Closet Cleanse: Steps to a Healthier, Simpler Closet

by Rae Schrock

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This article first appeared in the March/April 2015 edition of Daughters of Promise.


Have you ever stood in front of your closet and moaned, “I don’t have anything to wear!” I have, lots of times! Of course, it’s a ridiculous statement, since usually we say it staring into a closet jam-packed with options. A thrifter by nature, I’ve never lacked cute clothing and my closet shows my affinity for good deals. I love putting together an arresting outfit and for years I felt like the best way to do that was to have lots of options.

Recently, however, I’ve been seeking ways to streamline my life to make room for things that matter most. And the more changes I’ve made to my lifestyle, the more I’ve realized that the one thing most devoid of simplicity is my closet. I’ve also learned that being the girl with a hundred dresses is actually more stressful than enjoyable. So I decided to try an experiment: a closet cleanse. The theory is that excess breeds stress, while simplicity brings freedom.

Simplicity in the wardrobe enables us to have what we need and use what we have. It guards against materialism. “Yeah, but I don’t spend excessively!” You may protest. I said this for a long time in defense of my overcrowded closet. The truth, however, is that materialism isn’t just spending beyond our means. It is possessing more than we can regularly use and enjoy.

I love Richard Foster’s perspective in his book, The Freedom of Simplicity:

“Contemporary culture is plagued by the passion to possess. The unreasoned boast abounds that the good life is found in accumulation, that ‘more is better’…Simplicity frees us from th(e) modern mania. It brings sanity to our compulsive extravagance, and peace to our frantic spirit. It liberates us from what William Penn called ‘cumber.’ It allows us to see material things for what they are-goods to enhance life, not to oppress life. People once again become more important than possessions.”

On this basis that simplicity brings freedom, I recently set out to ruthlessly purge my closet. I wanted to see if I enjoyed what I owned more, while possessing less. It was a little intimidating at first. Items I’d been holding onto for years were hard to let go. What if I wish I had kept this? I thought. But I’m here to tell you that the experiment was successful. Cleansing my closet was purifying. It really does feel good to look at an orderly array of items. I enjoy the clothing I have, and love putting it to its intended use. My closet is healthier because it is eliminated of excess; reduced to only those things I love and can use regularly.

A closet cleanse is essentially just a radical trimming down of one’s wardrobe. It’s very practical and requires commitment to the why behind it. I recommend doing this cleanse once every season, since we tend to gather items slowly, and need to step back and examine the whole picture sometimes.

There are a couple of approaches to a successful closet cleanse. You may decide to trim down by a percentage reduction. For instance, based on your available storage space, you may opt to cut your wardrobe by 1/3. My approach isn’t quite as mathematical; I eliminate items based on use-ability and quality. If it fits, I love it, and wear it regularly – the item stays. Anything that doesn’t meet those 3 criteria gets eliminated. There is no right or wrong way; just pick an approach and start.

EVALUATE OBJECTIVES & SET GOALS.

First, consider the values that shape your decisions. Questions like these may help guide the process: Does my wardrobe reflect my values (e.g. modesty, charm, femininity, creativity)? Am I dressing within my means? Do I feel stressed or relaxed when I am deciding what to wear? What value does this particular piece have in my wardrobe?

This is not supposed to be an over-spiritualized event. Simply think practically and realistically. Is your wardrobe practical? What percentage is actually being put to use? Do you feel good in what you have to wear?

TAKE INVENTORY.

Years ago, one of my friends and I decided to count every major article of clothing we owned. We got depressed around piece 70 or 80, decided it was a silly activity, and went shopping. Year-end inventory is a pain regardless of whether it’s happening at the office or in your personal wardrobe, but, as my friend and I discovered, it is a very telling exercise.

Sift through clothing and accessories one by one, evaluating for usability, fit, and condition. Do you have multiples where one or two would do? It is even a good idea to inventory socks and undergarments, items we tend to accumulate with no sense of how many we already have. Understanding the full picture of how much of everything you actually have will be eye-opening as you think practically about how much you really need.

Practical Tip: Turn all your hangers backward, and as you wear an item, hang it back up with the hanger turned the opposite way. Do this for two months and then examine how many items you didn’t wear. Consider eliminating what you haven’t worn. My rationale is that if I don’t like an item enough to wear it once in two months, then I won’t miss it when it’s gone.

PURGE RUTHLESSLY.

Now that you know what you have, it’s time to eliminate. This can be the hard part, but I promise it’s worth it. I like to make several piles as I sort: trash, donate, and re-sell. Face-off with each piece, asking questions such as: “Do I like this? Does it fit? How long has it been since I’ve worn it?” Then act accordingly.

Stifle sentimentality as you sort. Some items in your closet need to hit the dumpster, and you need to be okay with that! Take for instance your favorite jean skirt; the one that fits like none other, but has grass stains and rips zig-zagged shut. It’s served its purpose; now gently lay it to rest. Other articles of clothing are too nice to throw away, but no longer fit or are your style. Resist the urge to keep that little black dress in the hopes that this will be the year you lose enough weight to fit into it. Get rid of it. People like us keep Goodwill in business; donate with pride. Extra nice items can be turned into cash from your local consignment store.

