Excerpt from Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner’s You Are What You Wear. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Discovering the Psychology of Dress Have you ever asked yourself, What was she thinking? after witnessing a fashion flub? Why, after losing so much weight, does a girl continue to wear her oversized sweat suit? Why does a fifty-year-old mom seem to have raided her teen daughter’s closet for leggings and a mini? If you think these are merely examples of fashion ignorance or style apathy, you are underestimating the real meaning behind our clothing choices. Our clothing is a reflection of what we are thinking and what we are feeling.

Often, wardrobe mishaps are simply our inner conflicts bubbling to the surface. Clothing is an extension of who we are. Much like a turtle with its shell, we tell the world the who, the what, the where, and the when of our lives by what we wear on our backs. When we shop for and wear clothing that reflects our best self, we must consider, consciously or unconsciously, our age, size, culture, and lifestyle. We either work with these aspects of ourselves or fight against them.

For example, continuing to buy the same size clothing when you have lost or gained significant weight works against the reality of your size. Shopping at the teen clothing store when you have turned forty or buying a floor-length frock at Chico’s when you are sixteen works against the reality of your age. Wearing hoodies to the office or mostly buying embellished clothing when you work at a manufacturing plant works against the reality of your lifestyle. Your shopping may support defense mechanisms that have been reinforced over time, and you may have stopped actively noticing whether or not your clothing choices make sense for you. Your clothes reveal more about your internal life than you may realize. Think of your closet as symptomatic.

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. Or maybe she chose these clothes because she doesn’t want to lose weight, doesn’t want to work out, and doesn’t want to stop eating junk food, but is afraid to admit it. Maybe the closet belongs to a mom who doesn’t wear nice clothes because she’s pressed for time, but who might have to take notice of her failing marriage if she were less busy. Maybe the overly youthful clothing in a closet indicates a thirtysomething who finds the experience of seeing wrinkles and a couple of gray hairs just too painful to bear. Or maybe she’s holding on to her past because she hasn’t accomplished her goals in the present. And some of our issues go far deeper than in these examples. We’re clothing accumulators with anxiety, compulsive shoppers struggling with addiction, or frumpy dressers who suffer from depression. Our closets are windows into our internal selves.

Every one of us attempts to say or hide something in the way we wear our clothes. But few of us can articulate what we’re trying to express or locate the root of the pattern, the pathos.

Having had a history of working in fashion, Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, a psychologist, was always fascinated by the internal reasons for our clothing choices. She decided to blend both of her passions to create a new way examining what we wear, the Psychology of Dress. In addition to running her wardrobe consulting business, InsideOut, Dr. B specializes in the treatment of mood, anxiety, substance, and eating disorders. Her focus of clinical research is exercise adherence, nutrition, and psychological wellness among children and adults with obesity.

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