Clothes are the biggest clutter issue for almost everyone I’ve ever worked with. This is really interesting to me, because for most of human history, most people didn’t own a change of clothes. Later, when humankind became comparatively wealthy, people did start having clothing to store, but not much of it. The house I live in was built in 1939, and the bedroom closet rod is 40 inches long. That’s for sharing between two people. I’m talking about the TWENTIETH CENTURY. My grandparents could have bought this house as newlyweds. Our closet problems and laundry problems are very, very, VERY new innovations.
I set out to purge my closet for three reasons. 1. My stuff barely fits since our recent move; 2. A postcard came in the mail announcing a charity pickup; 3. January is a fantastic time for such a project, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. The weather is dreary, it gets dark early, everyone is broke, and many of us are still in the Resolutionary frame of mind. What else are we going to do this month? What other month could possibly be better?
I’ve done many closet purges over the years, and I know how overwhelming and draining it can be to make all those decisions. Don’t go it alone!
I opened my blinds and put on a cheerful, funny podcast. It’s better to have physical company, another person to kick back with a beverage and offer opinions: thumbs up, thumbs down? Better still, kick back yourself and have the friend hold everything up.
The toughest thing about clothing purges is the desire to come up with reasons to keep each item. This is natural. We wouldn’t have it if we hadn’t chosen it or received it as a gift (or shoplifted it, I suppose, in which case, isn’t it time to free yourself from that burden of guilt?). When we’re doing a closet purge, it’s best to focus on reasons to get rid of each item. Make it fight for you. Put it on the witness stand, swear it in, and make it justify its existence. I make you look great! I work well with your other clothes! Anything less is not good enough; even five-star, perfect items sometimes need to go when there are just too many of them.
Why do we keep stuff?
It doesn’t fit, but we want it to
It doesn’t fit, but it’s insurance in case it does again
We love the fabric
We love the color
We love the pattern
We love the brand name
It was expensive
It was a gift and we’re required to keep all gifts until we die, in which case we pack them and take them with us to the afterlife
The very thought of making one permanent decision and putting something in a bag feels as exhausting as radiation sickness
We need lots and lots and lots and lots of extras because we’re always behind on the laundry, because we have enough clothes to leave five loads on the floor at all times
Our clothing size fluctuates dramatically
We feel nostalgic about the time when we used to wear it
It has costuming potential
The closet is big enough, so why not?
Two years ago, I had to declare wardrobe bankruptcy. I had lost a bunch of weight, and 80% of my clothes no longer fit. I work at home, but I didn’t even have adequate clothing for that. I went to Goodwill and tried to cobble together a wardrobe that would stay on my body. Then I dropped another size and had to go back. After I had been at my new size for a year, I finally started to trust that I really had figured this stuff out, that it was okay to pay retail and get full value out of new garments. As I set about this closet purge, I know that nothing has been there longer than two years. The goal is to free up enough space for the hangers to slide back and forth, at least a fraction of an inch. I estimate that I need to remove at least four hangers for this to happen.
I use wooden hangers, because they give more space for each item to avoid being crumpled and because they don’t tangle together like wire or plastic. Due to their bulk, they also limit how much excess can build up in the closet. I used to pick up a set of 5 every time I went to IKEA.
What did I get rid of, and why?
There wasn’t anything from my closet purge that I wouldn’t wear right now, depending on weather. Making more space is more important to me than keeping specific things, though, and I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of them. I have a “$1 per wear” guideline. If I pay $10 for something and wear it 10 times, or $50 for something that I wear 50 times, I’m good. The Goodwill clothes mostly cost between $3 and $7. They tend not to match with as many things as the clothes I’m keeping, and they’re not nearly fantastic enough to earn special status as singletons.
Two skirts, four dresses, two pairs of shorts, a tank top, a t-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, two sweaters, a cardigan, a pair of old sandals, a pair of dress shoes.
One skirt wrinkles badly every time I wash it. One skirt is too loose, getting threadbare, and is a different color scheme from my core wardrobe. One dress is too big; one is too tight in the sleeves; one has a weird pattern I’ve started to dislike; one has simply had its day. One pair of shorts is a bit tight at the hem, compressing my big hamstrings. The other pair of shorts is loose and getting threadbare. The tank top can only be worn over another tank top with a built-in bra. The t-shirt only goes with a couple of things (that are in the purge pile) and I was never completely sold on the color or the neckline. The long-sleeved shirt is a little tight in the bust. One sweater always rides up above my waistline in the back. One sweater has a fussy bustline that always needs adjusting. The cardigan has useless pockets and doesn’t work well with my other clothes. The sandals have already been replaced, and I’m not sure why I still had them. The dress shoes gave me blisters on the top of my foot the last time I wore them.
There are some commonalities between some of these garments that I only notice now that they are stacked up together. Everything I had in the aqua, teal, or turquoise range has gotten pulled. It’s not a color I would choose if I were paying retail. Everything in the pile is from Goodwill except the shoes. Six items are here because they don’t fit quite right and are distracting to wear. Six are here because I like the brand; I see them as well-made and durable, even if they aren’t working for me. Eight items only went with something that’s in the pile. Most of these clothes are neutral or pastel. Only two have pockets that would hold my phone. If I were to design my dream wardrobe, none of these things would be in it, neither for color nor fit nor fabric. I won’t miss them. The longer I sit with them, the more they start to look frayed, shabby, undesirable, and mismatched. Clearly they aren’t doing me any favors.
Now I do an inventory. What’s left? 9 skirts, 2 shorts, 2 Capri pants, 6 jeans, 13 dresses, 2 jackets, 2 short-sleeved button-down shirts, 4 long-sleeved button-down shirts, 3 sleeveless blouses, one tunic, one gorgeous suit that makes me want to give a speech. 5 sweaters, 7 cardigans. 27 t-shirts, tank tops, and various other tops. One bikini and one beach cover-up. That’s 114 total items, although I think technically the swimming clothes fall into the same category as underwear, pajamas, and workout clothes, i.e., they don’t have to count. Mysteriously, I have 18 bottoms and 52 tops. If everything was interchangeable (which it isn’t), that would multiply out to 949 different combinations of outfit, including dresses, OR, something different every day for 2.6 years. And that doesn’t include accessories. I definitely don’t need everything I have left. Realistically, I should ditch some of the t-shirts and get more pants. Mine is an optimistic, sunny-day, warm weather wardrobe.
I’ve removed eight hangers, measuring five inches in total width. Now I can shift things back and forth. I have enough to fill a grocery sack of donations for the charity drive. I’m aware that if I am attracted to any new garments, something I have right now will have to go. I could easily fill a second bag and still have plenty to wear. Mischief managed!
I go through my closet every season, and I skim it every time one of these neon postcards comes in the mail announcing a charity pickup. Clothes come and go. They’re not designed to last forever. Our bodies change, the weather changes, people will insist on honoring us with lovely gifts. We have to make room somehow. We remind ourselves that we have plenty to share and that someone else may get some use out of what is no longer useful to us, at this moment. If we save only what fits today, looks great today, and works with all our other clothes today, we’ll still have more than enough.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.