I’ve always been a big believer in adhering to instructions. When I was young, no computer game could be fired up without first fully familiarising myself with the potential enemies and pitfalls detailed in the manual. This love of instructions has continued into adulthood and I can often be heard plaintively calling, “Wait, wait, let’s read the instructions first!” while my more carefree and happy go lucky (i.e. reckless and foolhardy) friends forge ahead with some endeavour.
So I was pleased and reassured that my journey into minimalism came with its own instruction manual, namely, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying” by Marie Kondo. The book contains detailed instructions of how to “put your house in order” based on Kondo’s years of research into the field of tidying, sorting and storing. Not only is there a set of instructions but she is adamant that they should be followed to the letter if you wish to attain tangible and lasting results from the process. And she makes quite some claims about the potential results – from never reverting to clutter again to the dramatic changes in lifestyle that this ultimate tidying event will bring. In short, she claims that the process is “life-transforming”.
Of principle importance is that you should tidy by category not by location. So somewhat counterintuitively you mustn’t first tidy your bedroom, then the living room, then the kitchen, etc. Instead you tidy by category and each category must be approached in the correct order: Clothes, books, paperwork, miscellaneous items, and finally, the biggie, sentimental items. Sentimental items are left until the end as you need to get your eye in and hone your ruthless discarding efficiency so that you can remain immune to the siren-like pull of these tug at the heartstrings items.
My other minimalist gurus, The Minimalists, also have suggestions on how to tackle your lifetime’s accumulation of clutter. You could play their 30 Day Minimalism Game which involves throwing one thing out on the first of the month, two things out on the second, three things out on the third, and so on. You can throw out anything on any day but by midnight of each day, the items must be out of your house and out of your life.
They also suggest you could throw a Packing Party. This is what one of The Minimalists, Ryan Nicodemus, did himself. This involved him packing up literally everything he owned into boxes, as if he was moving house, and then over the course of the next three weeks he only unpacked what he needed as he needed it. So items like a toothbrush, towel and bed linen were freed from the carefully labelled boxes straight away. But by the end of the three weeks 80% of his possessions were still boxed up. He had only unpacked the items that were genuinely useful to him, those that added value to his life. Everything else, that was still in boxes, he sold or donated.
Although both viable methods of decluttering, neither of these ways spoke to me like the careful systematic approach of the KonMari Method (as Marie Kondo has named her decluttering system). I did, however, find one of The Minimalists’ ideas helpful: their 20/20 rule. This is an idea to help you get rid of those “just in case” items, those things we hang onto because we think they may come into their own one distant hypothetical day in the future. I’m definitely guilty of hanging on to all sorts of things “just in case” (roll of gaffer tape purchased in the year 2000 for my first backpacking trip and to this day never used, I’m looking at you here). The 20/20 rule simply states that anything you get rid of that it turns out you do suddenly need can be replaced for less than $20 in less than 20 minutes. Living in an area of London well served with amenities, I reassured myself that this rule would certainly hold true.
So having decided on the KonMari method of minimalism, I then set aside some time in which to begin the process. I had planned to start on a Saturday but then life happened and I didn’t actually get going until the Sunday. But never mind, I thought, still plenty of time! Why, I bet I can get both the categories of clothes and books done in one day! This proved to be entirely unrealistic. Just tackling my clothes turned out to be immensely time consuming, arduous and surprisingly epic. And this is from someone who isn’t even into clothes!
I’ve never really been one for fashion, mainly because I’ve never really been sure how to pull it off successfully. And I don’t particularly like shopping, I find the sheer volume of women’s clothing options quite overwhelming. Especially living in London – so many shops, so many choices, so many decisions, so much uncertainty – what if I buy this top but in another shop there’s one that would have been so much better??
As I wander, overwhelmed by choice, through the brightly lit shops, I’ve often thought how much easier it must be for men – men’s sections are smaller, more contained, less chance of choice paralysis. Instead of three giddying floors of clothing and accessories all clamouring for attention, men get to slope on down to the basement and do a quick once round.
