Overflowing clothes closets are guilt magnets in a shrinking economy

At first I thought it was just one of those obsessive-compulsive fits that periodically make me want everything to be stacked, put in order or just plain cleared away. But it didn't take me long to realize that it was going to take more than coordinating colors or getting new hangers to come to terms with the heaping mass of stuff in my closet.

Suddenly, it was just too much -- the eight floral-printed cotton dresses I say I'll wear every summer and never do; seven versions of dated skinny jeans I hang onto in case I need the right pair to tuck into boots; 10 short, flimsy black dresses I've kept because one day I might want a cap sleeve and another day I might want a flutter sleeve.

I make my living as a fashion stylist and even I couldn't think about "options" or "possibilities" anymore. All I could see was overkill.

"When there are people all around us whose houses are foreclosing and huge banks are closing, looking at a full closet feels self-indulgent," says Beverly Hills psychotherapist Rebecca Roy-Jarboe. "Wanting to trim our own excess is a reaction to all of it, because we are all feeling tentative and reactive."

In layman's terms: It's closet guilt, and this fall, it's making even the most dedicated shoppers reconsider their bulging wardrobes.

I've dealt with it by filling two large bags with perfectly good, but mostly inexpensive pieces I purchased because they were cheap and trendy. They'll serve a much greater purpose at a charity's thrift shop or drop-in center. Just last week I cleaned up eight pairs of Converse sneakers my husband no longer wears and gave them to a center for homeless teens in Hollywood. I've seen how the kids turn castoffs into fashion statements and I'm sure the renewed shoes will get extra mileage in some guise I never would have expected.

I've also been making regular visits to my local Goodwill drop-off center because every time I look at my clothes I see something else that I don't wear and definitely don't need.

And that nice, clear space in my closet? It'll stay that way for a while, while I lie low and wait for the items I really want to go on sale, or save up and get the one great investment piece I've coveted. Meanwhile, I've been reassessing my existing wardrobe and getting creative about finding new and different ways of thinking about everything in it. A floral dress I wore all summer with heels works just as well with tights and tall boots now, and I've shortened tunic-length tops to the length of a regular blouse to give them a more classic appeal.

The thing is, as much as these times call for us to be pragmatic, fashion is about fantasy -- and there are still ways to have fun and even explore your inner stylist. Fashion publicist Ali Froley, usually on her sixth or seventh designer shoe purchase by this time in the season, is on a spending freeze, forcing her to take a fresh look at the clothes she already has. "I have been recycling old things trying to make them look new again, calling them 'vintage insert-designer's-name-here,' " says Froley, who vows to buy only timeless, classic pieces once her freeze has thawed.

Strategies such as mine and Froley's work on a lot of levels, Roy-Jarboe says. "Classic pieces make sense because you can wear them over and over again. It's less wasteful," she explains. "These are scary times and people don't know how to react. So at least they can go into their closets and give their things to people who need it more right now."

When Allison Aston, a New York-based communications director, got the streamlining bug recently, she hired a professional closet organizer to help her weed through her clothes. They found 10 bags' worth of "excess" that went to resale shops and donation centers. "I feel like this has made getting dressed so much easier and I haven't added a thing to my wardrobe," Aston says.

The closet expert she called in, Melanie Charlton Fascitelli, has noticed that the urge to purge has reached even her high-end clients. "I see 100% more volume going out," says Fascitelli, whose company, Clos-ette, offers an "edit" process to people paring their wardrobes. "I never thought our billionaire and celebrity clients would be doing it, but editing allows them to take stock of what they have and also be green because they're recycling clothes by donating or reselling."

Fascitelli has soothing words for those of us confronting our closet guilt by wading into what we've accumulated. "It's a really daunting thing to do at the beginning, but it feels so good to keep doing it," she says. "It's a really healthy way to look at your wardrobe." She throws in Zen descriptions such as "clarity" and "space," and then adds a subversive little fillip: The economy may be saying "Don't shop," but it's a perfect time to "shop your closet."

The Ferragamo flats I'm wearing? Guess where I found them.

Magsaysay is a Times staff writer.