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Closet Case

I was out to dinner recently with a few friends, and we got into a conversation about what we had lurking in our closets.

From sparkly, see-through disco tops to Sergio Valente jeans that haven't fit in decades, we all had something to confess -- hangers full of clothing that never saw the light of day. But why? What was behind our wardrobe-clinging habits?

As a simplification expert and consultant, I've been in and out of enough closets to know just how common a condition this is. Generally speaking, it stems from a tendency to attach emotional significance to objects we own.

"Holding on to unused, outdated stuff has to do with a connection with a former self or time in life," says April Benson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in compulsive buying disorder. "Parting with those things forces the person to face the sometimes unpleasant reality that time has marched on."

In my case, the low point came when I tried to squeeze my 40-year-old body into my high school cheerleading skirt. Indeed, it was clear that much had changed since 1985, including my waistline. Once I admitted this out loud, I was able to let it go.

The reasons behind clinging behaviors vary as much as the clothing itself. No matter how many of the following closet cases hit home, remember that the ultimate goal isn't to toss every beloved thing from your closet. It's to understand why you're clinging, and then to adopt a strategy for moving on. That way, you make room for the life you are living right now.

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"I might fit into it again someday."
Evidence
Sets of tiny-sized clothes that you haven't fit into in years

Backstory
Extreme dieting and wishful thinking

Case Study
Shannon's history of "yo-yo" dieting is evident in the range of sizes she keeps, from her "skinny" clothes to her "safety" ones. The size-6 pants serve as her barometer for feeling thin enough -- even though she normally wears a size 10.

Strategy
Holding on to unrealistic sizes does more than take up closet space. Your self-esteem takes a hit every time you open the door to face clothes you can't wear. Instead of creating unrealistic expectations, get rid of the extreme sizes and dress the body you have now. Part of projecting a positive self-image involves keeping a wardrobe that showcases rather than shames you.

"But it was so expensive!"
Evidence
A full-length designer gown from a benefit years ago, a pricey purse too small to be useful

Backstory
An emphasis on perceived value over actual value

Case Study
Diane hesitates to get rid of a pair of purple heels she cannot walk in. She admits it was a misguided purchase. "I splurged on them 10 years ago, wore them once, then headed to the podiatrist." Benson likens this phenomenon to investing in a stock that has gone down and being unable to cut your losses.

Strategy
Although you may think the item has value, it doesn't if it gets no use. Start by forgiving yourself. Recognize the compulsion to spend more than you should -- and question what's at the root of it. As for the occasional bad investment? It may be a dream come true for a friend who shares your shoe size.

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"I used to love going clubbing!"
Evidence
Flashy sequined halter tops and '70s polyester dresses

Backstory
Nostalgia for the carefree bygone days

Case Study
Lisa is good about purging her closet -- with one exception. "I can't seem to toss the black spandex dress with the plastic midriff! I was so brave back then." A case of wardrobe-as-time-machine has carried this misguided outfit from one apartment to the next for 20 years.

Strategy
While keeping a few items as memorabilia is harmless, filling your closet with decades-old fashion will serve only to hold you back. Your closet should house your life wardrobe -- who you are now. Take a snapshot of those bygone outfits and keep the memories where they belong: in your photo album. You can always keep one or two faves -- store them in the attic and donate the rest.

"It's in fashion right now. At least, it was."
Evidence
Flash-in-the-pan trends, some ultra-unflattering, none of which fit your style or your body

Backstory
Fear of being old or out of the fashion loop

Case Study
Trend-hungry Helen keeps on buying clothes, even trolling her teenage daughter's closet to pilfer the latest looks. The problem? Her closet is packed with clothes she only wears once or twice. She somehow feels that if she dresses younger, she'll feel younger -- and people will see her that way, too.

Strategy
The challenge here, says Benson, is to find joy in your current stage of life. Deny it, and you may make choices that are inappropriate and unflattering. Instead, opt for pieces you can wear in a variety of ways. Start thinking about your closet as prime real estate: The items with staying power deserve the best location; the others get relocated.

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"I might go back to skating again."
Evidence
Outdated suits, pink ski-bunny outfit, ice-skating leg warmers

Backstory
A misguided belief that the clothing itself will somehow prompt you to re-engage in the given activity

Case Study
Joyce left her CEO position years ago to have children, yet she still has a closet full of power suits. Her wardrobe is more boardroom than playroom, making mornings frustrating. Even if she makes a career comeback someday, she'll need new work attire.

Strategy
Unworn items won't in themselves cause you to revisit the activity. That's something you need to choose to do on your own. Keep one or two classic suits and donate the rest (check out Dress for Success). With sport-specific apparel, if you haven't touched it in five years, you won't miss it. Bring it to a used-sports-equipment store (try Play It Again Sports).

"Aunt Maggie gave it to me."
Evidence
1940s scarf collection, Grandma's hand-knit sweater that shrunk in the wash long ago

Backstory
A sense of obligation that forces you to keep something in memory of a friend or family member

Case Study
When Sue's favorite aunt, Maggie, moved to Florida, she endowed her with her coveted hat collection -- which Sue has little room for. As a result, her already tight closet has become part heirloom museum and part vortex of knit caps. She never wears them and doesn't even like them. Still, it's hard to let them go.

Strategy
It's important not to confuse loving the item with loving the person who gave it to you, says Benson. Keep one or two of your favorites, and share the others with family members. Your memories live in you, not in your stuff.

Text by Mary Carlomagno

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Comments

Comments (3)

  • 26 Apr, 2010

    I can't help to remember how fun it was to dress up in my mother's and grandmother's vintage cloths. Additionally, a good load of the items that adorned my grandmother's house are now back in style and make for funky accessories. I don't condone keeping EVERYTHING, but I tend to find adequate storge to keep a good portion of items. One day my kids may look through my keepsake chest and be thrilled to find my much hated school uniform. As long as it is organized and safely stored, I don't mind.

  • 15 Dec, 2008

    Would some dear soul please offer some advice on storing wide rimmed summer hats. Hanging them on the wall doesn;t appear to do them much good.

    Most Gratefully
    Monetgardening

  • 25 Aug, 2008

    We were lucky to have storage space and so saved some favorite items over the years. The wilder stuff got made into halloween costumes for our kids through the years. The classic clothing, leather jackets, navy pea coat, levi jeans our children wanted to work into their wardrobes in high school and college. Other options: donate to the local high school drama department or sell to a costume shop.

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