In defense of a crowded closet

Aisha Sultan

My ambitious clothing audit began with an impulse to purge. It was getting harder to pull garments in and out of a packed closet, in which tops pressed up against dress shirts, which nudged jackets into a dark corner.

I decided to catalogue each item taking up precious space by color, age, style and how much I enjoyed wearing it. It forced me to take inventory of how much overlap and waste lurked inside. My neurotic exercise prompted our fashion editor, Debra Bass, to invite readers to share their own closet confessions. Confront these questions, she said: How many clothes do we own and how much do we actually use?

My own experiment yielded unexpected results. I realized that I had a more complicated relationship with my clothes than I originally assumed.

As it turns out, each of the garments that survived the purge has a story. Some are more compelling and sentimental than others.

And, sentimental attachment should not be confused with hoarding.

So, counter to the preachings of fashion gurus, I encourage a crowded closet, one stuffed with scenes from various chapters in our lives.

Professional stylists want us to shed, to edit, to excise our wardrobes. But the underlying agenda for this constant turnover is to make us consume more, buy more, want more. Certainly, what fuels the industry of fashion is the demand for whatever is deemed on trend and stylish in the moment.

I resent the implication that having a crowded closet makes one somehow deficient, either lacking willpower or owning a dated sense of style.

Yes, there are pieces I haven’t worn in the past year. There are a handful of pieces I haven’t worn in a decade, perhaps.

But they are my tangible photographs.

I remember when and where I bought it. Who I was with. Where I’ve worn it.

There is the gray corduroy vest I bought 15 years ago at my first newspaper internship. My first designer dress. The pants I bought in Paris. The white shirt from our first complete family photograph. The suit jacket I wore to the Post-Dispatch interview.

To hold them in your hand, these items evoke a feeling. They take me to a different time and place in my life.

So, rather than following the conventional wisdom of “if you haven’t worn it in the past year, toss it,” I propose a different test. Are there any anonymous pieces in your closet? Pieces that cannot justify the space they occupy with either a memory or how they make you feel when you wear them.

There are those who feel burdened by stuff. It should feel that way when stuff takes over our lives in an unmanageable, unhealthy way. But most living spaces have a built-in gauge of when that happens. When you run out of available closet space, you’ve hit a defined limit.

Unsurprisingly, this philosophy overruns into other areas of our life, too. Our bookshelves overflow to the extent that books are stacked on top of the rows all the way across. There are boxes of books in the basement, books in piles on dressers and on bedroom floors.

Drawers are filled with holiday cards with pictures of friends’ families. I hang onto handwritten notes for a time. There are even certain emails that pain me to delete. The root of why objects become hard to part with is that, even if just for a moment, these scraps of paper or fabric or digital type moved us.

My husband saves every single bylined story of mine that appears in newsprint. It’s silly, I tell him. We have electronic archives. Things live forever on the interwebs, I tell him. But, he persists. There are at least a few totes full of yellowed newspaper clips in the basement.

I suppose it makes as much sense as me holding onto a very fitted chocolate brown dress that I doubt I will ever fit into again. I wore it early in our courtship.

But every time I see it hanging in my closet, I remember how he looked at me when I wore it.