Wardrobe 101

Do YOU Think in Outfits or Separates?

Happy day, reader dear!

If you hadn’t noticed, this month’s posts have been themed around simplicity. We started the month talking about simple style and how simple is deeply personal! One woman’s simple might be another woman’s maximal. It’s simply (pun irresistible) a matter of personality. Some might say a matter of taste, but I shy away from that word as it pertains to style. I would venture to say that taste, particularly good taste, is a tyrant, usually imposed on us by others.

It can be illuminating to take a good hard look at from where our ideas of taste, money, shopping, and oodles of other ideas fashion and style come. It’s a little like therapy; you never know what’s going to be under the rock when you turn it over. It might be a joyful childhood experience, or something hurtful. It’s about uncovering the thoughts and values we don’t even know are driving the bus and deciding whether they serve us or not. As an adult human, you get to decide what works for you!

What does this have to do with simplicity? I’m all about simplifying ( in this case, demystifying) style. And understanding how and why we think and feel the way we do about style, fashion, and how it intersects with out life helps us get out of our own way! When getting to know a client, I often turn over a rock or two. Today’s rock uncovers our way of coming at (thinking) shopping and dressing. Do we think in Outfits or Separates?

Why Do We Think Differently?

There is evidence that this Outfits/Separates difference is wired into the way different personalities think and process information. In this case I mean personality in the Meyers/Briggs sense of the word. And yes, some of our differences do come from how you were raised! Most likely it’s a combination with personality dominant… Your nature tends one way. You can think the other, but it’s more work. So what’s the difference between the two?

Outfit Mentality

Outfit Thinkers/Buyers do just that. They think and buy in outfits. If they like a look on the mannequin, they will often purchase the whole thing. That look in the catalog? They buy from top to bottom. When they shop, they don’t buy one piece, unless it’s a dress. Even then, they may purchase the shoes or topper to go with it. New trousers mean a new shirt. Shopping for shoes often means a matching belt, or coordinating bag. Suits hang together in the closet and are worn together. Outfit thinking is compartmentalized and this creates a different wardrobe balance than Separates thinking.

Wardrobe, Coat Hanger, Belts, Dressing Room

Outfit Mentality Pros

Outfit buying and dressing is easy. Someone else has put it together. You simply put it on! If Outfit Thinkers store their clothing in outfit form, dressing is a no brainer! Grab and go. That means that jeans X will always be worn with shirt Y. One of my clients works this way… It means less thinking, and she likes it that way. In the less extreme, Shirt Y will always be worn with blue jeans. The jeans might vary, but never would Shirt Y be seen with grey trousers or a skirt! Some Outfitters will take XYZ-ing to the extreme and include accessories in each grouping.

Outfit buyers rarely end up with Wardrobe Orphans. Or maybe I should say they never start out with W/O’s. They end up with them, though, when one item wears out and its partner in crime doesn’t. Some Outfitters easily dispose of the still good pieces, but others keep them in the closet thinking There’s still plenty of life in this. I’ll keep it to wear it with something else. But they rarely do, because they’re fighting their natural tendencies.

Overall, I’ve met more male Outfit Thinkers/Buyers than female.

The Outfit thinker’s says: I never thought about wearing that with that…

Outfit Mentality Cons

As I mentioned above, the Wardrobe Orphans created when part of an outfit is no longer wearable can clog up the closet. The outfit mentality can also be a real drain on the budget. You spill pasta sauce on your sweater and the stain won’t come out, so you get rid of the sweater and the skirt that went with it… (Unless the damaged item is something always available, like a white shirt, or black sweater. Then s/he can regroup.)

Outfitters, with that 1:1 wardrobe balance, need more closet and storage space than the Separates Buyer. The exception? The Outfitter Minimalist with one to two week’s worth of clothing. The Outfitter’s need for more storage space also translates into more luggage when travel packing. Especially if s/he isn’t sure what the itinerary holds. Or his or her mood. That can mean packing 7 outfits for a three or four day trip. Or more if there are events requiring special dress… Travelling light is not the Outfitter’s forte!

