The closet of the American woman has become the object of great fascination. Dozens of Instagram closet accounts are dedicated to identifying every piece of clothing worn by celebrities. Reality television shows devoted to shaming and remaking the closets of everyday women have proliferated. Countless thinkpieces make sweeping pronouncements on everything from the ethics of materialism to the state of the economy, basing their conclusions purely on the contents of womens’ closets.
To put some numbers to the frenzy, The Nines surveyed 1,000 women from across North America to learn what was in their closets. We made some truly surprising discoveries.
We found that North American women indeed love to fill their closets with the fashion staples: countless pairs of footwear, handbags and jeans, many of which end up stuffed in dusty corners and rarely even worn. But digging a little deeper, we found that consumer behavior is not as monolithic as expected. For every fashionista with a shoe fix whose closet is bursting with dozens of pairs of sneakers, heels and sandals, there are women with only a small handful of shoes, each pair carefully chosen and worn for a specific purpose. For every shopper who swears that they would only ever buy brand new clothes, there are more frugal consumers who fill half or more of their closets with secondhand items. And while women in some regions of the country tend to open their wallets and spend lavishly on clothing, shoppers in others are more thrifty when it comes to their outfits.
The survey revealed that, on average, when counting all footwear including sneakers, heels, sandals and boots, women in North America own 14.1 pairs of shoes. But this figure is by no means uniform across the board, with roughly one in 10 admitting to owning over 30 pairs of shoes, while on the other end of the spectrum, one in 10 own fewer than five pairs of shoes.
Interestingly, survey respondents revealed some fascinating geographical patterns when it comes to spending patterns on shoes. While overall, women dished out $107 on average on their nicest pair of footwear in the past year, Southern women — with a fashion culture heavy on colors, exquisite tailoring and matching — came out on top spending almost $120. Contrast that with the stereotypically more casual Midwest, where women spent a relatively paltry $76 on their most pricey kicks.
The Southern shoe trend continues when looking at shoe ownership numbers. In the North, Midwest and West, women are fairly consistent and own on average 14 pairs of shoes, but Southern women beat them all out, owning on average 16 pairs of shoes, a sizable difference.
But no matter where you live, how old you are, or how much you make, one thing is common across the board: almost half of our shoes stay in the closet, rarely or never worn.
“The majority of my shoes are for special occasions that I don’t get to wear very frequently. Wedding shoes. Date shoes. Conservative business shoes. Seasonal shoes.” – Laura G., California.
Purses and Handbags
The ultimate accessories, purses and handbags serve both function and style, and form a critical building block of any wardrobe. It’s perhaps not surprising that North American women have almost six purses and handbags, on average. Given their cost — and their durability — handbag collections tend to grow over time as earning power increases (and closet space grows). The survey data bears this out: while college-age and young 20-somethings have only three purses, that number rises to over nine when women reach their late 30s and early 40s.
But as with shoes, just because you own them, doesn’t mean you use them. Women responded that fewer than half of their purses or handbags have been out of the closet in the past year.
No matter what else is in your closet, jeans are a fashion staple, irrespective of age, income or region. Survey respondents told us that they own on average 6.2 pairs of jeans, but just as with shoes and purses, more than a quarter of them are not even worn.
“My favourite jeans are a pair of Levi’s I’ve had for 5 or 6 years. They are so comfortable and go with everything. They are my go-to every time.” – Liana K, Ontario
There is nothing like a snug, perfect-fitting pair of jeans, and once you find them, you definitely don’t want to let them go. At 4.3 years, women tend to hold on to their jeans much longer than their electronics (roughly two years for a cellphone), but quite a bit shorter than their cars (11 years).
Whereas shoe purchases tend to be big splurges, respondents told us that they are much more frugal when it comes to buying their everyday jeans, spending an average of $63 on their most expensive denim in the past 12 months.
How and Where We Buy
Buying clothing online can be a fraught experience, although retailers like Zappos, Amazon and Stitchfix have addressed much of the anxiety by making returns relatively easy. Nevertheless, 36% of women assert that they would still never purchase shoes online, while only 5% say that they purchase all of their shoes online. No doubt, however, that the Covid pandemic may start to shift more and more of these shoppers away from stores and to their computers.
While much of the focus on womens’ shopping behavior is on the dollars spent at traditional retail stores, secondhand shopping is still big business, and is set to double to $51B in the next five years.
“I find more security in trying the item on in person and seeing what it looks like without the photographer’s lighting.” Mari G., New York.
Indeed, 58% of women tell us that they purchased previously-owned clothing in the past year, though this rate falls from a high of 77% in the 18-24 age range, down to 36% in the 35-44 range.
Buying secondhand clothing is becoming so common, in fact, that one in four women reveal that more than half of their wardrobe is secondhand. On the other end of the spectrum, one in four women admit that none of the items in their closet at all were purchased secondhand.
“Clothes are important to me. I definitely like to look good. But there is probably far too much in my closet, more than I will ever really need.” Melissa R., Ohio.
The Nines randomly surveyed 1000 women in North America using an online survey, stratifying according to geographic region and age.