Published March 05, 2012
Often when people wake up in the morning, one of the first questions they ask themselves is, “What should I wear today?”
You may be guilty of it, too – male or female – standing in front of your closet for what seems like a lifetime, agonizing over which outfit will look the best, convey the right message or hide those extra pounds.
Jennifer Baumgartner, a psychologist, knows these feelings all too well.
As she worked toward her Ph.D., Baumgartner followed in her grandmother’s footsteps by working in retail and styling people’s wardrobes. She discovered what she was learning in psychology classes, was happening in dressing rooms.
“I have always been interested in fashion, style, and the way people dress,” Baumgartner said. “I felt clothing was wearable art and was fascinated that as wearers, we interact with the art and the artist (the designer). I was also intrigued by the internal process that influenced dressing behaviors (shopping, putting together an outfit, storing, wearing, not wearing, etc.”
While working on her dissertation, Baumgartner began writing ‘psychology of dress’ ideas in a book format. She eventually was offered her own blog, “The Psychology of Dress,” by Psychology Today – and this led to her most recent book, You Are What You Wear – What Your Clothes Reveal About You.
Q: Describe the connection between psychology and dressing for success.
A: Obviously, if you are well-dressed, you are going to feel better about yourself. We always hear that dressing a certain way makes us feel a certain way, but what we don't hear is that the way we dress is the way we feel. Yes, we can dress stylishly, and this will impact our feelings of our success, but I think it is more important to analyze the internal reasons we are not dressing successfully in the first place. If we can identify why we are not enhancing the self externally, we can make those internal changes, which leads to successful dressing. These reasons may include fears of failure, discomfort with standing out, lack of time/self-care, etc. When we can change these things, dressing successfully is, well, far more successful.
Q: Clothes and what you buy can also be a look into a person’s mind – case in point, “Tessa,” a well-dressed woman who had shopped her way into debt, who you describe in your book. Can you explain further?
A: All of our behaviors, from the food we eat to the men we date, are motivated by internal factors. Now, of course these internal factors are influence by our upbringing, environmental stressors, etc; but they are internalized, and choices are born from this place. Why is it any different with the clothes buy and the way we buy them? All you need to do is track your shopping habits, or note the styles in your wardrobe to identify the patterns. Once you know what your patterns are, decide if they are helping or hindering you, where they come from, and what drives them. It is then that you can make real change, and find a wardrobe to match the new and improved you.
Q: There’s a certain truth in retail therapy, isn’t there?
A: Absolutely, guilty as charged! Shopping can enhance positive emotions. We often reward ourselves with a purchase. We also use shopping as a social activity. It can also remedy negative emotions, such as loneliness, boredom, insecurity, feeling like we don't measure up, financial stressors, etc. Unfortunately, the feel-good chemicals released from shopping are temporary, so one must continue to shop to reap the benefits. This can lead to an addictive cycle, where shopping continues despite negative outcomes (such as debt, lack of storage space).
I use shopping therapeutically after I deal with all the internal gunk that I find in a client's closet, so the purchases are based on need and are used to enhance the new understanding of the self.
Q: Why is it so difficult for a person to ‘let go’ of a piece of clothing – for example, that bridesmaid’s dress you will never wear again?
A: Nostalgia is the ultimate closet clutter enabler. Holding onto clothes becomes acceptable when it has become a vessel for an important memory (the old boyfriend) or former self (the size 2 cheerleader). We often infuse our stuff with the spirit of a moment in time, associating the tangible with the intangible. Our old bridesmaid dress becomes the object upon which we project our internal experience that we have yet to recognize in ourselves. What we fail to recognize is that we are the embodiment of our experience.
Q: “Business-casual” has become so popular in offices these days. What do you think about that?
A: Your outfit must enhance your ability to do your job. Anything that is physically uncomfortable like 8-inch heels or a skin-tight skirt, are not going to help you do your best work. Anything that works against the image of your company or profession, such as ripped jeans and a stained shirt during a public appearance, will not enhance your ability either. You also must consider the message you are sending to your client. If I show up to work having rolled out of bed, I am telling my client "I just don't care."
Finally, you must consider the impact your clothes have on your success. If you want to be recognized for your accomplishments, is your outfit a distracter? If you want to receive a promotion, are you dressing like the boss? Your wardrobe is one more tool you can use to launch your career, so use it wisely.
Q: Ultimately, what does a person’s clothes reveal about them?
A: It can tell me about family patterns, cultural influences, peer pressures, environmental stressors, financial behaviors, self-concept and body perception. Your clothes reveal what is really going on internally. Your thoughts and feelings are laid bare in the closet; you just have to look for them.