When You Change But Your Closet Hasn’t

For most of America, normal life ended after the first week of March. We were told to shelter in place, office jobs became work from home jobs, teachers were in front of laptops instead of classrooms, and our social lives, which includes our shopping lives, were put on hold. We first thought this pause would be a couple of weeks, then we thought it would be over by Memorial Day, and then by July. And now it is August and there is no end in sight. Even parts of the country that opened up are realizing it was too soon and are returning to earlier phases with limited activity outside the home.

For many in Corporate America, they have already been notified that they will not be returning to the office for the remainder of this year. Many school systems have decided to have distance learning at least through the first quarter, if not until 2021. Even those who have small businesses and private practices are finding ways to continue in a virtual setting.

Closets in the Time of COVID

It has been five months and likely will be several months more, and where does that put a good percentage of your wardrobe? That may seem like such a superficial worry when thousands are dying, people are being evicted, and everyday companies are going under and laying off employees. But if you’re like me, you find stability and even a sense of control from an organized and functional closet.

Along with societal changes, your body and priorities may have changed these past months and you find that the clothes and shoes in your closet may not work for the current you. You haven’t worn a pair of heels in a very long while and don’t know if you want to train your feet to get back in them. Your size may have changed due to a change in your everyday. Or maybe being distanced from your past life, you realize that even if the virus suddenly was eradicated tomorrow, you may not want to return to your old existence and the wardrobe necessary for it.

I know I am not alone when I look into my closet and see all the money spent on those things that are literally collecting dust. That expensive suit that I spent an additional $200 on tailoring that no longer fits and I can’t see any reason or desire to wear it any time soon. That gorgeous cocktail dress I wore to only one event and planned to wear to three other events this year that ended up canceled. Those shoes that I justified estimating cost per wear that haven’t been worn since January. Even well-worn and well-loved shift dresses and cashmere sweaters that were bought and have earned a low cost per wear that now don’t fit my body or my life. It makes me nauseous to think of all the money I spent on this wardrobe, the hours of curating and perfecting and tailoring it, to have it all so pointless, sitting there every time I open my closet. I feel you, I really do.

How to Perform a COVID-era Closet Edit

We’ve gone beyond the point of thinking things will go back to normal this year. Things may improve, but it won’t be like it was back in January. Let’s get real and discuss what to do with your wardrobe that has nothing to do with your life. I’m going to break this down into real issues and how to deal with each of them.

Your Body No Longer Fits Your Wardrobe

Over the past few months, your life has changed. What you eat, how you move, where you go. There’s no way to have such a life change NOT create a body change. This is not a time to beat yourself up if this body change is not what you desire, it’s a time to be realistic and practical about your new normal activity level, location, access to food, etc. not just right now but through 2020:

Let’s be realistic with ourselves, will this be in general my body size and shape through the remainder of the year? If no, what is happening, or what can I confirm will happen in the very near future to cause this change? There is no wrong answer, do not feel guilt or shame, but be honest with yourself so you can tackle your closet and not open it and see a rail full of clothes that neither fit now nor will before New Year’s Eve.

  • If your body shape or size has changed, remove everything from your closet that no longer fits. The pieces you find you still love that don’t fit but can be tailored or modified to fit, separate. If tailors are open in your area and you feel comfortable visiting one, consider scheduling an appointment to get those pieces altered so they are still functional.
  • If the clothes won’t fit even with a visit to a tailor, analyze them. Do you think that a year from now you will still like them? Will they fit then? Will they even be necessary? If you answered yes to all three (not just two out of three), keep these pieces. You can use the tips in this article on how to store clothing to ensure they look great when you revisit them.
  • For everything that doesn’t fit your body and life now and you honestly don’t think will fit your life and body later, remove them from your closet for donation or resale. This article shares charities and sites open during COVID for donating and reselling clothing.

Your Lifestyle no Longer Fits Your Wardrobe

You used to travel for business, and now your job is 100% virtual. After five months in slippers, you have decided you will no longer wear heels. You changed careers, you moved, you married, you broke up, you had a baby, you became an empty nester, you decided to take that buy-out and retire early, you got COVID, you’re recovering, you’ve used this time to reanalyze your life and have decided to make major changes. A lot can happen in half a year, even more so when you’re in the middle of a pandemic and a social justice revolution. And it’s hard to embrace change when your wardrobe is forcing you to stay in the past.

