Reader Request: Letting Go of Closet Misfits

How to get rid of clothes that just don't work anymore
An anonymous commenter dropped this doozy into the suggestion box:

How do you know when it’s time to let an item of clothing go? Either something you’ve worn and loved, or something that you’ve held onto waiting for that magical right piece that will convert your closet orphan into a fabulous outfit?

I’ve mentioned quite a few times that I don’t personally subscribe to the “if you haven’t worn it for a year, get rid of it” rule. And there are several reasons for that.

Style is cyclical. Both personal style and general style. If you loved something once and wore it, you might love and wear it again in a couple of cycles. Why get rid of it and buy the same thing again when you can just hang onto what you’ve got?

Style evolves. If you liked something enough to procure it, there’s a reason. If you can’t figure out how to work it into easy outfits now, you might be able to later. And even if you can’t, you bought it because you loved it. Use it to challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone!

Style is complex. The more I explore my own style, the more I love feeling well-equipped. I have nothing but the deepest admiration for those who can pare down their closets to 15 gorgeous, classic items, but that’s just not how I roll. I like layered looks, accessories, neutral mixes. I prefer to have lots of tools on hand so that I can experiment to my heart’s content.

All that said, I don’t keep everything I buy. I give tons of stuff away to my friends and to charities, sell the occasional item on eBay, and recycle some bits and bobs into new garments or accessories. My seasonal purges are an important part of my style-honing process.

Now, the question was about two specific types of unworn items: Ones that were beloved once, and ones that have no playmates in your current wardrobe. So let’s dive into those, shall we?


It scares you: There are plenty of items that stick around unworn season after season. They hold onto their spots in your closet because you look at them and think, “Hello there, gorgeous. Promise to trot you out next fall!” But stuff that makes you cringe because it is so far removed from your current style? Ditch it and screw the “cyclical trends” argument. Trust your gut.

It fights you: Weight fluctuates and shifts, but many of us are pretty much the same SHAPE regardless of how much we weigh. Clothing that doesn’t fit usually falls into two categories: Stuff that fit eons ago, and stuff that never fit in the first place. (I have a tougher time with the latter, as it tends to encompass gorgeous hand-me-downs from friends that I couldn’t bear to reject, or amazing vintage finds that ALMOST worked but not quite.) If something fit a former version of your body and you still just adore it, feel free to hold onto it forever … but get it the hell out of your everyday closet where it will just stare you down and make you feel stuck in the past. Put it in deep storage. Clothing that never fit? Try to be brutally honest with yourself, and find it a loving home.

It is unalterable: Many beloved items can be reworked by a tailor to fit our today-bodies, breathing new life into abandoned garments. But sweaters are tough. Leather goods are expensive. And anything asymmetrical or incredibly complex in construction probably isn’t worth the investment. Unalterables should probably find new homes, too.


It’s a sore thumb: A closet orphan that suits your body and style can linger long and eventually find its place. A closet orphan that looks absolutely nothing like anything you have ever owned is unlikely to work its way into regular wear. Use closet orphans to challenge yourself, but be reasonable. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Talbots gal wondering what to do with that bustled, corseted steampunk dress … consider getting rid of it.

It frustrates you: If you’ve tried 18 gazillion things to make a closet orphan work, none of them have, and you feel the urge to light it on fire, just donate the damned thing. Again, challenging yourself is a marvelous way to expand your style. But if a challenging item seems to be mocking you with its stylistic difficulty, just forget it. Life is too short and there are too many other marvelous things in your closet, just ripe for the wearing.

One final note about closet orphans: Often times, these are items that we’ve blocked mentally. A blazer that was once half of a suit and can’t seem to make its way solo, a skirt that was bought with a sweater and never moved on after the sweater got ruined. Set these items aside and make a project of mixing them into your daily wear. Once they’re no longer conceptualized as one-use items, they’ll merge into your closet much easier.

Image courtesy aldrin_muya.

Originally posted 2010-05-14 05:36:00.

