LESS IS BETTER
Self-proclaimed minimalist Kate Carraway taps into our cultural obesssion with the stylishly sparse French wardrobe
I’m a super-minimalist: My husband describes my design aesthetic as “a green apple in a bowl on the floor of an otherwise empty room.” Even though I love fashion, makeup and design, my years spent as a broke freelancer, moving between infinite sublets, taught me slowly to buy with intention— and discard and donate often—in order to maintain a slim inventory of clothes and things so that I’m free from the administrative drag of considering, cleaning and caring for pieces I don’t even like.
Nowhere is the Insta-spirational proverb “less, but better” more relevant or resisted than in fashion: buying, owning, wanting, and needing less stuff—but better stuff—has challenged the cheap, exhausting abundance of the fast-fashion era, dovetailed with environmentalism and the wellness movement, and become a legitimate trend of “upscale minimalism” among women primed for a new obsession. A considered, narrowed wardrobe of carefully researched, tailored and just-right investment pieces is replacing the circus-y Cher Horowitz Closet as the ideal, connecting style with self-care at precisely the moment when the collective culture is breathing anger and anxiety like fire.
Like most trends, the ideal of “organization as moral imperative” existed before it got new, prettily appealing packaging. In short: It didn’t begin when the quirky Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo published her bestseller, The Life-Changing
Magic of Tidying Up, in 2014. But the narrative certainly took off. Kondo’s philosophy of thanking and then tossing anything that doesn’t “spark joy” has made its way into a New Yorker profile, the mansion of old-money matriarch Emily in Netflix’s
Gilmore Girls revival, and an (ironic!) overabundance of parody, including a book called The
Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck (asterisk
definitely not mine). In fact, few lifestyle punchlines have been as culturally pervasive as the Kondo method—rivalled maybe only by juice cleansing and “conscious uncoupling” in recent years— which suggests that women are looking for something real and useful in minimalism.
The all-in way to have less, but get more is by wearing a self-styled “uniform,” which basically just means that you decide to wear the same outfit every day, like Matilda Kahl, the cool creative manager at Sony Music who, in 2015, fashionfamously blogged about her collection of identical white silk shirts, worn with or without a black blazer, black pants, a black tie. According to her Instagram, she’s still “wearing the same thing to work every day” more than two years later.
A slightly more forgiving option is the “fivepiece French wardrobe,” which is usually interpreted by style bloggers as symbolic essentials to build on. It’s dreamy, if theoretical— and it’s catching on. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop concern, for example, moved into “capsule” collections, which are basically just highly marketable, risk-mitigating limited edition fashion lines that offer monthly releases of supposedly elevated basics (Are culottes basics? Is a blazer with a massive bow?).
Since we have access to basically everything via social media, online shopping and disposable fashion, hard limits come as a relief. In the same way that “free-range kids” and “intuitive eating” give social credibility to “relaxing” for women who feel like they are both constantly under surveillance and failing, “less, but better” style solves two problems at once. Kondo’s directive to throw things away, the French idea of chicness as defined by “less” and, of course, rich, patrician Paltrow’s endorsement of owning only the essentials are the answer to our desire to happily release the overwhelming parts of getting dressed (shopping, spending, cleaning, choosing)—and still capture an of-the-moment look and mood.
Like anything prescriptive, though, even something as light as “less, but better” can feel like a self-help mandate that’s self-defeating. Men love to opine about living with less. Author and entrepreneur James Altucher has oft described his post-purge wardrobe of three pairs of pants, three shirts and one pair of shoes. But most women in typical jobs aren’t able to pull off self-created “uniforms” like Altucher, who can do mostly whatever he wants, or like Matilda Kahl, whose youth, creative gig and hotness makes her uniform an appealing quirk instead of an eccentricity.
Women, who still earn less than men and do more unpaid work, tend to have less time and financial capital to make well-researched investments in just-right things. My super-minimalist wardrobe of “better” costs less time and money overall, but dropping hundreds on a single piece still stings.
And, realistically, life is too big to accommodate a wardrobe that’s as small as the one I want, which would be a 10- piece, one-rack capsule of Max Mara, Céline and 1990s Calvin Klein. While my husband has maybe four strata of his sartorial life— ancient gym shit, J.Crew sweats for “stomps” with the dog, heavy sweaters I buy for him (and then steal back) and jeans for casual nights out, and Canali for work and weddings—I have maybe 16, which correspond to the subtleties and sub-levels of the roles and identities that I’m intended to put on and take off. I need streetwear for brunch and shopping with fashion-y friends who can talk Vetements; polished, preppy basics to assert my respectability in meetings when required; floaty-softies for PMS; winter cocktail; summer beach; holiday formal; lingerie; it goes on.
If doing less could include fewer demands made of women, so we didn’t have to wait for a fashion trend to empower us to trust our own judgment,
that would actually be better.
“My husband describes my design aesthetic as ‘a green apple in a bowl on the floor of an otherwise empty room.’”
Model and muse Caroline de Maigret, the epitome of Parisienne cool.
Clockwise from top left: Marion Cotillard, Carla Bruni, Caroline de Maigret, Léa Seydoux, Clémence Poésy and Ines de la Fressange.