Sunday, March 6, 2011

How-To: Manage an Epic Wardrobe Purge

I've written previously about fashion diets. Today I thought I'd share my journey so far with mine. 

My story will be quite different from that described by most of the perky world-travelling twenty-somethings who are blogging about minimalism. I've just turned forty, I've lived in the same city since 1994, and I've lived in the same single-family home with lots of storage for just over a decade. I'm temperamentally inclined to be a packrat: I save things for sentimental reasons or because I'll need them someday, I hoard craft supplies and half-finished projects, I go antiquing and collect select items, I buy too many magazines, and I have a mini-library in my home. I have children, and all the piles of kid-art and boxes of toys and things bought by well-meaning relatives that go with having children. I live in the suburbs. I own a fleet of vintage bicycles, in various states of repair, but I also ferry my kids around in an SUV. I do not have a single e-book I want to sell you.

So, yes, my fashion diet experience will definitely be different from someone who is at a very different stage in their life. 

My wardrobe hadn't been re-evaluated in at least five years, and in that time I have worn a range of four sizes (thank you, second pregnancy), gone through a phase where I decided that I need to stop dressing like a grad student now that I don't spend long working hours in a research lab (so I now have both lots of dress-like-a-grown-up clothes and lots of casual clothes), and brought a slightly ridiculous amount of clothing home from thrift stores. My closet was overflowing; it would be only a slight exaggeration to have called me wardrobese (heh, get it?). I can only imagine the closets of acquaintances whose primary hobby is going to the mall. 

I want a great capsule wardrobe; I love the idea of having a few key high-quality pieces that coordinate with each other, instead of a closet full of clothes that don't work for me. I'd like to spend less time on figuring out what to wear, and look more polished. I live in a four-season continental climate where the temperature extremes go from roughly -40 to +40 Celsius, often swinging by 20 degrees in a day, so for practical purposes I need a capsule wardrobe for each season. 

Hanging space after the purge.
This will look much less crowded once the stuff for other seasons is packed away.

Shelf space after the purge. 
These were literally overflowing at the start of the process.

Here are the steps I took to get one:

Stage 1: Make sure that every piece of clothing I own is clean. This was not trivial. I have a busy family with young children and a puppy, so there is always a huge pile of stuff waiting to be washed and another pile waiting to be folded. Often if things don't get folded quickly enough, they need to be rewashed because the kids have climbed on the Laundry Chair, dumping things onto the floor so that Miss Sheds-A-Lot can nest in them or tromp on them with snowy paws. This means that anything that needs special care waits absolutely forever before it gets cleaned - and so the pile of clothing that needs to be handwashed or hung to dry just gets bigger and bigger. It had grown large enough to fill two hampers. I wish I'd thought to keep track of the exact time it took me to get it all clean, as it would be a terrific object lesson in the wastefulness of having too much stuff. It took me many hours spaced over five days.

Stage 2: Presorting. Next I went through my whole wardrobe and presorted it into several categories. Anything I was unsure of, I tried on and got my daughter's opinion: you can count on a seven-year-old for honesty on fit. I sorted into 4 main categories: things that fit properly (put back in the closet), things that are too small (filled 1 photocopy-paper box), things that are too big (filled another photocopy-paper box to overflowing), and things to store (yet another box). This last category is reserved for things I'm keeping for sentimental reasons, like the sweet little black bias-cut crepe dress my genius sister had all her bridesmaids wear, and a couple of timeless pieces sewn by my Mom that I hope my daughter will wear one day. There is also a bonus category, of items that went into my mending basket at this point; only a couple of irreparably damaged things got thrown away. I plan to spend an afternoon soon mending things, then trying them all on and deciding which category they belong to.

Stage 3: Get objective second opinions from my inner circle. This took all evening and was actually tremendous fun. My friends were fantastically complimentary when something looked great, and ruthlessly honest when something needed to go. They raided my big boxes of castoffs to see if there were any gems that fit them, and each went home with a big bag of clothes that look way more stylish on them than they ever did on me. They helped me weed out the stuff that fits my body, but doesn't fit my lifestyle or go with anything else in my closet. Since I am losing weight (honest), I also kept a minimal number of good-quality pieces in the next size down from my current size. Warm autumnal colours and neutrals stayed; the vintage schiaparelli pink velvet blazer found a new home. 

