“Should I toss, donate or keep this?” At 50, that’s a toughie. Our clothes have been our cheerleaders, confidence boosters and therapists. They got us through weight changes, difficult workdays, job interviews, dates, marriages and divorces. Breaking up is hard to do. Is that power-shoulder blazer from the ’80s a keeper? It’s a designer label! What about the green cowboy boots snagged on a road trip? They’d cost $700 today! How about all those perfectly faded jeans? Someday you may wear size 27 jeans and his may be a 34 waist… again. As I said, it’s not easy. Here are 10 ways to let it go:
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1. Get your closet and psyche ready.
Treat yourself to a big batch of skinny flocked hangers in one neutral color. These will give you incentive, a sense of control and maximize the closet space. They also give your clothes a curated look and take up less space than a mishmash of wood, wire and plastic hangers. Empty your closet and clean it down to the last shelf, rod and dusty corner. Vacuum, dust and have big trash bags ready, labeled “toss” and “donate.” Possible keepers go on the bed till hang-up time. You’re now ready to pare down your clothes and clean up the clutter for the life and body you have today.
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2. Toss anything past its expiration date.
Do this category first. Anything stained, worn out, threadbare, stretched, saggy or smelly is a goner. This includes dingy or damaged shirts and tees (check the underarms and neck!); old undies and nightwear (including bras, tights, shape wear and socks); frayed, ripped or ratty sneakers, grubby flip-flops and sandals (shoes expire quickly); grungy gym clothes and tired swimsuits; tees with quirky or inappropriate graphics and slogans (grandkids may want band or team tees); anything that shrank in the wash; stained, dilapidated bags and backpacks; and cracked and beaten-down wallets (clean out pockets for forgotten cards, cash and ID!). Most of the above do not meet donation standards (see tip 6 for an exception) but here are some suggestions for what to do with toss-ables other than put them in the trash: Give soft tops, tees and sweats to an animal shelter or turn them into household rags; search for local thrift shops that recycle textiles to reduce environmental waste; and check out H&M’s recycling program that takes drop-offs and sorts them for repurposing.
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3. Donate whatever no longer works for you.
We’re not hoarders but we do tend to hold on to clothes and accessories. Giving away your stuff is emotional so try to ignore these common donation blockers: “What if I need this for a wedding/funeral/birthday someday?”; What if I lose 10 pounds this year?”; and “But it was so expensive!” First of all, your clothes preferences today are probably very different than they were 10 or even five years ago. Be guided by your current size and shape, where you live and your current style of dress. Think about what you’ve given up or would like to give up. Maybe you’ve said bye-bye to tuck-in tops, high heels or any dress that requires shapewear or dry cleaning. Maybe you now prefer tees and pullovers to buttoned shirts, lighter colors to black, V necklines and boatnecks to crews or pants to skirts. Keep the focus on your real life and tastes right now.
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4. Surefire donations for him
Men resist closet purges just like we do. Anything that no longer fits your real-life scenario or hasn’t fit your body size-wise for two years is a giveaway. Maybe you’ve left corporate life for a part-time job or a WFH one, relocated to a different climate or just prefer more casual clothes. Old suits are good possible donations but if they fit (or nearly) keep two because weddings and formal events will come up. Give away baggy, saggy jeans that don’t fit your butt, waist or belly, stuffy pleated pants and chinos, shapeless oversize sweatshirts and sweaters, dress shirts that are too small or too wide, shirts that won’t work untucked if that’s his current style, ties that will never get worn (keep three for those suits though), leather belts and shoes that have seen better days, pilled sweaters and old eyeglasses.
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5. Best donation-list-toppers for her
Believe me, it’s really a relief to donate anything that makes you feel self-conscious or guilty when it just sits on the hanger (like pantsuits from your old job or a sequin-studded dress now a size too small). It’s a good way to banish trendy regrets like a clingy jumpsuit or white jeans that show your undies. Add these to the let-go list, too: miniskirts and too-short or too-tight dresses; boots and booties that hurt, pinch or make legs and ankles suffer; sheer blouses that require underpinnings; sky-high stilettos and flimsy ballet flats, blocky wedges that are hard to walk in; jeans with rhinestones, studs or embroidery (unless this is your signature style!); bustier tops and plunging halters from decades ago; wrap dresses and button-up blouses that don’t fully close over your bust; sleeveless dresses you never wear and outdated eyeglasses and sunglasses.
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6. Get a feel-good vibe about your giveaways.
