Why This Editor is Rethinking A Closet Cleanout

It might be a little naive to think that today’s circumstances are the same as those first weeks of lockdown in 2020 – we have more science and a vaccine for one thing – but, as I sit at my desk writing this, I know that out, the weather in New York City is bitterly cold, COVID-19 test lines are long, hospitals are overwhelmed, and the risks of getting sick while doing basic tasks are higher than ever. It’s not the same, but it sure feels… close. A commonly perceived side effect of letting those familiar feelings creep in is the propensity to turn away from the closet I recently brought back into my life, to wear sweatpants and slippers, and to lock doors until further notice.

The problem is, I don’t want to engage in that practice again. Sure, wearing soft (and often mismatched) clothing was a way to bring needed comfort into our lives in a world of chaos two years ago, but now it reminds me of a time when I got lost. The love I had for those pieces of cloth hanging in my closet has vanished and feelings of despair persist in its place. Perhaps a metaphor for the pandemic, the inability to dress was a tangible and unwelcome change that left me disheartened. In the end, it was never about what I decided to wear; it was about what I could no longer carry to myself, even after I felt good about coming back to life a little.

The dresses looked weird with nothing to celebrate, the jeans were heavy on my skin, and the cute tops I once wore without thinking now looked awkward as I figured out what to wear with them. The high-heeled boots that I recklessly zipped up every morning before running to take the subway hurt my feet. The slippers I wore only in the shower became my favorite footwear. These accomplishments were debilitating for a person who built a life on the love of fashion, and the urge to get rid of everything and start over was the only solution I could find.

Although this time, after allowing myself to establish a new relationship with my closet, I realized that maybe I would have a chance to recalibrate the way I think about it.

Before addressing what has changed in the past few months, I want to talk about a broader and more general shift in fashion over the past couple of years. The personal crisis I described wasn’t just about the clothes hanger collecting dust in my Queens apartment. Cleaning our closets as we change mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically to make room for something that feels more current was something millions of us started doing last year. There has been a bit of a resale boom in 2021. Searches for second-hand clothing increased by 80% from the previous year, and the amount of new sellers on the platform has grown by more than 76% since 2019, according to the annual report by retailer ThredUp. over 30 million people have started clearing out closets in the past two years, and that number is expected to triple in the next three.

While the normalization of second-hand clothing is a good development, it also indicates that our consumption habits are higher than ever. What’s more, much of the clothing that is cycled through resale sites and consignment shops is fast fashion. We wear garments once or twice and then sell them only to buy more and repeat them, a trend further supported by the fact that fast fashion has shown no signs of slowing despite our seemingly ecological awakening and the parallel shift towards resale. Last year Shein, the ultra-fast fashion brand based in China, was the most downloaded app in the United States; beat Amazon in May. If you search for the branding on any second-hand app, chances are you’ll find tens of thousands of newly worn items made and sold in just a few months. Just because we’re not shopping new doesn’t mean we don’t have a big deal with the huge volume of clothing consumption yet.

With that in mind, I took a step back to think about why I constantly struggle with my wardrobe. Specifically, I wanted to understand why the conversation in my head had reverted to the state of July 2020, even though so much has changed since those uncertain weeks. Could the uncomfortable reality that the “return to normal” was a mirage built on hopeful thinking be helped by swapping a pair of jeans? Maybe for a while, until you want to do it again. Yes, expanding the life cycle of clothing is better than throwing it away; however, the constant need to have something new (even if it’s just new to me) is how fashion has become one of the most significant contributors to the world’s waste and work problems. I don’t want those heavy jeans to be thrown aside along with millions of tons of other unwanted pieces, and most of all I don’t want to devalue the work of the people who made them.

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So I decided to take my clothes off the shelf and drawers and find a way to love them again. In some cases, I realized that the pieces did not fit. My black corduroys are great but they are too long and a little tight at the waist. Nothing a tailor couldn’t fix, so why didn’t I bring them to one? In other cases, sweaters that are a few years old and no longer shine within the trend cycle need only a slight adjustment. Can I pair one differently with a collared shirt or over a dress before I decide to take it off? Instead of continuing this habit of consuming with every mood change, rethinking each piece before it ends up in a garbage bag is a small step towards building the elusive sustainable wardrobe we hear about so often.

I love vintage, upcycling and responsible manufacturing, but the only way to truly ensure that my closet is also somehow sustainable is to actually wear what it contains and appreciate the hours spent creating and caring for each piece. It’s more laborious – I’m not suggesting not to buy clothes – but I think it’s worth taking a step back from the trend and shopping cycle to find a piece of the woman who got lost in those months. Of course, individual choice will not solve the problems caused by excessive consumption, but it can certainly be the catalyst we need to change the system. For me, this means giving myself space to recognize that my style is evolving as the world does and as silly as it may seem, it can be painful. Clothing is how we tell our stories and sometimes those stories, especially this year, are unpleasant. It also means recognizing that an Add to Cart button won’t fix those feelings, but finding purpose in why I’m wearing what I already own could help.

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