100 Items or Less

On March 15, my friend and Studiomate Chris Shiflett put out a call for his readers to write the Ideas of March as a commitment to substantive blog posts. I asked him what I should write about. I don’t usually tackle what others in our webby community would consider stimulating, educational or controversial (although if you knew what actually went on in my head, you’d agree that everything I write is actually all three for me on a personal level). He said, “You have lots of ideas. Just write one of them down.” I decided to choose a subject I’ve been avoiding for a long time and see if I could come up with any fresh ideas worth sharing. True, I had a few drinks, but I must have been inspired because I ended up envisioning what amounts to a major overhaul of important yet neglected area of my life. So without further ado, here’s my contribution to the Ideas of March, and true to my nature, I’ve posted it without a day to spare. 1 hour to imagine; 5 hours to distill and write; an estimated 50 hours of action required.

I have over 500 items of clothing in my possession. And that’s a conservative estimate that doesn’t include my three costume bins. In contrast, I live in a 547-square-foot studio. With one closet. And another human being. Who also likes to wear the occasional piece of clothing. Currently, there’s a stack (or if I’m being painfully honest, two or three stacks) of clothing siting on the floor outside the closet waiting to be shoved back in somewhere that doesn’t really exist. If we’ve met, it’s not hard to imagine how things got this way. I have an eye for colorful, quirky and whimsical clothing, and my passion in life is finding it second-hand. If I come across an amazing piece and it’s under $20, it’s as if I’m on a Mission from God to bring it home, style it up and wear the hell out of it.

As much as I love being able to dress to suit any possible mood, and goodness knows I’ve got many, I don’t love the effect it has on my living space. Meanwhile, everything else in my life is sort of on a roll. I’m working hard to simplify, sort out, consolidate and shed. I’m traveling. I’m designing. I’m writing. I feel closer to becoming the best person I can be, my true self, with each passing day. But my closet remains a bloated mess, and for someone who loves expressing herself through what she wears, that seems like a huge contradiction.

In an attempt to find a solution, I decided to take a page from Sarah Kay and list THREE THINGS I know to be true…

1. I’m not going to stop bringing things home.
After considerable thought, I’ve decided second-hand shopping simply brings me too much joy to quit. And frankly, I think I’m pretty great at it. I’m not exactly sure what it means to be great at something so odd and specific, but I’m starting to find the value in it. I’m committing to it as a form of self expression, photographing my outfits and talking about my experiences. This exploration has only begun, but it’s already taken me to some interesting places internally and externally, so I’ve decided to keep it up for now.

2. It’s no fun to come home to a mess.
I love my husband and we both love our tiny home. It may be small, but it’s got phenomenal views, great amenities, and it’s quite conveniently located only four blocks from the world’s most amazing workspace. But only having one room and a lot of stuff means you’re living ON your stuff. It’s hard to feel like you’re living the dream when you’re surrounded by disorganization. Tackling the mess might be the final frontier in what is otherwise a beautiful life and marriage. I owe it to us to get my act together.

3. I thrive on challenge.
At the beginning of this month, I traveled to California with nothing in my suitcase but a week’s worth of undies. I had one day in which to find a week’s wardrobe, and I had the time of my life. In art school, I learned to conquer the decision paralysis of the blank page by imposing arbitrary constraints on my work. What could I do with only these two colors or this one simple image? My designs became more focused and ultimately more successful. Once I commit to operate within a set of rules, I usually excel.

