How to do a simple and effective closet cleanout

Simple steps for an effective closet cleanout are outlined in this post.

clothes rack with clothes neatly hung in specific colors.
Photo by piotr szulawski

“Look, I found a sandwich in my closet.”

“Let me see. It’s as hard as a rock.”

“How long do you think it’s been in there?”

This was a conversation had with my sister, when we were around 8 or 9 years old, cleaning out her closet. We found a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that had been there since the Ford Administration. Yummy!

Making sure your closet is organized, clean, and free of old peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is important. It allows you to see what you have so you can make educated purchases. An organized closet will not overwhelm you. And it will take less effort to decide what to wear when it’s neatly presented. 

While a closet cleanout isn’t always fun, it is necessary and will make life so much easier in the long run. 

Where do I start with a closet cleanout?

This is the number one question I get from my clients. When your closet is so out of control it’s really hard to know where to begin taming it. 

This can vary by person. But there are steps you can take to get things under control fast, purge what no longer works, and place the remaining pieces so that it’s easy to see everything and make speedy outfit decisions, with no overwhelm. Below I share the steps I take clients through to make sure their closet is a place where they can quickly and easily get dressed each morning. 

Clothes crammed into a closet out of order and messy.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

Create a closet cleanout plan

You need to have a plan of action and you need to set aside a decent chunk of time to get it done. Depending on the size of your closet it will take 2-4 hours. I would plan on 4 if it’s less than that, well great.

Make sure it’s a time with minimal disruptions. Play music to set a fun mood. Yes, a closet cleanout can be fun. Be prepared to have three final piles of clothes: keep, donate and discard. Donate can also mean consign if it has some value. You can find a local consignment shop or use an online one such as ThreadUp, The Real Real or Poshmark. Create areas for each category, your bed is a great option.

I recommend purchasing uniform hangers. These velvet hangers are great. They don’t take up too much space and the texture keeps clothes on the hanger, instead of on your closet floor. 

Get mentally prepared to purge clothing and shoes from your closet. I’ve talked about this before, but you need to establish a word for how you want your clothes to make you feel. Examples are confident, strong, feminine, etc. This feeling word is important as it will guide your decision to keep or discard items.

You also need to understand your lifestyle. Do you work in an office? From home? Do you need dress clothes, casual, or something in between? What do you wear daily? 

For example, if you have loads of corporate suits but no longer need them, it’s time to say goodbye. Or, if you’ve moved and no longer need 3 heavy winter coats, keep one and let the others go. Be intentional with what you keep and make sure it works for your day-to-day life. 

Use your bed to create different piles of clothes. This will also make sure you finish what you start. You can’t sleep in a bed with piles of clothes on it, they all have to be cleared off before bedtime. This will set the end time for your closet cleanout project. 

Find the items you wear on repeat

The first step for the actual cleanout is to set aside the items (clothes, shoes, belts, purses) in your closet that you love and wear often. Create a pile for these items. Be sure that you check that these items still fit, are not worn out, and that you don’t have duplicates. If this is the case, they should be moved to the donate or discard pile.

Pull out the clothes that you never wear

The next set of clothes you remove from your closet will be those that you never wear for one reason or another. Create a second pile for these. Go through this never wear pile and separate it further into 3 sections: 

  • clothes I no longer like
  • things I’m not ready to give away yet (could be a fit thing, a seasonal thing, etc.)
  • things I love but never wear because I don’t know how to wear them

The clothes you no longer like get moved to the donation pile.

For the things you are not ready to give up yet, take a second look through this pile. If you decide to keep things, they will need to be stored outside of your closet as a maybe. You can keep them in a secondary closet or storage bins in your attic or under your bed. Remember that they are there so you can revisit them at a later date for review. These can be seasonal items, sentimental items, etc. 

The things you love but don’t know how to wear you’ll need to spend some time with. You’ll want to try these clothing items with the items in the always-wear pile. Pairing these items with the clothes that you feel most comfortable in, is a great way to see if you can get these never worn items to work with the rest of your closet.

Some additional tips for this section of clothing. Ask if each item works for your current lifestyle. Make sure it pairs with three other items in your closet. Then you can keep it. If not, it goes.

Clothes rack with clothes organized and hung by type of clothing item and color. Looks like this was post closet cleanout.
Photo by Sonia Sanmartin


What about the things I haven’t pulled out yet? 

There will still be items in your closet at this point. It may be special event clothes (think things you wear to weddings, funerals, or fundraisers), or things you wear occasionally. 