Mannequin, Model, Display, Figure, Store, Women'S

When the Outfitter buys a head to toe look, the effect can be costume-y or lacking in personality. Her style personality! She buys a Classic outfit, and a Relaxed outfit, and a Feminine outfit, all because she liked part of each, but none feels really like her. This can leave her buying more and more outfits that she loves less and less. What she needs is an outfit that combines all the parts!

Separates Mentality

In contrast, the Separates Thinker/Buyer purchases a top here and a bottom there. Her Outfitter friend would think her method haphazard. S/he usually shops more often than Ms. Outfitter, but for fewer pieces at a time. If buying multiple pieces, they may or may not coordinate. A good Wardrobe Balance for Ms. Separates is anywhere from 2:1 to 4:1.

The separates thinker’s says: This will go with the XYZ in my closet…

Separates Mentality Pros

One item of a normally worn together duo wearing out is not the end of the world! It’s completely expected, and planned for. n fact, there’s probably already something else in the closet that will work with the leftover piece.

Color continuity and using a palette is much easier for Ms. Separates. She can pick and choose what works for her and leave the rest behind. She doesn’t feel compelled to reject an entire outfit because one piece isn’t her.

Travel packing is far less stressful for Ms. Separates. She might want to pack an outfit for each day, but realizes it’s not necessary. She plans her packing list with mix and match potential. That helps her cover the itinerary and surprises with more ease and less clothing than Ms. Outfits.

Separates Mentality Cons

It is easy for the Separates thinker to nickel and dime her wardrobe budget to death. Her Outfitter friend pays more each time she shops, and likely is more aware of how much she has spent. Our separates woman can spend twice as much without noticing because it’s an inexpensive blouse here. A tee there. And shorts, shorts everywhere. Shopping without a wardrobe plan can get her into trouble!

The Separates shopper often has a lot of Wardrobe Orphans or returns to make. S/he bought that top because it would be great for the black pants hanging in the closet. But the silhouette isn’t right for those pants, so now it waits for the right piece to come along to wear them with… Or the next trip to the store (or post office) to return.

Ms. Separates can also end up with a disjointed closet (from magpie or mindless shopping), but I often see a stale wardrobe full of Building Basics, and lacking in fun because they are easy and she opts for pieces she knows will work with what she already has.

Combination Thinkers/Buyers

These processes and thought patterns are not mutually exclusive! Some people slot one way for work clothing, and the other for casual wear. I have seen more than one Separates Thinker/Buyer who shifts directly into Outfit Mentality when buying special occasion wear. Don’t we often think head to toe when buying for a wedding? I’ve met an outfit thinker who packs like a professional minimalist with a mix and match wardrobe, but doesn’t translate that skill to home.

How About You?

Now, tell me about your mother… Do you recognize yourself anywhere above? Think back to your childhood and your shopping experiences with your parents or caregivers. Was that shopping more Outfit or Separates focused? What about when you began shopping for yourself? Did you shift? Have you carried those habits forward to today? Do they serve you? Or would you be better served by trying the other? Do tell! I love to hear from you…

Stylishly yours,



    Liz, For the kitchen I think in sets! Say a entire set of dishes and any matching pieces etc. I drive my mother mad!!

  • Sally in St Paul

    I am a separates purchasing magpie who doesn’t reliably return items that don’t work as I’d expected them to, but so far doesn’t have any wardrobe orphans because I am pretty open to mixing things up. It’s interesting because up until junior high I wore a lot of dresses and specific matching outfits. (For example, I would spend all summer in a variety of what you might call two piece rompers, matching top and shorts sets, that my mom could sew up in no time at all.) But one day I was 5′ 6″ and on the small end of a size 1 and very, very hard to fit in off-the-rack clothing. So I got a few nice outfits custom-made from a seamstress, and because they were a little pricey, I couldn’t have many and needed to select wisely. (I didn’t always select wisely.) Otherwise I had to cobble together whatever pieces I could make work into daily outfits for school. When you only have a couple bottoms that aren’t ridiculous on you, I guess you learn to mix and match them with everything else you own! Luckily I grew into a more typical size/shape by high school, but by then, the tendency to dress in outfits was broken.