Is my life going to return to pre-pandemic normal in any manner before 2021? What aspects of my life can I not wait to have return and what aspects do I realize I don’t miss or want to change?

  • If your lifestyle has changed, remove everything from your closet that no longer fits it. Analyze each piece separately. See it through new eyes. That suit that was your go-to for business travel, would you rock those pants with a graphic tee and sneakers? How about the blazer with joggers and a turtleneck? Try them on, style them with unexpected things, see if they can have a new life breathed into them. Right now is not the best time to be purchasing a new wardrobe, it makes more sense to see if you can work with what you have.
  • Maybe a tailor can also help. Change those pants that are perfectly hemmed to your 3” pumps work with flats or even sneakers. Turn long sleeves into short, a dress into a tunic to wear with ponte leggings, even add pockets. Tailoring an item you own, nine times out of ten, is cheaper than buying a new piece and you know you’ll both fit and like the end result.
  • If your lifestyle has changed, stop being so precious with your clothing. If you reserved that blouse for power meetings that are no longer, consider wearing it with jeans. That maxi dress you wore to summer weddings with metallic sandals and a clutch purse can be worn now with bare feet and a messy updo at home. And hell, if it makes you feel good to glam up for a day of working from home, no one is forcing you into sweats. Clothing can change your attitude, use what you have to bring you strength, confidence, fun, and color.
  • If you have pieces that are wrong for now and even a year from now, but your life has shown that such items may prove necessary in the future, keep these pieces. For the items that no matter what are wrong wrong wrong for the new you and your new life, remove them.

Editing Your Wardrobe Beyond Clothes

This edit goes beyond your pants and blouses. Look at your shoe collection, your bag collection, your outerwear. Dig through your intimates, your loungewear and activewear, and even your accessories. You may find that a coat you forgot about is far more appropriate this winter than what you wore last year almost every day, that some of your bras no longer fit, that you no longer need or want a full drawer of control garments, and you forgot about that fabulous necklace that give your joggers and knit tops a new life.

This is the department where you may find a surprising amount of items still in great condition that you no longer want. Revisit my article on how to sell clothing during covid and the tips I share on how to be successful with Poshmark; this may be an opportunity to get a bit of money back on those purchases.

Quality, not Quantity

Our lives have changed, and one way they have changed is by having us reassess our priorities and our needs versus wants. A year ago, we felt we needed that item… and now it is collecting dust. Items and aspects of life we took for granted are now unavailable. It can really make you realize the value of choosing quality over quantity. And this holds true with your wardrobe.

You’ve learned over these five months that you don’t need five of that one garment, but you do need more than one of that other. That some pieces have held up to repeated washings far better than others. That softness, fit, and color can be more valuable than any brand logo. Use these new skills to maintain and fill holes in your closet for this new normal. When you shop focusing on quality, you shop slower, you shop with intention. When you slow down with shopping, you give yourself breathing room to make decisions, time to do research, and you get to know your body and your personal style. And great style comes from the quality of what is in your wardrobe (not the price, but how well it works for you, your body, your life, your personality) not how much you can fit on the shelves.

31 Comments

  1. Karin
    September 1, 2020 / 3:00 pm

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. The first thing that changed when COVID hit was I stopped shopping for clothes completely. It just seemed . . . pointless. This brought home to me how much I used shopping to cheer me up/fill in empty places. Not always, but often.

    My shopping for clothing has been 100% more intentional since then. I’ve replaced some bras and a pair of workout shoes, and that’s about it. (Oh, and masks.)

    The logistical difficulty of purchasing is also a factor. I’m a “buy 5 and return 4” person, constantly dropping off online returns at stores. With no way to try things on, and fear of going to UPS to return packages, I was limited to only re-buying things I already owned. I actually needed some new shorts and T-shirts, but the ones I had were discontinued or sold out so I ended up buying a few things off Poshmark. (Needed a couple bright-colored tops to cheer myself up from my normal all-neutrals wardrobe.) I’m still not going to any stores in person except for Target and grocery stores, and there’s no way I’m spending a minute more than I have to by trying something on.