Go through each of these items left in your closet and decide if they go into the keep, donate or discard pile. Remember to make sure the items fit, are not worn out, the colors work with your wardrobe, and the items work for your current lifestyle. 

Move special event items to a specific place in your closet, so they are out of your view for daily dressing. The keep items can stay in your closet and be mixed in with everything that you are about to return to the closet. 

How do I organize my closet now that it’s cleaned out?

You’ve purged the shoes, clothes, and purses that no longer serve you, what next? Start putting everything back in your closet. You need to place them by category: pants, skirts, blouses, dresses, and so on. Once they are in categories, organize them by color, light to dark within each category.

I also recommend hanging your jeans If you have the space. If not fold them and stack them on a shelf in your closet. Fold sweaters and stack them in color order as well, light to dark. Only hang lightweight sweaters and never on a wire hanger. 

Woman sitting on the ground folding jeans and t-shirts.
Photo by Sarah Brown

You may need a few items to help. Dividers to hold sweaters in place, special pant hangers to maximize space. These are the hangers I recommend to clients. Baskets or hooks for belts and purses. Dig around and see what you have before you go buy something. Containers are helpful for these small items that can cause chaos when thrown all over the closet. 

How do I keep my closet organized and clean moving forward?

This can be the hard part. Keeping it clean and organized. Here are a few tips. 

  • If you buy something new, something currently in your closet has to go. This keeps you from overstuffing your closet again with things you don’t need or wear. 
  • Make sure anything you buy works with at least three other items currently in your closet.
  • Confirm that any purchase aligns with your feeling word.
  • Try to avoid shopping trends. Things that are super in style now, but won’t be next year clutter up your closet and fast. Not everything in your closet has to be a classic, but avoid the over-the-top trends that you know are fly by night. 
  • Always keep a bag or basket in your closet for donations. Once you determine something no longer works, in the donation bin it goes. Once the container is full, bring it to a donation location.
  • Use the backward hanger trick. When you wear an item and return it to your closet, put the hanger on the rod backward. After about a month or two, take notice of the items that are in season but you haven’t worn them. These are things to consider removing from your closet.
  • If you want to take this a step further, create a section in your closet with seasonal items. Using this same backward hanger idea, but once the hanger is backward you cannot wear this item again for the predetermined amount of time. This will do two things. One, force you to wear things with different items than normal. This will expand your outfit options, with the same number of clothes. Two, it will become clear which items in this section of clothes do not work with your wardrobe. You’ll see over time that you’re unable to wear certain clothing items as they no longer work with anything in your closet. So in the bin it goes for donation. 
  • Adopt the concept of a capsule wardrobe. This simplifies your closet, keeps extra items to a minimum, and sets a lot of parameters around what is allowed to enter your closet. Check out a freebie I have on building a capsule wardrobe and be sure to read this post about creating a wardrobe that you love if your’e not sure how to set one up. I speak a lot about capsule wardrobes here, so be sure to follow along and take a look at past posts (you can use the search bar at the right to do so) for additional guidance. 

How often should you do a closet cleanout?

You should do a full cleanout once per year if you can. But after this first big initial one, if you can follow the guidelines here for keeping things in order, then it should be easier the following. Always keep an eye on things and discard items along the way so that these annual events are not such a big deal. We all fall off the wagon in terms of shopping and adding items we don’t love or need to our wardrobe, so be patient with yourself. 

What’s the fastest way to clean out my closet again?

I know this is a lot. So here’s a quick recap with the simple steps to go through so that you can clean out your closet quickly and thoroughly.

  • Set aside the time, gather materials you may need (hangers, containers, hooks etc.) and your mindset straight
  • Pull the items you wear often and love, and place them in a pile
  • Pull the items you never wear and separate them into three piles: don’t like them, not ready to give away right now, and I like this but don’t know how to wear it
  • Mix the don’t know how to wear items with the items you wear all the time. Set the not-now items in a storage area, and donate the items you no longer like 
  • Sort through what’s left in your closet and decide if it goes in the keep, donate or discard pile
  • Place all items back in the closet sorted by category (pants, shirts, skirts, etc) and then color within each category light to dark. 

Once your cleanout is complete, your closet will feel lighter. It will be less stressful getting dressed. The hours of work will be worth it, I promise.

Let me know if you have any questions and how the closet cleanout goes! As always I’m rooting for you. 

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MEET KIM

Kimberly-7

I teach women to dress with more confidence and joy. By understanding a few style concepts, how to dress your body type and how to curate a capsule wardrobe everyone can leave the house feeling great.

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