Lessons From a Chronic Closet Cleaner


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Your goal: To love every item in your wardrobe.

To get there, you have to give away every piece of clothing that you don’t absolutely love.

If I had followed this advice when I started my style journey, the only things left in my closet would have been a cocktail dress and a couple of pairs of hand-knit socks. Not a good look.

Truly cleaning and organizing your closet is not an overnight task, no matter what Real Simple magazine may try to tell you. It took me nearly a year, but today my closet only holds clothes that I love and look forward to wearing.

I have spent years purging my closet, then filling it right back up with the same type of detritus I’d just gotten rid of. During this futile cycle I read every article on closet organization I could find. After much trial and error, I present to you my lessons for cleaning out your closet.

Lesson one: Start easy

Have fun getting rid of the obvious wardrobe downers. Take an hour one afternoon and throw out anything pilled, ripped, ill-fitting or faded in a non-fashionable manner, no matter how much you used to love it. This goes for workout clothes as well as work clothes. Hold it up and think, “Would my most polished friend wear this?” If not, get rid of it. If you’re wondering if anyone will notice the little stain, I’m here to tell you they will. Put it in the give away box. *

I can only shave the pills off a sweater so many times. It’s on to new adventures for you!

That’s not to say ripped and faded clothes can’t be stylish. I have a couple of t-shirts that are just now ripening to perfect vintage softness. But I’m wearing them because they’re faded, not in spite of it.

You deserve nice clothing that fits and is in good repair. Get rid of anything that does not fit this description. And no, you may not save all these clothes for the day you repaint the living room or turn the garden. Keep one set of work clothes for these occasions and purge the rest.

Lesson Two: Give it the Allan test

Your closet is now free of stained, stretched out old clothes. How do you decide what to keep of the clothing in good shape? Allan.

Years ago, a friend was dating a man (Allan) who was not good enough for her. She spent several months convincing herself to settle for this guy, and then he dumped her.

Is there anything worse than being dumped by someone who wasn’t good enough for you in the first place?

Now, obviously her life got a lot better after losing this chump, but there was still that annoying little sting that went with his memory. Until one day, my friend ran into Allan. It just so happened that she had on a killer outfit, and had taken an extra 30 seconds to pull her hair back. Allan, looking shlumpy and under-employed as always, could barely get a sentence out.

We all have an Allan in our past, don’t we? And you never know when you’re going to run into him, or that old boss who didn’t take you seriously, or that girl you knew in school who looked down on everyone else. Every outfit should make you feel ready to take on the bullies and bummers in your life. Look at the clothes you have in your closet. Would you want to run into Allan wearing that sweater? No? Give it away.

Oh, hello old boss who didn’t think I was capable of teaching advanced classes. I didn’t see you there in the glow of my AP pass rate.

Lesson three: It’s OK to be indecisive

You will have some items you’re unsure about. They might be things you loved last year, but are a little tired of. Or something you had a lot of fun in, but doesn’t fit well anymore.

Take these items and store them outside of your closet. See how well your wardrobe functions without them. As you shop, keep an eye out for similar pieces that would serve the same purpose, but you like better.

I am lucky enough to have bought a house from a couple who loved closets more than Ludwig II loved Wagner. I keep one wardrobe just for things I’m unsure about. In most cases these clothes find their way out of the house, but I feel better when I give myself time to say goodbye. If you don’t have a spare wardrobe, use a box, the hall closet, your son’s closet (He never hangs things in there, anyway, right?) the trunk of your car, just get these confounding pieces out of your closet.

I’m pretty sure one of these leads to Narnia

Lesson four: It’s OK to keep once-in-a-while pieces

Common wisdom suggests you rate your clothing by how often something gets worn. While that’s a good indicator of how something is working for you, it doesn’t always make sense.

You make Easter easy.

For instance, I have a bright pink coat I only wear on Easter. Easter is always cold in Oregon and I need a coat. It doesn’t get much wear, but it has made every Easter for the past 6 years really easy. That’s worth the closet space to me. I also have a platter with turkeys on it that belonged to my grandma. I only use this once a year  and no one is nagging me about it.