Reframe a closet cleanup as a way to help those in need and the planet. According to the secondhand site ThredUp, 1 in 2 people throw discarded clothes straight in the trash and more than 73 percent of tossed apparel is sent to a landfill or incinerated instead of reused. Try donating to charitable organizations like the 10 here. Just search for the nearest drop-off point or a schedule a pickup. Dress for Success provides low-income women with professional work wear but make sure everything is laundered or dry-cleaned and in good condition. Goodwill accepts any gently used clothes, shoes and accessories for men and women. The Salvation Army accepts his and her clothing and channels donations through a network of thrift stores. The American Red Cross, partnering with GreenDrop, takes gently used and wearable his or her clothes. Vietnam Veterans of American (VVA) collects men’s and women’s clothing and accessories. And for those glasses and sunglasses? LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, Walmart and Sam’s Club Optical Centers accept donations. And here’s an option for all those clothes you’re tempted to toss. Planet Aid accepts used clothes — even those that have minor tears and stains — as long as the item is clean.
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7. Sell your clothes via consignment.
Selling your castoffs takes more work than a donation but it can be worth it if your clothes are fairly current, in excellent condition and from recognizable brands. Consignment stores are a wait-and-see situation for you to “park” your unwanted clothes for a 40, 50 or even 60 percent commission for the shop if it sells, depending on its policy. Online consignment pays off if you have a large volume of newish fast-fashion items to sell or valuable designer pieces. For example, the site ThredUp sends you a prepaid kit to drop off at USPS or FedEx and accepts everyday clothes from mall brands like Gap to Ann Taylor and Madewell. The RealReal handles top brands like Chanel and Prada and again provides a prepaid shipping label; both sites authenticate, photograph, price and list your items. Poshmark has mainstream and pricey brands from H&M to Dolce & Gabbana, but you have to manage your own listings, with descriptions, sale prices and photos snapped on your iPhone. If a sale is made, Poshmark will provide a prepaid shipping label. These sites also are great for special filler items like a special evening dress for your newly clean closet.
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8. Keep a core wardrobe you love and will wear.
The boundaries between work, casual and dressed-up clothes have blurred. We know that adding a tailored blazer, black leather jacket or flowy blouse to jeans is a modern recipe for style at 50. We’ve learned that snug-fitting bottoms like leggings, skinny jeans or slim pants work best with relaxed, longer tops like slouchy sweaters, tunics and high-low tops. Neutral colors of any hue are mixable but make us look taller and slimmer when worn in a monochromatic look — one color, head-to-toe. We’ve determined that A-line skirts and dresses are body-friendly; midi skirts and dresses make bare-legs bearable; amazing shoes make any outfit better; and stacking and layering jewelry makes mixing gold and silver, costume and real, easy. Style is personal and only you can decide what your core of keepers will be. So why not wear that Donna Karan blazer with jeans and a tee? A tailor can easily nip and tuck to the shoulder pads to give it a new life as a closet keeper.
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9. The not-so-fast list for him and her
There’s one sticky problem with closet cleanups. The regrets. Purgers sometimes say they were too hasty, too ruthless and miss specific items. My advice is to use the editing process as a chance to reconnect with things you love and see if there’s a way to revive and wear them (see tip 8). Try everything on before you say yes or no, and ask yourself this big question: When was the last time you wore it? If you haven’t worn it, why not? Here are the most-missed items that deserve another look before you donate:
Classics: Trench coat, peacoat, tailored coat, blazers, black sweaters, ankle boots, scarves, linen shirts, black or nude pumps, loafers, little black dresses
Edgy items: Leopard anything, black leather jackets (blazer, moto or bomber), your favorite light-wash jeans, fedoras, studded and fringed bags, metallic shoes and sandals
Sporty items: Hooded windbreakers, rain jackets, waterproof boat shoes, perfectly broken-in chambray, denim or flannel shirts, puffer vests
Hard to find when you need them items: Peplum tops, rain boots that look like your leather ones, nude fishnet tights, print jersey dresses, jeweled belts and embellished shoes, white jeans, embossed alligator bags and shoes
Nostalgic items: A “glory days” memento like a college sweatshirt, sports team jersey, your logo-laden bags
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10. Now organize what’s left in a better way.
Hang and stack everything by color. This means all your black items together, all your blue items together, all your greens or browns and so on. Forget about shade, season and fabrics. Within each color group there will be a range of tones from light to dark, differences in texture and fabric, seasons, solids and stripes or prints, super casual and dressy, tailored and relaxed. Fold and stack sweaters, knits and tees by color and arrange your shoes by color, too. Now go back and within each color group hang like items with like — so within the blue group, all your blue jeans together, all your blue shirts together. This system cuts in half the time to find your clothes and get dressed time and makes you more confident in your mixing and matching. You’ll never say, “I have nothing to wear!” again.
Lois Joy Johnson is a beauty and style editor who focuses on women 50 and older. She was the beauty and style editor at Ladies’ Home Journal and a founding editor of More magazine. She has written three books: The Makeup Wakeup, The Wardrobe Wakeup and The Woman's Wakeup.