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The Knowledge

Spring-Clean Your Closet

The author of Stuffocation: Living More With Less on when to hold ’em and when to throw ’em

President Barack Obama always wears the same outfits. (Apart from that one day last August when he wore a tan suit and subsequently broke the internet.) Why? So he can spend time on more important things. Unlike us, he shouldn’t be lying awake at night worrying about whether his new Bengal-striped shirt goes better with unwashed or faded denim.

“You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits,” the president told Vanity Fair in 2012. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Psychologists call this “decision fatigue”: the simple act of making decisions inhibits your ability to make further decisions – as those of us who are paralysed by choice in the ready-meal aisle at the end of a long day will recognise.

Deciding what to wear each morning can waste time and mental energy – and that’s partly because, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, we only regularly wear 20 per cent of what we own. Which means that the vast majority of our wardrobe is clutter.

When you open your cupboards, do you feel as if they’re bursting with stuff, but there’s nothing you want to put on? Do you wear everything in your wardrobe or are there items you haven’t touched in more than a year? Can you access everything in there or is it so crammed full of clothes, you only wear what you can prise out? 

It could be we’re suffering from a modern-day problem called “stuffocation” – a term coined by writer Mr James Wallman, and the title of his new book on how to live more with less. “Having less isn’t about deprivation,” explains Mr Wallman. “It’s about getting rid of the stuff you don’t wear anyway, so you can easily see and get to the things you do like wearing.”

Why are so many of us turning into closet hoarders? We cling on to garments that don’t fit or are damaged with the indefinitely deferred intention of having them altered or fixed. Some things we keep for sentimental reasons; some out of guilt – because we feel bad about throwing away an expensive piece and thus admitting that its purchase was an error. 

But keeping stuff we don’t need just adds to the background interference of our lives. We could all do with a New Year’s wardrobe detox. Here Mr Wallman offers some practical advice to help you a) get rid of the stuff you don’t wear; b) access the stuff you want to wear; and c) upgrade or replace items you should no longer wear. (And just for the record, we’re in favour of a tan suit.)

Allocate at least two hours for a wardrobe purge and psyche yourself up to be ruthless. This is not a job to do half-heartedly or in stages. If wardrobe editing is not your thing, ask a friend or your partner to help you decide what stays and what goes.

You can de-stuffocate by making piles:

Things you’ve never worn – you can generally tell because the label’s still on

Things you haven’t worn for a year

Things that are uncomfortable and, therefore, you avoid wearing

Things you have worn but you’ve grown out of

Things you hope to wear again some day

If you’re taking your time, put them in separate bags or boxes, and put them in the loft. If you haven’t missed them in three months’ time, you don’t need them.

Struggling to let go? Put all your hangers facing the same direction. If you wear something, when you put it back in the wardrobe, hang it facing the other way. At the end of a month, you’ll know how much of your wardrobe you actually use. The rest either needs to go into the loft until the summer or be recycled. Don’t bin it – the UK already throws £25m of clothes into landfill each year. Instead make sure all items are clean and donate to your local charity shop.

This is an extreme tactic for brave (or desperate) people seeking instant change. Put everything – yes everything – in cardboard boxes as if you were moving house. Write their contents on the outside of the box. Each day, as you need something, take it out of its box and gradually repopulate your wardrobe and cupboards. This way, you’ll find out what pieces you actually need and might be surprised about the pieces you forget about entirely.

This is especially effective if it’s your partner’s wardrobe that is causing the problem. It’s a simple game: you hide something, and if the other person does not notice it is missing for a set time period – say, a month – he or she clearly did not need it and so you can decide together to get rid of it. (Important note: MR PORTER does not accept responsibility for any “domestics” that may ensue.)

De-clutter your life by folding things neatly, hanging everything in the right place, storing shoes and bags in a way that makes them immediately visible and accessible, mending/ cleaning things that require attention within a week, and selling or giving away the things you’re not wearing. This will make dressing easier and shopping more successful – because you’ll know how your wardrobe is functioning and what you need to fill the gaps.

Think of your wardrobe as a top-notch nightclub where you are the doorman. Once you have got your wardrobe in order, avoid re-stuffocation by throwing away an item each time you buy a new one. This is a disciplined way of keeping your wardrobe edited, prioritising quality not quantity. It should also put an end to frivolous, badly thought-out purchases.

Stuffocation: Living More With Less is published by Penguin and out now stuffocation.org