    • Liz K

      Openness to mixing and a creative spirit definitely helps prevent Wardrobe Orphans. I’m not an outfits dresser, either, but must admit that my love for dresses comes from loving the ease of one-and-done that a dress (or those coordinates your mom whipped up) create. That’s not a far through from outfit thinking, is it. Seeing where we are on the spectrum between the extremes (Especially looking at how it pertains to different aspects of our dressing life.) can help us understand those around us better. I bet your separates penchant overflows to other areas of your life as well… Do you see it elsewhere?

  • blurooferika

    This is such a thought-provoking post, Liz. I definitely fall into the Separates camp. I grew up purchasing clothes piecemeal because of price and availabilty. We, too, were overseas with limited clothing options. I have continued that way into adulthood. I don’t understand people who only think in terms of outfits. To me, it seems very wasteful and restrictive because I love options. But then, as you said, I tend to overshop and have a wardrobe packed with clothes, many of them orphans, many of them heroes. I do record photos of outfits I am trying out on my phone and in a Wardrobe Workout binder, so I don’t mind outfits, it’s just limiting to me. I’m what Imogen calls an Options person. Capsule wardrobes are an exotic idea to me, but I could never do them, except when I travel (when I am forced to impose some discipline on my choices). Will be interested to hear what others have to say.

    • Liz K

      Thank you for your comment! I’m both an options and a limits person, myself, Erika. I like options over time, but prefer limits seasonally to prevent decision fatigue and protect my budget. I agree that if you want lots of options, outfit shopping isn’t your best bet. (Unless you have a closet the size of a bedroom!) Interesting your use of the words “forced to impose discipline” when talking about packing for travel! That’s exactly why I find capsules so freeing. I think of building one as packing for the next three months! (And without some discipline, I can easily overshop. I was just having a talk with myself this morning out on my walk about the wish list on my desk…)


    Liz, I must make a fe things clear. I gre up here you shop for a great deal for Fall/ inter season then picked up some expensive items right after Christmas ( leather riding boots, inter leather handbags, coats, leather gloves etc.) then e didn’t shop again until Spring/ Summer season. e bought a great deal at this time and then again near the end of Summer (for sim suits, sandals and summer handbags etc). I actually thought everyone shopped this ay until I as in my forties!!

    • Liz K

      I, too, grew up with a seasonal shopping pattern, Natalie! That’s not how most people operate any more. Different statistics show that (pre-Covid) many women were buying at least one new clothing item per week, all year long. The fast fashion retailers along with the big box stores play on the Fear of Missing Out to encourage continual purchasing… In a pushback against that, more people are opting for their own form of slow-fashion, which might be purchasing pre-loved, shopping set times of the year, making their own clothing, buying custom-made. Fast is good for those who profit from it. Slow seems to work better for the consumer and the planet.

  • Leslie Susan Clingan

    At one time or another I have been each of these kinds of shoppers. I think I am finally growing up and away from outfit shopping to buying basic pieces that will work with lots of things I already have. Case in point…I bought a white crepe top with elbow length sleeves yesterday to wear with all my skirts. I think it will be a favorite piece this summer. And I really want to start wearing my skirts and dresses more often.

    You always write such thoughtful articles that make me analyze my shopping and purchasing and closet. Thank you!!

    • Liz K

      I think women of our generation (I’m using generation very loosely.) may be some of the last in the US to have been raised with an outfit approach and two season shopping. Style and fashion has changed dramatically since the early 1960’s, and we’ve been riding that roller coaster all the way. Even back-to-school shopping has lost its sartorial focus and become predominantly about school supplies and tech. I LOVE elbow length sleeves! Your crepe top sounds lovely and very versatile! Glad to be there to make you think, Leslie!


