine what prompted those purchases and what prevented those wearings, are we not doomed to make those same mistakes again?

Take the leopard print tunic shown above. I LOVE leopard print, and have the mindset that anything featuring this print is automatically classic. But this tunic is made from an extremely drapey and clingy material. It has an asymmetric neckline, which is very cool but a little limiting. It has wide sleeves and a boxy shape, which means it doesn’t layer well. And when I put it on with anything besides skinny jeans I feel a little bit too much like Peg Bundy. (Who is fabulous, but not one of my personal style icons.) Thus, this tunic has been worn once in the past year. As shown above. I’m not ready to give up on it just yet because I haven’t truly tried to style it in a variety of ways, but it has taught me the following lessons:

  • All things leopard print are not created equal
  • Wide sleeves SUCK when you’re a layering fan. Which I am.
  • Detailed necklines are also very limiting in the layering department.
  • Fibers that don’t wrinkle are convenient, but some of them cling. To everything.

I can honestly say that I’ve kept these things in mind as I’ve shopped in recent months.

I understand why style experts recommend jettisoning items that haven’t been worn in ages. They’re thinking, “If you haven’t worn it in two years, you probably aren’t gonna, so donate and move on.” And that’s certainly one way to operate. Stick to what you love and stick to what you know works well for you. But if you don’t pause to examine what motivated those dud purchases and ask yourself WHY those items are going unworn, you miss the chance to learn from your errors. Additionally, some items are more challenging to style but that doesn’t make them useless. Putting in the effort to build two or three outfits around your closet orphans can open up new worlds of creative dressing.

When you purge your closet, do you stop to ponder why your closet orphans have gone unworn? Have you saved any from donation that have gone into steady rotation?

Originally posted 2013-05-17 06:35:24.

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25 Responses to “What Closet Orphans Can Teach Us”

  1. Tina

    I find that I sometimes shop for a life that really isn’t mine. (Think Sex and the City). I will buy something and tell myself ” I will wear this when I go out” when in actuality, I go to casual, low key places that do not require dressing up too much. As someone whose weight fluctuates a lot, I am afraid of getting rid of things as well!.

    • Grace H

      I’m the same way! I’m a stay at home mom who loves dresses and heels, not exactly the most practical for chasing around toddlers! But I keep buying dressier items that just sit and sit, and I tell myself, “someday….”

  2. Kaisa

    Ever so often I do wonder and then I hold on to them. On some lucky occasions some them have become my daily favorites. Luckily I have a system where not everything goes to donation, but some I pile up for makeovers and craft projects (e.g. nice fabric, great buttons). And before I chop them up I start wearing them again. 🙂 Sadly some things no matter how wonderful just never work. I have no clue why…

    xx Kaisa


  3. Vicky

    This usually happens to me. I buy something because I love the design and color but it is not my style. I usually try to use a cover up or accessories to make it work but if it doesn’t, then I give it to others. Anyway, your dress is really good and I love the line. Do not worry about it being clingy because you have a great body.

  4. Lauren

    Slightly unconnected to the oost, but have you thought about teaming that tunic with a big belt or obi belt? That could be another way to style it?

    • Sally

      Yes! The fabric is so slippery and drapey that most belts just make it bunch and sag weirdly … but it’s still a possibility.

  5. Kayleigh

    Loved this Sal…you look super cute in that tunic, btw…I can picture you adding a long necklace and calling it a day, especially with the punch those shoes give the outfit. I think it is total GENIUS to delve deeper into why closet orphans (you should trademark that!) exist. Like you mentioned the wide sleeves as an obstacle to layering this tunic…couldn’t you theoretically also consider altering a garment that you were compelled to buy for some reason (like the print)? A good tailor could take the sleeves in and then the tunic could work better under cardis/jackets…yes?

    I’m going to be doing a big closet sort soon and will now be looking at my closet orphans in a whole new light — thanx 😀

  6. yasmara

    Tina, SO true. I have a pair of cobalt blue suede peep toe stilettos…still in the box…they must be for my alternate reality life. Day-to-day, I’m much more of a Birkenstocks/sneakers/boots kind of person. I guess I have this vision of wearing them someday. Someone needs to invite me to a wedding so I will have an occasion to wear them! Most of my date nights with my husband involve too much walking to make them wearable.

  7. Eliza

    I purposely keep one closet orphan outfit- a short, red and grey jersey skirt that I thrifted years ago, and a matching red t-shirt. Neither play well with the rest of my clothes. I keep the outfit because it encapsulates many things I am superficially attracted to, but it doesn’t feel at all like me. It is the complete opposite of my usual romantic/vintage/formal style. It’s an overindulgence of colour and of comfort, as well as being a little shorter and more fitted than I would normally choose. A day of wearing it feels freeing, but also reminds me of all the reasons I don’t choose to dress like that normally.

  8. Dee

    Closet orphans….ever since I heard that term from you last year I love it. I think my closet orphans are just that usually because the fit is a bit off OR the piece really doesn’t fit my lifestyle, but I bought it because I loved it, or it was on sale. I know you have had a column about closet orphans before. I can’t think of too many that have become staples in the rotation, but I do know that once in a while a item of clothing suddenly seems more usable, or likeable– and I start wearing it regularly. But for the life of me I cant think of specifics! I have a couple of dresses that would be considered orphans, two which are the new Maxi style, and I just have not been comfortable wearing them yet this spring. I think they are a bit too casual for work and too ‘dressy’ for my usual going out, but at some point I am just going to wear them out to dinner or a party.

