Simplicity, productivity, and the personal uniform.

Simplicity, productivity, and the personal uniform.

I’m fascinated by—and a little jealous of—highly productive people who wear the same thing every day.

I know I struggle with decision fatigue, but that doesn’t make me unique. We all do. Each decision we make throughout the day takes a toll on our finite amount of mental energy.

That’s why people like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and even President Obama adopted a personal uniform.

I’ve been thinking of doing it myself.

In high school, I was envious of my Catholic school friends who wore the same skirt, polo, and cardigan to school every day. When they rolled out of bed every morning they knew exactly what they would wear. To my high school self, that meant they could sleep for the extra fifteen minutes I had to spend choosing my outfit for the day.

closet full of stripes

I’ve heard style gurus speak about the effectiveness of limiting the colors of your wardrobe. Pick two or three complimentary colors and make them “yours,” and you’re well on your way to looking great every day, with very little effort.

I tried limiting my wardrobe to two colors for a while—black and French blue—and quickly abandoned it. I got bored. But I was younger then, and didn’t care as much about avoiding decision fatigue. Would it be different for me now?

Generally speaking, the personal uniform seems much easier for a man to pull off. Did you read about the Australian newscaster who wore the same suit every day for a year as a social experiment? No one noticed.

But even he said there was no way his female co-anchor could have gotten away with that without drawing commentary.

carrie donovan

As a woman, the idea of tightly constricting my wardrobe feels a little scary.

Yet there are women who pull it off.

Choreographer Twyla Tharp wears the same workout clothes and leg warmers every day, as part of her unvarying daily routine. She’s adamant about saving as much mental energy as possible for her craft.

Many women in fashion successfully pull off the personal uniform. Carrie Donovan, a retired editor from Vogue and Harper’s, wore all black with a string of pearls and huge eyeglasses. Grace Coddington of Vogue wears all black these days.

Anna Wintour rainbow

Even Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, has been wearing a variation of the same uniform since the ’80s: a blouse, jacket, and a-line skirt, plus her razor-sharp bob and dark sunglasses, which she calls her “personal armor.”

This summer, I noticed that I had fallen into a uniform of my own, quite accidentally. Every day I wore a striped shirt (one of a dozen slightly different designs), neutral bottoms, and silver sandals. I loved it, because I rolled out of bed knowing exactly what I would wear that day: the next shirt hanging in my closet and whatever bottoms happened to be clean.

The change of seasons has reinforced how much I enjoyed that summer simplicity. In the early fall I wore simple tees and thin sweaters, with jeans and a scarf, every day. But now that it’s suddenly cold outside I need to refine my idea of what I want my daily outfits to look like, because I’m already begrudging the mental energy I’m expending on wintry layers.

I feel a little silly writing something like “figure out a daily uniform” on my to-do list, but I’m inspired by those people who consciously streamline their daily decisions—like what they eat or what they wear—so they can be more efficient in their work and their relationships.

I’m hoping there’s a sweet spot between cheerful dressing for the ordinary days and saving my mental energy for more important things.

What are your tips for striking that balance? 

P.S. Dress for the day; dress for the life.

Personal Uniform

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161 comments

  1. Jennifer H says:

    I have really enjoyed reading all these comments. I have the same basic bottoms (black, charcoal, dark brown, and one pair of jeans). All my tops are either black or very colorful. Not just a couple colors either, but they go with most, if not all my bottoms. I also have several cardigans and jackets that can be worn with multiple tops. I never really thought of myself as having a uniform though. I think you might enjoy this book I read many years ago:
    http://www.amazon.com/Simplify-Your-Life-Things-Really/dp/0786880007/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1416961497&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+st+james+simplify+your+life

  2. Renee B says:

    Anne, where do you purchase most of your clothes..I enjoy classic styling and I’m thinking if I could narrow my choice of stores to a handful where I like the styling that perhaps that will help. I was especially curious about your simple print long sleeve blouses you mentioned. My home is exactly how I like it..my closet not so much.

