Why We Buy Clothes We Like And End Up With A Wardrobe We Hate
Illustration by Mr Simon Landrein
The divide between who you are and who you want to be is never more evident than when you’re staring at a wardrobe full of things that you hate. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more potent symbol of squandered opportunity or unfulfilled potential than all those clothes, hanging limply and collecting dust. Garments that, at some point, you spent time pondering over – perhaps even loving – before ultimately deciding to buy. How did they then make the jump from intentional purchase to reminder of some sort of failure? What does that failure say about us? And who among us hasn’t been there?
There’s a reason why the popular refrain “a closet full of clothes and nothing to wear” can feel so damn frustrating. Clothing can seem glib, but it’s the physical manifestation of something much deeper, says Dr Carolyn Mair, a behavioural psychologist and author of The Psychology Of Fashion. “Fashion is all about the identity you would like to portray,” she says. “However, sometimes, our nerves get the better of us and we don’t feel confident enough to wear the piece we bought.”
As Mair points out, it’s not just a T-shirt or jeans or pair of shoes staring back at you from the clothes cupboard, but the ghost of some idealised version of yourself. That’s why falling short of that can feel so profoundly disheartening, even enraged.
The reasons so many of us feel frustrated when getting dressed can be manifold – and afflict those who like fashion, hate it or are even indifferent to it. “We buy fashion because we love or struggle with it,” Mair says. “Those who struggle with it might buy clothes to help them feel good about themselves. They might be unaccepting of their body shape and buy clothes that don’t fit well in the belief that they will fit when they reach their target weight. Those who love it might buy more than they really want to on a whim and then regret it.”
“Ultimately, our wardrobe needs to reflect our lifestyle. We can and should feel good in our clothes and have the items that facilitate the outcomes we hope for”
Dr Dawnn Karen, a fashion psychologist and author of the book Dress Your Best Life, says that this aggravation may be the result of something called decision fatigue. Also known as the “paradox of choice”, it’s the idea that more options actually cause us to feel less satisfied with our ultimate selection, which “leaves us overwhelmed and paralysed and you make decisions you later regret.” (Conversely, it’s why a supermarket such as Trader Joe’s, which severely limits its variety of products, is often a much more rewarding shopping experience.)
Karen also says that an overstuffed closet can scratch the primordial “fight or flight” instinct in our brains where we react to stressful stimuli (ie, a messy closet filled with stuff you don’t like) with the desire to either confront it aggressively or run away from it completely. Either way, you might find your pulse spiking the next time you are confronted with your bulging, chaotic wardrobe.
How does one avoid this fate – or correct it? Well, a whole industry has popped up to help. It’s the reason why Japanese minimalist lifestyle guru Ms Marie Kondo took the world by storm a few years ago. She embodies the promise that minimalism and decluttering will somehow set us free from regret and disappointment, and that by shedding our extraneous belongings we can become more aligned with a higher version of ourselves. And yet, look closely enough and you’ll find that even her technique acknowledges how much emotional weight clothing can carry. Her method of decluttering treats them like beloved friends, asking that participants hug their belongs to see if they “spark joy” and, if they do not, she advises that they then thank them, literally, before sending them on their way.
To combat Closet-Hate Syndrome, both Mair and Karen had actionable “prescriptions”. Karen, for example, had a wonderfully simple technique: delay your purchase. Should you be interested in buying an article of clothing online, put it in your shopping cart and leave it there for a few days. If it is still on your mind a few days later, you can buy it with the confidence that you’ve passed “impulse buy” territory. “But the chances are, you’ll forget about it,” she says.
Mair, meanwhile, proposes doing a little mental role play when purchasing an item. “I would suggest asking yourself if you’d be confident enough to walk into, or across, a room full of people in it,” she said. “Can you sit comfortably in it? Is the fabric comfortable and not transparent where it shouldn’t be? Is it appropriate for the occasion – like an interview versus workplace, date or party?”
“Clearing out items that we haven’t worn for ages or that no longer fit is a good start as it enables us to see what we already have”
“Once it’s been bought, I’d suggest boosting confidence by trying it on a few times,” she says. “Moving and sitting in it, and asking friends for their honest opinion, before the occasion you had in mind when you bought it.”
Karen talks about “styling from the inside out” as a way to address a clothing rut. That idea breaks down into two main theories, the first being “mood illustration dress” or wearing clothes that visually express how you feel inside (baggy clothes when you’re feeling unattractive, for instance, or all black to go unnoticed) versus dopamine dressing or mood-enhancement dressing, which is wearing clothes that will “optimise and elevate your current emotional state” (like wearing a garment that makes you feel confident when you’re meeting new people or a “lucky” garment on the day of a big interview).
As with all types of psychology, there is not “one size fits all” approach, but advice would be given depending on the situation and patient’s disposition. But simply being aware of your modus operandi can help you make smarter purchases.
“Ultimately, our wardrobe needs to reflect our lifestyle,” Mair says. “We can and should feel good in our clothes and have the items that facilitate the outcomes we hope for. When we shop for fashion, we need to consider what we already have in our wardrobes.”
Mair also suggests that an actionable response to closet hate is a good old-fashioned purge. “Clearing out items that we haven’t worn for ages or that no longer fit is a good start as it enables us to see what we already have,” she says.
As we gently exit a trying couple of years, Karen says that we should be gentle with ourselves and be open to the idea that we may be very different people than we were in, say, March 2020. That’s OK. Now, as we – fingers crossed – leave the traumas of a pandemic behind us, we can and should be open to a new version of ourselves to emerge.
“There was a shift during the pandemic,” she says. “You got a chance to wear what you want to wear. Even if you had to follow the rules at the top, because you’re on a Zoom, on the bottom you could wear what you want to wear. So, what I would tell someone is to feel free.”