Taking into account these three things, the obvious solution seems like a dramatic reduction to my closet. But how should I go about it? How can I make it stick? I’ve often been encouraged to adopt a one-in-one-out policy, but when you’re emotionally attached to EVERYTHING in your closet, a spur-of-the-moment purchase can spiral into a draining assessment of each of the more than 500 items to determine what should, or even possibly could, go. It’s too much, and I’ve never had any luck with it. I need a more customized, stricter yet simpler process. And it needs to take into account the first item on the above: I’m NOT gonna stop bringing things home. So I’ve decided to begin with a dramatic purging. This way I won’t have to make decisions about what stays and what goes. It’s all gotta go. I’ll then start over in a very specific way: I’ll only ever have in my possession at any given moment 100 items of clothing or less. And so for the first time anywhere ever…

Guidelines for The 100 Items Or Less Experiment

  • There will be no more than 100 items in my wardrobe at any given time.
  • Items will be considered less in my possession and more on temporary loan. After all, since every item is second-hand, it had a home before me, and it will now all be assured of having a home after me.
  • Items will be assessed on first-of-the-month basis, and only extremely practical or more expensive items (such as a winter coat) might be allowed to stay more than 3 months.
  • The 100 items will be divided up into 10 categories of 10 like items. For example, there will be 10 tops, 10 bottoms, 10 pairs of shoes.
  • Each group of 10 will be assigned a color. (Hello, Rainbow!)
  • Each group will be given space in either the closet or a drawer. These spaces will be designated by labels in the assigned colors with either hangers or drawer dividers, also in the assigned colors.
  • I should be able to see at a glance where to put things away. No crowding and pre-determination of item location should keep things neat and tidy.
  • I should be able to tell at a glance from which group and item should be removed when a new item is brought home, and I’ll have at most 10 other items against which to assess the one-in-one-out policy. For example: Bring home a skirt? Something from the “bottoms” section, which happens to be blue, needs to move on.
  • When it’s time for items to move on, I’ll iron a tiny label with my name and url somewhere inside. This way, it makes it a fun game if anyone else every comes across one of my items and cares to look the item up. They can perhaps read about it and send me an email.
  • I’ll be firm but forgiving with myself. This is a new idea and it will certainly morph as I test it out.

I’m truly hoping combining the idea of less attachment to items with the idea of less items overall will do the trick. What will be the actual outcome? Will Creighton and I be able to come home to the apartment we’ve always dreamed of? Will I feel liberated or stifled? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to actually put the Ideas of March into action. Pretty perfectly, my birthday happens to be in April! What better time to take action? What better time for rebirth? What better time for a party? I’ve decided to host an event where I’ll offer all my clothes for sale with proceeds benefiting a great cause. April 16 will be epic. I’ll go home to an empty closet for the first time. And April 17 will mark the first day of 100 Items or Less. If you’d like to do something similar, please join me!

Now I’m not advocating this exact solution for anyone else. I chose what feels right for both me and the size of my closet, but 100 Items or Less might not be right for you. But here’s what I am advocating: give your wardrobe and its organization a long hard think. Is it everything you want it to be? Does it say what you want it to say? And if not, why not? It’s one area of your life where you should feel happy and in control. And as an extension, what are the areas of your life where you don’t feel you’re doing your best? Maybe give those a long hard think as well. Then write it down and get to work. Doing just that has helped me turn a deep, dark messy hole of a thing in my life into something I’m now truly excited to take on. I can’t wait to get started. Thanks for the encouragement, Chris.

And now friend, if you’ve read this entire post, I owe you a cookie. I’m honestly flattered that you were either a.) interested in what I have to say or b.) care that much about me as a person!


  1. Chroma Lab

    I will happily cheer you on as you undertake a new challenge. I, too, find imposing restraints a really effective way to move forward, and darned if color sorting and labeling aren’t the most satisfying activities ever. Good on you!

  2. Martha Taylor

    You owe me TWO cookies (chocolate chip please), because I am   A and B!! You inspire me too. And, since April is also my birth month and because I’ve recently lost 30 pounds, I’m going to try the same thing. Don’t think I can stick to 100 things to keep, but since I’m so much older (good excuse!), maybe I’ll start with 150 things. Love you sweetie! LET THE CRAZIENESS BEGIN! Mom

  3. Megan O'Connor

    Jessi I think this is a phenomenal idea.