I’ve tried to abide by the principle that clothing was meant to be worn, not hoarded away. Stockpiling clothing is materialistic, a violation of its purpose to be used and enjoyed. In my personal experience, getting rid of stuff is worth the satisfaction of opening a closet that contains only those items that I love and regularly wear.

Practical Tip: If you’re having trouble getting rid of stuff, invite a friend to observe you modeling the items in question. Find someone who won’t side with your sentimentality, but will objectively tell you if your beloved corduroy jacket or bejeweled first-date heels need to hit the junk pile.

CHOOSE QUALITY OVER QUANTITY.

I routinely find great clothes at extremely affordable prices. The problem, however, is that I end up with piles of cheap clothes I don’t regularly wear, and much of the time, don’t even really like. I’ve decided that this approach shows just as much lack of restraint as spending beyond my means would.

I’m still learning the discipline of quality over quantity. I recommend saving up for one well-made item, rather than 10 cheap ones. In this spring’s closet cleanse I decided it was time to raid my collection of winter coats. I was embarrassed at how many I had, and for the most part it was an easy decision which to discard. There was one coat I labored over, however - a fur-lined job I bought for 25 cents five years ago. It only cost a quarter! I rationalized, How can I get rid of it? I felt genuine anxiety over this decision, every frugal bone in my body screaming, “Keep it!” Eventually I realized that, 1. I don’t really even like the coat, and 2. My boyfriend just bought me two brand-new ones. The 25 cent coat now calls a Goodwill rack home, and my coat collection is reduced to the number I actually need: two.

STICK TO YOUR STYLE.

Purge out items that no longer fit in your style wheelhouse. Don’t apologize for loving maxi skirts while the rest of your friends rave about leggings and knee-high boots. If you prefer solid neutrals over chevron, then closet cleanse accordingly. Remember, the goal is to end up with items you personally enjoy and will wear regularly. Bear in mind that personal tastes change over the years; the frilly formal you loved a few years ago may no longer match your professional aspirations of today. Feel no grief about throwing it out. Compulsively altering one’s style to gain admiration from the in-crowd is not healthy, but recognizing the gradual maturing of personal taste over the years, is. Establish what you like and feel comfortable in, and then stick to it. A few well-tailored, high-quality pieces will always beat a trunkful of cheap seasonal trends.

CREATE ORDER.

Chaos is almost always a precursor to excess. Once you’ve eliminated the necessary items, neatly organize what is left. My method includes dumping everything out on the floor so I can visualize the available space, and figure out how to use it best. It is rewarding to create order out of chaos, and refreshing to see at a glance what I have.

Here are a few practical tips to create sustainable order: Line a silverware caddy with felt and place it in a drawer to organize small items such as hair accessories or watches. One solution to the scarves and belts situation is to screw small hooks into the underside of a wooden hanger and use it to hang these items in an out-of-the-way spot. I also like to slide small baskets into dresser drawers to organize underwear, socks, swimwear, etc.. My closet is organized by categories (formalwear, sundresses, skirts, cardigans, coats), with longest items on the left, and shortest on the right. This helps me see at a glance the components of an outfit.

CONGRATULATIONS!

By this time, you should have piles of eliminated items cluttering the floor, and a delightfully roomier closet. If not, sister, you need to go back and start at the beginning! I would be remiss if I didn’t briefly mention the importance of accruing smartly. Unless we apply the virtue of simplicity in our shopping habits, we will continuously end up in materialism – owning more than we need or can put to use. So shop smart, with attention to quality, style, and functionality. Resist cheap deals and save up for a few pieces that fit well and can be enjoyed for a long time. Turn down free items when they’re not needed. Choose neutral tones and styles that add versatility to your wardrobe. Learn to say “no” to anything that adds eye candy to your closet, but little functional use.

In conclusion, I want to leave you with a fabulous quote by a designer named David Craib. He said, “Design should never say, ‘Look at me.’ It should always say, ‘Look at this.’” Though Craib was referring specifically to graphic design, I think we can apply the concept to the way we keep our closets as well. The “perfect outfit” is one that draws attention to so much more than itself. The most beautifully dressed women I know are adorned with clothing that reflects their inner character. Ask yourself, ‘Does what I’m wearing shout, “Look at ME?”’ or does it invite those around you to appreciate the refreshing values of modesty, simplicity, and femininity?

I have no doubt that I will always love pairing patterns and colors. I will remain a dedicated thrifter. And my favorite part is that embracing simplicity doesn’t keep me from doing these things. In fact, simplicity allows me to do them better because it eliminates distracting, binding excess and frees me to enjoy fully what I have.

I expect that as you apply simplicity to your own wardrobe, you will be freed from ‘cumber’ and enabled, as Richard Foster said, “to enjoy your material things for what they are - goods to enhance life, not to oppress life.”



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