My overriding feeling towards shopping, clothes and fashion is one of vague disappointment; it’s something I feel I should be better at. I know you’re supposed to have a few “go to” shops that reflect your style…but I’ve never been quite sure what my style actually is. And what even is my body shape? Which of those trouble-shooting shopping guides that I used to read about in magazines should I be implementing…ruffles to disguise a small bust? Horizontal stripes to add curves? And why does the cut of some dresses leave me looking like an awkward teenager at a school disco?? I’m always left with the feeling that I’m failing slightly and that just round the corner, in the next shop, could be something that suits me perfectly and would represent a chic, fashionable, debonair me. But that urbane me to which I aspire remains resolutely out of reach, slipping through my fingers at every turn as I umm and ahh over various garments, just not knowing if they suit me and whether I should buy them.
This haphazard and uncertain approach to shopping and fashion has left me with an eclectic range of clothes lacking unity and cohesion. Added to this is the fact that my clothes don’t tend to wear out to the point where they need to be thrown out and I have that nagging predilection to hold onto any and all items “just in case”. This has resulted in wardrobes, drawers and boxes packed full to bursting with clothes. For someone who wasn’t into clothes, boy, did I have a lot.
But come that Sunday, it was time to tackle them. Kondo’s first instruction before beginning this task is to visualise your destination, to imagine what your ideal lifestyle would be like. Then you question exactly why you want to to live like that. You keep questioning why, like a precocious child, until you have distilled the pure essence of why you desire what you do. Whatever your idealised destination, your particular vision for your newly decluttered existence, it will ultimately boil down to wanting to be happy. I conjured visions of calm serenity, a space where I can quietly relax and not feel rushed or pressured – a pretty obvious antithesis to a busy day at school.
Kondo’s next instruction is to gather every single item of clothing from all around the house and collect it together in one place. This is in order to give an accurate picture of how much you actually own. So I emptied the contents of my wardrobes and drawers onto my bed. Then I rounded up niche use clothing such as ski and travel wear from their specific boxed dwellings in the cupboard in the hallway, I foraged under the stairs to unearth the clothes that were living dormant in suitcases, and unhooked coats and scarves from their hanging hibernation behind doors. And finally I was left with every single item of clothing I owned piled onto my bed with overspill onto the floor.
As recommended, I had tried to subdivide my clothing, for maximum efficiency, into the following categories:
- Tops (shirts, jumpers etc)
- Bottoms (trousers, skirts etc)
- Clothes that should be hung (jackets, coats, suits etc)
- Extra items (scarves, belts, hats, etc)
- Clothes for specific events (swimsuits, ski wear etc)
However, as I had pulled more and more items from various places, the subcategories arranged on my bed had become more and more muddled. But so be it. It was time to begin.
All the clothes: Ready to begin the process.
The instructions are specific: One at a time, you pick up and handle each and every item of clothing you own and ask yourself “Does this spark joy?” Keep only the things that speak to your heart, Kondo enounces, and then be brave and get rid of everything else. This decision making process is to be done in a quiet space – no music and certainly no TV on in the background. This is to allow you the peaceful reflection you need in which to commune with and evaluate each item and its role in your life. This instruction gave me a twinge of disappointment as I had been planning to have 6Music on to accompany me with the task. But as I’m not a natural rule breaker (rules are there for a reason, y’all!) I would adhere to this instruction. If I was going to do this minimalism thing, I was going to do it properly. In the silence of my room I picked up the first item of clothing, held it and asked “Does this spark joy?” Was it to be given amnesty or was it to be culled?
In the week before I began this task, I had explained the principles to various friends and a common response had come up: “But what if everything I own sparks joy?!” The obvious answer to that is, “Well you can keep it then! And lucky you for being surrounded by so many things that bring you joy!” This, however, was not an issue that afflicted me. In fact, I was quite worried that I would be left with nothing as I was hard pressed to think of even a handful of clothes that actually brought me joy. Kondo assures readers that if you apply her method, you’ll be left with the right amount of clothes. But the fact that I had so many things and could think of practically nothing that fit this joyful criteria was clearly something I would have to address when buying clothes in the future.
Thus I began quite ruthlessly, somewhat disgruntled at the joylessness of my clothing. Knowing this day was coming, some items had already been mentally earmarked for disposal as I’d eyed them up in my wardrobe, thinking to myself “You bring me no joy, none whatsoever! Why do I even still have you?!”
