How Many Clothes Are Too Many?

Or confessions of an unapologetic closet murderer.
Publish date:
July 27, 2011
plus sizes, possible shopping addiction, horror stories, dress hoarding

Thanksgiving, two years ago: My family was visting from Florida.

I was a hassled wreck, as I always am preparing a big holiday meal, with the cooking and the timing and -- most of all -- the wine, which makes the cooking and the timing all the more challenging to manage, but which is essential so that I am not brought to an anxiety meltdown over the cooking and the timing.

I am not great at hosting dinner parties, though I am excellent at attending them. I heard my husband calling me from the bedroom. I went to investigate, hazy from the wine and the hot hot kitchen, annoyed to be dragged from my important task of waiting for the potatoes to boil. He said nothing, but waved me into the room, while our guests talked amongst themselves down the hall, ignorant of the catastrophe that had occurred. He pointed -- there, on the bedroom floor, lay the entire contents of my closet.

“What did --” I began, but he cut me off:

“It was like that when I came in. I don’t know what happened.”

He looked at me, and I must have appeared to be on the verge of some indescribable convergence of emotional havoc, because he immediately fled the room without another word. Suddenly incapable of speech, I surveyed the damage. It seemed the weight of my wardrobe had torn the closet hanging rod and the shelf above it out of the wall, shearing the mounting screws from their anchors.

Our condo was new when we bought it, and the closet thus only a couple years old when it was brutally felled by my mighty army of dresses. For the next hour, while I tried (and failed) not to cry, my mother and I collected my clothing, now in a drywall-dusted hanger-tangled shambles on the floor, and piled it on the bed. Soon we realized there was too much to pile on the bed, and began to pile in the guest room as well.

It wasn’t long before we were dealing with five-foot-tall stacks of my clothing. Where was I going to sleep? I had no idea. My closet was dead, and in the act of having to lift its contents, I was overcome with shame. I had SO MANY clothes.

Almost all of them dresses and cardigans. An embarassment of riches, assembled over years of meticulous bargain-hunting. It was all ridiculously heavy, even when taken up in small batches. My weight of my collected clothing could crush a child TO DEATH, I realized in horror. Maybe even a smallish adult!

My mom, from whom I learned my fashion-obsessing ways, was cheerful and reassuring throughout, telling me of all the closets she’d personally dispatched to the afterlife. But still I felt terrible. I’ve recently been asked “How many clothes are too many?” and clearly I am not a person who can answer such a question.

As someone who wears a size at which amazing clothing is a rare and precious resource, I have operated for most of my life under a buy-it-now, figure-out-how-you’ll-wear-it-later philosophy. I’ve mostly been able to rationalize this as a smart practice and not a dangerous addiction because when I think to myself, “What if I never find this in my size again?” it’s a very real likelihood.

The clothes I want most do not exist in my size, for any price, period. So my tendency is to hoard whatever well-fitting and reasonably priced clothing I do find, like a dress-seeking magpie. Maybe right now I don’t feel like dressing like Nancy Spungen, or Betty Draper, or Stevie Nicks... but someday I might.

This kind of clothes-hoarding is common practice amongst a great many of the style-minded plus-size-wearin' ladies I know, and it’s why I always seem to have a brand-new tags-attached cocktail dress hanging around well in advance of the party invitiation. It’s why I own 24 black dresses and 22 floral-printed dresses; 7 polka-dot dresses and 11 dresses involving lace; dresses that are 15 years old that I bought new and still wear, and dresses that I got on sale three years ago and just wore for the first time in the past couple of months.

It’s why I absolutely require four different yellow dresses in my wardrobe. Because someday there’s going to be a yellow-dress drought, and I’ll be glad to have an emergency reserve.

It’s easy to say that this is ridiculous, that my dress-stockpiling is absurd and self-indulgent, and that may be at least partly true. But there’s something else: my clothing is not just important to me from the perspective of someone who likes to look a certain way, or to express a certain style. My clothes are also critical to making people see me.

Being a person who wears a certain size, people are likely to make sweeping assumptions about me, one of which is that I must not care about how I look. But I do! My dress obsession is not simply a matter of personal taste but is also a kind of political statement: You’re going to see me, looking mighty fabulous (in my own opinion, anyway), at a size at which women are not "supposed" to be able to look fabulous. And you're going to see it whether you like it or not. I refuse to be invisible.

So while I still feel a little overwhelmed by the quantum singularity of sartorial delights that hangs in my closet, it’s unlikely that I’m going to slim the contents down anytime soon. Following the Thanksgiving Day Closet Massacre of ‘09, I mourned for a few weeks, and then got to work rebuilding -- better, stronger, faster! -- a bi-level system with shelving for all my many shoes and using three times the recommended number of drywall anchors, just in case.

I’d like to tell you I’ve changed and I’m trying to be one of those people who has one perfect maxi dress and one perfect military blazer and a carefully-curated assemblage of classics, but I am not tending a tidy museum and I probably never will, as much as I admire those who can get creative with some well-made basics. I expect I’ll be testing the structural integrity of closets for the rest of my life. Simplicity’s never been my style, but experimentation and boundary-pushing very often is.