THE PENDING SHELF

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Applied Fashion: You need to clear out some clothes, but which ones? Rebecca Willis has the answer...

One of the best things about staying in a hotel is the sight of your clothes swinging freely on hangers on a near-empty rail. I imagine mine stretching their limbs and taking deep breaths, glad to have a well-earned holiday from the crowded and claustrophobic conditions they live in at home. If Narnia was through the back of my wardrobe, no one would ever find it.

Unfortunately, wardrobes obey the basic laws of physics, so until someone invents one with the bigger-inside-than-out properties of the Tardis, anyone who loves clothes will eventually reach a point where theirs is well and truly full. Exactly when you reach that point depends on a number of variables – volume of wardrobe, rate of shopping, garment-folding skills – but what is certain is that it will come, as inevitably as bibliophiles will one day run out of bookshelves. You can go to ikea and buy as many clever storage solutions as you like, but in the end you will have to face up to it: the time has come to chuck out some clothes.

It makes sense to tackle the big clear-out when spring is in the air because, even if central heating has made the traditional spring-clean largely redundant, there is still a vestigial urge to get the nest in order. So you might as well harness it. Some people – those who are not hoarders and are good at letting go – find the whole process easy. I have a friend who is such a zealous clearer-outer that Monday mornings have seen her trotting down to the Oxfam shop to buy back an item of clothing she has just realised she does, after all, require.

For those of us who get emotionally attached to our clothes, it’s a different story. For us, a riffle through the wardrobe is a vivid trip down memory lane, one Proustian trigger succeeded by another, where a dress can whisk you back down the corridors of time to an important conversation, an amazing party, a compliment received, or a place in the evening sun with the scent of honeysuckle on the air…All this history is written almost legibly into the fabric – how can you throw such things out? It’d be like burning a diary – in fact, given that I don’t keep a diary, my clothes are the nearest thing I have to one.

Somebody once gave me a tip about clearing out children’s rooms, which in recent years I have found can also be applied to my clothes (we learn from our offspring in unexpected ways). It works like this. You remove a number of toys – enough to create the space and order you need – and you hide them. If, after six months, they’ve not been missed, you can get rid of them. Alternatively you can give a few of them back, and they enjoy a second lease of life. All you need is a good hiding-place: mine is a shelf too high for daily use – I call it the Pending Shelf, but it could be a box in an attic or one of those zip-up plastic bags under the bed. So the clothes you aren’t sure about, or can’t bear to part with, live in a kind of limbo until their fate is decided. They may be forced out of your life in the end, but there’s a trial separation before the divorce goes ahead: there is still a way back. The only modification is that the six-month period needs to be extended, so that you’ve lived through the whole spectrum of weather before the Day of Judgment dawns. 

And that day must come. Because another, stronger feeling wrestles with my sense of clothes as a diary of my life: that it’s bad karma to keep clothes you’re never going to wear again (except for the few that really do turn out to be the loves of your life). With the Pending Shelf method, if the scent of honeysuckle still lingers after a season in purgatory, that dress can be given a reprieve. But if absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder – and often it does quite the opposite, so that you can’t believe you ever left the house in that peculiar garment – then you can give the clothes to the charity shop or to a friend, and set them free for reincarnation.

My wardrobe has come a long way: although the clothes are not exactly swishing along deserted rails, they are at least no longer so tightly packed that it takes a rugby scrum to get them out. The living conditions are a bit easier in there now. But it’s not perfect. I haven’t caught so much as a glimpse of a lamp-post, let alone had tea with Mr Tumnus. 

Illustration Bill Brown

Rebecca Willis is the associate editor of Intelligent Life and a former travel editor of Vogue