Next Post
Previous Post

25 Responses to “Reader Request: Letting Go of Closet Misfits”

  1. GreatCanadianBeagle

    One reason for purging that I'd add is the emotional…ummm…mojo of the piece. An example: I was wearing a skirt the night I broke up with my long term partner. It was a skirt in regular rotation. I thought of that horrible night every time I wore the damn thing and wore it less and less as a result. I am now years in to a wonderful relationship with my current boyfriend, but that doesn't change the icky feelings surrounding that skirt. I've moved on, but it appears the skirt hasn't. I got rid of it. I have had to do the same for clothes I've worn to funerals, and clothes I've worn to other unpleasant situations.

    Anyone else weird like me?

  2. Sophie Miriam

    I think you skipped a category of once-loved items–the ones that have sentimental value, like my T-shirt from the school I attended in 7th grade. I can't pitch it, but I have no desire to wear it either.

  3. Darling Petunia

    I have a rule: If I put something on in the morning, intending to wear it to work, I either have to follow through with wearing it or donate it. I can try on different combinations, but once I've settled on something, that's it. No going back.

  4. orchidsinbuttonholes

    One of the reason I loved your tunic challenge was that it demonstrated how one item can look several different ways. I think that's an important test to physically do (and not just mentally splice things together) – I think it's a great exercise to try a thing on with a lot of different pieces and capture those looks on film. If it doesn't work, if it remains too much work, if it consistently doesn't look right in pictures, or if, while wearing it, it's requires constant adjusting, then it's time to alter it or move it along.

    Because I have a space issue, I try to remain vigilant for those things that just are not worn. There are some things I own that haven't been worn for over a year, but once it gets to that point, I know it's about time I give it "Sal's tunic test."

    Great post!

  5. oh lady e

    Ooooh, I totally agree with GreatCanadianBeagle. I had to get rid of the clothes I wore to my grandfather's funeral… back in 2001, I also had to throw away the outfit I was wearing on 9/11. It just made me sick every time I saw that particular top.

  6. Future Lint

    I have a hard time getting rid of things because I always think I can sew them or fix them or whatever, but I'm getting better. I've learned there are some things (like smock dresses) that will never, ever, ever work on my particular body, so all of those things are easy to part with (and now not buy). There is always a bag in my closet for stuff that I decide I don't need and when it get's full, it's off to a charity thrift store!

  7. Anonymous

    huh. this falls into the 'know thyself' category in my view. if you have tons of storage space/like to wear a WIDE variety of different colors and styles/hate to wear the same article of clothing more than once every two weeks/can remember all the different odds and ends that you have squirreled away here and there, then you can be a lot more laid-back about when you get rid of clothes. it won't be a practical problem, won't bother you psychologically, and you won't find that this style of wardrobe interferes with getting yourself dressed quickly and appropriately.

    conversely, if you have limited space/time/money, can't remember what you have unless it's right in front of your face/have a fairly well-established sense of style (not to say a conservative sense, just you know what's you and what you need), then it's possible that a pared-down easily viewed wardrobe will be a better fit for you. in this case, you'll do better to be more aggressive in getting rid of clothes that don't fit your plan.

    at the same time, for this ruthless approach to wardrobe pruning to work you do need to have a plan, and have enough experience with it to know that your plan will work. so transitional times (new job, new part of the country, new baby, etc.) maybe aren't the best for taking a ruthless approach to throwing out clothes – you'll need to experiment in order to see what works in your new situation.

    personally, i've found that serious wardrobe paring can result in more to wear, since if a piece of clothing is hidden it just doesn't register in my mind. go figure. great topic. very individual, there's a lot to learn (about yourself) in order to do it well. so it's really helpful to get input!! steph

  8. Rachel Steed

    A lot of items in my closet I bought for the wrong reasons: I got sucked in by a sale or a beautiful color when the garment in question didn't fit well, or I saw something similar on a person on whom I bestowed undue admiration. I'm all about trying to rework items and make them work with current styles, but if something doesn't fit, there's no hope of recovering it, and/or you bought it for the wrong reason and it isn't AT ALL your style, I say get rid of it.

  9. mashiki0603

    Oh, what a timely subject! I do tend to have purges, though now less than before, because after moving to the capital and working for the big companies, my dress style irrevocably has changed. My first-to-be-considered-or-to-go-away items are the ones that were bought oh a whim, most often because there was a good sale I couldn't pass, same for the shoes, and how I cringe thinking about money wasted… One such example would be a classic cut 2-piece trouser suit in bright pink with narrow white stripes. The color itself is not bad but way too bright altogether. I can't make myself get rid of it and I doubt I would wear it. I guess the best way would be to dye it, eh?

