10 November 2009

Tangent: Cleaning Out Closets

Writer's block has me in its foul clutches, so the promised post on the fashion system's on hold for a bit until I can get it to sound right.

In the meantime, it's a perfect time of year to clean out the closet. If you're anything like me, you've accumulated a wardrobe of... stuff... a large portion of which you're just not that interested in wearing for one reason or another. There's no reason to burden yourself with clothing you don't like, don't wear, and don't need.

A lot of people are advocates of the wardrobe blitzkrieg: empty your closet onto the bed (or maybe the floor) and sort it into keep/toss/undecided piles, then evaluate from there. While that's a great method, it's got a few drawbacks.

For one thing, if you have even a slightly oversized wardrobe (and if you didn't, would you feel the need to do this?) it's a huge commitment in terms of time, space, and energy. You have to dedicate a whole day, or at least a good chunk of one, to the project. Laying out an entire wardrobe can take up a huge amount of space (although that might be part of the point, to help you realize just how much unnecessary dreck you have) that may be unavailable in a small or cluttered home. Taking all your clothes off hangers and out of drawers sounds like a huge amount of wasted effort.

For another, by sorting through your entire wardrobe in one day, you're subject to that day's vagaries. If you're feeling a bit bloated or down on yourself, you might weed out items that you'll regret later; if you're in a super-optimistic mood or feeling thin and sassy, you'll keep items that really should go. Since you can't stop midway through (with clothes strewn on every horizontal surface in the house), if you run out of steam, you'll reach what I like to call the fuck-it point, where you throw up your hands in frustration and either bag up everything you haven't yet sorted and take it to Goodwill or concede defeat and stuff it all back into the closet. Neither is good. You should never feel defeated by your wardrobe.

Also, by pulling everything out of the closet, you destroy the patterns of wear and use that have accumulated as you find your day-to-day wardrobe. Those patterns are important clues as to what items really belong in your wardrobe and what should find a new home.

You most likely have a few favorite articles of clothing that really are the workhorses of your wardrobe. Chances are they seldom see the inside of the closet: they get worn, washed, and grabbed directly from the clean hamper to get worn again. Make a little pile of these items, and pay attention to the colors, cuts, and style of them. This is the core of your wardrobe. Just about everything else you own should be wearable with these pieces. Anything that doesn't is a good candidate for elimination.

Now that you've found the items that are so hot they never hit storage, go to your closet and dresser. Open them up. Unless you make a conscious effort to keep your wardrobe organized by some scheme (such as color), chances are good that the items you pull out most often are front and center. Take each item out one at a time and give it a good hard look. How many pieces from your favorites pile does it go with? When was the last time you wore it? Do you like the way it fits? If the answers are "most," "recently," and "yes," put it back. If not, start a pile for discards.

Now you're getting into the hairy part: the clothes that have been pushed to the back and sides of the closet and drawers from misuse. These fall into three generalized categories:
  1. Special occasion clothes: suits for interviews and funerals, formal or party clothes, costumes.
  2. Clothes with sentimental value that you can't bear to part with, but will never wear again.
  3. The dross of your wardrobe: all the stuff you don't wear.
Take all the items from category 2 out of the closet and put them aside. They're no longer clothes: they're memorabilia. You don't have to rid yourself of them, but you should find a new home or purpose for them. Your old concert tees could get framed and hung on the wall in the den, or maybe made into a throw for the couch. The top you wore on your first date with your spouse should be put in a storage bin, maybe with other mementos of your courtship.

Items from category 1 get something of a pass. Get rid of ill-fitting or unflattering items, or those that are so out of style that you'll never wear them again. However, special-occasion clothes are, by their very nature, seldom worn, often expensive, and hard to replace on very short notice. If you have a spare closet or room for a clothes rack in your attic, put these there in garment bags or muslin covers to prevent dust and vermin damage. However, if next time you have the right sort of event and leave that stuff in storage in preference for a new purchase, it's time for it to go.

