On Finding Myself in an Overstuffed Closet

I’ve always thought of myself as a low-maintenance sort of girl, despite the fact that I was once interviewed by a national women’s magazine for an article on high-maintenance women. Romantic comedies have taught me that many of my characteristics mean “low-maintenance.” I love playing in the dog park with my big goofy rescue dog, jumping in mud puddles in my whimsical sunflower-patterned rainboots, and I think beer and nachos at a basketball game trumps an elaborate meal at a 5-star restaurant.

I’m a jeans and t-shirt, occasionally combat boots with dresses, sort of girl. I carry my stuff in a big, sensible purse or a backpack. Looking at the clothing I wear, you’d expect to find a modestly full, but not bursting at the seams, closet full of casual clothing. Enough that I could go for 3 weeks without doing laundry if I really pushed it. You would be wrong. Oh so wrong. On top of so many t-shirts my dresser drawers literally cannot ever be properly closed, 10+ pairs of jeans, and I’m afraid to even count how many sundresses, there’s also the heaps of sweaters, dress clothes despite my swearing I’ll never work a job that doesn’t accept absolute casual attire, and even absurdities like a never-used wetsuit (because, you never know when you need to James Bond your way onto an island fortress?), evening gowns (because you never know when you need to James Bond your way into a super fancy casino or embassy event?), and a straight-up princess style white-tie level of fanciness ball gown (because… I don’t even have a sarcastic scenario in which my owning this makes a lick of sense). I own a dozen pairs of black boots, and that’s just counting the black ones. I have never worked up the courage to count my full boot collection, nor to count the various adorable Carrie Bradshaw-esque heels that I’ve worn once if ever. We’re not even going to talk about my purse collection, most of which entered my life under the banner of “it’s so cute and I might use it one day.” 

Many of these items still have their price tags on them, all of them have been in my closet for at least a year, most for more. So you would think it would be a simple matter, on deciding to stop being absurd and attempt to embrace minimalism, to decide I’m don’t need them and add them to the pile to donate. It’s a perfectly logical conclusion. I’m a grad student who works in pyjamas or sweats most days, I’m dating an incredible man but he isn’t the monarch of some lesser known European principality with fancy parties I must attend, I’m almost as emotionally committed to sneakers as Kanye. I don’t need the vast majority of my clothing, and given the anxiety that clutter induces, I don’t really want it either. But deciding that I really won’t ever use it, and then getting rid of it, has proven nearly impossible.

I’ve done some pretty severe wardrobe purges before, ruthlessly jettisoning anything I hadn’t used in the last year. It felt amazing. But invariably within a month or two, I would stumble on the exact perfect occasion to wear or use something and I was left with a bitter pang of regret. Looking back I suppose it was probably a trick of my mind, making me question my decision. I didn’t really need that specific sexy-yet-classy pink top which had never been worn but now was the only possible thing that was appropriate to wear to some event. I needed whatever fantasy version of me I had created unconsciously when I bought it. My habit of constantly buying clothing I didn’t need says a lot about our consumer culture, but it also says a lot about me. Every time I bought an item, I was buying an imagined new version of myself. Sure I didn’t get dolled up and go out for cocktails with my friends, teetering around on 4″ heels. But I must have the capacity deep down to be that sort of modern glam, right? Well, better get the outfit just in case.

Paring down my closet isn’t just an act of deciding what I actually need, it’s an act of declaring who I am. But in my case, as I struggle even in my 30s to feel a real sense of self, it feels more like an act of declaring who I am not. It isn’t about the stuff, but rather the identities I imagined might go along with the stuff. And as silly as it may sound, there’s some real grief that goes alongside giving up imagined possibilities. When you’re not sure who you are, eliminating somebody you might be is scary.

This time I’m telling myself it doesn’t have to be. This time it’s going to be an act of self-discovery. Admitting I’m not the woman who has an avid SCUBA diver lurking just below the surface isn’t really losing anything. I’m already not that woman, admitting it doesn’t change anything except give me a tiny piece of clarity. By stripping away the stuff, removing the fable that a particular costume is the right fit,  I’m making it easier to find the person underneath.

I’m keeping a few things that might help me fight crime as a vigilante superhero, though, just in case.

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