    I’ve worked at home for 15 years so this wasn’t a huge change, but even so, I hang my head every time I see about $300 worth of things I bought for “summer date nights” and “summer music festivals” and “summer travel” sitting in the closet with tags still on. (Thankful I didn’t buy any new swimsuits…)

    I can’t decide if when the pandemic ends, our ideas of shopping will have changed permanently, or if we’ll all go into a frenzy of buying from being repressed so long.

    Anyway, thanks for taking this “fashion” blog so far beyond fashion and posting such thoughtful topics.

  2. Katie
    August 19, 2020 / 9:36 am

    This post really hit home with me. “Nauseous” is a good word to describe how I feel looking at my closet right now; all the professional dresses and brightly-colored trousers and blouses that I haven’t touched in months, a year. Things I used to take pride in and now seem excessive, consumerist, tacky. I’m mostly glad I’m not the only one that feels this way! I know there will be a time and place to wear them again, but in the meantime…ugh.

    Thank you for your posts–your take is honest and refreshing, and I appreciate that so much.

  3. Ashley
    August 18, 2020 / 3:33 pm

    I have leaned in hard to a more casual lifestyle, which honestly feels a lot more authentic to me than the uber-polish I put on for the office. I have no idea when I’ll be going back to work. I have a closet full of office clothing that is beautiful, but I feel utterly ridiculous wearing those items to WFH. It’s more of a psychological barrier than a physical one, I think. Home already feels like less of a sanctuary because it’s where work and life are happening; trying to wear my office clothes would further obliterate that barrier!

    And, unfortunately, despite keeping up my exercise regimen, I have gained 5-10 lbs. I’m not getting as many steps in just doing routine things like walking between buildings, to my car, or doing errands over lunch. Some pants are off-limits for the time being.

    On the whole, I am more mentally healthy and balanced than I’ve been in years. So much less rushing. Not as many kid-related activities. Fewer in-person interactions at work that drain my energy and make me feel depleted. I don’t think I want to WFH forever, but I would like to continue 2-3 days a week.

  4. JC
    August 17, 2020 / 6:28 pm

    I’m going to suggest after you purge your closet, wash the clothes and donate them to a women’s shelter. Not all of them, whatever you’re comfortable with. There is always a shortage of plus size women’s clothes at shelters. I was even able to donate my freshly washed but no longer fitting bras to the shelter.

    I don’t know if somebody has already suggested this. Sorry if it has been suggested already.

    • August 17, 2020 / 10:01 pm

      This is a great suggestion. However, right now few women’s shelters are accepting donations because of covid. I recommend calling beforehand to see if they can accept and have a place to let items sit so they are safe to share. And great point about the bras, I am a big supporter of I Support the Girls which collects bras and feminine hygiene products to give to shelters and areas dealing with disasters and such. https://isupportthegirls.org/

      • JC
        August 17, 2020 / 10:41 pm

        Absolutely, I should’ve said call first. I did call first and the shelter said they would take donations provided they were washed. Further this particular shelter is always looking for women’s plus size anything so that’s why I thought of them. Understandably, everyone is not taking clothing donations at this time. 🙂

  5. Emily
    August 17, 2020 / 4:57 pm

    I love this article! My office (which was previously semi-casual) are still pushing for us all to come back to work as soon as we can so I haven’t done too much purging yet but having spent the last 6 months wearing the same jeans/tshirts/shorts on rotation, I definitely have a lot of ‘legacy’ smart clothing from previous jobs which this period has cemented that I don’t need! On the plus side – I’ve taken the opportunity to pierce my nose (we don’t really do video calls for work) and really let my hair do its own thing, and gotta say I’m really enjoying the new aesthetic! You’ve actually inspired me to try wearing a bunch of stuff from the back of my closet over the next few weeks to really test out whether they’re still items that still work for me (you know when you try something on and it seems fine then you wear it for 30 mins and realise you’re perpetually adjusting it?). Thanks!

