Closet Cleanout Guide

Cleaning out your closet can give your style a boost. It can also help you live more authentically.

Personal style is an evolution. We all have clothes that we used to love but no longer suit us. The ghosts of butches past stare back at us from the hangers and shelves of our closets. Oh, look, there’s sporty tomboy butch from college. And there’s awkward fat business casual (hidden) butch from my first corporate job. Many of the items we hold on to are no longer useful or they no longer represent the person we are today.

In this post, we’re going to go step by step (day by daaaayyyyy-ayyyyy for my fellow 90s kids!) through a closet cleanout. In just a few hours, you’re going to totally renew your wardrobe. And, because clothes are important, this closet cleanout project is going to give you the chance to live more authentically. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Take it all out.

Start by taking every single item out of your closet. This seems overwhelming and you will want to whine about doing it because it’s complicated or too much or something. That’s kind of the point, though, right? Your clothing is overwhelming. That’s why you need a clean slate.

There’s also something powerful about seeing all of your clothes outside of the closet. Suddenly you can actually see things that have been hiding in the corner or tucked in the back of the closet. And once you can see it, you can deal with it.

Take a breath. This is going to feel great in another hour or so.

Step 2: Sort and Discard.

As you take items out, begin to sort them. Put all of your dress shirts in one pile, all of your sweaters in another. Your short sleeve shirts with buttons get separated from your t-shirts and so on. It’s easiest to create little mini-categories for each type of clothing: dressy, casual, etc. (More on how to organize in Step 3 below.)

Put anything you haven’t worn for 2 months in one pile. Put everything you wear frequently in another pile. If you are sure you don’t want an item OR you haven’t actually worn it in the past several months, put it in a bag for donating. Yes, even if you “like it”. If you aren’t wearing it at least semi-regularly, then you probably don’t actually like it. That’s ok. Let it go.

If you aren’t sure if you want an item or not, put it on the far end of that grouping. For instance, I think I like one of those plaid shirts hiding in the middle pile in the pic above, but I don’t remember the last time I wore it. So I’ve moved it to the far left of the work shirts group.

Take a few minutes to try these “maybe” items on. Have a peek in the mirror and observe your gut reaction. Give it the “Samantha test” (does it make you frown or smile?):

Does it make you feel like this ☹️ or like this 😁?

If it gives you a frown, you know you better put it in the give away bag.

But what about the things I’m still not sure about? I put a little tag with the date I reorganized on the hanger of each “maybe” item. If I haven’t actually worn it in the next month, it’s clearly time to donate it. It might also be that I do wear it one day and I feel uncomfortable in it all day. Then I know that it needs to get washed and donated.

Well, what about “sentimental items” like that concert t-shirt from 1998? I hear you. I’ve got the nostalgia bug, too. Here’s a magic technique: take a picture of it. Put all of your sentimental (but never worn) items in another pile and circle back later (LATER – don’t interrupt your flow by heading down memory lane right now) and take pictures of all of them.

Here’s the list of items you should be either putting aside to donate or just plain tossing out:

  1. Stained, dingy, dirty, or damaged items.
  2. Anything you don’t actually like.
  3. Items you don’t actually wear. Even if you like them. Your closet isn’t a showroom.
  4. Items that don’t fit. Too large or too small. Neither makes you smile.
  5. Items that don’t look like you want to look currently. Our tastes change. Maybe you went through a preppy phase but are now into more streetwear items. Or maybe you really liked sports jerseys years ago, but have moved on to plain t-shirts. If an item doesn’t fit with how you present yourself to the world now, you do not have to keep it. Release it. Set it free. It might be just the thing someone else has been searching for.

Step 3: Reorganize.

There is no “one true and right way” to organize your clothing. Glad we got that out of the way first.

You may need to take a few minutes and think about what makes sense for you. How do you get dressed each morning? Do you want your closet separated by type of clothing (casual), but season, by color, or by some combination?

My personal organization goes like this: all by color, grouped into categories.

I like my clothes to go from lightest to darkest from left to right along a mostly ROYGBIV-ish spectrum. This makes it easy for me to lay a sweater or jacket across the top of my shirts to see what “goes” best with how I want to look each day. Sometimes this leads to nice surprises like realizing I can wear that lavender-colored shirt with an unexpected jacket.