    I too had to set a steadfast rule for myself that started on New Years Day: no shopping in 2011. This is the only full calendar year that i will be in graduate school and living in student loans. Even more importantly- I have clothes… I have A LOT of clothes. So much so that Zach had to build me a special Container Store closet extension. So I am three months in to the 12 month experiment and I have to say it has been so hard, but also so eye opening. Anything new that has come into my closet so far this year has been the result of swapping for something I already own at a vintage or second hand store. Also I sold a few things I owned on Ebay and used those proceeds to get something new. The only time I can get something new is if I first sold something so that no new funds are spent on clothes. I wont lie, there have been some tears while looking at Etsy and Zach already bought me my birthday present (which is in November) after I became convinced a cardigan I found was a once in a lifetime find. So I will sadly not be at your sale April 16th because I don’t trust my self control, but I think what you are doing is wonderful. Good luck!

  4. Erica Heinz

    I look forward to seeing this awesome initiative represented in candy! Or the secondhand boutique you start :)

  5. Lydia Mann

    Wow Jessi, now that’s a challenge!

    Though not possessing your acquisitive expertise, I would love to dump half of my clothing, but bristle at the thought of committing to buying more when the weather changes. I am of the one-in, at-least-one-out practice, but I have had many more years of accumulation (and multiple closets!).

    Thanks for the inspiration – I’ll keep you posted.

  6. Martha Taylor

    Yikes!! WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO? I still have stuff in my closet from the 70’s & 80’s! This is going to be so much harder than I thought. You get it honest girl! Love, MOM

  7. Laura

    Just in case: What’s the cubic footage of your studio? What if you put your bed on a platform accessible by ladder and put shelves and drawers and hanging racks below it?

  8. Alex

    I am so in for this sale! When I read your blog I feel challenged to figure out how to revamp my life and be more myself, which is almost as scary as the thought of having an empty closet!

  9. p

    Wishing you all the best! 

    My husband and I are on a similar mission.  10 years ago we moved into a much larger home.  It felt so great.when we moved it as several rooms were basically empty.  What a luxury, right?  How quickly that changes.  If you have two closets, you fill two closets.  It isn’t the lack of closets that’s the problem.  We found that if you have the space, you fill it up.  It isn’t the lack of space that’s the problem, it’s the aquisition and the resulting attachment to things.  I too don’t wish to stop thrift store shopping - I truly enjoy shopping at thrift stores and garage sales.  I love vintage clothing and refurbishing old furniture.  However, we have started the process of downsizing to a smaller house by a major purge. Then we’ll sell this house and move back to a smaller one.  You are so right to live in a place that is the perfect location with a great view and close to work rather than roomier.  You are also right, that the emotion ties to things is the hardest.  But it also feels so good to release things back into the world to let someone else enjoy them for a while (not that I don’t shed a few tears in the process or have occasional remorse over something I was so “stupid” to have gotten rid of - be prepared for that.  Still, so few things are truly irreplaceable.).  Shedding also allows for new stuff to come into your life.  Plus, i find that keeping a photo of “my favorite things”  helps too.  It’s a memory trigger that’s takes up so much less space.  I also ask myself, “Does this item belong in the life I want to create for myself?”  Focus on the vision.  Modern, clean, organized, & based on activities.  If sometime is useful, but it’s lacking somehow or I don’t LOVE it, it has to go.

    It’s so easy to get stuck and it often takes a real concerted effort to overcome the inertia that getting stuck creates-that’s what I’m learning and working on. 

    Thanks for your post and insights and I look forward to updates.

  10. Kathy Mershon

    Will you visit my closet next? Does thos mean I can’t send you presents? Love this idea, but don’ let the rules get in the way of your creativity!
    Love, Kathy

  11. Abby

    Definitley a good challenge—and I like that you are willing to let it evolve if need be.  One idea is to sell everything that you don’t sell at your party through your blog.  And did you ever think about using that as your “out” let for your closthes that have to go out as you bring new ones in?  You may get a lot more readers, and maybe they would pay towards your charitable cause for something cool that you’ve already done the work of finding.  Or they would probably at least pay shipping.  Just a thought.  Good luck with your revolving closet!!

