7 Closet Organizing Tips

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7 Clothing Closet Basics This Professional Organizer Didn’t Know

Brewster-NY-Professional-Organizer-neat-closetI met Michele Cunningham, of Zen Your Closet, at a networking event in Mahopac (Putnam County), New York. Michele and I first introduced ourselves to each other as “organizers,” but as I got to know her I realized that she excels in a niche of the organization field where I have had little experience.

Michele and I started meeting occasionally with some other local organizers to compare notes and support each other. While I recognized the professional camaraderie was great, I also realized that Michele’s appearance in my life was a well timed gift. I had been bothered by aspects of my wardrobe for some time:  My closets and drawers were neatly organized and amply filled with nice pieces that I had enjoyed procuring, but this abundance wasn’t translating into me feeling well dressed on a day-to-day basis. I reminded myself of the clients I help who have sunk all kinds of money into colored file folders or decorative storage boxes and then not executed the actual decluttering. I guess it was exactly like that: I had the tools and materials for a really great wardrobe, I just didn’t know how to use them. I was comfortable in my regular routines and wasn’t sure of how to coax myself out of a long-standing dressing rut.

I began to realize that, like the broader field of professional organization, wardrobe curation is a skill that not everyone has, and there are good reasons to hire an expert to help with it. So I admitted to Michele that my clothing closet was my weak spot. I asked her to help me figure out why I was so frustrated by my wardrobe, and we set up a morning for her to visit. Prior to our session, I filled out her questionnaire about my goals and preferences and sent her pictures to help her understand my closet space and clothing. When she arrived we fortified ourselves with a cup of coffee, and then she began doing the thing that starts every good organization task: She began emptying my closets and drawers onto the bed, strategically ordering the items so that we could discuss my purchase trends and wearing habits.

Hanger after hanger, we went through each item. Then the shoes. Then the drawer contents. After more than two hours, I was exhausted, and two-thirds of my wardrobe was in a discard pile! The retained items were spread out on the bed with a logic that only Michele understood. When I returned from taking the discards into another room, she began my education: “You said you only wear this with jeans, but look what would happen if you wore it with these pants and this jacket. …. Do you ever wear this sweater with leggings? Why not? … Look how the line of this tunic works with the cut of these pants to really create a sharp look. … People are afraid to combine patterns but I think these two things look really great together. What do you think? …”


Before-and-after: My crammed-full main closet (left) didn’t even include my jeans or pull-over sweaters. After the initial purge (right), all of my everyday possibilities now hang together.

It was amazing. I tried to pay attention and take notes, but it was overwhelming. This woman is so skilled, I thought, how will I remember it all? In the end, two things helped my retention:

  • A few days after our session Michele provided a written overview.
  • After a couple of weeks I took her shopping with me  to help fill in a couple of gaps that she had identified – and to review some of the principles she had discussed.

While I still don’t claim expertise, working with Michele allowed me to learn some principles that have given me the confidence to continue learning on my own.

Amazingly, my much leaner closet has been providing me with more enjoyment. I’m wearing more variety, experimenting, having fun, getting less frustrated when I am picking out my clothes, and dressing in ways that are making me feel better.

Here are seven take-aways from my time working with Michele:

1) Don’t waste closet real estate on somebody else’s clothing.

Most organization clients struggle with the decision to discard things that still seem to have value. My approach to this issue is more conservative than most professional organizers; I only push for purging if there simply isn’t enough space. So, when Michele asked me the questions that obviously led toward discarding items, I felt much of what my clients feel:

  • I might need it someday
  • It’s still perfectly good
  • I spent good money on that

But here’s the thing: While I still need some versatility from my wardrobe, I don’t need variety within that versatility. That is, I don’t need a dozen or more outfits that are suitable to wear into the office every day. I go into business offices once in a blue moon these days, so I really only need a couple of options to cover for that. The same goes for parties, church, and other dressy occasions; not only are they less dressy than they once were, but I’ve settled into a lifestyle that is far more homebody than party-going – and I like it that way.

At one point the cardigan sweater became my new blazer, and then it just became my uniform … and a major purge opportunity.

A few times Michele pulled an item out of my closet that caused me a little embarrassment since I already knew very well there are items that, though you’ve loved them, they should be purged, anyway: Worn out, stained or ripped, wrong size, bad or faded color.

Beyond these basics, I learned a profound lesson about culling my closet:

2) Purging a wardrobe is kind of like throwing away all of your junk food as soon as you get home from your first Weight Watchers meeting.

It’s about setting yourself up to succeed. I’m a creature of habit: The easiest way to make today’s decision is to make the same choice as yesterday (only today I’ll wear a green tee instead of blue). But wearing a slight variation on the same theme every day wears on the psyche – and increases the discomfort of change when a different outfit is required. Also, I have a tendency to dress like I feel when I really need to be dressing like I want to feel. It has been to my detriment to fall into the “sweats unless I have a Skype meeting” habit. Working with Michele to expunge excess tees and cardigan sweaters reminded me of a valuable lesson I learned during my many years of dressing for the corporate office: Upgrading my outfit has a positive impact on my outlook and productivity. My pared-down tee collection forces me to browse through the other, very nice options that I have purchased for myself but seldom worn, and wearing them perks up my days.