  6. spacegeek
    August 17, 2020 / 4:01 pm

    Great post! I’ve been thinking about a wardrobe edit for the last few months. One daughter keeps telling me that this is not forever so I should not purge, but I think there are a few things that won’t be going back to before, so I’m PURGING! First of all, we’re not wearing the low rise pants any more. So all those winter cords and workwear pants that are low rise can go. I don’t expect to be traveling for work before next summer, so that’s another set of work clothing that is out. Coats are really reserved for heading to the grocery store, errands or (in my case) the barn. So my gorgeous coats can be paired back. Then there are all the work jackets. Sitting in my dining room with a formal blazer on seems stupid. Plus many are dated or don’t fit any more. Lots to remove. Nice to see the space again in my closet!

  7. Liz
    August 17, 2020 / 2:42 pm

    It’s fascinating to read the comments, which run the gamut from wanting only dark colors to preferring bright prints; loving to dress up vs. wearing only casual clothing; enjoying putting on makeup and jewelry to barely (like me) being able to comb our hair. It just goes to show how different we all are.

    • August 17, 2020 / 10:02 pm

      Agree! It really is an interesting study on how different we all are and how this pandemic has affected all of us!

  8. Karen
    August 17, 2020 / 12:57 pm

    My biggest change…no more under wires bras. During the sweater months of the WFH, i skipped the bra all together, but then the warmer weather necessitated a bra. I have chucked the old wire bra’s but reading this thru, its time for them to go, not sure why I’ve been hanging on, really, I’m not going back. I’ve also found that at home I’m will to rewear things more often, so the quantity that i need has changed, but at least for now, I’m very cautious on eliminating things i already own, but then, my company is still officially saying we will be back in the office after Labor Day, which makes this whole planning thing really hard

    • Karen
      August 17, 2020 / 12:58 pm

      Should say, i have NOT chucked the old wire bra’s

  9. Ruth Slavid
    August 17, 2020 / 12:42 pm

    I have worked from home for nearly 12 years, but went to meetings, chaired seminars, went to parties etc. I think I had more ‘special’ clothes than I needed. During lockdown in the UK I bought some underwear (my favourite bra broke on day one), a pair of loose black linen and cotton trousers because I found I felt like wearing trousers more and dresses less than previously in the hot weather, and a pair of smart navy trousers. That may sound odd, but I like having a pair of smart navy trousers. The previous pair had been washed too often, had a small hole in the knee where I feel over – in short had been worn too often for non-smart occasions. I still have them and still wear them but they aren’t smart. On one afternoon, i sorted my wardrobe and created four storage boxes that I didn’t need. I looked at them again a few days ago and all but three garments have gone to a charity shop. This means that I don’t need to store out of season clothes any more, so if I want to wear a long-sleeve top in summer I can. As a result I feel that I have more clothes, not fewer. And because I have been so frugal, when I saw the perfect Shetlands pullover that I had searched for last year without success, now available from Toast but expensive, I treated myself. I plan to buy a coat this winter and maybe a tweed jacket – and that is it.

  10. B.
    August 17, 2020 / 11:31 am

    “stop being so precious with your clothing” — absolutely! I loved my work wardrobe & NOT dressing up while working from home was starting to get depressing. So I’ve made a point of wearing something fabulous at least a couple days a week, even if I’m not on a video meeting. I’ll wear makeup & jewelry, all things I adore, I do my hair. Maybe take a selfie too 😉 Just to remind myself that my world can be bigger & more beautiful than just these 4 walls.

  11. Marla D
    August 17, 2020 / 11:02 am

    Great post! I have a career allows more casual dress and I had already been working from home for a couple of years when this happened and had developed a work from home uniform – comfortable skirt and tee/tank top or yoga pants when it’s cooler weather. I didn’t think these were suitable for going out in public so dressed “up” when going out – shopping, etc. in casual dresses or jeans and tops. I didn’t go out at all for the first couple of months (and rarely do now), but when I did, I still dressed “up”. At some point I realized I had no interest at all in those dresses and jeans and tops that were my beloved standbys – what a surprise! Instead, I upgraded my at home uniform just a bit – better fitting skirts, some fresh new tops – and find I don’t have to change when I do want to leave the house and what a revelation! As for shoes, I live in Birks, flip flops (I live in a mild climate), hiking boots and a pair of tennis shoes for workouts. I love a cute bootie but would never wear one just around the house. One thing that has fallen out of my wardrobe is a bag – I literally haven’t used one since March. I hope bags will come into daily use again but I don’t see me giving up my Birks moving forward. I’ve lost about 10 pounds from this time last year and I attribute it to the loss of the out and about drinking and snacking. Just enough to make what I have fit a little nicer.