Our criteria at this stage were the usual capsule wardrobe criteria, with a slow-fashion twist:

  • Does it fall within my colour palette for that season (since my different seasonal capsule wardrobes have slightly different palettes)?
  • Is it a flattering cut for my figure? Does it read as sophisticated (vs too young for me), and either timeless or on-trend?
  • Can it be custom-tailored or embellished to create something more timeless or figure-flattering?
  • If it needs special care, do I love it enough to make it worth the hassle? 
  • Was it bought vintage, or locally, sustainably, and/or ethically produced? Can I imagine still wearing it in another ten or twenty years?
  • If it was not sustainably or ethically produced, will I wear it enough times to mitigate its hidden environmental and social costs (through its durability and classic styling)?

If the answers to these questions were yes, I kept it; if they were no, I passed it on to someone who will (hopefully) answer yes.

The numbers at evening's end: 
10 items stored for posterity (in fairness, there is more at my parents' home),
8 classic items stored in the size below my current size, 
3 items to be tailored or remade, 
24 oversize concert-souvenir t-shirts boxed (to turn into a quilt),
29 items given to my three fabulous friends, 
12 items set aside for another friend who couldn't attend, 
35 items donated to charity, 
1 large bottle of wine (plus several cups of coffee and tea, a pizza, and two giant chocolate bars) consumed, 
4 articles of clothing rediscovered that I had completely forgotten I owned, and
19 timeless items purchased second-hand that made the cut.

Stage 4: Make a wish list of any items that are missing from my seasonal capsule wardrobesAs outfits were tried on, one of my friends kept a running list of items I should look for to complete my wardrobe. For me, those items were navy blue trousers, a crisp white tailored shirt with French cuffs, a fitted vest (waistcoat) and camisole for layering, a navy accordion-pleated skirt, and sundry accessories (primarily belts, which I hate shopping for). Luckily for me, there's a lot of navy blue in the shops right now. Naturally my slow-fashion criteria will apply when I shop for these items.

Stage 5: Figure out what I'm wearing all the time right now, in the coldest part of winter. These items will need to be part of my winter capsule wardrobe next year, and some of them will be seasonless enough to be part of my year-round capsule wardrobe. 

I noticed as I sorted my clothes that I wear more black and grey, and more velvet, in fall and winter; for warmth I often layer black leggings or jeans under skirts and dresses. On any given winter day I wear enough outerwear to exclude me from ever managing a Six Items Or Less stint, unless they change their rules so that outerwear doesn't count.

I'm done to this point at the time I wrote this post. Next steps:

Stage 6: Determine what my 33 items are for Project 333, for the April 1 to June 30 dates. The 33 items include clothing, accessories, jewelry, outerwear and shoes - but not day-to-day jewelry (my eyeglasses and the 3 rings and 3 hoop earrings that I practically never take off), undies and socks, pajamas, or workout clothes (which will double as loungewear for me). I'll trial-run my 33 items in March, and do a separate post about my choices. Since the weather will be shifting from still snow on the ground to early summer temperatures during the 3 months, I'll be dressing in layers and using the bonus rule of allowing myself to rotate in three warm-weather items (a light jacket, a pair of sandals) and rotate out three cold-weather items (my down coat and winter boots). I'll also call time-out on my 33-item wardrobe and use a different, even more limited wardrobe for my trip to Japan in May (which will mean dressing for higher humidity and temperatures I usually see in early July at home).

Stage 7: Pack for the Japan trip. My travel wardrobe will be a version of the capsule wardrobe I would choose for summertime, but limited by what will allow me to pack light, handwash and hang dry as needed, be comfortable doing lots of walking, and look suitably stylish for both the day-to-day stuff and some romantic evenings on the town. I'll probably be leaving all my black at home and packing navy blue instead.

Stage 8: Put more things in storage or give them away. Stages 6 and 7 will allow me to whittle down my wardrobe even further and set aside an additional few items to be given away, while the rest will get packed up for a few months, after which I'll see if I missed them and decide upon their fate.  

I have to say, at this point I'm feeling so happy to have found new homes for clothes that weren't working for me, and to have so much more room in my closet. I'm really stoked for the upcoming stages of this process. At the ends of June and September I'll probably decide to do additional rounds of Project 333, which will help me to further narrow my choices and define my personal style.


  1. I'm a single female in her 50s with a small home, 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, a dog, cat, and chinchilla. Every one of my 3 bedroom closets is full to its limit. My coat closet is also full. I work full time and buy a completely new wardrobe every 2 years and rarely toss anything out. I do give to sisters and goodwill every year but not as much as I take in.

    First thing I did was get rid of everything that did not fit, easy. Second, everything I had not worn in the last 3 years, not so easy.

    I'm still working at it. If only I could stay away from stores in the mean-time. :)

  2. Oh my gosh!! This is the post I needed to read before I started my #WardrobePurge -- This is awesome! Thank you so much for adding it to my Order Hop!