In the end, it was my friends who shamed me into it. Two of them posted photos on Facebook of their newly cleared out wardrobes, all colour-coded frocks, a handful of instant outfits, shoes in ascending height and socks immaculately balled up into pleasing honeycomb storage trays from Lakeland. I looked into my own, massive, overcrowded wardrobe full of shared hangers, unremoved labels and broken poles propped up only by the sheer volume of clothes beneath them, and decided enough was enough. I had to do something, not least to get my husband off my back, and to be able to spend longer in bed instead of hacking through the overgrowth to find something I wanted to wear.
But while I could appreciate and envy the sense of liberation in being brutal with old clothes, the thought of culling my own made me wince. Clothes are very, very important to me and always have been. At school, they were how I knew we had no money, how I knew we were different in having a single dad, not a mum, dress us for school and birthday parties. In the absence of even a shred of paternal fashion sense, and with only boys’ cast-offs to hand, clothes were how I learnt to express myself, often how I learnt about other cultures, music genres, how I celebrated being an outsider instead of struggling fruitlessly to blend in. Later, one of the myriad reasons I moved to London was how people dressed. No one would judge me for my clothes, no one would bat an eyelid if I went out in 18-hole DMs that almost reached my miniskirt. Deciding who I was on any given day became a huge source of pleasure and freedom when being myself didn’t even remotely appeal.
I envied the immense satisfaction and practical benefit in binning off clothes that had ceased to be useful, but knew that, emotionally, it would feel to me like disowning a loved one. It’s all very well going full Marie Kondo and bagging up anything you don’t love now, but what if the memories of wearing a long-since-retired frock still bring you considerable joy? Sure, there are clothes I haven’t worn for years, but there are also family photographs I haven’t looked at recently either. They’re no less precious to me and I’m no more ready to let them go as though they meant nothing. Attached to almost every memory I have – from starting school to leaving home, to passing my driving test, to giving birth, to meeting my husband – has attached to it a garment, an outfit, a look, a dear friend made from cloth. I find it extremely painful to bin off those memories, even if to clear space for new ones.
Things are neater in my forties, more self-aware, practical and considered. When I pluck a pair of unladdered opaques effortlessly from the drawer, it’s nice to be reminded how far I’ve come
There was some mercifully low-hanging fruit, of course. I’m not prone to buying disposable fashion and I don’t spend compulsively – I’m more likely to buy either bargain secondhand or pricier investment pieces – but there was at least some old high-street stuff to immediately shift bulk. Off it went, with my old bras and any even slightly snagged tights, to the local Asda clothes bank. Then there were the ill-advised purchases from day 24 of my cycle (arse-skimming pinafore dress with cat-shaped bib detail, anyone? See Brighton Oxfam), clothes that are lovely for the woman I dream of being, but less good for the woman I actually am (flat shoes, trousers, pastels, anything floaty and bohemian – what on earth possessed me?) or simply things that seemed like a great idea but didn’t quite work out (a boiled wool tunic that brings me out in hives. Good riddance). Unless it was of enormous sentimental value, it had to immediately match my signature “look” (French primary school uniform shapes, very little skin, clashing prints, statement coats and a hundred variations on the Mary Jane), or meet its fate on eBay or the rails of my local chazza shop.
But there were some things gathering dust that I just couldn’t set free. What of the navy Lycra peplum dress and matching leggings from Pineapple, chosen for me in 1989 by legendary drag queen Leigh Bowery? The navy floral 1940s tea dress I found in a vintage clothes store in Covent Garden the day after my first night with the love of my young life? The tiny red Mickey Mouse T-shirt and kilt I wore clubbing with my hair in bunches, a supply of Chupa Chups in my mini backpack? What about the Lycra BodyMap skirt I saw in a Bananarama video then scored for myself in Camden Market, the posh Italian black riding boots I bought with my dad’s inheritance, the leopard jumper that still smells of my late friend’s perfume? They’re not useful or practical or even still comfy, but they are as important to me as any precious heirloom. They deserve a place in my house, if not on my back.
A fortnight in, to say my wardrobe clear-out is a work in progress would be a kindness. Something from ELLE Decoration it is not. There are overstuffed plastic crates for the loft, dresses that have gone back in and out again as my resolve wavers and revives, piles of lovely things to give reluctantly to my best friend’s daughter. But there’s some unexpected comfort in knowing that the last time I was her size 6, I was actually in the midst of a personal crisis and deeply unhappy. It’s more than OK that I’ll never be there again and wonderful that she’ll enjoy them in less complicated times. I never will get those jeans altered or mend that moth hole, and now accept there’s something unhealthy in delaying gratification indefinitely. I deserve to enjoy life’s pleasures now, to access them easily. It also immensely satisfying to know that my calm, predictable and relatively ordered life no longer befits an out-of-control wardrobe. Things are neater in my forties, more self-aware, practical and considered. When I pluck a pair of unladdered opaques effortlessly from the drawer, it’s nice to be reminded how far I’ve come. And with a short hike up the stepladder, I can still relive the wild times, knowing that outrageously dressed girl is still deep in my heart and always welcome in my home.