Reader Request: Managing a Massive Closet Purge

How to purge your closet

In a comment on my post about shifting my style, r.s. asked if I would talk a bit more about what it’s like to purge out a third of your wardrobe. And although I talked about some of the actions I took to make more focused and informed choices, I didn’t get into the nuts and bolts of the purge. And now I will!

For starters, even after this purge I still have lots of clothes. I had been focused on accumulation and wardrobe building for many years leading up to this change, so I had a lot to sort through and still have lots of options at my disposal. I say this because getting rid of a third of your wardrobe has considerably more impact if you’re already a minimalist who only owns 50 wardrobe items.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t, potentially, cast off a large portion of them; If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that what we think we need to dress stylishly and what we actually need to dress stylishly can be pretty far apart. But I want to be honest, here: I got rid of a lot. I still have a lot. And although Grechen’s journey toward minimalism has had a huge impact on me, I don’t feel ready to commit to that path myself. Not yet, anyway.

Another important bit of information: I started purging long before I made the conscious decision to change my personal style. In fact, I was purging on a near-weekly basis for about four months. And since I found that staggered purge to be helpful, let’s start there.

Do it in stages

If you’ve decided to drastically change your style, or are moving to a new space with less storage, or have settled on any reason at all that makes you want or need to jettison a big chunk of your wardrobe, the process will be less painful and more effective if you can do it over a relatively long period of time.

The first closet purge is usually the low-hanging fruit: Stuff that doesn’t fit or is damaged or hasn’t been worn in a decade. But if you ditch that stuff, walk away, and come back in a week? You’ll see the next tier of potential castoffs: Items that are pretty but not really “you,” stuff that’s super delicate and/or dry cleanable and therefore never gets worn, a few things you’ve been telling yourself are awesome but that you might just be hanging onto because they were expensive. Come back in ANOTHER week? Even more items you don’t really need will come to hand.

In my own case, I found myself becoming more and more brutally honest as the weeks rolled by. Items I couldn’t part with the week before were ripped from their hangers and sent to new homes. And doing it all in stages allowed me to live with less, but gradually. To see if the loss of any of these items made an impact. (Never did.)

Have a plan or a focus

Might seem like the place to start, but it doesn’t need to be. I think if you’ve committed to a large-scale purge you are likely someone who realizes she has more than she really needs. The first few passes at purging can just be used for skimming off the stuff that simply isn’t working or clearly isn’t necessary. But once you find yourself making hard decisions about skirts you adore but just aren’t using, you’ll need some sort of guiding principle. In my case, this became, “Would a badass wear this?” And if you have a specific aesthetic that you’re trying to achieve, “Would a romantic/prep/rocker/siren/steampunk/retro-gal wear this?” could work for you, too.

But since many of us draw from multiple influences and looks, you can also consider other parameters: Creating a defined color palette and jettisoning anything that doesn’t fit within it (which I also did), being honest about your comfort priorities and ditching items that aren’t comfy enough (also did this with my high heels), and although I don’t generally push time-contingent parameters you can certainly opt to get rid of items that haven’t been worn for X number of months/years. Purging willy-nilly will work for a while, but once you’re facing down items you still love but aren’t really working, having a plan or focus for your culling will be helpful.

Create a holding area

Purging often yields three main categories: Items you definitely want to keep, items you can part with easily, and items you THINK you can cast off but aren’t totally sure. If downsizing is your goal and you’re getting rid of lots of garments and accessories, consider moving items in that third category to a temporary holding area away from your closet. This will allow you to live with a smaller wardrobe for a few weeks and figure out if you miss any of those “maybe” pieces. If you do, you can bring them back into the fold. This prevents “donator’s remorse,” the lesser known sibling to “buyer’s remorse.”

I’m lucky enough to have basement storage, so I’ve moved some of my “maybe” items downstairs for now. If you don’t have any out-of-closet storage, just take the items off the hangers or out of the drawers, fold them, and put them in another room. Get them out of your regular line of sight so you’ll know if you truly miss and need them.

Consider selling what you can

If you’re financially secure enough to just donate without worry, by all means do so. There are countless charities that will take and re-sell your gorgeous duds and put the profits toward a good cause. (Dress for Success is a particularly great one, if you’ve got lots of office-appropriate attire. Just sayin’.)

If part of what’s keeping you from downsizing is pondering all the money you’ve spent on these things, that stress can be slightly mitigated by consigning items, putting them through online consignment sites like thredUP, or selling them on eBay. I must’ve visited my local consignment stores two dozen times over the course of my purge, and it was helpful to get a bit of cash back. Now, if you go this route you should be prepared to get pennies on the dollar for your items: Do not expect to get anything near what you paid for your clothes back. And for some people, the stress of being offered $5 for a $250 pair of shoes will be worse than just bagging them up for Goodwill and letting go. Your call, obviously.

A sidenote to this: Unless you have tags and receipts and are within the return window, the money you’ve spent on your wardrobe is now gone. Try to think of it as gone. Although recouping some money can help ease you through this process, focusing on what you’ve spent – and therefore lost – will just trip you up. It doesn’t really matter if you spent $500 or $5 on something you’re not wearing. You’re still not wearing it. And you may feel guilty or foolish for spending lots on something that you didn’t end up using, but those feelings won’t get you your money back. And they also won’t make you wear something you don’t naturally want to wear. Sell it if you can, donate it if you wish, and try to move on.