    Liz, Just love this post!! ! I shop for separates to mix and match in my clost to form outfits. Then I pick up accessories in bundles (say in navy, classic red and ivory) to combine my navy, classic red and ivory separates to finish off my separates. Then I play around ith everything I’ve aquired-including other separates in my closet- to form as may outfits I can create. I try things on and change accessories around. I love doing this since I as in sixth grade!! My mother and grandmother taught me to shop this ay. It has served me ell over the years!! hen I first heard of making outfits and hanging them this ay in your closet I thought, Ho limiting!?…but I no I can understand!! Everyone is so different!!

    • Liz K

      YES, Natalie! Everyone is different! And rather than thinking of it as outfits vs. separates, it’s probably more like a spectrum with extremes on either end. Knowing your habits and understanding that others work another way can help us communicate. Does your separates mentality extend to other places in your life? For example the kitchen?

  • Lydia

    When I was a kid it was all outfit shopping all the time! Maybe once or twice a year we would get some new things that we needed out of the Lands’ End kids’ catalog. 😉 church outfit, summer play outfit, winter play outfit, DONE. My mom is not a shopper!

    As an adult, however, I am a total magpie shopper. It’s why limits and style guidelines are so helpful in my case- it tempers the “Oh! Pretty!” buying reflex with practical questions about color palette, style, usefulness. Needless to say, I am no stranger to wardrobe orphans. But getting better with help from blogs like this!

    • Liz K

      Thank you, Lydia, for your kind comment! I grew up outfit shopping for school uniforms, and for special events! I remember that shifting dramatically once shopping moved away from downtown to “the mall.” The mall created a seismic shift in shopping patterns in the US.

  • Bettye

    When I first saw the title of your post I was like OOH! OOH! I’m definitely an Outfit person…but I was interpreting that a little differently than you did in the post. I tend to THINK in outfits…but I BUY separates. I don’t know that I’ve bought a matched “outfit” since my 20s (Macy’s Charter Club line used to have really cute matched print gathered skirts + camp shirts, ahh, such fond memories). But even then, I would happily break the “matched set” apart and wear it with different pieces, getting maximum wearability out of the “outfit.”

    But I RARELY (looking down at today’s shirt and going, uhhh) buy one piece without KNOWING that it’s going to work in multiple outfits…which is why I feel like I “think in outfits.” I try not to end up with orphans and my system usually helps me avoid that.

    Funny, you ended up with “tell me about your mother,” cuz I was thinking of her as I was reading your post, re where does our personal sense of style come from. When my mother was dressed (that’s a whole other story) she tended to dress in all one color. Grey skirt, grey sweater…camel pants, camel blouse, camel blouse, etc. I can’t picture here in prints at all…except for her beloved muu-muus, ha ha. But I have always loved a good monochromatic look, and maybe that comes from her influence.

    Interesting post, good food for thought, Liz!


    • Liz K

      What a great distinction, Bettye! I, too, buy separates, but “think” in outfits, as in “How would I use this piece? Can I style it at least three ways?”. Thank you for sharing your Charter Club romp down memory lane! I think the last matched outfit I bought was a suit, but I feel like my love of dresses is related… Interesting that your mom was a monochromatic outfit lover! Did it seem chic or her? Or dowdy? Those columns of color can play either way…

  • Gail McKelvey

    Oh my gosh, I am such a separates buyer. That section could have been about me! I am trying to simplify but $$$ is such a factor for me. I hate to think of wasting the money I spent on whatever item. I keep saying I am frugal. My husband has said over and over that I am cheap! Can’t help it; that is the way we were brought up. My sister says that it runs in our genes! I am trying to be better at eliminating and making more thoughtful purchases. I am good about purchasing things that go with what I am however.

    Great post!

    • Liz K

      Thank you for your comment, Gail! Ahhhh… The sunk cost fallacy keeps many a closet clogged with unloved clothes. Frugal, cheap, thrifty. However you put it, keeping clothes you don’t love and wear is actually an expense! (Not a waste. Learn from the error and it’s a lesson!) I’ve certainly heard your “Can’t help it; that is the way we were brought up.” before. Like I said in the post, you’re an adult who can make different choices. Knowing where those habits come from and deciding if they still serve you is part of living intentionally! Is keeping the excess and buying cheap serving you now at this point in your life? Or has it become a weight dragging you down?

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