  9. Andrea

    I put an orphan into rotation just last week—a floral print skirt that I bought a year ago. Loved the fit and the drape and the colors, but every time I tried to wear it, the print felt too girly and it just seemed wrong. I put it into the donation pile at least three times, but pulled it each time (in one instance, I literally grabbed it out of the bag at the Goodwill drop-off). Then, on Friday, I was wearing a structured black top that I had meant to pair with something else when I saw that skirt, pulled it on as a lark and realized that not only did the severe black and the tailoring of the top cut any preciousness out of the skirt, but that it was the perfect cut to wear with boots—which for some reason I hadn’t noticed before. Suddenly I had a kicky little outfit that looked and felt more like my style than anything I’d worn in weeks. I’m not sure I learned any great wardrobe-building lessons, but I did vindicate my attraction to that skirt!
    Oh, and Sally, what about styling that top with a pencil skirt and boots? It does look smashing on you, so I see why you’ve kept it.

  10. Sara

    IMHO, that tunic would look great with flowy black maxi skirt. Or maybe even sand beige maxi skirt for summer.

    As for layering…wide sleeves don’t work with a blazer or a cardi, but how about something sleeveless, like a long knit vest? Or, as the sleeves are 3/4 length, maybe you could try wearing a long sleeved top under the tunic?

  11. Carrie

    Wonderful post! I just put a bunch of closet orphans in my donation pile – you’ve inspired me to pull them out and critically appraise what I initially liked about them and what features have led to them being not worn. 🙂

  12. Osprey

    What a novel way of thinking about our closet ‘mistakes’… I have a few former orphans that became basics when I moved from a rural town to the city: most notably my collection of short black skirts. Sometimes it’s not your item that is wrong, it’s your environment.

  13. Kristen

    I love that concept. I was thinking earlier today about how much I love two of my button-up shirts, even though 6 months ago I had one lone button-up that I kept in case I needed it for, I don’t know, a job interview or something? One item that looked more professional than the rest of my clothes. One item that kept me from even thinking about wearing collared, button-up shirts, because I never wore the one I had.

    Now, I’m realizing that more casual collared shirts fit very well into my style. It’s helping me shape something that feels more like me and fits into my life better. It can be very helpful to look at the things you don’t wear but were attracted to for some reason and see if there’s some tweak you need to make to the item (not necessarily the actual garment but the idea of it) to make it work. I need to do a closet clean out anyways – now I’m putting a note in the back of my mind to actually think about the things I’m getting rid of.

  14. Chris

    I had a dress that I kept for years through many moves. I never wore it. Not once. I realized just this moment, thanks to you, what the story was and why I couldn’t give it up. I was attracted to the brilliant saturated colors of the abstract print. But I couldn’t wear it. What I really wanted was a PAINTING of the design. Thanks for helping me clear up a several years mystery.

  15. AnaJan

    Hi Sally, nice post, again! I might be missing the point here, because I am a sewist and I always seek for a way to rescue a garment. Your tunic can be easily saved with a few minor alterations. The sleeves can be narrowed down, and the bodice can be altered to be less boxy. This way, you’d transform a closet orphan into a garment that fits your dressing habits and needs. Well, I wouldn’t alter the neckline, I really like it. And I think it would look great with a jacket on (especially if the jacket has a lapel collar).

  16. sarah

    Wide sleeves! I really like wide sleeves, especially a slouchy batwing or kimono style sleeve, but i almost never wear my wide-sleeve tops because I think they make my chest look weird (must be another style that looks best on very small-chested women). and I never thought of the layering issue with wide sleeves, but so true!

    I was going to request a how-to on styling wide sleeves, but maybe I need to move on!

    I have a silk jersey surplice top with elbow-length kimono style sleeves and I never wear it even though I still like it and I refuse to get rid of it.

  17. Lisa

    This is a great post Sal, and so true. It took the purchase of a great blouse for me to realize that I can never and will never wear a large-figured pattern, no matter how brilliant. The blouse hangs in my closet still, reminding me.

  18. Ginger R.

    When I’m organized I keep a list of what makes it into my giveaway pile. It’s helpful in recognizing patterns, some mentioned above: shopping for a life you don’t lead, buying for color in a bad style, buying for a style that doesn’t suit you.

    I’ve also noticed that sometimes it’s not what I’ve bought, but where I bought things. Purchases at stores that happened to be on the way home from distressing Dr. appointments, purchases after boozy luncheons, vacation/resort purchases.

    Everybody has shopping mistakes, the trick is to not repeat them more than necessary.

  19. The Good Will Hunting Paralegal

    I’m working on a huge closet purge right now. I’m actually wearing a closet orphan that was supposed to be donated ages ago. I love it, and can’t figure out why I discarded it to start with 🙁

  20. andrea

    Recently thought of this post when I was out thrifting the other day. Found several beautiful items that I started to feel I “had to have”. Then realized two of them were destined to be closet orphans because I would eventually wonder why it had been purchased. I loved the colors and the *flowy-ness* but never like how they look on my body. Thanks for bringing these things up so I can think of them BEFORE making the purchase! 🙂 I probably would have purchased the item and donated in a couple months– never worn.

  21. Liz

    i would say cut off the sleeves of that top, and cut the hemline to match the asymmetry. and honestly, that neckline is too high.. you can easily add layers once the tunic is sleeveless 😀

  22. OnlyPlaying

    I am currently wearing one of my closet orphans- a navy top with white spots. It is incredibly flattering, but until yesterday, I had absolutely nothing to wear with it. Most of my pants are various shades of gray or black or browns, none of which I liked with the navy and white spots. I have an absolute hatred for white pants, but yesterday I found a white skirt that I liked, and immediately thought of my poor little closet orphan. Now it may not be the most worn item in my closet, but at least it will be worn.