book review: The Curated Closet



Anuschka Rees, The Curated Closet
Ten Speed Press, 2016 (U.S. edition)

I tend to read with rapt attention everything I can find about wardrobe planning. If you are undertaking the Wardrobe Architect challenge, I will likely wait for every post as if it were a new episode of a hit TV series. But my passion for reading about wardrobe planning is matched by my strong resistance to commit to any wardrobe planning program fully and faithfully. I refuse to be diligent and orthodox in favor of gradual changes.

So I’m not going to tell you that I’ve conscientiously worked through every step from The Curated Closet. But I am going to tell you that I’ve read the book with great pleasure, paused, took notes, tried out a few things, and am definitely returning to the book.

Anuschka Rees is throughtful and sensible in her approach to wardrobe planning and — perhaps more importantly — in her approach to giving advice on this loaded subject. Now, if The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has indeed changed your life, you might want to skip to the section of my review below the next photo, because you might not like what I’m going to say. While I’m all for keeping a good cleaning and de-cluttering routine, the tyranny of “sparking joy” that’s spread over the Internet thanks to Kondo’s book has really worried me. The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observed long before Kondo’s book came out that Westerners appeared to him “enjoyment-challenged,” and in teaching Western students to meditate, he focused on helping them find joy in the practice. For the students that meant finding out what joy is through mindfulness.

Maybe if Kondo’s book took a detour into Eastern thought before sending readers on a purge of epic proportions, I’d have ended up less worried about its impact. But without this more philosophical training prior to throwing out everything that’s not immediately running away from you, we got a lot of talk online about joy, a lot of yard sales happened, and then, inevitably, a lot of shopping. I wrote this earlier in a comment thread elsewhere, but I hope you won’t mind me repeating myself: I bet a lot of toilet brushes got thrown out and then, quietly, bought. I don’t know of anyone who’d describe them as “sparking joy” but a house is miserable without them.

I don’t want to use that book as a punching bag. I genuinely believe a lot got lost in translation and in the deep forest of substitutes for joy that capitalism has readily provided for us. One of such substitutes is the illusion of control that comes with these epic purges. It’s an illusion that disappears as soon as we stock up anew.

There’s nothing easier these days than getting rid of your old wardrobe and completely replacing it in a very short period of time… And that’s part of the larger problem.

What I really appreciate about The Curated Closet, beyond the practical tips and the clarity of their presentation, is that Anuschka Rees is not afraid to spend time on describing the substitutes for joy offered by fast fashion.

I’ve found the section on analyzing the connection between your lifestyle and your wardrobe particularly helpful for understanding why clothes shopping has typically been an exasperating experience for me.

Take a look at this pie chart:

Source: The Curated Closet

It’s witty — and how often do we think of pie charts in those terms? — and it makes me think of what happens when I go shopping for clothes. Unless I’m at a thrift store, I feel like I’m walking into a story about an aspirational life, which is also decidedly not my life. “Here’s the kind of top you should be wearing to work this season”; “pair it with these pants, or these skirts, and just the tights in those specific colors,” the racks and shelves call out. The design details are very specific, and there’s often quite a bit of embellishment to contend with. Every section of the store corresponds to an area of such a lifestyle pie chart — it seems to be set up for particular (and often idealized) life situations. It’s easy to leave the store equipped for this unlived, surreal life.

That’s where the minimalist argument from the book comes in. Our real lives are both simpler and more complicated. The embellishments and details can’t be too uniform or overwhelming if we are to transition between areas on our real pie charts. At the same time, our tasks and life situations will be more real and concrete than the drinks at the rooftop restaurant scenario some clothing brand has aspirationally planned for us.

Not wanting the readers to lose our minds over this conundrum, Rees gives us some real pie charts to look at (and make ourselves):

Reality check courtesy of The Curated Closet.

The pie chart exercise has helped me think about the discrepancy between “want to sew” and “need to wear” that inevitably sneaks into my sewing plans. I’m not trying to weed out all spontaneity from my sewing choices, rest assured. But I really like the idea of not letting an imagined life gleaned from different sources overshadow the real life, and the real need for nice clothes for the non-glamorous moments.

I also really love the explanation for why it’s worth to resist the urge to do a complete “clean out” and just buy a new wardrobe that the book offers. I’m slowly phasing out some of the more worn RTW items. Many of them never “sparked joy” but I try to appreciate how well they’ve served me and understand the role they’ve really been playing. And to mend whenever possible, which Rees also advises.

In a nutshell, I highly recommend this book both to those who like to be more orthodox in their planning efforts, and those who like to read, take their time, and don’t mind making up the occasional pie chart.

And if you’d like to know more about the author and her approach before investing in the book, you can find her blog here. This post is one of my favorites, and has been one of the most practical aides I’ve found for defining and actually wearing a “style.”

(PS: This isn’t a sponsored post. I bought the book myself, having enjoyed reading the author’s blog, and I’ve offered my genuine opinion above.)


clever underpinnings

Nanette Rothhacker
The Undies Book: An Easy Step by Step Guide to Making undies-book-coverBeautiful, Inexpensive Custom-Fit Underwear
New York: Charkes Scribner’s Sons, 1976

I stumbled upon this book by accident, through this review, which pairs it with another title from the 1970s. I just knew I’d like to have it, if for the illustrations alone.

The book is fully illustrated, by Blaine Saunders, a mysterious heir or heiress to Alfons Mucha. I say mysterious, because a simple Google search gives me photos of a person who couldn’t have been grown-up enough in 1976 to illustrate this book. If you are reading this, Blaine Saunders, the illustrator, please let me know where I could find more of your work.

Don’t let all this intriguing aesthetization of undies, ladies, and what I presume could be well-watered house plants lull you into thinking The Undies Book is just eye candy. It’s a very practical book that sets out to guide you through underwear projects from the simplest to the unexpected.

Knitted ski snuggies: if I don’t fix my sewing machine, I will cave and cast these on.

The book opens with information about fabric choice and sewing techniques. That section is certainly somewhat dated, but I wouldn’t dismiss it. It’s worth a read, especially if you like to sew with vintage fabrics and like using older machines.

What really dates the book is — quite obviously for today’s reader — its use of the term”inexpensive.” In the age of fast fashion, this book will help you understand construction and the patterns might help you create more durable clothes rather than save money. I wonder what the authors would say about that?

Besides tips and tricks, there are actual patterns included for every project. I don’t know how usable the pattern format is because I haven’t tried any of them yet, but it seems pretty clever if a bit demanding.

The patterns are mapped out on a grid in which every square represents 1 inch. You need to re-scale them to get a usable pattern. The range of sizes is very limited. Still, you get something to work with here, more than just a general idea.

While I can’t attest to the quality of the patterns and instructions, I am definitely tempted to give some of them a try. Some of them are quite brilliant. What could be more useful with short dresses than a pair of pettipants?


The review I linked to above questions the usefulness of the pant liners, which follow the pettipant in the book. As a long-time owner of woolen pants/trousers, I can tell you I find that kind of a slip-in lining a fantastic idea, and I’d be tempted to sew those if only those woolen pants hadn’t reached the end of their lifespan.

In sum, there’s a lot here to love: The Undies Book sets out to make pretty undies affordable for a ’70s home sewist, and in most cases it keeps things simple. The style isn’t exactly what you’d call timeless in many cases, but apart from those pieces with a distinct ’70s vibe (those knitted ski snuggies!) many of the garments are minimalist enough to appeal to those who don’t sew vintage.

I’d like to find more books like this one. Any recommendations?