  12. Jenny
    August 17, 2020 / 10:55 am

    I bought some clothes early in the pandemic, thinking 1) it would be over soon and 2) I would have a new job to go to. My style has changed even since then. Now all I want to look at are bright, bold prints, lots of color, not the dark neutrals that had characterized my wardrobe before. I’m not doing a complete overhaul yet, but my goal is to move towards a closet that says I am lively, interesting, bold — all of which I’m working towards.

  13. Joyce
    August 17, 2020 / 10:54 am

    Great article. Thanks so much for your honesty ( as always). These points came at a great time for me, and I’m going to try to channel these thoughts to get moving on some closet changing.

  14. RoseAg
    August 17, 2020 / 10:44 am

    My workplace was always on the casual side and I had/have an outdoor public transit commute so it hasn’t been too hard to recycle some of my work clothes to home work.
    I have found that I’m outside even more than I was before, and with the hot weather have sometimes been taking two showers a day. I go out before work and walk around, then take another break at lunch.
    I had to buy more bras because who wants to put sweaty underwear back on?
    I am on the verse of some major shoe purchases. Did I mention that our dog has walked off a few extra pounds? Most of my walking shoes have been drenched several time, the soles of my Tevas have fallen off. I forsee an even more casual shoe wardrobe than I already have.
    I’m waiting to see what happens about Fall. I have a drawer full of light sweaters for wearing in my air-condtioned office. Maybe I will get those out as the weather cools.

  15. Lynn
    August 17, 2020 / 10:31 am

    I find myself totally uninterested in clothes the last few months. I also only want to wear subdued colors — navy, black, dark green and white. I could wear the same pair of jeans every day (thanks to air conditioning), but I do put on a nice top in my colors for zoom meetings. It feels as if I am in mourning so perhaps I am. At least everything still fits — I have not gained weight or changed sizes. I miss having fun with clothes so I hope all this passes.

  16. Lainey
    August 17, 2020 / 10:19 am

    I really loved this piece. I am back in the office a few days a week, but we are on a skeleton crew and taking most appointments online. It’s interesting to see my normally well-coiffed associates dressing in casual jeans and tees. There wasn’t a formal conversation about this, but sort of just a communal understanding. It’ll be interesting to see how this changes how folks dress in the long term.

  17. Linda B
    August 17, 2020 / 9:37 am

    Great topic, Alison. I already had done a purge or two before the pandemic, having retired 14 months ago. But then we decided to sell our family home three months ago today, to move into a wonderful condo around the corner (perfect for many reasons.) We had a total whirlwind to pack up and store a huge proportion of our possessions for the marketing of the house–which was a golden opportunity for as much purging as possible, across all categories of our belongings. It felt great to do. . . And now, we are living in an apartment because the house sold in 24 hours and the condo won’t be available for another 6 weeks. So I am actually finding it interesting to live with a small, capsule wardrobe. I am learning more about what I like, and what I need.

    I bet I am going to purge more when I move into our new place and unpack the clothes that have been in storage. I can alredy thing of pieces that I am not really going to want to keep. I also wonder though if there will be a small subset of my wardrobe that I adore and will keep, even if I struggle to find times I want to wear those items. I am going to try hard to not do that, even if some pieces hold strong sentimental value, or I just love the fabric or design so deeply that it is hard to let them go!

  18. August 17, 2020 / 9:36 am

    When I was a child the grown ups would often try to predict the future. From politicians and journalists to my teachers. Everyone agreed that by the turn of the millenium we would have conquered outer space, or be invaded by aliens , probably from Mars! Now in 2020 we are under siege (by a virus), and forced to adapt to a new reality for real!

    Five years ago I got ill. I put on 10 kilos (22 pounds!). I had to replace my entire wardrobe. Then I started eating a lot of vegetables, sweet potatoes in particular, and my skin colour changed. I changed most of my wardrobe. Then came Covid-19, and I put on more weight. Then I had enough of it! Now I have lost 22 pounds again, but I’m not stopping here! I know I have to change my entire wardrobe again, and I’m not happy. However my pants are so big that they are falling down so I am hunting for pants.

