Closets are great because you can shove all of your junk in them, shut the door, and it’s like that junk doesn’t even exist. Except it does and, eventually, your closets will overflow. If it’s time to declutter your closet so you can actually find stuff to wear, we’ve got you covered.
What You’ll Need
Before you dig into your massive pile of junk, gather your materials. You’ll need:
- A couple of trash bags (maybe more, depending on what you’re dealing with)
- Boxes for donating or selling some items
- An hour or two of your time
- Maybe a friend to help you decide what to keep and what to toss
Once you have everything ready in advance, it’ll be easier to get through it all. By all means, bring some booze, listen to some music, or download an audiobook. Gather anything else you can to make the task feel like less of a chore.
Step One: Purge and Sort
For a deep decluttering, your best bet is to start from scratch and purge your entire closet. It’s easier that way. You’ll have a blank canvas to work with, which is easier than picking and choosing as you go.
Take everything out of your closet and go through each item one by one. Use the old “Donate, Toss, Sell” method to sort everything out. (Or if you’re really lazy, like me, adjust the method to “Donate and Toss.”) Put the garbage in the trash bags, designate a bin for anything you want to sell, and assign a box for taking stuff to Goodwill, the Salvation Army, or wherever you donate clothes and household goods.
If you’re torn over what to keep, here are a few questions I ask to make the process easier:
- Have I worn it in the last year? If not, it goes. Of course, you might have some sentimental exceptions to this rule, and it’s up to you whether to hold onto items. We’re not going to Kondo you here, but if you have a hard time fighting clutter, you might want to reconsider holding onto things.
- What would I buy? Our editor, Alan Henry, suggested asking this question to kick clutter habits: “If my home burned down and I lost everything, what would I replace?” Though he suggested asking this about all of your possession in general, I’ve found it useful for clothing, specifically. If it’s not really something I’d buy or wear now, I put it in one of the three piles.
- Does it need to be replaced? Maybe it’s a top with massive sweat stains or a really uncomfortable pair of heels or just a cardigan that’s falling apart. Make a list of items you need to replace, then get rid of the old stuff.
If you’re indecisive, a friend or spouse might come in handy. They can offer some straightforward feedback on what you should toss out. Once you have everything you want to keep, sort out the rest. Figure out which items might still be valuable, which items are better off donated, then throw everything else in the “toss” pile.
Chances are, you also have a lot of junk that shouldn’t be in your closet to begin with. My closet is a catch-all for stuff I don’t know what to do with and don’t want to think about. Instead of putting all that junk back in your already tiny closet, see if there’s a better place for it. Your paperwork and personal files, for instance. Can they go in a desk drawer? Or better yet, can you digitize and shred them? If you have special seasonal clothes you don’t wear often, you might store them somewhere else entirely. Rainboots might go in your living room or coat closet, for example, if you have one. Once winter is over, pack your coats and thick sweaters in space-saving vacuum cubes like these and store them under your bed or in suitcases. Your shoes can go under your bed, too.
You don’t want to clean out your closets just to clutter up another spot, though. The idea is to come up with designated areas for specific stuff so your closet doesn’t become the go-to place for everything.
Once you weed out what will stay, pre-organize your remaining items into separate piles: clothes, shoes, jewelry, underwear and socks, and so on. This way, you can see how much you’re working with compared to how much real space you have in your closet.
Step Two: If You Have a Small Closet, Make the Most Of It
If your closet is on the small side, now, while it’s empty, is the best time to make it a little more efficient. Here are a few tips that can help.
Utilize Door and Wall Space
Over-the-door shoe organizers, coat racks, and purse racks all come cheap and make use of otherwise wasted space on the back of your closet door. They’re a little too cumbersome for my liking, so I just use a few simple hooks to hang cardigans I wear often. You can utilize more of the wall space, too. If you have a lot of scarves or bracelets, you could hang them on towel racks on the wall (or the back of your door). And I’ve used these easily removable Command hooks to hang necklaces and hats.
Hang Your Luggage or Bags
If you’re storing suitcases, luggage, or large handbags in your closet, you can stuff them with other items to utilize the space, but here’s another idea: hang them above the door. (or high on another wall where you don’t have to look at them). All you have to do is screw a heavy duty hook into the wall, then hang.
Add a Rod
If you have the vertical space, you might be able to install a second closet rod. Some closets have just one rod with a lot of wasted space above and below (see the photo above). It takes some DIY skills, but you can easily turn it into a two-rod closet and still have plenty of storage.