As you discard things, Kondo recommends thanking each item for the role it has played in your life. Maybe you thought it was super cool when you bought it, maybe it looked great for that one party, maybe you loved it and wore it to death a few years ago, maybe it had been a good work staple but had now fallen out of favour, maybe its only purpose was to teach you that that particular shade of yellow made you look rather peaky. Whatever its purpose, you should thank it for its time with you and let it go. She recommends saying things like, “Thank you for bringing me joy when I bought you”, “Thank you for teaching me what doesn’t suit me”, and “Have a good journey!” For a sentimental fool such as myself, I found this idea of thanking items and letting them be free very helpful as I worked my way through the mountainous pile of clothes. For the items I gladly discarded, considering each one and thanking it gave a me a pause to remember more positive associations. For the clothes that are harder to part with, Kondo urges you to think about their true purpose in your life – a surprising amount of all you possess will have already fulfilled its role. Be strong and say a last grateful goodbye.
I sifted and trawled through my sartorial past, deciding on what could stay and what needed to go. I definitely slowed this process down with my insistence on trying most of the items on. Although she doesn’t explicitly say so, I suspect this is not in keeping with the purity of the KonMari method; the joy, or lack of, elicited by the clothes should be evident just from handling them, while trying things on can invoke all sorts of thoughts, feelings and memories that can muddy the waters of decision. A few times I almost kept items because they fitted so nicely but then had to firmly remind myself that they might fit nicely but that hadn’t been enough to save them from languishing unworn in my wardrobe for the last five years. Fitting well and bringing joy definitely do not go hand in hand. Despite these occasional exceptions, I found that trying things on did often help with the discarding process. With so many items that didn’t fit, just simply didn’t look that good, or represented a me that I no longer was, putting them on again strengthened my determination to get rid of them. And wearing them once more afforded them their swan song and gave me a chance to articulate their eulogy of thanks and gratitude.
The most common thought I had as I steadily worked my way through the pile was, “This is insane.” It was insane how many clothes I had. It was insane how many things I’d kept that I didn’t actually like. It was insane how long I’d had some things. And it was insane how hard it was to let go of some things even though I knew I should. The process was like my life laid bare in clothes.
There were two of the men’s extra large size t-shirts I’d worn as a teenager. I tried them on, tucking them into my jeans and then carefully pulling free a few inches all the way round so they folded evenly over the waistband. How funny to replicate this motion that I’d performed all those years ago as a teenager, a motion that I used to have to repeat many times over if I pulled one bit too far and it no longer hung evenly, necessitating re-tucking and more carful teasing of the fabric. I was struck by how incredibly large men’s extra large t-shirts are. They swamped my frame. How had I ever thought these were a sensible clothing choice in my teenage years? Had they ever actually been fashionable? I doubted it. It was no wonder I didn’t have a boyfriend until I went to university.
I’d been carrying those t-shirts around with me since the 1990s. For god knows how long, they’d been relegated to living in a suitcase under the stairs and they smelt vaguely of mildew. Kondo insists that clothes like these should be set free otherwise they cannot fulfil their purpose to be worn and enjoyed. If they had feelings, she says, they would surely not be happy living like that, exiled to that dark, dank purgatory under the stairs. Better to let them free where they have the potential to live a better life. Just like at the end of Toy Story 3, I mused, as I thanked them for their time with me and put them, the last remnants of my teenage years, in the discard pile. I hoped that maybe there was a larger gentleman somewhere who could resurrect them and find retro 1990s joy in them.
Now here were all my tomboy clothes! A clothing phase that had lasted until I was 30, having no idea, as I did, how to actually dress like a girl. I tried on the many fitted collared t-shirts and staring back at me from the mirror was a previous incarnation of myself. These t-shirts were good examples of tops that I’d kept, clogging up the back of my drawers, because there was technically nothing wrong with them and I’d got a tonne of wear out of them in the past. But that me that looked back from the mirror was definitely not the me that I was now. I thanked them for their time and hard work and said goodbye to that version of myself – a me who was like an old friend but one you haven’t seen for awhile and who you aren’t really sure you have anything in common with anymore.
