Subscribe to blog via RSS

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

Search Blog

The Working Closet

with Susan Wagner

The Working Closet is your source for the best of what's hip and fresh in fashion and beauty. Susan Wagner keeps you up-to-date on trends and offers tips and tricks for making everything in your closet truly work for you.

You can also catch Susan over at Friday Playdate.

What’s in YOUR closet?

Categories: basics


Before we jump in and start negotiating the details of how to make your closet work for you, we need to know what’s IN your closet. I’m certain that you have a closet stocked with perfectly lovely clothes. I am also willing to bet that you find yourself, more often than you would like, standing in front of your well-stocked closet moaning that you don’t have ANYTHING to WEAR. And I would wager that , at least occasionally, you solve the problem of nothing to wear by buying something new. And, finally, I’m positive that at least some of the time, you drag home whatever it is that you bought to make it easier to get dressed only to find that you have something EXACTLY LIKE IT in the closet already. And that you still don’t have anything to wear.

Am I right?

California Closets

The first secret to having a closet that works for you is actually knowing what’s in your current closet. I don’t mean in a vague, my-work-clothes-are-on-the-left kind of way. I mean you need to know PRECISELY what is hanging on the rack when you open the door every morning, because until you do, you will continue to feel like you have nothing to wear.

Since this is the First Official Weekend of Summer, it seems like a good time to get out your summer wardrobe and see precisely what you have and how you can wear it. In other words, instead of heading to a sale this weekend, we’re going to Shop Your Closet.

You will need: four boxes or bags (marked DONATIONS, ALTERATIONS, DRY CLEANING, and STORAGE), a full-length mirror, a two or three-hour block of time, and a friend whose opinion and taste you trust. Also, a bottle of wine might help as well, although it’s not necessary.

Start by taking everything out of your closet. Yes, EVERYTHING! Separate out anything that isn’t summer wear (wool trousers, cashmere turtleneck) and store those pieces somewhere else. Check them first, though, to see if they need cleaning or repair; if so, put them in the appropriate boxes and deal with it now.

Once you’re left only with your summer clothes, try everything on. Every single piece; every skirt and dress and pair of pants and blouse. Start with the bottoms, since that seems to be what makes us the most crazy. Anything that doesn’t fit right or is worn goes in the DONATE box; anything that needs to be altered or repaired goes in the ALTERATIONS box. Everything that fits and is in good condition but needs cleaning goes in the DRY CLEAN box. And anything that has deep sentimental value goes in the STORAGE box.

Now do the same for your tops. Try everything on with the right undergarments. Bend over and check the front view; reach up and see how much of your stomach is visible. Again, get rid of everything that doesn’t fit right or is stained or pilled; deal with everything that needs repair or cleaning. Be honest, and be ruthless. Only keep things that really fit, and that you really wear.

[Aside: If you are in a transitional period in terms of your weight--say you just had a baby, or you're on medication that is messing with your waistline--feel free to hang on to things that may very well fit again later. BUT--store those pieces; don't just pop them back in the closet. Feel free, as well, to keep anything with deep sentimental value, but again, STORE IT. Your closet is ONLY for clothes that fit and that work for you RIGHT NOW.]

Return the things that fit and that are in good condition to your closet; put everything that may very well fit again someday in the STORAGE box; put anything that will never fit again in the DONATE box. Things that would be perfect if you just had them altered go in the ALTERATIONS box; set a deadline for having the alterations done. That dress you’ve been meaning to have hemmed for three years? Give yourself two weeks to get it to the tailor; if it’s still hanging in the back of your car after two weeks, get rid of it. Things that need cleaning or laundering go in a separate pile.

At this point, you should be looking at a closet full of pieces that fit and flatter you, and that are in great condition. But until you know what goes with what, you will STILL find yourself saying I DON’T HAVE ANYTHING TO WEAR. So now it’s time to put together some actual outfits, because then you really WILL have something to wear.

Try everything on again, but this time get entirely dressed, including shoes. Think about what you would wear to the office and to dinner and home on the weekend. If it helps, start with your fall-back outfits–say, black pants and a jacket–and then mix it up a little. Can you wear your silk skirt with that jacket? How about pairing a graphic tee with the pants? Keep going–can you wear the graphic tee with the silk skirt? Challenge yourself to find new ways to wear old basics. At this point, you may want another opinion, someone whose fashion sense you trust, someone who will tell you honestly if you look stylish or silly.

Try every possible combination. Did you find a fabulous lace cocktail skirt way back in the closet? Great! Try it with a basic white shirt and a fitted tee and a tank top and . . . you get the idea. Try EVERYTHING on with your jeans–-blouses and sweaters and jackets and tees. Move around in every outfit, and assess how it works–-when you bend over, what’s the view like? When you sit down, does the top meet the bottom? Can you REALLY walk in those shoes? Is it a problem if you can’t?

Make a list of things you are genuinely in need of. Do you have a great pair of pants that go with all your tops but no shoes to wear with them? Shop for shoes. Do you have a terrific white blouse but no appropriate bra? Shop for a bra. And so on.

