How to Clean Out Your Closet
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It's time to clear out the clutter and revamp your wardrobe! We asked experts for the best steps to cleaning out and decluttering your closet.
If you’ve ever uttered the phrase “I have nothing to wear,” while standing in front of an overstuffed wardrobe, it’s time to tackle the mess. The most challenging part of sprucing up your space is actually committing to the project. Once you decide to declutter, not only will it take the guesswork out of putting together outfits, it will transform your state of mind. A clutter-free life will lead to a clutter-free mind, explains Julie Ann Clauss, founder of The Wardrobe, a professional fashion archiving and storage service. “When your clothes are organized, dressing is a more relaxing and enjoyable experience. It’s so liberating to see a neatly edited closet of things you love and wear, rather than an overcrowded mess,” shares Clauss.
Lisa Jacobs (founder of the organizational company Imagine it Done) agrees. She tells Reader’s Digest: “Knowing what you have enables you to not waste time, energy, and money. Imagine your closet set up just for you with your favorite things. Imagine you’ve tossed out the excess that weighs you down.” She also notes the change of the season makes it the perfect time to declutter and organize.
It’s time to get organized, no matter what you’re working with. We tapped experienced pros for the top tips for a successful closet cleanout. Plus, check out how to organize a closet, the best closet organizers, small closet ideas, and walk-in closet organization ideas to whip your wardrobe into shape.
1. Set aside time
Sometimes the hardest part is just getting started. Whether you decide to dedicate an entire weekend to the project, or just 20 minutes a day, make a plan and stick to it. Be realistic about your time so you don’t set yourself up for failure. Create goals that you know you can accomplish to avoid getting overwhelmed. Professional organizer Lisa Jacobs says the most difficult part of the “act of resolution and organization” is to just get the ball rolling. “Momentum and enthusiasm drive the project, so keep the pace and miracles will happen,” insists Jacobs. One of the challenges of a closet cleanout is the time it takes to go through each piece of clothing, explains Clea O’hana, the co-founder and CEO of Wishi. She suggests budgeting a dedicated block of time to get it done all at once. This way, you can’t keep putting it off, or be tempted to quit halfway through.
2. Clear everything out
There’s no way around it, experts say the best way to successfully declutter a closet is to take everything out first. “It’s always best to start with a blank slate so you can touch on each and every item,” Jamie Hord, founder of Horderly Professional Organizing, tells Reader’s Digest. It’s too difficult to edit through your closet “as is,” she explains. This may seem dramatic and overwhelming, but you won’t be able to do a thorough job without this step. Take it all out and start organizing by clothing type this will help when you start to sort through it all. Create piles and lay them wherever you have space—on the bed, the floor, or rolling racks, if you have them. Fair warning, it will get worse before it gets better.
3. It’s time to clean
Properly cleaning a closet is so important, and a step many people often overlook. After everything is removed, start by vacuuming the floor and baseboards. Clauss, (who maintains the closets of many fashion designers like Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs, and Tommy Hilfiger) says to then take a Swiffer or damp cloth and wipe down each shelf. “You’d be amazed how quickly dust can accumulate on them, and would probably be horrified to discover what dust can do to your clothing over time,” reveals Clauss. She explains that all this grit and grime is often made up of clothing fibers and human or pet hair, which the closet nemesis—the moth—adores. If that wasn’t enough, Clauss says leaving knitwear on dusty shelves can actually cause the fibers of your threads to weaken over time. She also advises wiping down the top of any garment rails or rods. They often come from the manufacturer with a greasy film you don’t see, “obviously you wouldn’t want greasy gunk near your clothing,” she says.
4. Choose what to save
Generally, the rule of thumb is if you haven’t worn something in a year, get rid of it. However, in 2021, due to the pandemic, change that to two years. “People hang on to things for too long thinking that eventually, it will come back into fashion, but if you truly haven’t missed wearing it in two years, it’s time to let it go,” says Clea O’hana, with the caveat that “if the item is timeless or has sentimental value, keep it.” One thing everyone can agree on: Don’t hold on to anything that is stained, soiled, or beyond repair. “I do absolutely believe in investing in quality pieces and paying for their upkeep, whether that means having shoes re-soled, or something altered to fit better,” says Clauss. So figure out what you can give a new life, and whether it can be mended. If it can’t, cut your losses and move on.
