Our behaviors, which are often rooted in internal motivations, interact with the external world to receive reinforcement or punishment. In essence, the inside and the outside are inextricably linked and this feedback loop creates a constant conversation that informs all activities, from eating, sleeping, having sex... and dressing. Yes, I said it: dressing behaviors!
We often discount dress behaviors, which include buying clothes, storing items and creating ensembles, as nothing but fluff. We are "too enlightened" to lower ourselves to a consideration of mere fabric and buttons. But it is in the analysis of these items and behaviors surrounding them where insights about your inner workings are often found.
As a psychologist in a clinical setting, I find that the most useful discoveries I can make with patients are in the identification of patterns. Patterns of trauma or loss, patterns of interacting with others, or choosing a partner, and patterns of success and failure are some of the many reoccurring themes that inform psychological treatment. Although they are seemingly separate, my patient and I lift these events up through the surface only to reveal that they are connected below in a complicated, interwoven web. As a psychologist in a nonclinical consultation setting, identifying patterns of dress behavior are an essential part the "inside-out process."
During a wardrobe consultation with a client, we begin internally. Examining life goals, difficulties and areas that require improvement, and then we head to the closet. Here I determine what the wardrobe says about my client's behaviors and the internal motivations driving them. It is also here that we analyze and alter the external contents to facilitate an internal shift.
We often begin with assessing patterns of shopping behaviors. First, we identify triggers for shopping, such as shopping to eliminate boredom, to enhance positive emotions or to remove negative emotions. We also assess what items are purchased. I ask my client if she buys items that are similar, are already in her closet or are category specific. Then we identify the method of sale and means of purchase. This can include choosing full price or discounted items, using cash or credit, and saving for the item or impulsively spending recently acquired money. We also consider the influence of interpersonal relationships on shopping. This may include examining parental shopping behaviors, influences of friends, and familial constructs regarding money, spending and stuff.
After a thorough shopping analysis, we move to the patterns found in clothing storage. We assess the space to determine if storage issues are due to true limitations of the space or the client's organizational abilities. We also look at the patterns of storage. Are the clothes tossed on the floor or crammed in a drawer? Or is each piece wrapped carefully in tissue paper with a sachet? We also examine the utility and functionality of the pieces. Are they all worn? Are some worn all the time and others just stored? Are most of the items new or old? Do they have tags still attached? Are they purchased or are they given or second hand?
Finally, I examine the patterns of assembling an ensemble. We identify preferences for certain "looks." This process is often made easier if a client has kept a vision board or style file. We tend to buy or prefer the same looks year after year, tweaking slightly depending on the trends, climate, event, age or body type. I also assess errors, such as poor fit, age inappropriateness or lack of functionality. Details -- such as fabrics, colors, embellishments -- are considered. My client will create outfits, and through this process I learn the obstacles to dressing, from whom she learned to dress, for whom is she dressing, for what is she dressing and mistakes she is afraid to make when dressing.
Examining patterns in dress behaviors is a very mindful exercise. We can learn where certain motivations come from, how they help us, and how they hinder us. This examination can lead to a change in both the external appearance and the internal workings driving dress behaviors. But you will also find that these patterns are not limited to the closet. A client who has great difficulty in making dress decisions due to fears of failure may do this in other areas of her life. A client who dresses solely to attract or fulfill a partner, even when uncomfortable, may sacrifice the self, elsewhere. Similarly, in therapy, the difficulties in the treatment process are often indicative of the problems in the patient's life. For example, the patient who is consistently disorganized in making and keeping an appointment, paying for a service, maintaining records, or completing therapeutic homework is likely doing this outside of the session. The patient, who complies even when internally in disagreement, or who becomes angry and defensive in a neutral situation, will often respond likewise outside of therapy.
If you are satisfied with your methods of dress I am not speaking to you. But if you are feeling dissatisfied or curious about your dress behaviors, begin to examine your patterns of buying storing and assembling. You may find much more than clothes lurking in your closet!
Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner is the author of the new book "You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal about You" (Da Capo Lifelong Books).