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Cleaning out your closet

By Ashley Strickland, Special to CNN
updated 10:00 AM EDT, Tue August 30, 2011
Pam Swidler's closet, before (left) and after a cleanse with author Jill Martin on
Pam Swidler's closet, before (left) and after a cleanse with author Jill Martin on "The Today Show.."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cleaning out your closet can also clean up your life
  • Jill Martin's new book, "I Have Nothing to Wear!" provides a closet cleanse program
  • Keeping only your favorite things that fit perfectly is better than a messy, full closet

(CNN) -- A tangle of dresses, skirts, jeans, suits, shirts and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume greeted Pamela Swidler when she opened her closet each morning. It was overwhelming and made her feel like she had nothing to wear.

After submitting a photo of her overstuffed closet to Jill Martin, the closet guru helped Swidler to throw out most of her clothes.

"I'm amazed at how little is in my closet right now, and it would have scared me two months ago," Swidler said. "But once you start, you'll find yourself getting rid of stuff that in a million years you never thought you'd get rid of."

That is exactly what Martin wants people to experience. Her new book, "I Have Nothing to Wear!", co-authored with Dana Ravich, provides a 12-step program for women to clear the clutter from their closets so they can dress better.

"I feel like you should always look like you're about to run into your ex-boyfriend," Martin said. "When you can avoid it, you should never be a mess."

The book's title is a phrase every woman can relate to, standing in front of their closets when the contents resemble a mass of fabric without any discernible outfit choices. The recovery process outlined in Martin's book, like any other 12-step program, is designed to be taken seriously.

"When you look in your closet and the morning and everything is organized in a way that fits your life, it's just nice and easy, almost like you have a uniform," Martin said.

Martin demonstrated the process during a segment taped in Swidler's home for NBC's "The Today Show. "

Unlike reality shows where the fashion-impaired victim watches as while a stranger rips through their closet, Martin's wardrobe system encourages conducting your own closet cleanse with a trusted friend who will become your sponsor.

They need to be the kind of friend who will honestly tell you what looks good or bad and knows what you wear most often.

The book stresses you should minimize your closet by keeping only the very best items. Start three piles of items: those you want to keep, those you will donate/throw away and a pile for maybes. Anything with too much wear, holes or stains needs to go straight into the trash.

It usually takes three times to sift through the mounds of shoes, stacks of jeans and endless hangers of impulse-bought outfits before a stress-free close appears. Each time, you'll enter your closet with a new mission.

In the first round, you remove damaged items and in the second round, toss out the items that don't suit your style.

During the third round, you try on everything left in your closet to determine whether it's a good fit. Martin and Ravich believe this process provides a confidence boost and stress relief.

"People think that fashion is this very superficial part of your life, but it really has deep psychological roots," Martin said. "If you don't feel your best, it's going to affect your mood all day."

Martin's own sponsor is Ravich, her co-author, and the pair went through all three rounds of clearing together.

Martin's impossible-to-walk-in designer shoes had to go and the perfect white button-down blouse stayed. A Valentino dress also got the boot while a pair of amazing jeans were given a place of honor.

Many impulse buys cluttering your own closet probably first appeared in a daydream scenario.

"You'll walk into a store and see a sequin dress," Martin said. "You think, 'When I'm invited by that random guy to a black tie affair, I'll wear that dress.' That's how we all buy things, we envision wearing them to certain events. How many times do you buy something and that story doesn't happen?"

Barbara Ellis, a style consultant who comes from a family of well-maintained closets, has helped many women with the closet cleanse. The biggest problem women have with their closets is the subtracting. Stuffing it with clothes is the easy part, but sifting out the old can feel as stressful as living with it.

"Clothing is very emotional for women," said Ellis of TheStylishChick blog. "The first step is detaching yourself from emotion and understanding it is just clothing. It's got to have value, in that it does something for you."

Ellis recommends going through your closet twice a year to maintain an organized wardrobe.

"Even though they have fewer things in their closet, they feel like they have more to wear," she said. "Women need to be better editors. Buy something you love that fits you right and blends into your wardrobe."

Swidler feels like a new person after going through her closet cleanse. Besides an organized space for her clothing, it has changed her shopping habits. She now faces potentially deal-breaking questions before she takes anything to the cash register: How often will I wear it, do I really love this and does it fit well?

She's also cut back on online shopping because of the uncertainty pertaining to fit, color and appearance.

Martin and Ellis both believe that just because you're cleaning out the closet doesn't mean tossing out your sentimental things.

Martin will never get rid of the T-shirt her father used to paint his college dorm room or her grandmother's bracelet. Ellis will always keep the ugly sweater passed down from her great-grandmother. However, you won't see Martin or Ellis wearing these items outside of their homes, either.

But your dye-to-match prom shoes or the ill-fitting dress you've never worn? Those can go to Goodwill or a consignment shop.

"Be ready to say, 'I'm going to make my life simple and I'm going to respect the fact that I should only have the best things that I could possibly have in my wardrobe,' " Martin said.

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