5. Edit and curate
When evaluating your own apparel, you need to be a little ruthless, because it’s easy to lie to yourself. “So many of our purchases are driven by emotions,” says Clauss, so be honest about whether you even like certain items any more. She advises getting rid of anything that is too big or small, as well as styles that are no longer flattering. And yes, this may mean trying everything on. It’s also important to be realistic about whether something fits into your current lifestyle. “Maybe you have a closet full of stiletto heels, but you actually live in a city where you often walk a lot. How much are you wearing those shoes? Keep the most likely to be worn items that go with the largest number of different outfits,” she explains. Jacobs follows the same strategy, advising: “This is when you dive into who you are now, not who you were, or want to be. Take a good look at yourself and dress accordingly.”
If you’re still having trouble deciding what to save during a closet cleanout, Hord says it’s helpful to ask these questions to figure out whether it’s time to say goodbye: When is the last time I’ve worn this? Would I purchase it today? Would I wear it again? Do I have a better option? How many of X do I have?
Closet Cleanout Decision Guide Infographic
6. Separate items to sell
Now that you’ve settled on what to get rid of, your path to a closet catharsis continues. Jacobs suggests buying a box of contractor trash bags. “Clothing gets heavy, which is why thick bags are no-tear lifesavers,” she explains. First, figure out what you can sell. Some stores offer cash outright, while others take items on consignment. You can also sell clothes online yourself and make more bang for your buck. To determine if an item is worth money, Clauss says it should be in good to excellent condition. “Re-sale trends are cyclical just like primary market fashion,” she says, so classic pieces will be easy to unload, as well as things that are a new must-have trend.
7. Decide what to give away
You should donate anything that is wearable and in decent condition, plus things that are harder to sell (even designer pieces). “If you can donate your items to a good cause, you’re giving someone else the chance to love the pieces that you used to love. It’s also nice to think that someone else will enjoy something I donated,” says Karla Welch (celebrity stylist and co-founder of personal styling service Wishi). Also, consider gifting to friends! For pieces that are too tattered or worn, try to avoid throwing them away because they’ll just end up in a landfill. Instead, learn how to recycle old clothes.
8. Categorize and sort it all
At this point in the closet cleanout, it’s time to come up with a system. Experts agree the best way to sort clothes is by category. “Keep all blouses together, all your blazers together, pants, skirts, denim, etc. This way you have an accurate view of exactly what you have in your closet,” says Welch. This also gives you a visual inventory of everything, so it’s easy to see if one section gets too big—do you really need 15 white button-down shirts or ten pairs of dark wash skinny jeans?
If you want to take it a step further, Clauss suggests organizing within each category. For example, keep short-sleeve shirts together, long-sleeves in one spot, and separate maxi dresses from minis. The overzealous closet cleaner can also group each clothing type by color for a visually appealing system that makes it super simple to put things away neatly, without much effort.
“The overall aesthetic is important, but the function remains the most important factor for success,” insists Jacobs. So when it comes down to it, pick a method that works best for you, whether that’s arranging pieces by season, style, or shade.
Damian Lugowski/Getty Images
9. Personalize and put it away
Everything should have a dedicated home. Ensure things are on appropriate hangers (professionals love a uniform look), and fold items that are going to be stored flat (like knits and anything with heavy beading or embellishments). Then decide where it all will live in your new tidy space. “The pieces you wear the most should be front and center and easy-to-see and grab,” says Clauss. She also suggests: “Make it fun with accessories that will help keep you neat, like clear Lucite holders for small clutches and purses, small baskets for belts, and drawer dividers for jewelry and sunglasses.”
But you don’t have to spend a fortune on store-bought tools to create the best closet systems. Try shoe boxes or even clear Tupperware for storage solutions on a budget. For a children’s space, the best kids’ closet ideas involve fun colors, and containers they can easily access.
- Every space in your home should receive specialized treatment. Linen closet organizing ideas will be different than coat closet organizing.
- A functional closet is a fashionable one. Treat your items like merchandise and keep them on display. If you can’t see it, you won’t use it. You’ll always reach for what’s right in front of you.
- Know when to call in an expert. If you’re not the type of person who has the discipline to declutter yourself, have a professional come to your home (like Horderly, Imagine it Done, or The Wardrobe). You can also schedule an online session with Wishi for a virtual closet cleanout.
- For continued success, follow the “one in, one out” rule, says Hord. If you purchase a new item, let something older go so you’ll never find yourself in an out-of-control overflow situation again.
- Julie Ann Clauss, founder of The Wardrobe
- Lisa Jacobs, professional organizer
- Clea O’hana, co-founder and CEO of personal styling service Wishi
- Jamie Hord, founder of Horderly Professional Organizing
- Karla Welch, stylist and co-founder of Wishi