How I Downsized My Closet to 15 Items

A car is leaving; you have one bag to pack. What do you bring?

April 29, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

I recently came across a study that showed that shopping online—even the act of filling your cart online, across websites—can be constructive and therapeutic. It’s a way we make sense and push the boundaries of our own selves—how we see ourselves, and how we’d like ourselves to be.

Which, if thinking about my persisting itch to shop of late, makes sense. Looking at clothing online, and virtually adopting the lightheartedness it promised into my “cart” gives me a sense of control. The weird thing is, I don’t even go through with purchasing most of these impulsive cart additions. Sometimes, the exhaustive searching and researching for the best thing is enough to soothe the late-night blues.

Another thing that makes me blue? Owning things. Or, well, realizing that I’ve forgotten that I own certain things. In my past three years of living here in N.Y.C., I’ve moved seven times. And each time, I’m sent into an existential spiral, courtesy of all the crap I’ve accumulated (an extra set of shower curtain S-rings, two beanies, a lone glove, so many books off the street). After move three, I knew something had to change. Returning the books to the street was easy; tackling the closet, less so.

I began by taking a good, long, hard look at my closet: Which clothing items would I take with me, on an extended trip, armed with just a duffel? (This was less hypothetical than it sounds—I was literally packing two suitcases to load onto an Uber pool that would move me across Brooklyn.) What made the cut: a moth-bitten mock-neck cashmere sweater, two plain tees, a silk camisole, wide-leg trousers, a pair of jeans, thermal leggings, and a coat.

I now own around 15 items of clothing, including winter wear, and before I buy a new piece of clothing, I will first turn my gaze to my closet and apply that same exercise. Will this new piece be heavily rotated in? Will its arrival rotate another out? If the answer is no to both, I don’t get it. This is not to say I’m completely immune to the charms of new, shiny things. I have a (secret) Pinterest board where all these dream purchases live—and either go to die (I’ll revisit after a few days or weeks, and realize no, I really don’t need white sneakers), or continue to exist (there’s an earring on there that caught my eye a couple years ago, and still makes me feel things).

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Top Comment:
“Really great advice. Having to move out so many times, having clothes that I do not wear often becomes a burden. Downsizing is very peaceful, because it makes your space more organized and less cluttered. ”
— MadihaJamal

It’s heartbreaking to part with things, yes, but that heartbreak can be avoided with a little more pause before clicking (or, just clicking it over to a Pinterest board). In addition to my desert island duffel question, here are the four other guiding principles I keep in mind when periodically consolidating my closet.

Have I worn this in the past month or week?

The first pass, to me, is always the easiest. I take down the pieces I’ve worn in the past week and give them a bit of love—whether that’s mending a popped button, giving it a fresh steam, or just refolding or rehanging.

No, because the time isn’t quite right

The next pass is also simple: which clothing items didn’t make it into the first round—and why?

Some are just not appropriate for right now: a fancy dress for events, snow coat for blizzards, bathing suit for sunnier days. These items still get a tiny hit of care—again, refolding, rehanging, or unhanging to finally address that stain—then get stored to the side or on a higher shelf, not the back, of the closet. I used to store these seasonal items in boxes in a secondary closet or under the bed, but then, one day, I unearthed a box full of things I forgot I owned (my worst nightmare). Ever since, I keep these things in decently plain sight—which keeps me using them (not shopping for them!) when needed, and kept accountable when not.

No, because, well, I don’t know why

This is the hardest (well, relatively), most heartbreaking part of the process. Reconciling—or not—your aesthetic vision of yourself with your reality.

I go through stages of buying fancy pieces, but have only recently come to terms with the fact that I’m really not a dressy person. This is not to say I dress like a potato sack; my most treasured item is that holey mock-neck cashmere sweater that I used to wear, daily, while breaking down ice-cold fish at my last restaurant stint; have worn climbing outdoors, to a wedding, to sleep sometimes—and am wearing now. I don’t believe in saving things for special events, because I can’t afford to shop like that.

While heartbreaking (and expensive) to part with the trendy trousers or really, very soft scarf, it’s also been a great opportunity to check in with myself. What problem was I hoping these pants would solve? Why weren’t they that for me? Why was this scarf so hard for me to wear out? What of my staple inventory, instead, was able to keep me warm?

In the hopes of getting at least some cash back for my lesson learned, I list these items, still in great condition, on apps like Poshmark or DePop, where I can chat with interested buyers, and be confident that they are going to someone that will definitely use them (and not let them collect dust like I did!).

Downsizing is an ongoing process

In the journey of writing this article, I found three pairs of pants I had listed online, but forgotten about. Oops. I know, when getting into a purging mood, it can be tempting to wipe the slate clean, quickly and mercilessly. But leaving some items in a sort of (organized) limbo can save you money and regret in the long run (someone recently purchased a blouse I had listed months ago, and had given up on selling). Downsizing is a process that takes time; but with this approach, each time the mound I start with is a bit smaller.

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Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.

1 Comment

MadihaJamal May 3, 2020
Really great advice. Having to move out so many times, having clothes that I do not wear often becomes a burden. Downsizing is very peaceful, because it makes your space more organized and less cluttered.