Behind the closed door of my closet lies a world of possibility. Give me a few hours to clean it out, and perhaps I’ll finally become a person with a wardrobe of chic, coordinating neutrals instead of someone with four different black turtlenecks that I hate for four different reasons.
I know there can be real value in purging. Having better and fewer choices makes it easier to get dressed, and being able to see what you already own means you’re less likely to overbuy. Research also suggests that uncluttered living spaces may decrease stress.
And yet there are shoes I love despite the pain they inflict, office clothes I’ve hung onto even though I’ve worked from home for four years, and an expensive, impractical dress that I can only assume I bought while in some sort of hypnotic trance.
Cleaning out your closet can feel emotionally charged, said KC Davis, a licensed therapist and the author of “How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing.” A person who grew up with scarcity might feel anxious about getting rid of something in case they need it later. Someone whose body has changed may find it tough to purge sizes they may never wear again. But regardless of the guilt or pressure you feel about an item, she said, “there’s no reason to store it in your closet if you really aren’t wearing it.”
I asked Ms. Davis, along with several other professional organizers and stylists, how to get past the overwhelming feelings and make the clean-out process more rewarding.
Go in with a vision
Most people dive into decluttering without a plan, said Shaniece Jones, a professional closet organizer whose clients include the singer Normani and the actress Michelle Williams. “You don’t have a strategy, you don’t have a vision. You’re just like, let me get all this stuff out of here.”
Instead, take some time to think about your current style and how you might want to change it, she said. In the days before you start decluttering, make a note when someone compliments something you’re wearing to help you pinpoint pieces you may want to hang onto .
Ms. Jones suggested creating a Pinterest board of outfits that speak to you, saving items in an online cart or wish list or flipping through magazines or catalogs so that you have reference points when you’re deciding what to keep or toss. “It makes it easier to think, you know what, this piece doesn’t fit into this look I’m going for,” Ms. Jones said.
Make it easy to review what you have
Depending on the size of your wardrobe, a thorough clean-out can take up to four hours, said Chellie Carlson, a stylist based in Los Angeles. She recommends taking out one category of clothing at a time — tank tops, then T-shirts and so on — and starting with the category you wear most often.
While it’s fine to just lay the clothes out on your bed, Ms. Carlson said she preferred to use a rolling rack — you may be able to borrow one from a friend or neighbor — and hang each category of clothing as you go. Creating that display “is so powerful, you can’t unsee it,” she said. “You might have five or six black camisoles. What does that tell you? You need to stop buying black camisoles.”
Then, going item by item, pull each one from the rack to hold, touch and try on, Ms. Carlson said. “Ask, does this fit? Does this feel good?”
What to do with the ‘maybe’ pile
If you’re on the fence about a piece, Mary Gonsalves Kinney, a San Francisco-based stylist, suggests trying to style an outfit around it with other things you’re keeping. If you can’t do it, “it’s gotta go,” she said.
Ms. Jones recommends “tagging” any items you’re still wavering on with a safety pin. If the safety pin is still there the next time you declutter — meaning you haven’t worn the item in that time frame — it’s time to part ways.
“It doesn’t have to be this onetime purge where all your decisions are final,” Ms Davis added. You can put the things that feel too hard to part with somewhere else temporarily. Store them in the hall closet, or in a bin or vacuum-sealed storage bag and revisit them in a few weeks. “You can still get the goal of a downsized closet that’s easier to maintain without feeling like, oh god, don’t make the wrong decision!”
Ashlee Piper, a sustainability expert and the author of “Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet,” stressed the importance of making a repairs pile. If you still like a piece, but the zipper is broken, for example, “think, ‘How can I get more life out of this item?’ rather than, ‘Oh, it’s kind of worn out, I need to replace it.’”
For the pieces you have decided to keep, create a system that makes sense with your routines, Ms. Jones said. If you work out in the morning, put exercise clothes in the top drawer of your dresser or on the rod closest to your closet door.
To be able to “shop” your wardrobe at a glance, Ms. Carlson says she likes to organize by category and then by color — so tank tops from light to dark, then T-shirts from light to dark, for example.
For accessories and smaller items, resist the urge to buy fancy storage solutions, Ms. Piper said, and try to reuse things you already have, like shoe boxes. “A container is a container,” she said. “You don’t need to go out and buy something new that says ‘socks.’”
And to ensure you won’t need to do this again for a while don’t cull and shop simultaneously, Ms. Gonsalves Kinney said.
“Once you’ve purged, really try to sit on it for a month and don’t buy anything,” she said. “Then you’re buying with intention rather than reckless abandon.”