Most of us spend a lot of time thinking about where we’ll buy our next favorite piece of clothing, but we don’t always task ourselves with finding the best home for those no-longer favorite pieces.
Of course, earlier this year, Netflix dropped the “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” series; predictably, Goodwills around the country were inundated with stuff that no longer sparked joy. People donated their no-longer-loved items in record numbers. And, of course, we’re hitting the time of year when we’ll soon put away our sweaters and start to think about what to wear to Keeneland, Easter Sunday, and Derby. I have a few tips that will help y’all make those transitions with a vision toward utility.
Recently, I’ve started to think a lot more about the complete life cycle of a garment, and where things actually go when we’re finished with them. My eyes have been opened by a couple of badass Kentucky ladies whom I follow on social media. Gretchen Hunt, a Louisville-based attorney and advocate for domestic violence victims, runs an instagram account called ThriftingKY that details her adventures in shopping for a thrifted wardrobe. Samantha Moore, a Lexington designer and fellow Transylvania alumna, upcycles vintage garments into stunning, one-of-a-kind pieces for her brand Modern Country Couture. Both Gretchen and Samantha are committed to reducing the issue of textile waste. Both Samantha and Gretchen have made me think far more closely about whether I actually need the things I have or the things I want to buy.
My involvement with Dress for Success over the past few years has made me think far more deeply about the ways in which I discard or donate the items I no longer need or want. Y’all know that I’m committed to both volunteering and raising money for the Dress for Success affiliates in Lexington and Louisville; it is so incredible to see the profound effect that a newer work outfit can have on a woman’s future. Dress for Success has also had an important impact on my consumer habits. The other day, I was volunteering in the Dress for Success boutique when I saw a really pretty skirt. Upon closer inspection, I realized that I’d once owned a skirt — lilac and grey wool from Loft — just like it. It was 15 years old, but it was a timeless style and quite gorgeous. If it were still in my closet and still fit (few of us are the same size 15 years later…), I’d wear it today. Isn’t that what we should all be striving for a little more of? Timeless styles, reduced waste, and keeping ourselves a little healthier and trimmer? Of course, I certainly hope that skirt finds a great home, and I’m so glad that its previous owner was socially conscious enough to donate it to a place where it can be used. I’m embarrassed to say that I have no idea what happened to my own skirt in that style, which is an area where I need to do better.
Here are the rules I’ve come up with for cleaning my closet and responsibly resourcing my items; I hope that they can help you as well. I’m providing specific examples from my closet; I hope these help you with your own decision tree.
Rule 1: Only Keep Clothes that Fit
Last fall, I absolutely fell in love with this navy Draper James dress. It’s so flattering and can be styled for any occasion. It ran a little big to begin with, and then I lost some weight. So, this spring, it no longer fits! My number one rule for cleaning closets is that there is absolutely no reason to keep clothing that is ill-fitting. You just won’t wear it. Now, I seldom do a one-to-one replacement when cleaning out my closet. This was an exception because I know the dress is so flattering and functional, and I found the smaller size at a very reasonable price on eBay. I will consign or donate the larger size; hopefully it will find a home with someone who loves it as much as I do! In most cases, however, I stick to finding a similar, suitable replacement.
Rule 2: Only Keep Clothes that Flatter or Serve a Purpose
We all have things in our closet that we don’t quite know about. Maybe it’s an impulse buy. Maybe someone bought it for you. Maybe it’s from a weird phase when you were trying to make florals happen. And, it just sits there. For me, it was this French Connection wrap dress. It’s a stunning piece. It was perfect for a photo shoot I did last spring. And it’s never quite fit right. So, it needs a new home; it goes to the consign or donate pile.
Rule 3: See if it Could Serve Another Purpose
Honestly, I think this is an important one. There are other ways that our clothing can be used. I grew up with a grandmother who makes quilts, so my mind is never far from that use. Old t-shirts, for example, have a better use as a quilt than as drawer-fillers. (Bonus use: The excess t-shirt material makes THE BEST dusting cloths!!) I have several Derby-themed t-shirts that I plan to eventually turn into a quilt. You can read my t-shirt quilt tutorial here, or visit Louisville-based Campus Quilt to have a more professional-looking version made for you!) Similarly, a piece of clothing that you can’t bear to part with but that has a flaw that makes it unwearable makes a perfect quilt fabric. My granny made me this quilt using fabric from an old Lilly Pulitzer Kentucky Derby print. This would be a great way to repurpose a special dress or skirt into an heirloom!