I separate my shirts into categories: short sleeve shirts, casual shirts, casual/dress shirts, dress shirts. My little color spectrum applies to each category, so: short sleeve shirts from light to dark, then casual long sleeve shirts from light to dark, then shirts that can be either casual or dressy (depending on the rest of the outfit) from light to dark, then dress shirts from light to dark. Lastly, my seasonal blazers also from light to dark.

Reorganized closet.  Closet organized by color.
Left to right: short sleeve shirts, casual shirts, casual/dress shirts, dress shirts.

I break my pants up into categories as well. Work appropriate chinos folded and stacked (Pro tip: I can tell what I’ve worn most recently because I just fold them and stack them on top – the pairs closest to the bottom are the ones I haven’t worn in a while.)

Next to them are my comfy pants: casual chinos, jeans, and corderoys folded and stacked. Same system.

Pants organized by color.

I like my dressier pants hung up also from light to dark. Next to them, my nicest suit hides in its protective garment bag.

I wear a belt every day and love this combo belt & tie hanger I found at The Container Store (I think!). It keeps everything from becoming a tangled mess.

Dress pants on hangars.  Ties.

Remember those “maybe” items we identified above? Those stay on the far left, outside the system we created to organize our clothes. That way you see them every time you get dressed. If you keep avoiding the maybe items instead of wearing them, it’s time to let them go. Donating them means that maybe they can bring someone else the same excitement you first felt over them AND it releases you from their deadweight.

Step 4: Finish up.

Lastly, move out of season items to another closet or storage container. I honestly didn’t have any idea what “seasonal” clothing meant for most of my life. I had some clothes. I wore them or I didn’t. They all stayed in the same place no matter what. But as I’ve built my wardrobe little by little, and as I’ve started dressing more intentionally, I find it’s really helpful to actually remove clothing I’m not going to wear from my closet. It makes it easy to see what you’re working with.

Off season clothing storage.  Clothes storage bin.

Also, the seasonal rotation is like getting a whole new wardrobe twice a year. I love layers, so obviously my favorite switch is to fall/winter clothing and getting to bring out all my tweed jackets. But, as I’ve learned how to buy clothes that I actually like and that I feel confident in for the warmer months, I’ve found I now love pulling all those tropical print shirts out and putting them at the front of the closet for the warmer months.

All of that to say, it’s absolutely worth it to switch out your wardrobe for the seasons. Get a storage bin for your folded items; I even went ahead and put the ties I only wear in the winter in there. Move your hanging items to a spare closet or, if you don’t have one, make the back portion of your closet the off-season area.

Wrap up.

It might not seem “fun” to clean your closet out. But I think you’re going to be surprised at how great it feels. I had a few moments of being overwhelmed during the process, but it honestly went much faster and smoother than I thought. I was able to purge several items that I liked but that didn’t fit and made me feel awful when I wore them. I made note of several items that need some TLC and have those on my project list now.

Another unexpected benefit of this closet cleanout was revealing the holes in my wardrobe. I only have 2 pairs of dress slacks for summer so I’m adding those to my clothing wishlist. I also noticed that most of my dress shirts are in sizes that don’t quite fit anymore. They look ok under a jacket or sweater, but I don’t wear layers as much in the summer, so I’ll need to replace those with better fitting shirts in the coming months. You can now identify what else you might need to make your wardrobe more versatile.

“Clearing our closets of past incarnations provides the space and freedom for us to choose clothing in the future that authentically reflects the women we are becoming.”

~Sarah Ban Breathnach~

The most important benefit of this project is that you can really reflect on whether you are dressing authentically or not. Maybe your closet is full of clothes from college that don’t really reflect your young, professional self. Or maybe you are just learning how clothes that fit better make you feel more confident but haven’t really put the energy into renewing your wardrobe. Or maybe you’ve even felt ashamed or scared to dress in the masculine clothes you admire, so you’ve opted for a more “inoffensive” androgynous look when what you really want is to dress more butch.

Taking time to be intentional about your clothing is really an act of self-love and acceptance. The hour or two spent deliberately going through your clothes might be the kickstart you need to begin dressing the way you really want to. This is your chance to move towards a more authentic style that gives you the confidence to walk through life like the strong and beautiful butch you are.

Featured image.