    I think the pandemic kicked me into taking my health more serious. It is so easy to feel sorry for yourself and have another bite of the cake. But cake will not improve my illness, my entire well being or the pandemic. So off with the pounds, in with new stuff (again), and on to e-bay to sell the old! But as you say, buying new items takes some thinking.

    During the pandemic our family live streaming business has taken off, and I find myself looking for crew-gear that shows we are a team and at the same time is not too unflattering on either of us. The others have autumn colouring and I have spring (I think). Also, I only wear knit pants for medical reasons, that are just not very durable.

    Who could ever have predicted that these would be the challenges we would face in 2020? Add to that social injustice and an American president rivalled only by a third world corrupt dictator! Is it me who is upside down, or the world?

    • SeattleBurbs
      August 17, 2020 / 10:58 am

      Thank you Alison! The line “stop being so precious with your clothing” really resonated with me. Why have I felt like some of these favorites are only “office worthy.” My pencil skirts have moved to a different closet, for another day, but I am enjoying finding new purpose for some of my comfortable, classic items. Your blog continues to be relevant and meaningful; thank you.

  19. bq
    August 17, 2020 / 9:35 am

    Here’s one key reason I am such a fan of your writing and your perspective on clothing: you remind us that “A lot can happen in half a year, even more so when you’re in the middle of a pandemic and a social justice revolution.” To recognize both challenges is wonderful. You always remind us of the world we actually live in and in which we make our choices. Thank you!!

  20. Krista
    August 17, 2020 / 8:57 am

    I’m officially an empty-nester. I no longer am the “chorus mom”. A move is likely coming in the next few months. I’m letting my real very gray and white hair grow in. Lots of changes all at once! I thought I’d be into athleisure with all the staying home. Except for one pair of joggers, I hate it. I went right back to my jeans & tops/maxi dresses. I wonder if one of the reasons I dislike my joggers so much is because they’re inexpensive. The ones I like are far better quality and detailed. Looking at my wardrobe right now… I feel blah. This crazy new normal has thrown me a bit.

  21. Michele
    August 17, 2020 / 8:47 am

    What a timely article! I’ve been trying to gear up for a long-overdue closet edit and I needed this help and motivation. Thank you!

  22. Bette
    August 17, 2020 / 8:46 am

    Frankly, I strongly dislike my work clothes now and don’t imagine ever coming back around to liking them. Even the clothes I thought were flattering or unique or interesting or at least conveyed something office–appropriate now seem ridiculous. All those times I wore uncomfortable shoes or tight waistbands or torturous bras or “structured jackets” in which I couldn’t move — what a waste. Not sure what to do about any of that but move forward into something new.

  23. LynninRI
    August 17, 2020 / 8:36 am

    Ann Marie – Ditto on the apron wearing…it saves so much time (and Tide stick lol)

  24. Ann Marie
    August 17, 2020 / 8:01 am

    When I first started working from home, I did not want to wear my “good” clothes because I was afraid I would ruin them. Seeing that I probably won’t be working in an office any time soon, at least full-time, I have started wearing my “good” clothes at home more. There is no point in them going to waste. Saving them for when I am back at work or otherwise out doing things may just mean that that at that point, they no longer fit or are not in style and then I have basically wasted them by not wearing them.

    At the same time, I also realized that a lot of my work clothes didn’t work for my work from home lifestyle. They were bought to keep me warm in a chilly work office. However, my apartment is always hot (even in winter) so I really need mainly short sleeve shirts or light 3/4 length sleeve shirts. As a result, I ended up buying new fitted t-shirts this summer that I could wear on virtual meetings but would still be good for running errands, hanging around the apartment, etc. As we move into fall, I am not sure if I will buy anything new or just keep wearing the t-shirts and the current light work office shirts I have. One thing virtual meetings have driven home are what colors are not my friend and so I may want to buy some new fall items in colors that are better suited for me and my virtual meetings.

    Finally, an apron has become my new best friend. I wear it when cooking and eating, when washing the dishes, and whenever I wanted to keep my “work” clothes free of stains when I am at home.

    • August 17, 2020 / 10:03 pm

      Yes to aprons! Thank you for this wonderful reminder!

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