Assignment #15: Clear a Closet

As a kid, my mom cycled my clothes seasonally, packing away out-of-season items twice a year. When I moved out on my own, I didn’t bother keeping up the habit for the first couple of years, because I was fortunate to have a large enough dresser and closet to accommodate everything at once, and because I often wear my summer shirts with cardigans in the winter and sport the same work trousers year round.

Last winter, I realized that just because I could cram all of my summer and winter gear into the closet at once didn’t mean I should. The time I saved by not sorting, folding, and packing things up slowly trickled away throughout the season as I was constantly pushing past things I wasn’t going to wear, even layered against the cold.

This past Christmas, I was the lucky recipient of some lovely new long-sleeved shirts, which made me realize that this time around I ought to not only pack away my summer clothes, but start taking a serious look at my wardrobe and weeding out things I wasn’t wearing anymore so that I could start building up a wardrobe that I’m really excited about.

I find this difficult for three interconnected reasons:

  1. I reached my full height in middle school, and while some of my proportions have changed, my weight has remained pretty stable. I stopped having to buy clothes because I outgrew them or wore them out long before my peers, and I got accustomed to keeping the same things for a long time because they didn’t need to be replaced.
  2. I haven’t always had money for new clothing when I would have liked it, and even when I did have money, shopping and fashion have never been hobbies of mine, so I find myself reluctant to spend any disposable income on clothes. I would rather spend it on entertainment or hobbies.
  3. I don’t have a strong sense of personal style. I know that I’m most comfortable in stretch jeans and anything made with knits; I’m not self-conscious about form-fitting clothes. I also know that I don’t like to wear anything around my natural waist, which means that vintage/retro styles hold zero appeal for me. Beyond that, I find my preferences vary wildly depending on the occasion and my mood.

Basically, I find it difficult to part with the clothes that I have, even when they’re not my favorites, because I dislike the idea of getting rid of something that’s not completely worn out, and I’m afraid that if I get rid of things that I don’t like much I’ll end up without any options at all because I won’t know what to replace them with or I won’t be willing to spend the time trying to find the perfect replacement.

It will come as a surprise to no one that this does not produce fashion satisfaction.

This year, I’m committing to improving my wardrobe, even if it’s just in small ways. I started by having an honest look at my closet, which (absurdly) still had summer clothes in it in mid-January. I know there’s tons of advice for this sort of thing, but I find I have a slightly different take on this than the “Purge Everything! Do It Now!” I often hear.

Have an idea of where your clothing will go, and sort accordingly. Of my unwanted clothing, some of it is quite worn (permanently bagged knees, threadbare elbows). I don’t like using thrift shops as a dumping ground for my more ragged clothes—if I wouldn’t want to buy the item in its current condition, why would anyone else?—but I also don’t like just trashing old stuff. As a result, clothes tend to wear out their welcome in my closet because I didn’t know how to dispose of them responsibly.

The solution, I discovered, is textile recycling. (I first learned about it on the blog So, Zo…What Do You Know? in an article where Zoe talked about working for the UK charity TRAID). Although options for textile recycling can be hard to come by in some areas, Justin and I have had success with The North Face’s program Clothes the Loop. We didn’t end up accepting the store credit or purchasing anything from them; we were just happy to have a reputable place to drop off unwanted clothes that couldn’t be thrifted.

I do have a few things that are like new. Since I’ve yet to meet anyone my size, let alone interested in a clothing swap, I’m going to look into consignment for the first time. Anything that can’t be consigned will go to the thrift store as normal.

Having a plan made it a lot easier to pull things out of my closet, because I was confident that I wouldn’t end up shuffling them around for a week or two and then just putting them back for lack of a concrete destination. I could also feel more confident that I wasn’t being needlessly wasteful.

Feel free to take short breaks. I find that sorting my clothes can be emotionally exhausting. It’s easy for me to hit a roadblock, get frustrated, and then give up in the middle of things. I found it really helpful to take short breaks every time I finished a category (dresses, blouses, t-shirts) to avoid feeling stressed about the process. (And trust me, I completely understand if spreading all of your clothes out and simultaneously realizing how much you have and how little you like is stressful. That’s where I’m at.) Obviously don’t wander off and get involved in something else while clothes are spread all over your closet/bed/floor. But give yourself permission to get a drink, switch a load of laundry, or read a blog post. Chaining yourself to this chore is more likely to push you to quit than finish.

Don’t feel guilty about using seasonal storage as a kind of outbox. Lots of people will tell you not to waste time storing things you don’t love. But sometimes you’re on the fence. You have a thing that fits and is in good shape, but you’re not sure how much you really like it. You think your style might be moving away from that thing; then again, you might come back around in six months when the weather changes and you’re looking to wear it again. If the purpose of an outbox is to give you emotional distance from a thing so that you can make a final decision about it, then storage can be a pretty effective outbox. Rather than trying to force yourself to make a decision now, give yourself permission to decide later rather than stressing about it. If, when you take the item back out, you’re not excited to see it—if you forgot it was even in the box—then it can go straight out to consignment/swap/donation/recycling without guilt or attachment. And if you’re pleasantly surprised, great! It’s like a free gift to yourself. I don’t think it’s terrible to postpone the decision. (Just, don’t postpone it indefinitely.)

Of course, you’ll probably want to disregard this piece of advice if you’re planning to move before the items would come back out of seasonal storage. I think it’s fine to store things you may or may not want, but nobody wants to move things they’re not sure about.

Now, I’ve probably ruined my chances of becoming a professional organizer with my wishy-washy approach, but I think that cutting yourself a little slack goes a long way toward getting what you want without compromising your happiness or sanity. What do you think? Do you do your closet clear outs slow and steady, or do you take a quicker, more decisive approach?

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