    • Anne says:

      I’ve been taking the easy way out for a while now and getting most of them through Stitch Fix and Popbasic. They both do a ton of stripes. 🙂

      • Renee brooke says:

        Seriously, you’ve changed my life. I had never heard of stitch fix or pop basic…wow! That’s why is girls need each other.:)

  3. Kathleen R says:

    I loved reading all the comments!

    I am 47 and work part time as a Nanny. My daily uniform is dark wash jeans. I have 5 pair all the same. I found an inexpensive line of T-shirts that have are a solid color with a sparkly/glitter design on front. It sounds bad as I type that but they are pretty and OK for my age (or so I am told).

    I stick to pinks, purples, grays with a little aqua/turquoise. In summer I wear short sleeves and long in winter – same line of t-shirts. I wear the same pair of gym shoes every day. Previously a leopard print pair, now a snake skin pair. I’ve got my normal day uniform down pat. I’ve been thinking of adding a pair of earrings and some make up to feel a little more pulled together. I loved the comment from someone who said that red lipstick was part of her uniform!

    My 6 year old charge commented on my 2nd week working for the family that I wear the same style of jeans and shoes ever day. People do notice but so what.

    My problem is outside of my normal day. What do I wear to church or dates? I’ve decided I need a second uniform for more dressy occasions. My problem is that I have a small budget and its hard to find things I like in a plus size. But I’m thinking it will consist of dark pants, a more flirty pair of shoes and a lacy top. I really like lace and romantic looks.

    I think I also need an all purpose dress in a neutral color and a few statement necklaces or scarfs for the occasion where a dress is needed (like weddings, funerals, holiday parties and special occasions). Currently I tend to just not go to those occasions or wear slacks and feel out of place.

    • Belinda says:

      Just because you have a uniform does not mean it has to be boring! I wear black bottoms only (dress pant, yoga pant, capris) with black or white tank or 3/4 sleeve t’s all with v-necks or scoop necks depending on season. I have many colorful cardigan sweaters, blouses, vests to throw over. I wear only black shoes but have MANY pairs and I wear all of them. I wear only silver jewelry. I love scarves. I also have jean capris when I can find good ones that fit. I find that I am dressed well every day and can go anywhere (since I’m a minister, this is important). All of my clothes are comfortable! I limit my base color and the styles of my clothes. This keeps shopping super simple.

  4. I have always loved the idea of a personal uniform, but I’m only now getting to the age where it’s accepted (26–but my family always said I was born 40). I’m an English PhD student studying environmental and agrarian literature, so my little corner of academia is more casual than most. My personal uniform is dark wash jeans and a button down (I prefer plaid, but to teach I usually wear a sold black or white oxford). For shoes, moccasins or birks when it’s nice out or cowboy boots when it’s raining or really cold. I know that there might be a University in my teaching future where I will have to swap the jeans for nicer trousers, but this is what makes me feel confident in front of a classroom and yet comfortable while listening to a lecture.

    I love that your post makes me feel more normal about my habitual clothing choices. It’s just easier and I think that when you know what makes you feel confident, there’s no reason to buy anything else!

  5. Karen says:

    Just discovered your blog, and am enjoying it!

    I just cleaned out my closet for Lent. Trying to simplify. Clothing and consumption take up too much space in my head. Now, I find I have all the things I need. That green skirt I pinned? Oh, I have it already! I have a large closet, so the things I am wearing this spring take up just half of it. Some items I like but wear less, I place in the other half of the closet in case I get tired of the “capsule wardrobe”.