  10. RoseAG

    I totally agree that bad experiences while wearing are a good reason to get rid of something.

    Apart from that if for whatever reason I avoid wearing it then it's on the out list.

    I have a give away bag running all the time in addition to seasonal storage give away evaluation.

    In my experience it is always a good idea to take notes about what gets given away so you don't make the same mistake again. Your "look book" journal should have a section for duds as well as hits.

  11. The Raisin Girl

    I tend to purge items only when they're so worn out that even the scraps can't be used. The last time I did anything other than this, I ended up letting go of…take a deep breath, this will hurt…a genuine 60s bell-sleeved tunic, and an Egyptian cotton pink and white peasant skirt. So swirly. So beautiful. So GONE.

    My only real rule, though, is that I never, EVER purge when I'm in an altered emotional state. In fact, I never do ANYTHING drastic in such a state. Right after my grandmother died, I cut my hair off really short and donated half my clothes. Still regretting it. Learned my lesson.

  12. lisa

    I have limited storage space and I haven't been as vigilant about cleaning out my closet as I should've been in the last 2-3 years. Consequently ever since December I've done about 2 or 3 closet purges in stages and I still have a bunch of stuff sitting in a drawer waiting to be donated. Being 25, I'm also trying to shift from the young girlish look to something more sophisticated. A part of me will always love ruffles and florals, but wearing them in a sleek, more grown-up way–ah, that's a new challenge. 🙂

  13. Rad_in_Broolyn

    I'm such a pack rat, so your advice is very well received. I need to do a big purge soon, including of some really beautiful pieces that just don't work for my body and style. Thanks!

  14. Ashley @ Fitsmi

    I have lots of clothes that become unwearable over time. Either they fade or shrink in the wash, or I get a rip or a stain. On more than one occasion I've attempted to salvage my beloved over-worn clothes by bleaching pit stains or shaving off the little balls (pills) that form on certain fabrics. Sometimes I can find a way to bring old clothes back to life, but other times I have to take a deep breath and kiss them goodbye.

  15. Cedar

    I'm with you GreatCanadianBeagle–I had a black dress that I wore to the saddest funeral of my life. I knew I would never, ever wear it again (too much bad mojo, as you say), yet I didn't want to give it away, as not only did that seem disrespectful (can't explain it!), but I feared passing on the bad vibes to someone else. It hung around in my closet for years, until I took it apart, and used the fabric to make a sort of stuffed animal/pillow thing that I keep in the living room. Now, I see it every day, and it doesn't seem as sad and awful. People comment on it, and hug it, and it makes me think of my sweet, funny friend, and not her terrible funeral.

  16. Daisy Dukes

    SO APROPOS after yesterday, Sal.

    It's the question for the ages. I have never been able to answer it. My mother used to save paper towels so you can only imagine my inheritance.

    I have an, ahem, gift in that I can always think of a reason to keep something. I am also a sentimental slob and I am sure that my clothing has feelings.

    But seriously, I regret so much the things I gave away over the years trying to have that ideal pristine pared down closet.

    The truth was I never knew how to wear the stuff then. Now that my imagination is freer and I know better who I am and who I want to be I would like to have all that stuff back! Wah! My ideals are so different now. Now it is all about how to wear something to fit it into my lifestyle. I gave away some nice sweet stuff, too. A velvet jacket, gaberdine suits, earrings that I had from the age of 15. Can I say it again. Wah!

    For me it is the stain issue. It may be time to give it away when it is stained.

    But not if it is really old or a doily. ;D

  17. Cathie

    Really great post! A few years ago, I read a book that encouraged defining your style, or how you want to look, in a few words, and if you didn't match your definition, change your clothes, or your whole wardrobe. I worked at my definition for awhile, and decided I want to look sharp, put together, and up to date. (Of course, each word means something particular to each person.) The word "sharp" is my fulcrum. If I try on something fussy (smocking), too casual (fleece, pre-faded fabrics, cargo pants), bland (beige), trendy (short or tight), or otherwise iffy, I ask myself, is this sharp? Does it look like me, and do I love it?