  12. Sarah Krzymowski

    Well, I did read the whole article, and so I must care about what you write because I don’t know you!
    I’ve been thinking about minimally living, and this caught my eye. Good luck!

  13. hannah

    yay for closet minimizing. i am getting close to needing to do this before i move. but i know i’m going to have a heart attack if i have to let anything go!! ahh well. i like your rainbow color scheme, perhaps i’ll steal that a bit..

  14. Tesh

    As a list making and chronic planner, I LOVE the carefully thought-out organisation of this idea! Nice work, I’m impressed with your wardrobe culling initiative. :-)

  15. Astrid Irene Natalie

    This is such a great idea Jessi… I’ve just stopped buying new clothes at the beginning of the year and it feels great to use up and discover all the treasures hidden in my closet :)
    Thanks for the inspiration x

  16. Veryan

    Right, I am off to sort one drawer in homage to this excellent post (small steps, right?!). I watched your talk on TED this morning and have been smiling all day (and with an 8 month old, that’s sometimes a challenge!!) Thanks from the other side of the pond…

  17. Adrienne

    Wow, great idea, what are your 10 categories?

  18. Adrienne

    Found them in the graphic at the top! thank you ;-)

  19. ec

    I’m suffering from exploding closet syndrome, so much so, that even an accidental glimpse at those hoarding shows on TV makes me REALLY uncomfortable. As I’m exactly twice your age, I’m going to aim (gradually, mind you)... for 200 items :)
    Now, where’s my cookie??

  20. Wynne

    I found your blog through Ted Talk and I also LOVE shopping at thrift stores! So excited to see that someone else also has the same passion :D!  I love wearing new outfits everyday, but didn’t want to spend $40 on a new top every week. Now I can have 10 tops for $40 and I don’t have to look like everyone else!  My motto with buying more is one-in-one-out, so it’s less of a crazy situation ;)

    Keep rockin’!

  21. Penelope

    I would love to know how the 100 items closet is working out. I am a professional/business woman in a conservative environment hewing at the PC s face and having dull meetings daily. I don’t see myself in rainbow colours as it is not my style but I would love to pare down the wardrobe to a simple century.  It’s a great challenge. Perhaps the shoes and bags provide the fun colours. Thanks for the inspiration.

  22. joanne

    wow! i found you thru ted as well. i am so truly impressed with your 100 items mission and have been trying to find the right method to purge my closet. this is it. thrifting has been a serious passion of mine and now i have a baby. so i have to make room for baby things. i hope that i can be as successful with my purge-a-thon and then baby lucy can share in many colorful and fun outfits that rotate and evolve as we both grow up. love it love it love it. your blog is epic. thanks for being so great and colorful.

  23. sarita

    my name is sarita and carol tuttle of dressing your truth sent me your ted video.
    first i have to say that i love gold anything because it goes with everything and every color.
    i have decided to donate or sell all my black clothes/shoes/bags. i hardly wear black so i don’t know why i have such a huge amount of black stuff. this will be the third time in my life that i have completely purged all my black stuff. then i am donating or selling any stuff that i feel is too dark for me. i really prefer wearing bright light colors.
    i truly enjoy reading your blog, i feel as if i have known you forever. i find myself smiling the whole time im reading it or looking at the pictures. what a happy place to visit. i have subscribe to the rss. thank you lucky so and so.

  24. madeleine "colourmad" bengtsson


    it feels like i’m reading about myself. i buy stuff, only second hand, all the time. and always according to colour. i also join a lot of cloth swapping, but with so little space, and a man with a lot of guitars, we must do something soon.

    how is it going for you?

    lots of colourlove!!

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