    In case you’re interested, my capsule wardrobe consists of:
    – one dress
    – 3 skirts
    – 8 pairs of pants (black, gray, red, khaki, cords & jeans). This includes a great pair of army green hiking pants which look nice enough for casual Friday!
    – 3 cardis
    – a couple of sweaters
    – a dozen tops, half short sleeve and half long (doesn’t include a few t-shirts).
    – a few jackets (blazer, fleece, rain shell, jean)

    I had a hard time finding any such lists so I hope it is useful to your readers. Not as minimal as some but this is what I can do. FYI, I have to look professional for work but not super dressy, so I try to have only comfy clothes that I can wear both at work and around town. I like to buy from LOFT and Ann Taylor. Where would I be without online purchases and easy return policies!

    I agree, it’s too much to think of every possible combination of clothes with a capsule wardrobe. But it’s nice to reach a point where you can choose a top and a bottom, and you know it will match AND fit well and doesn’t require much thought. It has taken me a few years to figure out my style and colors (classic/ preppy, bolder jewel tones – love red/ purple with black), and then to acquire all these items!

    I have been so tempted to get Stitch Fix, but honestly, since cleaning my closet I feel much more at peace with my wardrobe! I’ll stick to Pinterest and save my money!

  6. Jacki M says:

    I recently changed over to a minimal wardrobe. I found that I was enjoying wearing dresses with leggings (the dresses a tad short for me) so I downsized to 25 hangers of my favorite items. I take about 2 minutes picking out my clothes and I feel good every day.

  7. Anna says:

    I love this whole idea just like I love the idea of a minimalist wardrobe, but I have never done my hair the same way two days in a row and I feel the same about my clothes. Do you think it’s possible to just be “that type of person” or not? Like I said, I kinda wish I could do it, but I don’t think I’d really be happy wearing the same type of thing every day! I like too many different things! I mean, I basically stick to neutrals and blues, but besides that, everything is different. Not to mention the month that would go into revamping my wardrobe!

    • Anne says:

      It seems that some people daily dressing feeds some people’s creativity, and hampers others’ ability to be creative in other ways. Once you know which type you are, you can go from there.

  8. DJC says:

    The smartest thing I ever did was read a book called ” Color me beautiful ” by Carole Jackson. Based on pictures and questions in the book, you are assigned a season, winter, spring, summer or fall. ( I’m a Winter, I look best in deep ,rich jewel tones, silver jewelry ,etc ) Also suggests styles for your body type.This book saved me tons of money, no more making mistakes buying the wrong things ! I buy 90% of my clothes from Goodwill, get lots of compliments, and at 57 years old I’ve found my fall /winter “style “, black, gray or blue jeans, long or short sleeved T shirts,(solid) a lite cardigan or jacket (solid) and a patterned scarf,boots or flats, silver hoop earrings, colored bracelets. Spring /summer is lighter clothes, less layers. Getting dressed is a breeze !!

  9. Elyse Snow says:

    In her iconic book, Edith Head suggests the same: find three colors (two neutrals + 1 color) and base your wardrobe on it. Hers was black/beige/white, which is really 3 neutrals, but… I have limited my closet to black/white/gray + blues, red, violets–I know it sounds unlimited, but I’ve eliminated greens, yellows, oranges, beige, browns… that’s a lot. I also focus on the blues and have more clothes in the range between pale/pastel blue to navy while red=RED (true, blue-red and wine) and violets is the least present. Additionally, I do have a fairly simple plan: (top + skirt/pants) or dress + cardigan/pullover. Again, sounds more involved than it is; I add patterns thru scarves and jewelry, while having my clothing mostly solid color with some texture. I have found this to be a neat, professional, and attractive solution to teaching in a relatively informal university department but also attending administrative/creative meetings.

    • Patricia Lee says:

      I went to a Catholic school and was required to wear a uniform, this included regulation shoes and socks. We didn’t have extra money
      to spend on clothes, so I was saved the embarrassment of “keeping up”. When I had my first job in a large office it was tough to have to dress to impress, or keep up with the fashion. When I worked in a lab with standard lab uniforms, I was relieved.

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