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A Closet Declutter

Posted by Naomi Schoenfeld on


There's nothing quite like a closet to highlight the extent to which we own too gosh-darn much stuff.  A study conducted by TIME magazine found that the average adult male in the U.S. owns 12 pairs of shoes, and the average American woman, 27 pairs. We spend around $2,000 per year per person on new clothing. For those who can afford it, closets have become the newest decorating trend, morphing into full-sized rooms with sitting areas, chandeliers, fishtanks, and area rugs. (Check out this New York Times article for some examples.)

The typical American closet is crammed so full of clothing and shoes that an entire industry exists just to sell us ways to pack all that clothing into small spaces -- even though most people wear only 20% of the clothing they own.


OK, so it's organized. That still doesn't mean one needs
ninety-seven different t-shirts...

Now, don't get me wrong. I know there are people whose careers do require that level of attention to appearance. There are others who simply enjoy surrounding themselves with beautiful possessions. But I practice simple living. This means, among other things, that I purposefully limit my possessions to those that I need. Including -- especially -- clothing.

And this means a regularly scheduled closet declutter.

(New to minimalist / simple living? Here's a wikipedia article to get you started.)

Left to myself, keeping to a minimal wardrobe has never been much of a problem. I'm not particularly interested in fashion, and I've always enjoyed that deep sense of satisfaction that comes with shedding unnecessary belongings. But even with this head start, limiting clothing can be a tricky proposition. After all, the quantity of clothing we own isn't really up to us. Rather, it is guided by a complex set of cultural customs and expectations -- most of which encourage, or even require, a high level of consumerism. Unless you're ready to step outside such norms entirely, you're going to have to maintain a wardrobe that is based, at least in part, on what other people think you should be wearing.

Stepping outside clothing norms can be powerful  -- but
tricky to pull off in an office setting.

Here is an example. In most U.S. workplace settings, folks are uncomfortable if you wear the same outfit several days in a row -- no matter how neat, clean, well-made, and otherwise appropriate that clothing may be. Instead, custom dictates that you wear something different each day, and only return occasionally to the same garment. The further you climb up the affluence/fashion ladder, the more time is required between wearings, until at the far reaches of affluence, you might never publicly wear the same garment twice.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are those for whom simple clothing serves to send a clear philosophical or ethical message. Religious communities of many faiths may strictly limit the number and type of clothing that community members can wear, or they may choose a garment that clearly identifies its members. This makes things easier for everyone. The casual outside observer, able to tell at a glance why these people are not following the usual clothing rules, doesn't need to worry about other (...mentally ill? money problems?) possible explanations, and the religious community can abide by principles of simplicity, or poverty, or whatever other philosophy they choose.

For those of us whose minimalist clothing is not part of codified religious life, stepping outside society's overstuffed-wardrobe norms is more complicated -- a working compromise between what you actually need (very little), and what others expect you to have (much, much more). Go too far towards simplicity, and you'll be seen as eccentric. Stray too far towards the cultural norm, and you've sacrificed your own principles... and budget.  Striking this balance is always a work in progress, but for me, I know I've found it when people do notice that my clothing is a tad repetitive, but where it doesn't stand out so strongly as to be considered worrisome or problematic. 

That's where The List comes in. The List is something that has evolved over time, as I've negotiated that uncertain ground between genuinely simple living, and the fact that I live, at least in part, in a professional world that has its own expectations. The list's purpose is to remind me of what it is actually sensible for me to own, set apart from other people's opinions, shopping-inspired inflation, and that vague idea we all seem to carry around with us that things would be perfect if we just had a little more. Here's how it works:

  1. First, clearly identify the basic wardrobe expectations that are part of your job. Some may be formalized policy (e.g., requiring professional attire), while others will be unwritten norms. Decide which ones you're going to meet, and which you can discard.
  2. Next, identify your clothing needs related to your home/chores and hobbies. For me, this includes hang-around-the-house and gardening clothing, and some sturdier wear for the more serious outdoors.
  3. Identify your laundry patterns. Realistically, there's no need to have more of an item than you typically use between washes. Similarly, there's no point in cutting back to the point where you run out of socks three days before your next laundry day. Me, I do laundry once a week.
  4. Decide how many of each item of clothing you will need to get from one laundry day to the next, including the time they're actually in the laundry. For example, two pairs of pajamas mean one to wear and one in the wash, while three gives some leeway on wash timing, so that you don't have to drag your way through house chores when you're home with the flu. Five workdays a week, paired with the no-repeating social rule, means five sets of professional clothing a week. Remember, you'll want to go for basics, here -- colors and patterns that won't instantly go out of fashion, quality that will last.
  5. Ah, shoes. The bane of most American closets. You'll want a couple of pairs -- but only a few basics that clearly match up with the clothing in your closet. Everything else? Just sit back a moment and calculate how much more money you'd have for retirement if you never bought an excess of shoes again. 
  6. Add a minimum of unusual occasions clothing, such as formal wear.

And, there you have it. The result will vary, based on your job, lifestyle, and hobbies, but the typical simple-living wardrobe for business-casual career comes out something like this:

For me, that's pretty close to my actual list, and amounts to around 70 items of clothing in all. That's it. Done. Finished. Anything more is just clutter.

Simple, isn't it? Yet somehow, I still manage to end up with extra clothing. Darned if I know how it happens. I don't shop for it. Usually the growth creeps in over time, when I buy a replacement for, say, an older shirt, then decide the old one still has some life in it, and keep them both. And so, every now and then I bring up a copy of The List, dump everything in the closet on the bed, and prune till I'm in compliance.

This week, I am pruning. 

Your turn. What's your closet declutter routine? 

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