Then there was my inappropriately short skirt phase! A mercifully short-lived phase. Oh, here’s a couple that I actually wore to work. Cringe. Hey, in my defence it was before the staff dress code at my current school was introduced. But cringe nonetheless. They should all go. Thank you for being fun at the time. And thank you for showing me that I don’t really have any occasion now to wear short skirts. Note to self: this is probably because you’re too old for them. What happened to those nights where we’d wear short skirts and go to bars that we hoped were cool but probably weren’t? Somewhere in between working too hard and other people having babies they fizzled out like a sparkler in an overly sweet holiday cocktail.
Thank you and goodbye to my old work clothes that had seen me through the first few years of teaching practice. Thank you and goodbye to jeans that’d looked freaking awesome and fitted like a dream but now had too many holes in. Thank you and goodbye to hand me downs from friends (accepted because, yeah, I might totally wear this one day! Nope, didn’t happen). Thank you and goodbye to things given to me as gifts (I acknowledge the positive intentions you were given with even if you never did quite settle in and assimilate yourselves into the ecosystem of my wardrobe). Thank you and goodbye to all those shirt-dresses and long jumpers that’d looked good over jeans and that I’d worn to school before dress code but, after its introduction, didn’t quite manage to make the transition to non-work casual wear. Thank you and goodbye to the 70s style Puma zip up top that I’d just loved telling people I’d bought from a vintage shop in Barcelona but that hadn’t been worn in years and did that shade of green really do me any favours? Thank you and goodbye to all the items of clothing that were combinations of the colours green, pink, and grey (wow, I genuinely didn’t realise I had so many clothes in those colours.) Thank you and goodbye to all the things that had horizontal stripes (wow, I really did believe that advice about stripes creating the illusion of curves, didn’t I). Thank you and goodbye to things that just didn’t fit quite right and to all the things that no longer fitted me at all and I could barely do up (Dude, did I get fat?! Relax, you didn’t, but you’re obviously a wee bit heavier than in your early 20s. We can accept that.)
And thank you and goodbye to things from my backpacking trips. Now these were hard ones to get rid of, intrinsically bound up as they were with seminal, exciting, life-defining times…Oh but the Mambo t-shirt that I thought was so cool when I bought it in Sydney but that’s now really too small and I haven’t worn in years. Oh but the woollen jumper I bought in Bolivia that stopped me from getting hypothermia when I was fruit picking on a farm in Australia but was always kind of itchy and leaked a terrifying amount of colour when washed. Oh but the Red Bull t-shirt bought on the Khao San Road in Bangkok but isn’t really wide enough across my shoulders and really, who wears Thai Red Bull t-shirts these days? Oh but the first ever pair of dropped crotch harem trousers I bought in India after I swore I would never buy such a ridiculous looking item but then discovered them to be gloriously light and airy, perfect for the hot climate whilst also not showing an immodest amount of leg but now their disintegrated elastic has rendered them sad and droopy. For these items, items that had a strong emotional attachment, I found that taking photos of them helped prise open the tenacious grip of my fingers as I tried to let them go. With the photos, the items might be gone but the memories and emotions they invoked would not be forgotten. This helped assuage the nauseating punch to the stomach of putting these symbolic and once treasured items in the discard pile.