    I've tried on tons of clothes, had fun, but saved myself from a hundred wardrove disasters, I know. And I've still been able to shop off clearance racks and outlet stores.

    However – there are still pieces in my close to deal with. I will take some fresh looks at them this weekend. Thanks for your advice and all the interesting comments.

  18. Sip-n-Snap

    I totally agree!
    I tend to purge out when they are totally unwearable..starting to get discoloured sometimes!

  19. Ruby

    I go through periodic purges for two reasons:

    Weight gain or loss. I had a hormonal condition that made me gain a bunch of weight and everything from that period of time got donated. I felt ugly and though I had some beautiful clothes (that probably could have been altered, belted, etc now) I associate them with a miserable time in my life.

    Changes in life: these are the things I regret. I had some beautiful vintage pieces that I got rid of about 5 years ago because I decided I wanted to look more "mature and professional." I'm less attached to having a matchy professional look and more adventuresome, so I wish I hadn't discarded those things based on a really tunnel vision idea of what "professional" meant. I'm in a creative field, by the way. I'm now of the opinion that unless something doesn't work or is worn out, I'm probably better off keeping it.

  20. Carrie

    When in doubt, I do a "wear" test – I wear a questionable item to work or a relatively long event so I can see how it hangs after a while and how it makes me feel. This works best for pieces that can already be incorporated into an outfit but that I'm still not sure about. I've gotten rid of a lot or work clothes this way, because while they technically fit, they don't flatter or feel good after 8 hours of sitting (i.e. wrinkling), walking to/from train stations, etc. I've found that I can make a much clearer decision that way rather than just trying on and looking in a mirror in my bedroom.

    I also have to agree that it can take a good deal of time to figure out how to wear a piece you love. It took me 5 years to coordinate a 1980s Victorian-style velvet blazer I thrifted before they came back into style. Five years later, presto! I was fashion-forward and could find pieces to match. True love can be worth the wait. 😉

  21. Rachel

    I just purged my clothing last weekend (and re-organized by color, type and sleeve length, which just feels good) and pretty much followed the same guidelines you outlined. Got rid of a bunch of lower end, trendy pieces that I've either matured past or fall in the never fit right category. I purge about once a year, but I really consider each piece and whether it still works or one day will work again.

    I hold onto higher quality pieces or ones that I really love forever. Years ago an employer gave me an awesome early 70s skirt suite that never quite fit. I just found it in the very back of my closet and it fits now! i was so excited by my re-discovery and the fact that it completely fit into my current wardrobe.

    Do you recommend hanging onto clothing that is not your current size if your weight fluctuates a lot? I recently changed an entire pant size I'm torn between consigning them or holding onto them in case I'm that size again. What do you recommend? I have the space to store them, but I feel like holding onto them might negatively affect me mentally – I don't want to be able to wear that size again!

  22. Sal

    Rachel: I consistently gain about 10 pounds every winter, so I DEFINITELY hold onto my larger clothes. And I'd say if your weight fluctuates regularly that you should, too. I totally understand not wanting to keep old clothes after a drastic body shift, but bodies shift all the time. It's totally natural! And you'll be even more frustrated if you ditch all those clothes and have to re-buy them later.

    If you can, put not-now sizes in deep storage where you don't have to look at them every day. You may never need them again, but if you do, it'll be so helpful to have them on-hand.

  23. Rachael

    Brilliant advice! I'm in the middle of a closet purge right now as I've gone down a size, trying to decide what to ditch and what to have tailored.

  24. KeepitSecretSquirrel

    Coming a bit late to this post – I purge clothing that doesn't fit, and can't be altered or were just out and out mistakes
    ( when I bought a top in a rush for a party that evening type-mistakes), but if the style isn't quite fitting with what I wear now, I hold onto it. Often, I have found that my more 'unusual' decisions have ended up taking my personal style in a whole different direction, once I have been able to incorporate the new item into outfits. This maybe reflects that I was previously in a bit of a style rut and wore limited colours, so an 'out there' purchase really had nothing else in the wardrobe to be friends with!