A color for every day, and then some:  My former collection of tees made it very hard to break the t-shirt habit!

3) A closet should be arranged like the paint on an artist’s pallet: logical and predictable for the artist, with space for blending.

Once we finished culling, Michele segregated my dressiest clothing — that is, things that I would never wear as everyday casual (dresses and skirts, mostly) — into my smaller, secondary closet. She pulled my nicer tees out of their former home in a drawer and intermingled them, sorted by sleeve length, with my tanks and blouses on the top bar of my main closet. On the bottom is an orderly display of my vests, cardigan sweaters, pullover sweaters, and pants. Like my tees, I had stored many of my pants in drawers and, since the changeover I find it easier to branch out from my previous “uniform” of jeans and tees. This was Michele’s intent, since I had told her my goal was to break old, boring habits and enjoy more of my wardrobe on a regular basis. With all of the everyday wear options visible in the same place, it’s been easier to shake up my dressing doldrums.

Keeping everything visible is one of the reasons I believe Michele was particularly adamant about hanger uniformity. Previously, my hanger selection always depended on the piece: Clothes went on velvet hangers if they were slippery and plastic hangers if they weren’t. Obviously, this approach resulted in a cluttered look, but I had never thought about how clothes on skinnier or lower hangers can get hidden. My hanger supply didn’t allow complete uniformity, but Michele’s desire for a clean look was satisfied by using all velvet Higher Hangers on the top bar (Higher Hangers give me a few extra vertical inches for longer items) and all plastic hangers on the bottom. Between this change and reduced volume, all of my clothes are now visible without shoving them about on the rod.

Once all of the culling was pretty much over – divvied up between bags for online consignment, Goodwill, and garbage – Michele began to show me how the remaining items could work together. She suggested that I could learn to create new outfits more easily if I focus more on the wardrobe component that I tend to neglect:

4) Accessories are extremely useful. In fact, they are kind of like punctuation marks that change the meaning of a sentence.

Let me explain: Recently on Facebook, I was having fun with like-minded friends about how the Oxford (or series) comma can completely alter the meaning of a sentence.

Here was a particularly convincing example:

We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin. (Which can be interpreted as four or more guests.)
We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin. (Which can be interpreted as two scantily clad political figures.)

In the fashion realm, Michele demonstrated how a single combination of shirt and pants and be completely transformed in multiple ways by different selections of shoes, belts, scarves, and jewelry. In fact, she advised that, when I feel like sprucing up my wardrobe, buying a new accessory can be the least expensive approach while having an incredible impact, since a single accessory can be combined with multiple clothing items. It was great advice, and I loved being giving the assignment to shop!

5) There is such a thing as disposable clothing, but it’s like paper plates: marvelous for certain occasions but shouldn’t be used all of the time.

Michele pointed out that both my style and long-term economic considerations support buying a few higher quality, classically styled items. These, like the stoneware in my kitchen cupboard, are durable, attractive, and appropriate for many occasions across a broad range of formality. On the other hand, there are times when colorful occasion-specific paper plates are much more fun (and even more appropriate). Likewise, a high quality, classic-lined, silk top can coordinate with all manner of bottoms to suit almost the entire spectrum of activities; but, once in a while, a $9.99 animal print tank top is just the ticket! And while it would be tempting to fill my closet with these bargains, to do so would compromise my style goals and my financial ability to occasionally add a more classic piece. So I buy paper plates – and bargain accent clothing – for unique occasions and use them sparingly, not as a lifestyle.

6) The best looking architecture is based on a good foundation.

My particular style calls for firm fabric and structured, fitted shapes. But these sleek, clean lines can be completely ruined by … shall we call them … abrupt bulges and dents? Michele and I discussed the many options for foundation pieces, including shape-wear, that help to preserve the visual integrity of closely cut design lines and form-fitting fabrics. I’ll admit it’s not fun investing in clothing that no one else sees. But it pays high dividends when I can wear lovely clothing with a flattering fit.

7) The best clothing performances are rehearsed, so don’t wait until opening night to pick an outfit.

I’ve started to practice creating and wearing new clothing combinations on days when I’m just staying at home or running errands. This gives me the chance to get accustomed to the new look as I pass by mirrors around the house, feel how comfortable it is with movement and, in the end, determine whether I like it or not. When I’m out and about, I pay attention to the verbal and non-verbal feedback I get from both friends and strangers. Dress rehearsals can bring out the stars and weed out the duds from wardrobe strategies.

I hope to have another session with Michele and take her shopping with me when my lifestyle or preferences change and I want to make a wardrobe adjustment.  Until then, this experience has given me the confidence to shop my own closet for great outfits, and supplement wisely with an occasional new piece. It was a very valuable lesson to acknowledge my own area of weakness and enlist the help of an expert – and I have the closet to prove it!

Looking for more information about wardrobe editing?  Check out Michele’s Facebook page @zenyourcloset.


Experimenting with new combinations has refreshed my experience with my existing wardrobe.

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