It’s that spring cleaning moment, when you open the wardrobe and your past fashion lives flash by | Emma Brockes

I’m spring cleaning and last week filled eight huge boxes with clothes during a once-in-a-decade pass through my wardrobe. We put these things off for a reason: the time it takes, and more than that, what we have learned to call the emotional labour. Going through old stuff, whatever the particulars, threatens to drag us back through the years, but the wardrobe thing is particularly stark. Here, before me, is evidence that entire chunks of my life were lost to the delusion that the Banana Republic shirt dress was a thing I should wear.

Contrary to previous attempts, this time I vowed things would be different. I was in charge. I was going to be ruthless. I wasn’t going to be bossed around by this stuff and its freight of memory. No hanging on to clothes so I could stare at them to spark images, when my memories could just as easily be preserved by taking a photo.

And at first, that’s how it went. Hangers flew. It was like shedding skins, going through the iterations of the people I thought I once was. A bunch of boxy, Elizabeth Warren-style jackets, one in fuchsia: what on earth was I thinking? (I know what I was thinking: serious but fun!) Two wrap dresses from a Madison Avenue store called J McLaughlin, in prints with names like “gelato”. That was an unfortunate phase. I remember a woman I was trying to impress at a party saying: “You look like a Republican wife” – rough, but not untrue. A lot of terrible knitwear. One – a knee-length cardigan with chunky brass buttons – hangs inside a sheath from the dry cleaner with a receipt still attached: 2015. Hanger after hanger of shirts from the era in which I wore white jeans accessorised with gold and that can be summed up in two, unhappy words: Tory Burch. Out! (Actually, one of the shirts is quite nice; keep! It’s important not to become trigger-happy.)

The further back I go, however, the harder it gets. There is a sense of triumph that comes from confronting versions of yourself from the recent past. It delivers an impression of growth and the illusion of progress. You can feel tender towards the 33-year-old you once were, trying to figure out if you can carry off a mohair vest (no), a leopard print jacket (no), a 1940s blazer cropped above the waist (no) or an ankle-length sweater dress (also no). But then, around the two-and-a-half-decade mark, things start to get tricky.

A blue and white dress my mum bought for me from a charity shop when I was 18 would barely fit over one biceps these days. It’s made of a cheap cheesecloth so worn in places I can see through it. “I’ll keep it for you,” my mother would say whenever she considered throwing anything out from her own wardrobe, no matter how distressed or unsuitable. I hold up the 30-year-old dress and can’t staunch an automated, sentimental response: in 10 years’ time, one of my nine-year-olds could wear this.

Even harder: a ratty old towelling dress of my mother’s that – sheer happenstance, given the amount of stuff that went into the tip after her death – I have perversely hung on to. She would be amused and appalled that, over the past 20 years, I have paid not only to store this thing but to ship it across the Atlantic. I give it a good sniff to see if it carries anything of my old house, but it just smells of dust. Come on, I can do this. Feeling heroic, I put it into the box, on top of a bunch of awful shirts from Anne Klein that were given to me by someone who must have hated my guts.

“What do you think?” I ask my kids. “Granny’s boots?” Ugh. Here it is, the Everest of this endeavour: a pair of 1960s leather boots my mother bought from Carnaby Street before I was born – unwearably high, covered in dust, with two boot inserts holding them up. My children look at me with the compassion of youth for middle age. “You don’t need them,” one says kindly, and capitalising on her certainty, I take them down to the garbage room and stand them neatly beside the compactor. Five minutes later, I panic. It’s like I’ve thrown out my mother. These things don’t spark joy, as Marie Kondo would have it; they spark sorrow, a sentiment of equal standing in my view and at times just as enjoyable to sit in. I run down and fetch the boots back. Another 10 years, I reckon, and I can let this one go. Until then, let’s not get carried away.

During my annual spring cleaning, I embarked on a daunting task of decluttering my wardrobe. Last week, I managed to fill eight large boxes with clothes that had been accumulating over the years. The process was not only time-consuming but also emotionally taxing. Sorting through old belongings felt like revisiting past chapters of my life, some of which I would rather forget.

Determined to make a change this time around, I approached the task with a newfound resolve. I refused to let sentimental attachments dictate my decisions. Instead of holding onto clothes for the sake of memories, I realized that a photograph could preserve those moments just as effectively.

As I began purging my wardrobe, I was ruthless. Hangers flew as I discarded pieces that no longer resonated with who I am today. I cringed at the sight of boxy jackets and outdated dresses that once seemed like a good idea. Each item evoked a different phase of my life, some more cringe-worthy than others.

While confronting recent versions of myself brought a sense of triumph, delving further back proved to be more challenging. A dress my mother bought for me at 18 now barely fits over my arm, a stark reminder of the passage of time. Holding onto sentimental pieces became a struggle, as I grappled with the idea of letting go of my past.

One particular item—a worn towelling dress of my mother’s—held a special significance, despite its tattered state. Reluctantly, I placed it in a box alongside other unwanted garments, including a pair of vintage leather boots that belonged to my mother. The decision to part with these items felt like letting go of a piece of my history, a realization that sparked a mix of sorrow and nostalgia.

Ultimately, I retrieved the boots from the discard pile, acknowledging that some attachments are not easily severed. As I reflected on the sentimental value of each item, I recognized that the process of decluttering was not just about minimizing possessions but also about confronting the memories they held. This journey through my wardrobe served as a poignant reminder of the passage of time and the bittersweet nature of letting go.