Old party dresses in not-quite reparable conditions can become great dress-up materials for kids. The possibilities here are really only bounded by your time and imagination!
Step 4: Make a Responsible Plan for Your Discarded Items
If you only have one takeaway from this blog post, I sincerely hope this is it. Be responsible with the way you discard your item. It’s truly not enough to discard anything that sparks joy. The key here is to be realistic about your own situation. Consigning or selling your pieces can be a great way to earn a little bit of spare money, and, of course, donating your pieces to a charity or thrift store can help it find a deserving new home. But, responsible rehoming goes a little farther than just sorting into consignment and donation piles. You need to dig a little deeper to decide where an item goes. Here are my 3 basic rules of thumb:
(a) Assess the item’s value.
We all have some items in our closet that are nicer than others. Sometimes, these things have a higher resale value. Lilly Pulitzer, for example, is a brand for which well-maintained items can achieve a high resale price. You can sell a Lilly item on eBay or Poshmark, at consignment, or in a brand-specific Facebook group for close to its original retail price. Here in Louisville, we several GREAT consignment shops that focus on brand name women’s resale: Stella’s and Sassy Fox are both located in St Matthews, have the sweetest staffs ever, and are fabulous to buy from or sell with. Another great use for higher-value items is to donate to a charity that can turn them into creative fundraisers. Many Dress for Success affiliates, for example, pull higher value items from their donation piles for individual sale or for a higher price at their inventory sales. Goodwill has created the ingenious ShopGoodwill auction site. While these mechanisms have made the old “I found a Gucci bag at a Goodwill in a nice suburb!” urban legends even less likely, they’ve certainly helped to convert more donations into cash to nonprofits!
(b) Assess Your Commitment
Don’t let a whole bag of “this can go to consignment once I wash it and press it and sew on a button” things sit around. The truth is, you aren’t going to do that if you don’t do right now. Similarly, be honest with yourself about your financial motivation for selling your items. If you’d rather have the cash value for your item at the time you release it, go with eBay or a resale store like Clothes Mentor that pays cash up front. True consignment stores pay you when your item sells; this usually means a month’s delay in receiving payment for the item.
(c) Assess a Charity’s Needs
This is so important, y’all. We are so fortunate here in Kentucky, especially here in Louisville, to have an amazing network of 501(c)(3), not-for-profit organizations serving a variety of populations. If you’re going to make a donation of used clothing, please take the time to touch base with the organization and see what their needs and guidelines actually are. For example, I’ve learned through years of grant-matching volunteer work that, as a general rule, missions and shelters will not accept used underwear and socks, no matter how clean. It’s an issue of dignity and basic hygiene, not a reflection on how well you washed your old socks. Similarly, a huge need for Dress for Success is always work-appropriate clothing that does not require dry cleaning. While many of us grumble about our monthly dry cleaning bill, it’s an actual impediment to use for a lot of people who are struggling to maintain basic employment. Remember, too, that donation-based charities like Dress for Success still have to pay rent for their spaces and don’t have a ton of storage space. Because of this, they’re really limited in how much out-of-season inventory they can house. You’d be far better off to donate by wear-now season! Remember to always check with your charity of choice to see what they need and how they can best put your item to use.
Rule 5: Be Honest!
Be honest with yourself when assessing your item’s path. Ask yourself if this item is as valuable as you perceive it to be. A 15 year-old Louis Vuitton bag may have a lot of sentimental value, but will most likely show so much wear as to command a far lower resale price than you anticipate. You may have splurged on a trendy cold-shoulder top two years ago, but many resell venues may deem that look to be, mercifully, past its expiration date. Be honest about the condition that your item is in. Work slacks with a torn hem aren’t immediately interview-ready for Dress for Success. Be honest about the decision you’re making to part with an item, and you’ll figure out a way to give it another use!
Let me know in the comments how y’all clean out your closets and where you donate your items!!