Know that it’s a rolling process

I am so very NOT done purging my closet. It has been exciting to daydream about my new style direction, and I’ve already thrifted and bought some items that fit within my more defined aesthetic. Undoubtedly, some of them will turn out to be duds, and will need to be passed along to new owners.  I also hung onto cool bright colors and jewel tones for the time being, but I suspect one of those color categories will get ditched after a few months of experimentation.

Since your style never stops evolving, your wardrobe will be in a near-constant state of flux. And that’s fine. This isn’t a project that needs to be tackled and completed within a certain timeframe. Let it unfold organically. When you feel like you’ve gotten rid of everything you can possibly part with, stop. But be open to culling more in the future.

Shopping and purging are really two sides of the same coin, both directly related to cultivating a useful, beautiful, unique wardrobe. Adding more can seem like the more exciting, glamorous option, but honing in on a defined, specific look can be just as rewarding. Most people probably aren’t considering a giant culling session, but all of us are in seasonal transition now and therefore living in an ideal state of flux for sorting the sartorial wheat from the chaff.

Could you downsize? Would it help you to do it in stages? Do you have a vision for your style that could be honed in on through considered culling?

Originally posted 2014-09-15 06:44:50.

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22 Responses to “Reader Request: Managing a Massive Closet Purge”

  1. ellen ross

    I feel like your my twin! I love this post. i too have already been someone with a smaller wardrobe. so i totally understand everything you say here! so glad im not alone!

  2. maria

    In these months I’ve been purging too, especially old school clothes I kept wearing because they were still in good shape (but not my style or fitting anymore), but I eventually became fed up with this mentality and now I’m slowly building a new wardrobe, where I want only pieces I’ll wear often (ignoring the 2-3 dresses for special occasions).
    It’s a slow process, I’ve been purging every 2-3 months, and every time I discovered new items I didn’t like/didn’t fit me/were too worn off, but this made me find gaping holes in my wardrobe I didn’t even know were there, and also helped me hone my style and discover what I truly like to wear.
    So yeah, downsizing for me has been really helpful, and also I’ve discovered I’m more happy to dress in the morning when I have fewer pieces to choose from, if they are my style, ‘good fitting’ and easily ‘matchable’.

  3. Danielle

    Depending on what your tax bracket is, you may get more net dollar benefit from donating and deducting the actual fair market value than you would by consigning clothes and collecting a pittance. Just something to think through.

    • shayelea

      If you use TurboTax, track the value of your donations using “It’s Deductable.” Often the value is higher than you’d think.

  4. Lydia Nelson

    This post was so timely for me. I’ve recently lost a significant amount of weight and have been both rebuilding and purging my wardrobe. I was beginning to get frustrated that I keep finding more to purge, but thinking about it in terms of a process helps!

  5. Ginger

    I list out what I’m donating and value it as if it were on a rack at my favorite thrift. That helps at tax time. I find that the enumerating of out-the-door items is helpful in identifying bad decisions. How many t-shirts from Target do I have to buy and give away hardly worn before I quit throwing that cute shirt into my cart when I’m supposed to be buying coffee filters and hair gel?

  6. Lisa Wong

    Great post, Sal.

    I actually find it helpful to spend a moment mourning the money I’ve spent on unused items when I do a closet purge. It’s a sobering reminder of what I really need and the opportunity cost of not thinking through my purchases, and helps keep me in check when I shop for things that fill in the gaps.

  7. rmstanek

    I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but I’m a bit baffled by this, “But once you find yourself making hard decisions about skirts you adore
    but just aren’t using, you’ll need some sort of guiding principle. In my
    case, this became, “Would a badass wear this?” ”

    I guess I would start with, “What would a badass DO?”, and then move on to, “What is the best thing to wear while DOING x, y, or z, that also fits into my personal style and lifestyle?”

    As for shopping and purging, I’ve finally started keeping track of how many things I’ve gotten rid of (to Twice and to Goodwill), and how many new things I’ve purchased. Over the course of a year, I want to break even on the number of items in and out, and stay within my budget. I suspect budget will end up being the stronger limiting factor.

  8. what not

    I identify with all of this. My version of the “holding area” is a stash of four smallish, clear, stackable boxes devoted mostly to clothes one size too big or too small. Every so often I go through them again to swap in and out for fit, and in the process I also get rid of things that no longer fit my style as it’s evolved since the last time I looked. It’s a great, space-limited (I get no more than will fit there) way to keep “maybe” clothes out of my sight, and when I check in after a season or two, I might have a totally different attitude toward any given piece, good or bad.

  9. Ruth Slavid

    Does anybody have the opposite effect to purging? I find myself sometimes wearing things that I don’t feel like wearing because I haven’t worn it yet this summer, and it will prove to be a bad purchase if I don’t wear it. So I put it on even though I would rather wear something else. I also feel that I have to be ‘fair’ to my clothes. I shouldn’t wear one particular dress too often, not because people have seen it too often, but because I would be being mean to the others. Daft or what?