If I can keep a Thanksgiving platter, I can keep an Easter coat.

If something gets worn regularly, no matter how infrequently, keep it.

Lesson Five: Respect the feelings of your clothes

I love the work of Marie Kondo but the truth is I don’t have much in common with her. She and I feel very differently about how much fun it is to tidy things up.

I read organizational books… then leave them lying around the house.

But her book is lovely. The biggest take-away for me from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was to respect the service of our clothes.

Give the clothes you are wearing space to breath and relax after the hard work of running around with you. If you have a shirt that isn’t being worn, release it to the world so someone else can love it. Piles and racks of squished up, unworn clothing are just sad.

If you haven’t already, read Kondo’s reflections on socks here: https://www.buzzfeed.com/rachelwmiller/marie-kondo-showed-us-how-to-fold-socks-perfectly?utm_term=.xdBdErLN#.yo817O0g

Your wardrobe should be made up of pieces you respect and value. How would you feel jammed in a closet, never being worn by someone who resents you for not fitting correctly? Exactly. Give it away.

Lesson six: Nostalgia is for photo albums

Love an item of clothing that you’re really never going to wear it again? Take a picture. You can then open up the photo album and remember that great skirt for years to come.

I was crazy-proud of this sash.

You wouldn’t store your 6th grade book reports on your desk at work. You don’t haul your childhood skis with you every time you hit the slopes. You wouldn’t keep your children’s pottery experiments in the cabinets with your everyday dishes (OK, maybe you would…) The point is, a closet is a working space. Don’t overwhelm yourself as you get dressed every morning with memories from the mid-1990s.

If you really must keep something (OK, my 8th grade graduation dance dress) store it properly in a chest with cedar or the moth repelling substance of your choice. But before you do, imagine people cleaning this out when you’re 97 and downsizing to a tiny house in an elder community. Do you really want someone else to have to throw out your mud-stained sweatshirt?

Let’s not make this any harder than we already know it’s going to be.

Lesson seven: Give yourself time

Pulling everything you own out of every drawer, and your closet, and going through it all in one afternoon is a very bad idea. Trust me here. You will get better long term results, and cultivate good habits, if you slowly purge your closet.

Yes, an all-in-one clean out is invigorating and dramatic, but it’s not the best strategy for creating a well-functioning closet. Particularly if you’re left with one cocktail dress and two pairs of socks.

Not an inspiring photo

The process of culling the chaff from your closet will take time. Start small (lesson one) with items that obviously need to go. Then take a half hour and go through your t-shirts one day, and another 20 minutes in your shoes another day. Notice a pair of pants you keep putting on and taking off in the morning? Set them free. Over time you will learn to identify the items that are taking up space and weighing your wardrobe down. You will begin to purge your closet effortlessly.

Keep two bags in your closet, one for Goodwill, and one for resale shops. Get in the habit of dropping anything that doesn’t pass the Allan test into one of these two bags. If you have a spare afternoon by all means go through your clothes and do a big purge, but keep practicing regularly getting rid of things that aren’t working for you.

Over time you’ll find space opening up in your closet. Like pulling weeds from the garden, getting rid of unwanted clothes will allow the items you do like to shine and thrive in your wardrobe. You’ll find a few holes and need to do a little shopping. We’ll look at strategies for filling these spaces in a future post.

This will be hard work, but over time you’ll find your closet has only items you love. You will enjoy incredibly easy mornings of getting dressed and will for the rest of your life. Awesome.

*Ever wonder where all your clothes go when freed from your closet? According to Elizabeth L Cline (Over-Dressed, a great book!) Some, of course, will be resold an go on to help other people’s wardrobes. Some will be recycled into new clothing. Some will be recycled into insulation, carpet padding, or any number of things. Some are shipped in huge bales to other countries. It’s like The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, only for your clothes.

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