Now that you know what you have, and what goes with what, organize your closet. Use whatever system you like for arranging your clothes–-by color, for example, or style or even by outfit–-but avoid dividing your clothes into Everyday and Dress-Up. The average woman only wears about 30% of her clothes, primarily because we get it into our heads that certain pieces are ONLY for work or ONLY for weekends. A black tank top can be perfect with a cocktail skirt; a dressy jacket goes nicely with jeans. Fold sweaters and t-shirts, as they will stretch if you hang them, but keep them where you can see them.

And now I don’t want to hear anyone saying “I don’t have ANYTHING to WEAR.”

Coming Tuesday: The Go-To Wardrobe.

Subscribe to blog via RSS
Share this on:

Your Comment

Will be shown publicly

NOTE: All fields marked * are required.

11 comments so far...

  • Susan - thank you for this post! We’re moving this weekend and I’ve been dreading going through my too-small-to-be-called-a-closet closet. I am using your system and just having a plan makes me feel relieved. Now we’ll just have to see what I find in there!

    Nataly  |  May 25th, 2007 at 10:38 am

  • You’re welcome, Nataly!

    And once you know what you’ve got, you can get ready to photograph it for our Flickr pool . . . Doesn’t that sound like fun?

    Susan Wagner  |  May 25th, 2007 at 11:58 am

  • Dude, if I did that with my closet I’m a little afraid I’d have exactly 3 shirts and one pair of pants left. But then I get to go shopping, right? RIGHT??

    Mir  |  May 25th, 2007 at 12:50 pm

  • Why yes, there IS shopping looming ahead. Don’t you worry.

    Susan Wagner  |  May 25th, 2007 at 6:27 pm

  • I love your advice….but I might be in there for the better part of a week if I followed it. ;)

    I have some bottoms that only fit for a week or so per month, others that I’m just not in the mood to wear that often, and others that I paid so much money for that I couldn’t throw them away, and still others that I’m saving for my young teen. Some pants and skirts are nice, and I’m sure I could fit into them again if I just laid off the ice cream for a couple of weeks. And some would be a shame to toss out, since they might make good costumes. I generally do all the costumes for my daughter’s drama productions.

    I’m sick - aren’t I? Is there any hope for me? :)

    Momcat  |  May 28th, 2007 at 6:24 pm

  • Momcat, you’re not sick, you’re just like the rest of us. Promise.

    The key is to take the pieces you’re not wearing RIGHT NOW out of the closet–the ones that don’t fit but were too expensive to part with easily, say, or that pair that might fit if you lost five pounds, or all those things you’re saving for your daughter. Put all that in another closet, or some nice plastic storage bins; hang or store them in some sort of order (Clothes for Teen in one box, say, and Possible Costumes in another).

    The essential idea is that the closet you use EVERY DAY should ONLY have clothes you can, and do, wear EVERY DAY. I promise that it will make getting dressed easier. Really.

    Susan Wagner  |  May 28th, 2007 at 6:43 pm

  • Aack, who has time to try on all their clothes, twice? I barely got through reading this post without two kids crawling all over me :) I’m not bad at getting rid of stuff when I shop, but I do have bad habit of coming home with something that is eerily similar to clothes I already own!

    What I did do was store half my clothes in preparation for moving, and figure if I don’t need them for 6 months perhaps I don’t need them at all. However, as a CA girl since we never pack away our winter clothes, sometimes I get rid of something I haven’t worn in a while as it’s the wrong season, doh! I’m so looking forward to reading all your style posts.

    Nicole/wksocmom  |  May 29th, 2007 at 12:26 am

  • Nicole, I’m sympathetic to the time issue, but I SWEAR to you, if you really DO go through your WHOLE closet, you’ll be glad you did.

    Try breaking this into two sessions, one where you try things on for fit and another where you put together outfits. AND! the BEST part is that once you’ve done it, you wont ever have to do it again. Because your closet will be PERFECT.


    Susan Wagner  |  May 29th, 2007 at 1:04 am

  • [...] basics for YOUR working closet (because now that you’ve gotten rid of all those extra clothes, we need to do some [...]

    Work It, Mom! | A Community for Professional Moms  |  May 29th, 2007 at 6:46 am

  • [...] OF COURSE you don’t have anything like this, because I feel CERTAIN that you have recently cleaned your closet and tossed all those things. RIGHT? Check your hemlines, both above and below. Potential employers [...]

    Work It, Mom! | A Community for Professional Moms  |  June 22nd, 2007 at 3:20 pm

  • [...] black dress, and a bright cheery tote. But before I bring any of those things home, I need to clean out my closet and assess what I already have. I try to adhere to a strict one in, one (or two) out policy, both to keep my clothes from [...]

    Work It, Mom! | A Community for Professional Moms  |  August 14th, 2007 at 7:20 am

Have a question?

Check out our popular Q&A area to ask questions and search for answers.

Quick recipes

Check out our favorite quick and easy recipes, perfect for busy moms.

Affordable Luxuries Blog

Check out our daily picks for affordable luxuries for you and your family.