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Publication Date : 28-01-2013
Psychologist explores how changing one’s wardrobe can change life
Just like the way we talk and act, how we dress tells a lot about us. It reflects our personal history, status, taste and desire.
“We must put up with our clothes as they are ― they have their reason for existing,” Mark Twain once said. “They are on us to expose us ― to advertise what we wear them to conceal. They are a sign; a sign of insincerity; a sign of suppressed vanity; we put them on to propagate that lie and back it up.”
American psychologist Jennifer Baumgartner’s book “You Are What You Wear” explores how changing or improving one’s wardrobe can in fact change one’s life. A Korean-language edition of the book, “The Psychology of Dress”, hit the local bookstores recently.
According to Baumgartner, clothing is an “extension of who we are”. The book is based on the scholar’s real-life experience running her own wardrobe consulting business, which consists of visiting her clients’ homes, examining their wardrobes, and even shopping with them to diagnose their life or internal problems reflected in their choice of clothes.
“Think of your closet as symptomatic,” writes the scholar. “Every item in your wardrobe is the consequence of a deeper, unconscious choice. A closet full of baggy, shapeless clothes might belong to a woman who, underneath it all, is embarrassed about carrying extra weight. Perhaps she wears oversized clothes to cover the body she hates, to hide the shame she experiences, and to thwart criticism from others.”
Long before she started her wardrobe consulting business, the scholar worked as a sales associate at Ralph Lauren, while pursuing a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. At the store, she ran into an attractive woman in her 40s, who was looking for something to wear for Christmas. She tried on almost every item in the store, but complained that nothing “worked” for her. But to Baumgartner’s eyes, the woman looked good in almost everything she tried on.
“Considering that everything in the store actually did work for her quite well, I knew that this general dissatisfaction had nothing to do with the clothing,” she writes in the book.
“After some questioning, I discovered that my customer was completely confused about her identity. Doubt and frustration poured out with her tears as she attempted to find answers. She did not know if she was old or young, mother or wife, modern or out-dated, attractive or past her prime, and therefore she did not know what clothes worked for her. Although she eventually bought an outfit that day, she promptly returned it.”
The book introduces a number of cases, including a woman who is obsessed with brand-name clothes, a woman who only wears revealing items, and a woman who keeps all of her old clothes in the closet. All of Baumgartner’s clients are interesting characters with complex stories, and the book offers an entertaining analysis of the psychology behind their wardrobe choices.
Kate, for example, was on the verge of losing her job when she sought help. Her boss asked her to dress more appropriately, and that if she continues to wear her too-sexy-for-work attire, she’d have to fire her. The 26-year-old would wear the same kind of clothes to work, church, dinner and clubbing, and enjoyed the attention she got from men. Kate thought she looked her best in these items, and did not understand why other people would call the clothes “inappropriate”. She was also having a hard time forming a long-term relationship with anyone.
Through Baumgartner’s intelligent observations, readers learn about Kate’s past and its effect on her present-day wardrobe. As a young girl, Kate had a difficult time getting used to a body that was “overdeveloped” for her age; she’d be often called as “the girl with big boobs” by her classmates.
“‘Your body was made just for sex’ was one of the many crude comments that haunted Kate,” writes the scholar. “She coped with this objectification the best way she knew how ― by, ironically, exaggerating her sexuality.”
By working with Baumgartner, Kate eventually learned to dress more appropriately for her work and lifestyle. Her boss congratulated her on the improvements to her attire, and she gained more confidence at work.
“Kate admitted that it did take her some time to ‘turn down the volume’ and get used to the ‘decreased stares,’” writes Baumgartner. “But after just a few weeks, Kate discovered that the quality of attention she received was far more important than the quantity.”
Meanwhile, Mary, who would only buy designers, had a “classic identity crisis” ― using someone else’s name to prove her worth.” The woman worked at a designer retail store, and her job was to assist “impeccably dressed women” to “casually spend thousands of dollars on a pair of pants or a sweater.” Though she could not afford their lifestyle, Mary started buying the expensive items as well. She’d only purchase the items with designer logos printed on them, because it was the logos made her feel like “she is somebody.” She was in heavy debt.
“Mary didn’t wear logos and designer duds because she liked the designers or liked the pieces,” writes Baumgartner. “She wore these items to make others value her and ultimately find value within her that she did not believe she inherently deserved.”
Just like Kate, Mary also learned about the internal reasons behind her wardrobe choices, and used the opportunity to reorganise her life ― including her personal finances.
Baumgartner writes that creating the wardrobe you want is very much like creating the life you want. It requires learning about your past, your body, your finances, as well as your desires. The items that don’t match your lifestyle, especially, can be a sign that requires your attention, the scholar says.
“If you are keeping items because you might need them one day, consider this a signal that there are unresolved areas in your life and it’s time for change,” she says. “Listen to your clothes ― they are talking to you. Your closet whispers.”