By Samantha Melamed FOR THE INQUIRER

There are full closets. There are messy closets. And then, there’s Donna Moskowitz’s closet.

The Cherry Hill art teacher, mother of four, Orthodox Jew, and confessed shopaholic wears a lot of hats – literally – not to mention vibrantly hued skirts, blouses, and more than 100 pairs of shoes. Add to that a pack-rat compulsion to hoard beloved possessions, and Moskowitz’s closets, garages, under-the-bed bins, and dressers are overflowing.

“I can’t even get to the back of myclosetor the top of it,” Moskowitz, 53, wrote in her winning bid for Style & Soul’s Messiest Closet Contest, which earned her a session with organization specialist Carol Seelaus.

“I just had hip-replacement surgery and am scared of tripping over this mess, plus I am incapable of picking it all up right now.Shoes, hats, and clothes are spilling out into our small room.Please help!”

Seelaus, of Bala Cynwyd, came to the rescue with common sense, universally applicable organization tips, and an analytic approach to getting a closet in order.

Having organized everything from an author’s notes for a novel-length manuscript to the closets of wheelchair-bound residents at Philadelphia’s Inglis House, Seelaus is something of an authority on order. She says the crucial first step to defying entropy is figuring out what drives a client’s habits.

The way Moskowitz tells it, her main problem is overload.

“I have four different wardrobes: my work clothes [for teaching art], my synagogue clothes, my play clothes, and my normal clothes,” she said. “There are my fat clothes and my skinny clothes, and the clothes that I think will be coming back into style. And then there are winter clothes and summer clothes.”

But things went from bad to impossible when a nasty car crash left her needing hip surgery in September, and the mess continued to pile up during her recovery.

Still, Seelaus said Moskowitz’ issue is deeper. On the quiz Seelaus administers to her clients, “Donna scored a perfect 100 percent on the ‘pack rat’ category.”

Moskowitz, whose garage is filled with furniture her children may want someday, acknowledged that trait. She says it stems from the fact that, as an art teacher, she can see potential in just about anything. “When I look at all the stuff we have here,” she said, “I can’t imagine having to give anything up.”

That’s where Seelaus comes in.The diagnostic quiz, taken from Sunny Schlenger’s book, How to Be Organized in Spite of Yourself, “helps me set up things the way the client wants them to be, not how I deem it should be,” she said.

Once the diagnosis is made, most closet makeovers proceed in a similar fashion.

First, label four boxes: “Trash,” “donate or sell,” “fix,” and “storage.”

Then, remove everything from the closet and separate out what Seelaus calls the “toxic” items – things that you know don’t fit, are out of style, or need mending – placing them in the appropriate boxes. Then, process each box according to its label, storing or disposing of what can’t be sold, donated, or mended.

Next,Seelaus suggests that pack-rat types take”emotional withdrawal” allowances for items with sentimental value.”That’s really important to people,” she said. “It’s the memoriesand the happiness and whatever is associated with the clothes. It’s not the clothing; it’s what the clothing represents.”

Try onthe remaining clothes and hang what fits back in the closet.

At this point, Seelaus said, you can buy any supplies you need, in the form of hangers, bins, and shelves. (The Container Store in Cherry Hill donated wooden hangers, hatboxes, bins, and shoe racks to the closet contest project.) Seelaus urges do-it-yourselfers to jettison flimsy and broken hangers and multitiered ones that get heavy and tangled – all major culprits in Moskowitz’s disorganization. Above all, abide by the words of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest: “No wire hangers!”

A day before Seelaus commandeered her closet, Moskowitz was adamant: “Even though it seems disorganized to somebody else, I know where everything is.”

But after unearthing her mother’s forgotten formal wear, her own Girl Scout uniform from 1972, and nine Hawaiian shirts and three moth-eaten suits belonging to her husband, she had a change of heart.

By the end of the session, her winter clothes were in storage in the basement and garage; her skirts were separated for synagogue, play, and work; and her tops were sorted into T-shirts and blouses, long- and short-sleeve. Suits and outfits went into a separate section, emotional withdrawal items were tucked in back, shoes went into cloth sleeves – not plastic, which Seelaus says makes shoes smell – and Moskowitz’s 25 summer hats were arranged by color in hatboxes.

Now, said Seelaus, it’s up to Moskowitz to stick with it. The key: “She can’t hang anything new in this closet until she parts with something she has.”

Starting the process, Moskowitz said,”made me think a lot about why I save things the way I do. I already attacked my linen closet and got rid of a lot of stuff. Now, I want to do a closet a week.”

Her husband, Bob, meanwhile, is looking forward to more immediate benefits.

The worst by-product of the clutter was “when we’re going out, and Donna says, ‘I know what I want to wear’ – and she’s still looking for it an hour later,” he said. “Now, she’ll be able to see everything, and we’ll be able to get out on time.”

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