Here’s a video from Helpful DIY that shows you how it’s done. You’ll need wooden dowels cut to length, hangers to hold the dowels into place, and a couple of brackets to support the rod. This doubles the available area for hanging clothes.
Get Space-Saving Hangers
The right hangers can work wonders for your closet space, too. For example:
Containers can help with small spaces, too. Whether they’re fancy boxes designed for storage or just old shoeboxes, corralling your stuff makes them easier to find. You can fit more in a tight place and still have everything organized.
Step Three: Pick an Organization Method
After you decide what will stay and maximize your closet space, it’s time to put everything back in. Before you do, though, give it a little thought. Your wardrobe will take up the bulk of your closet. How do you want your clothes organized so they’re easily accessible?
There are a few ways to sort them out. For example:
- By Occasion: You could separate your work clothes from your casual weekend clothes. And party clothes might go in the back of your closet since you presumably won’t need them as often as work clothes.
- By Clothing Type: Most people probably go this route because this works well for just about anyone. You keep your slacks in one section of your closet, blouses in another, T-shirts together, and so on.
- By Season: You could also separate according to winter clothes and summer clothes. Summer dresses go in one area; sweaters in another.
Your method might be a combination of all three of these. Personally, I sort by clothing type, then further organize by occasion.
Break Your Closet Into “Zones”
Also, this might seem over the top, but I also make a mental note of 4-5 closet “zones.” Zone 1 is the most accessible area, where I keep stuff I wear most often, and Zone 5 is the least accessible, usually the back of the closet or a high shelf I can’t reach.
The bulk of my wardrobe consists of tees, casual tops, and jeans, so these go in the front of my closet in Zone 1. I also usually wear a cardigan everyday. My go-to cardigans are hung on my door, and my extras are in their own separate area at the front of my closet, in Zone 2 (I also keep coats and jackets here in the winter.) In Zone 3, I store dresses for those days I want to get fancy, and those are further organized by casual and cocktail dresses. By “organized” I just mean I keep the casual dresses in front within reach, for everyday wear. In Zone 4, the back of my closet, I have another section for slacks and blouses, clothes I only wear if I have to meet with a client. In Zone 5, I store handbags, luggage, and other miscellaneous items I don’t use often (an air mattress, for example.)
With this method, it never takes much time to get dressed. I know exactly which section to pull from, depending on what I’m dressing for and, from there, I have a limited number of options to choose from. It helps that I also have a smallish wardrobe, but organizing it makes a big difference.
Step Four: Make It Easy to Maintain
Once everything is in its place, you want to make sure it stays there. A discard bag can help with this. It’s basically a bag you keep in your closet to make decluttering an ongoing process. Every now and then, I’ll realize I’m ready to get rid of an item of clothing. Rather than just vow to get rid of that specific item later, I’ll dump it in the discard bag so I actually purge as I go. Professional Organizer Kate Brown takes it one step further. She explains how her process works over at Elle:
“I keep a shopping bag with a handle in the front of my closet. Every time I try on a piece of clothing and then take if off again because it’s unflattering, doesn’t fit, is pulled, stained or out of style, I put it in the bag,” Brown says. “If you’ve taken the piece of clothing off for any reason other than that it’s dirty or doesn’t match, that means it’s not right and will probably never be,” she says. When the bag is full, Isaacs explains, donate the clothes or trade them with a friend at a swap party.
It’s a good rule of thumb for purging clothing, especially if you have a habit of keeping stuff you hate. If you try it on and hate it, you’ll probably always hate it, so you might as well save yourself some time and just get rid of it.
And then there are the clothes you just stop wearing. Here’s any easy way to weed them out: turn all of your hangers backwards. When you pull something off the hanger and wear it, then turn the hanger around. After six months or so, you can easily see which clothes you don’t wear because their hangers will still be faced backwards.
It’s easy to forget about stuff hanging in your closet, too. A friend’s dad taught me this trick: keep your hangers one finger-width apart. This way, you can see all of your stuff at once, which makes it easy to get dressed. Not all of us have the closet space for this, but if you do, it’s also an easy way to make sure you don’t lose track of certain items in your closet.
Finally, I try to abide by the one in-one out rule. If I buy a clothing item I don’t really need, something else has to go. This has really helped curb my impulsive clothing purchases, and it’s also kept my closet under control. To implement it, I keep the same number of hangers on hand instead of buying more (or stealing one from my husband). This way, if I buy something, there’s not a hanger for it unless I get rid of something else.