Items from category 3 are the meat of the task. You don't wear these clothes that much, but for some reason, you haven't gotten rid of them. Why? Try them on. Do they work with other items you know you're going to wear? Are they unflattering or uncomfortable? Were they astonishingly expensive or, conversely, such a steal that you can't bear to give them up?

A little Buddhist perspective helps here: divorce yourself from the fruits of your shopping. It doesn't matter how much you spent to get it if you don't wear it. Designer labels mean nothing if the item doesn't fit and flatter you. If you haven't worn it in the past year, have put it on and taken it off before leaving the house more than three times, or just don't like it anymore, put it in the discard pile.

There are, of course, exceptions. If you've taken a longish hiatus from the corporate world to work on the Great American Novel/to release your first solo album/not by choice, and plan to go back soonish, keep your businessy clothes, even if you aren't wearing them much right now. On the other hand, if you have fled the corporate world screaming and are now raising alpacas/being a full-time mom/painting nudes in Tahiti and never plan to go back, maybe they can go.

Need I say that I'm assuming that all of this assumes that the clothes in question fit you and are flattering? If a sweater makes you feel paunchy every time you wear it, a pair of trousers is three sizes too big or fits like sausage casings (unless you are actively losing or gaining weight - not "I'll get to the gym one of these days" but "My waist is an inch smaller than it was last month"), or a blouse makes you worry about falling out of the neckline of every time you bend over, out it goes. Yes, some things can and should be tailored: learn what's worth it and what isn't. A well-made pair of trousers or skirt that needs taking up at the hem should go to the tailor: a blazer that needs to be remade a size smaller should go to Goodwill. Don't bother having anything from inexpensive retailers like H&M altered.

You don't have to do this all in one go, and it's perhaps best if you don't. Your favorite items should be easy to identify: evaluate the rest in relation to them. Keep a box or bag for discards near where you get dressed: if you put something on and hate the way it fits or feel uncomfortable - or even less than smashing - in it, toss it in the box. If you don't go digging in the box in the next two months or so to get it back, you can live without it. The same thing goes for the things that never come out of the closet: if it's an everyday item of clothing and you haven't pulled it out in two or three months, you most likely won't ever.

If you're honest with yourself and pay attention to what you wear and what you don't, chances are good you'll end up with a decent-sized pile of discards. What to do with them?
  • Things in good condition should be resold or donated. Use theThriftShopper.com to find a thrift store in your area, or check the phone book. Call first and ask what their donation or consignment policies are: some stores only take in-season merchandise, while others accept anything at any time.
  • If you have the time and determination, good-quality items can be sold on eBay or other auction sites.
  • A nearly-new piece of clothing that isn't your style, but is just the sort of thing that a girlfriend or female relative would love (and, natch, is the right size) can be a nice giftie, either for a holiday or just because.
  • If you're inclined to craftiness, hit a site like Craftster for inspiration on ways to make the unwearable parts of your wardrobe into wearable ones.
  • Anything that's old, ratty, or worn to the point that you'd be ashamed to donate to a thrift store can be donated to your local animal shelter.
There's something immensely satisfying about taking a big bagful of clothing over to the nearest thrift store: it's liberating to get rid of all that extra dead weight in the wardrobe. Once you've figured out what you don't need, it's much easier to figure out what you do - but that is another post for another time.


  1. This is also an occasion where having an honest friend is a lifesaver. Ask them to come over and help you. Try stuff on and have them tell you if it looks good or of you're just dreaming. Trust them, especially in cases of "but I just love it soooooo much." If they say it goes, it goes.

  2. When my move was on the horizon I had to go through this whole process. Definitely was not having a "thin and sassy day" though. ;)

    Also, I totally agree with dranaan! Having a friend - or brutally honest sister - along to play "fashion goddess" (yes we've named the game!) is always much appreciated.
    Of course, it does suck when they veto a much beloved piece by telling you that you just look silly wearing it! *ouch*


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