  10. Tragic Sandwich

    When I moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, I jettisoned a lot of my large wardrobe by asking myself whether it was something I would wear in California.

    A couple of years later, I still had a huge wardrobe that took more space than was available in our apartment–and I needed to make sure that I had clothes that would work for my new office job. I got together with a friend, and we each helped the other review clothes. It really helped to have another eye on what fit and what wasn’t really “close enough,” and I found that when I could tell her the stories behind some outfits, I was able to get rid of them.

  11. Melanie

    I purged about half of my clothes in the past six months, well, I Space Bagged many of them, which I interpret as a holding stage, and I donated a bunch more. Wow, I felt GREAT! Now my closet is slowly refilling and I must get Medieval again, culling, culling. I looove colour and whimsy, but there’s a deep shift happening. It’s exciting but freaking me out at the same time. I had a friend who boxed things, unlabeled, and left the boxes in storage for a year. When she went back, if she didn’t remember what was inside the box, she hauled it off for donation without looking inside. !!! I’m not ready for that but I understand her method.

    • Student4Life

      I agree! I was forced to purge about 50% of my closet after the shelves fell over from holding so much stuff. I scattered all my clothes in my living room and dining room and began the sorting process. I ended up giving 3 friends who are similar in size items they could use, donated other stuff and sold a few designer items on Ebay. I couldn’t believe I had amassed 60 pairs of pants alone. I felt gluttonous for having all these clothes that no longer fit or no longer reflected my style. Because I had to get my house back in order and my closet repaired, I had urgency to get the job done. It took me about 2 weeks total of doing a little bit each night after work. My rule now when I buy a new item of clothing, is to purge another item out of my closet. I also now use Rent the Runway for special occasion attire instead of buying dresses which inevitably only get worn once or twice and relegated to the back of the closet. I feel so much better for having gone through this process by necessity. To be honest, if my closet hadn’t fallen apart, I would probably still be at square one.

  12. Liz

    You are,absolutely wise to suggest a gradual purge rather than an everything-out-immediately purge, Sally.
    When my husband and I downsized from a huge house to a condo we had a very tight schedule because of the timing of the house sale and condo purchase.
    I had only about a month to purge everything–not just clothing–I owned.
    Let’s just say that a lot of the choices I made ultimately weren’t the most thoughtful.
    I miss a lot of the clothing and accessories that were purged, including two beautiful pair of classic, warm winter boots I never thought I’d need once I moved away from Western New York State. Wrong!

  13. Texas Aggie Mom

    The timing on this post couldn’t be better! I’ve been inching my way through a closet purge since purchasing your book and e-projects earlier this year, but it’s been a slow and difficult process. Grechen’s series has really helped me, as has Debbie Roes of Recovering Shopaholic; the collective wisdom of the three of you has completely changed the way I think about style, my wardrobe, and shopping. I feel like now I have permission to do this in baby steps, instead of one sweeping step that I’m afraid I’ll regret. As a side note, I’m watching your style change with great interest, and going through sort of a reverse transition, trying to add more color and wear fewer neutrals. Thanks for your willingness to go through this transition in full view of your readers. Your insights are so helpful to all of us who struggle with these issues, and I look forward to seeing where this new direction takes you!

  14. Allison

    I used to work as a personal organizer, and still sometimes help friends purge their closets. One category I see all the time is “my mom gave this to me”. Sometimes it’s a sister or friend, but mostly a mom. It has as much emotional pull as “I paid a lot for this”. Still – if you don’t love it, get rid of it. At the very least put it in a box somewhere else. I’ve seen people get rid of 20 items this way.

  15. frances kirk

    I’ve been through a lot of weight changes over the last couple of years so I’m currently operating on a three-tier system: currently fits and lives in my wardrobe, too big and lives in a box under my bed and too small and lives in a holdall in my attic! The items cycle between these as and when needed.

  16. Nada Manley

    I love this! Thanks for the inspiration. I do closet overhauls for clients here in Florida, and it is so much easier to get rid of things you aren’t wearing when you can donate it to a good cause, or make some money back on it.

  17. LinB

    Forcing myself to throw away items that are clearly too worn-out and/or stained even to gift to a thrift store is so much easier when I take my scissors and cut the offending garment into shreds. (Often I cut off the buttons, still attached to fabric so that I can keep sets of them together, and add them to my button hoard.) Once the garment is thus altered into something obviously too damaged to wear, I can easily let it slip from my fingers into the trash can.

    Knowing how to sew and how to alter rtw means that my “I Can Fix This!” pile is way too big. I have to be quite stern with myself about evaluating that pile.

    How freeing it is to let loose of items that you don’t need! It can make you stand straighter, walk with bigger steps … which might make you lose weight/change body shape, and thus get to acquire more clothing to fill those empty spaces in your closet. “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King is running through my brain, right now.

  18. Ellen from Ask Away Blog

    These are great tips. It can be super overwhelming for some people which is why I think they put it off and never get around to it! you really do have to plan an entire weekend (AT LEAST) for it