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The Phenomenon of the Instagram “Closet Cleanout”

Purge your old clothes, begin anew—all within your favorite app

An illustration of a an Instagram post of a closet with different price tags on each item of clothing Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Two years ago Taylor White was preparing for a move to San Francisco and needed to get rid of some clothes. Rather than wait hours for her belongings to be appraised at the used clothing store in her college town—in her words, “a more horrible Buffalo Exchange where they only buy five-year-old Abercrombie T-shirts”—she turned to her phone. Due to the addictive shopping habits of a former roommate, White knew that vintage clothing stores and various social media influencers hawked used clothing via Instagram all the time.

“Clearly it was popular,” the 25-year-old receptionist told me. “And so I figured there were people out there who want to buy my stuff, too.”

She set to work posting the business-casual staples she wanted to leave behind in Louisville, Kentucky, for the hoodie-lined streets of California, taking care to include the brand, size, and the original amount she paid in the caption of each item’s individual photo. Rather than add price tags, she included her Venmo handle and asked her friends to “send me whatever.” She alerted her sorority’s Facebook group of the sale, linked to her account, and waited.

The notifications of payments came rolling in. By the time she’d finished delivering the items to her friends in the area, she’d made about $30. Despite that small sum, White said the experience was worth it. The sales allowed her to rid herself of the conservative, Midwestern office clothes she’d accrued while working in college, and in the process helped her shed that old life and look forward to a new one—all with the support of her social circle.

“It was very cleansing,” she said. “It was like, here’s all this stuff I don’t want and don’t need. And my friends helped me completely start over new.”

In the increasingly granular commercial landscape that social media has wrought, there’s now space for White to sell her wares alongside trendy startups like Allbirds, small vintage clothing dealers, or giant retail corporations like Macy’s. As the social network has ballooned in size and cultural influence, it has become a boon for specific obsessions that often support specific subeconomies. And along the way, it has also emerged as an unlikely peer-to-peer marketplace, a space once wholly occupied by platforms like Craigslist and eBay.

Because Instagram is so integrated into the social fabric of its users’ public lives—and so many of those public lives are now obsessively curated—these one-person digital yard sales have taken on their own peacockish flair. Rather than simply sell a piece of clothing to a stranger for a few dollars, people are now using the so-called “Instagram closet cleanout” to reflect upon their past selves, build on their public brands, and engage with their social networks on a more personal level—a performative capitalism unique to an era when photo feeds reign supreme.

Instagram was by no means the inventor of the closet purge, a time-honored tradition that has existed in some form since the popularization of thrift stores in the early 20th century. But this kind of individualistic entrepreneurism has only recently been made possible by a social-media-driven society and the cult of self-editing minimalism. In the early aughts, Americans derived a voyeuristic satisfaction from watching Stacy London and Clinton Kelly ravage strangers’ closets on What Not to Wear, but it wasn’t until a particularly ubiquitous purge philosophy was introduced that we became comfortable publicly ravaging our own. That direction came along in 2014, via Marie Kondo’s modern homemaker bible, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. One need not read all 226 pages of it to practice the Kondo doctrine. Her process is simple: Grab a hold of each item you own and reflect on how it makes you feel. Keep only the stuff that “sparks joy.”

The closet is an especially easy target for Kondo’s method and an obvious point of fascination for declutterers because it invites self-reflection. In a video for Vogue shot last year, Kondo helped contributing editor Chloe Malle sort through hers, sussing out garments that represent different moments of her life—a Johnny Cash T-shirt, her prom dress, an ensemble she wore to the Met Gala—at the same frantic pace of Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” video. Removing an item requires thanking it, implying the need to emotionally process its significance. “Tidying up means confronting yourself,” Malle wrote of the experience, quoting a sentence from Kondo’s second tidying manual, Spark Joy. “There’s nothing like 10 strangers and a video camera to put the pressure on.”

That set of ingredients—a camera, a closet, an audience of strangers, and a bit of introspection—is now a recipe for compelling online content, no matter what type of internet personality you may be. In more high-profile cases, reality TV stars like The Bachelorette’s Rachel Lindsay partner with emerging startups in the retail space to sell unwanted items from their closet as a way to raise money for a cause. Or someone like Kourtney Kardashian will feature a purge as a carrot stick into her pay-to-view app. But more frequently, the ritual is favored by Z-listers and lifestyle bloggers as a way to earn an extra buck, generate some buzz, and speak to whomever might listen. “I was tickled pink about the chance to mail a little bit of happiness to friends and ‘internet friends’ (hehe),” Erica DeSpain wrote of her Instagram closet cleanout sale in 2015, on her lifestyle blog, Whimsical September. “I was excited about clearing out my closet, and I was intrigued by the potential to make a little bit of extra cash.”

A handful of bloggers have professionalized the process of selling used clothing. What I Wore blogger Jessica Quirk, for instance, has a separate Instagram account for the purpose of peddling the Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses she wears in her photo shoots. But usually the clothing is unremarkable—outdated pieces that range in condition, from retailers like Zara or Anthropologie. They are typically priced to sell for between $5 and $12 or given to the highest bidder in the comments. Because of the subsequent cost of packaging and shipping the items, oftentimes a seller’s goal goes beyond monetary profit and is more about offering a tangible piece of their life to followers. DeSpain, for instance, earned a total of $193 after listing 40 of her “best gently used” garments. After the costs of thank-you notes, packaging supplies, shipping, and PayPal fees, she was left with just $68.93 for a day’s work.

“It would probably be easier to just take what you don’t want to a thrift store and call it a day, but the potential to make a tiny bit of money is intriguing too,” DeSpain wrote in her post-op. “It’s fun interacting with other people and watching them enjoy your items.”

For those tracking the daily activity of these social media darlings, the draw goes far beyond the need for clothing. An Ingrid Goes West–esque relationship is not required for someone to shell out $12 for a pair of stained Madewell culottes that they might otherwise pass over on a Goodwill rack—just a bit of adoration and feigned digital familiarity. When Naomi Davis, a New York–based lifestyle blogger who runs the site Love Taza, auctioned off her clothing on Instagram in 2015, one fashion site alerted its readers to the sale, adding: “If nothing else, it’s amusing to see how much fangirls will pay for used clothes just because they touched the skin of Almighty Naomi.”

Beyond Instagram’s style-oriented community, well-followed figures in adjacent creative circles have also performed cleanouts, tailoring their sales to their audiences, however small or large. “Instagram friends! I am doing a major closet purge and am hoping to find good homes for the following!” Sadie Stein, an advisory editor to The Paris Review, announced to her some 3,000 followers on a post that featured old blouses. “You are lovely,” one follower commented. “I want to wear your wallpaper!” wrote another. For BuzzFeed senior tech writer Doree Shafir, selling her clothing on Instagram was less an act of lip service to her audience than it was an opportunity to confront the various personas reflected in her belongings and, in true journalistic spirit, turn it into content. “My clothes made me feel like a stranger to myself; they represented a previous version of me. Doree v. 3.10.4, or something,” she recently wrote in her newsletter. “I felt less like I was Kondo-ing and more like I was molting. ... I'm still myself, but I'm shedding some old feathers and growing some new ones.”

Before a platform like Instagram, any personal growth that came with sorting through your closet was likely lost in the drab fine print of an obscure internet listing. (And before the internet, without a cash benefit or the lift of selling to your social circle.) Now, whether your social network is the size of a sorority or a small country, the truth remains: Whatever you’re selling, chances are someone’s buying.