Even with a big walk-in closet all to himself, one of Suzette Smith’s clients, whom she calls “The Bachelor,” needs a lot of help.
Smith is a professional organizer in the Washington, D.C., area who is helping The Bachelor, who works in finance, get a handle on all his clothes. His closet is packed with dress shirts and innumerable ties. The floor is piled with sports clothes and gear.
"It is totally jammed to overflowing," Smith says.
Smith has her work cut out for her. But so do many Americans. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that households spend, on average, $1,700 a year on apparel, footwear and related products and services — that's 3.5 percent of their average annual expenditures. And like The Bachelor's closet, the items pile up and overflow in closets.
But experts say that closets don't have to be packed and stuffed for people to look stylish. If people were more careful in their purchases — buying higher-quality clothes, for example — and if they purged their closets of the things they don't like, people would find that instead of wearing only 20 percent of their clothes and not donning the other 80 percent, that percentage might flip.
Out of control
It is easy for people to know if they have an excess of clothing, Smith says.
"If the clothes you have don't fit in your closet, you have too many clothes," she says.
Leticia Pfeiffer agrees with this rule.
"The right level for everyone is the amount of space you have," says Pfeiffer, a professional organizer and president of the National Association of Professional Organizers in Dallas/Ft. Worth who also has a degree in fashion. "Everybody in the world has space and size restrictions. Even Oprah Winfrey."
Pfeiffer says it is so easy today to buy more clothes than a closet can hold.
"You are in Target buying groceries and breeze by the clothing department and then, 'Isn't that cute? I'll just take it,’ ” she says. "But you probably didn't even try it on and will never take it back. You just hang it up in the closet."
She says women will often hold on to clothes, hoping to someday lose weight and be able to wear them again. But it won't happen even if the weight is lost, she says.
"What is the first thing you want to do when you lose weight?" she says. "Go shopping and reward yourself with new clothes."
And so the clothes keep coming in, overflowing the closet and filling other places in the home.
"If clothing overflows, it makes the whole house feel jammed and cluttered," Smith says.
Keila Tyner's first principle in wrangling a closet is "Why have anything in your closet that you don't love?"
Tyner, who has a Ph.D. in textiles and clothing and works as an image consultant and personal stylist in New York City, advises cordoning off a section of the closet and putting clothes there every time you wear them.
"Notice how often you go to that section," she says. That section holds a person's favorite clothes, the 20 percent he or she keeps coming back to.
So why hold on to the other 80 percent? Time. Money. Emotion.
"People invested in these garments," Tyner says. "And they don't even love them. They feel stuck with them."
Pfeiffer calls the process of weeding out that 80 percent "editing." She tells her clients to start by first looking through the clothes for things that are damaged and worn and then pulling them out to donate, recycle or sell. As they do, they start noticing other clothes they don't like — things that never fit right, things that are in a color they don't like, things that go with nothing else in the wardrobe.
Smith says to get rid of the broken first because people rarely fix clothes. She also says to look and see what hasn't been worn in a year and just get rid of it.
The Bachelor's biggest problem was he didn't have a routine that included regularly rotating through his clothes.
"I told him he could have only 100 ties," Smith says. "I usually recommend that my clients have a lot less than that."
In the end, The Bachelor had about 50 dress shirts and 30 polo shirts, and a dresser for the sports clothes. That's still a lot of clothes, but they fit his space and he could access what he needed. The excess got donated to a charity that provides clothes for people to use for job interviews.
Quality versus cost
As excess clothing is shed, a new mindset takes over. Instead of buying a lot of inexpensive clothing, people become more careful in their shopping — often going for a few quality clothes.
J. David Stein, who produces a podcast on investing at MoneyForTheRestOfUs.net, thinks cheap clothes contribute to the problem of clothes clutter. He says that at the same time prices for other commodities have climbed, clothing has been relatively stable — a stability that comes from lowering quality in both manufacturing and material.
"Everybody thinks a shirt should cost $20," he says. "But a good quality shirt made in the U.S. with quality fabric should cost about $150. … But most people don't know how a nice shirt even feels."
Sergey Kovelenov, founder of the "Oh, my" brand of clothing in Russia, echoed this sentiment in an email interview. For Kovelenov, the important thing is the beauty and quality of the clothes.
"When the clothes are shabby, people feel upset," he says.
Stein rarely pays the retail price, however. He shops for quality shirt brands on eBay. They are used, but because they are better made, they last longer and are still in great shape.
He also says even with "fast fashion" trends, the basic, classic clothes vary little.
Tyner tells her clients to develop what she calls their own "uniform" — their own distinct style.
"Find things that flatter you," she says. "The vast majority of us just want to look appropriate, and that is possible by investing in key pieces of your wardrobe that will stand the test of time."
She says to then infuse maybe 10 to 20 percent of the wardrobe with cheaper, flashy, trendy items — things that can be disposed of when fashion changes.
Stein says there is a wide variety in the fashions that come out. In this variety, he says, there is a lot of space for choosing a style of one's own.
"What doesn't change is clothes that fit well," he says.
Tyner had one client she says was borderline hoarding. Every day, the client would look at her overstuffed closet and take 15 to 20 minutes trying to figure out what to wear. It took days to cull her clothes.
"We got rid of more than 600 pounds of clothing," Tyner says. "She felt very transformed. … She couldn't believe how easy it was to get ready each day."
Smith sees the same thing with her clients.
"People who let go of their stuff feel better," she says. "They don't feel so closed in and jammed up. … They say they are happier. They look happier."