Here was a hard category: my clubbing clothes from the early 2000s. A couple of pairs of trousers I was able to convince myself I needed to discard as I struggled to do them up. Yep, had definitely been slimmer in the clubbing years! But two pairs of trousers and a top from Cyberdog still fitted. I pranced around in front of the mirror in them, holding imaginary glowsticks. Yeah, lookin’ fly! I took lots of photos. All sorts of dialogue ran through my head….what if there’s ever some sort of reunion clubbing event or a fancy dress party where these would be perfect?! I could say, “Oh this old thing? Why it’s authentic vintage Cyberdog!” Two sides of my brain battled it out, the “Get rid of them, you don’t need them, you’re 37!” side and the “Oh but why not just keep them!” side. As I peeled them off and folded them up it was like officially saying goodbye to that part of my life, a part that had ended many years ago but this process made it a fresh reality. When you stop going clubbing it sort of peters out and you convince yourself that it’s definitely not over, you just haven’t been for awhile, but you’re definitely still into it. But then the years pass and you realise, no, you just don’t do that anymore. Trying to get rid of the clothes was like ripping the plaster off. It’s over, it’s finished, that exciting time in your life will never ever be repeated, you got old. I placed the clubbing clothes on the discard pile. But the jury was still out. Sure I didn’t need them but they would be nice to look back on mainly just to marvel “did I actually used to wear this?!” All those reflective bits, the strange plastic dangly bits, the flashing lights nattily positioned on one’s hips, the glow in the dark zips for the flies… ah, good times…
I’m almost embarrassed to admit how nauseous the whole process of discarding made me feel. And I mean genuinely nauseous. A few times I had to stop and have a little sit down because I felt really quite sick. I spent much of the afternoon gingerly rubbing my stomach trying to placate the strange feeling within it. Stirring up and awakening your past can have strange effects. And there were some tears too. Tears about what I don’t know. A lament to the passing of time, I think. Here were the ephemeral seasons of my life intricately woven into the fabric of these clothes; memories and anecdotes running through them like invisible golden threads.
It is these threads that need unpicking, according to the tenets of minimalism. You are not your possessions. Our memories are within us, not within our things. The cloak of sentimentality, which seems innocuous and even enjoyable as we bask in the warm glory of our possessions, is actually weighing us down, according to minimalists. If you can’t get rid of something for sentimental reasons then it has subtly imprisoned you; the weight of the memories and associations you have imbued it with become the mind-forged manacles of attachment. And so it endures, taking up space in your life, gathering venerated significance as surely as it gathers dust. Maybe it is time to set yourself free, to see how light you feel without the weight of all your unnecessary things.
According to Kondo, If you are finding it hard to let go of something there are only two real reasons: an attachment to the past or fear for the future. My problem was a clear cut case of an attachment to the past. She acknowledges that the process of confronting our possessions can be painful, forcing us, as it does, to stare our imperfections, hopes and fears, and foolish choices in the face. But what are we to do? Face them now, sometime in the future or avoid them until we die, leaving a relative to pick through our possessions and do our dirty work of sorting and discarding. Better to do it now, she says, and do it properly. Don’t discard willy nilly without due consideration because then you are just glossing over and ignoring the choices you have made and the reasons for them. Face the emotions that your possessions evoke and free both yourself and your things from the codependent relationship you have created.
Finally, after many hours tilling my clothing landscape, I had a pile of clothes to keep. Did all the items in this pile bring me joy? No, definitely not. Some brought me joy but many didn’t. However I needed to be left with some things to wear. Work clothes, casual clothes – I didn’t have the time nor money to suddenly invest in all new things. But the process of deciding had clearly opened my eyes to the fact that I needed to start giving some serious consideration to what I bought. I was incredulous that I had had so many things that I just didn’t particularly like. If, when push came to shove, I turned round and declared barely any of my clothes bring me joy, then I needed to put some actual time and effort into working out what I do like and what would suit me. The days of my random, mismatched, overly stuffed wardrobe were at an end. I vowed to look into new ways to approach this perviously unconquered frontier of “fashion”.
And then there was the discard pile, looking at me reproachfully from the other side of the room. I felt a little panicky when I thought of actually getting rid of some of the things in it. There were things in there that had meant so much to me at the time and things that I’d thought looked so cool or fitted so well. But all those things had had their time and had not been worn in years. Some were so far out of fashion that if I’d worn them again I would have looked like a long-lost member of the female pop combo All Saints. Then there was the sheer volume of waste. Everything was going to the charity shop or for recycling but I recoiled at how much there was to dispose of. How had I had this much stuff? It was disconcerting to realise I’d lived for so long with so much that I didn’t need. But the biggest wrench, the hardest to even think of lying in that pile, were those items that perfectly encapsulated a certain zeitgeist. I hadn’t expected the process to be so very emotional. But then I always did have the capability to imbue inanimate objects with intense meaning and significance. As well as actually focusing on only buying things I genuinely like, I resolved to stop using clothes as a way to hold on to aspects of my past. I sat on the end of my bed, between the two piles. All my previous incarnations of self had been processed, thanked and I’d said a formal goodbye to them. Their emotional ghosts had finally been laid to rest.