Buyer Beware: Wardrobe Exponents

It sounds more mathematical than straight-up chic, but in the quest for a capsule, uniform, edited, or otherwise minimalist closet, a wardrobe exponent should not be underestimated as a force that can derail your game plan faster, and more unexpectedly, than anything else.

So what exactly is a wardrobe exponent?  It’s an item of clothing that has the potential to exponentially increase the size of your wardrobe.  At first glance a wardrobe exponent appears like a wardrobe asset; on closer inspection, however, you’ll find that it necessitates acquiring at least one and usually several other items in order for it to play well with your existing wardrobe.  Think of it as the style equivalent of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

If you buy a sheer lace top, chances are you’ll want something to wear underneath it…

Wardrobe exponents can be sleepers–they appealingly worm their way into your shopping cart and then your closet under the guise of making a stellar contribution to your sartorial lineup, only to later reveal their true nature as parasites that suck in more than their fair share of wardrobe resources–either because you feel the need to buy more items to make them work, or because you haven’t yet done so and they’re going unworn, taking up valuable real estate in the back of your closet.

To avoid coming home with these deceptive little stowaways, train your eye to look over a tempting piece with your existing wardrobe in mind, aiming for a solid match with at least 3 or 4 other items you already own.  If you can’t connect the dots between enough pieces, leave the exponent on the rack.

(I should note that sometimes you’ll want to commit to a wardrobe exponent and make it a wardrobe staple–I recommend doing this only if you find yourself consistently drawn to multiple items in a certain category of clothing and you don’t feel overwhelmed or irritated when you think about the other pieces you’d have to buy to go with them.)


Some common wardrobe exponents:

Sheer, see-through, crop, or otherwise revealingly cut tops.  Depending on your environment, these may require nude bras, undershirts, or cardgians to be work- or occasion-appropriate.  I personally am annoyed by shirts that can’t carry their own weight (i.e. be worn by themselves), but your mileage may vary if layering is your jam or if you love items like this and can justify adding the under/overpinnings to your roster.

Racerback, strapless, one-shoulder, or other non-standard tops or dresses.  Basically anything requiring a non-standard bra.  Owning several of one type of these tops/dresses can justify purchasing a different style of bra, but be ready to really embrace that type before you commit to a new brassiere, which can be expensive.  Side note: use a paperclip to convert a regular bra to a racerback.  More bra hacks here.

Sweaters vs. cardigans.  I own both, but it means I also own a mix of thin, tighter undershirts that are only used for layering beneath sweaters, and tops that are more substantial and look good beneath a cardigan.  If you gravitate towards one or the other, I would advise sticking with that one category rather than branching out and having to buy a whole ‘nother type of layer to make it work.

Hems too short.  Where “too short” falls will obviously vary by individual and by context, but dress or skirt hems that are short enough to make you feel exposed at work, religious events, dinners out, etc. are a no-go.  They might bargain for closet space by pitching you leggings or spandex-type undershorts to keep you covered, but in my experience it’s not worth it if your hem length substantially limits when and how comfortably you can wear the item in question.
Example: I have a dress whose color, cut, and pockets I love but whose hemline is a few inches too short for me to feel at ease while I’m at work.  The fabric’s too light for winter, and just the idea of leggings in hot weather makes me sweat–so effectively I’ve got a cute dress that gets worn a handful of times in spring and fall and even then requires the addition of a cardigan or blazer to keep my arms warm because the darned thing’s sleeveless.  All in all, too much drama for one little dress–buh-bye.

Pants in a length that necessitates different shoes.  Do you own only flats but feel the pull of a pair of dramatically long pants that would really work better with heels?  Do you long to purchase ankle booties but all your pants are too bulky or too short?  Sometimes this is a matter of styling and finding the right way to wear something, then carrying it off with panache; but sometimes you’re looking at a wardrobe exponent that will tempt you to buy a whole lot more clothing to keep it company, lest it languish in the hinterlands of your armoire.  Above all, do NOT buy an exponent that would require wearing shoes you find painful.

Color.  If you’re trying to stick with a limited palette so that most of your duds go together, beware the outlying color that goes with one other item you have and tries to convince you that you need 3 or 4 additional pieces to make it feel at home in your wardrobe.  If you love lots of different colors and don’t want to have to refuse a beautiful find solely due to hue, stick to neutrals on the bottom and play with color on top, or vice versa.

-Same with pattern.  If all your bottoms are solid and your tops are where your love of patterns comes through, resist the toile capris or the batik skirt that will clash with every. other. thing. you own.  Trust me on this one–or end up with twice as many clothes.

Silhouette.  Maybe all your pants are on the looser side, but you keep finding yourself drawn to flowy tops that, to your eye, just look too baggy when paired with your bottom half (this has been me more than once!).  It’s time to either admit that you need some slim/skinny pants in your life to balance your silhouette, or to learn to just say no when you hear that flowy bohemian siren calling your name.


What wardrobe exponents have lured you in?  How have you decided whether to resist the temptation or jump in and commit to a new category of clothing to make something irresistible work?


4 thoughts on “Buyer Beware: Wardrobe Exponents

    1. Ginna,
      Love the vest, and the bangle you’re wearing! Yesterday a colleague wore a crop top with fringe over a striped maxi dress–the effect was super cool without being super-revealing. I can see you wearing that vest similarly, over a striped maxi dress in white/black, navy/white, olive/white, tan/white, red/white, multi-striped… You could wear the vest closed, partially unzipped, or fully open depending on the dress, temperature, your mood, etc. (On second thought does fully open look weird because the zipper splits the material unevenly? If not, open would also look great with a bold scarf looped around your neck.)
      Any other suggestions for Ginna??

      1. @leah, yes! I tried wearing it open and the longer side hung funny. BUT I like the idea of wearing it with a dress and /or a scarf! Maybe even with a top and some skinny pants. It’s such a fun piece, I want to find lots of chances to wear it!

        1. I’d love to see how you style it! The skinny pants & top idea sounds fun, too. I had a leather vest at one point that I loved but didn’t find enough ways to wear, so I’m living vicariously through yours. :)

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