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Tracey Cleantis

Tracey Cleantis, LMFT


Naked Therapy: Seeing Through the Sartorial Signifiers of Our Shrinks

Is therapy best done with "naked" therapists?

In my education and training in post-Freudian theory, I hear my professors talk a lot about the importance of going into sessions naked. As I have a highly visual imagination, I am always taken aback by that metaphor. It has the same impact on me as the so-called remedy for stage fright (the unnerving suggestion to “imagine the audience as naked”). Picturing either of these, I go speechless and feel the need to hand out robes to those whose nudity I created. But I get the point. In our work as therapists, we have to be honest, authentic and not hiding ourselves in armor; that said, it is possible to be emotionally honest and still wear a nice pair of trousers or dress.

To the other extreme, in an article I recently read by John Klauber, “Elements of the Psychoanalytic Relationship,” Klauber reminds the reader that there was a time when analysts wore white coats when they saw their patients, “no doubt in an effort to protect themselves.” Protect them from what, exactly? My imagination went into overdrive as I read about these psychoanalysts who used white coats as a protective coating. Did this blank-blazer of sterility differentiate the analyst from his or her analysand? Did this sartorial signifier say, “You are infected and I am pure. I am an authority and you are not.” Or were they just fearing that they might get some sticky projective identification on their shirt and the white coat kept them clean, safe and warm? It is also a clear identification with the medical model. Is there any image of psychology more prevalent and lacking in warmth than the archetypal men in white coats?

I told my analyst (who eschews white coats in favor of well-cut black wool trousers, dark merino sweaters and Bruno Magli lace-up oxfords) about these analysts in white coats. He affirmed that he had seen pictures of early analysts in white coats. He went on to tell me how Kleinian analysts tend to dress like business-men: suits, dress shirts and ties. The unconscious aspect of this sartorial signifier suggests they are switching out of the medical model but still are working towards differentiating themselves from their patients, and want to make it clear that they are the ones in power.

As therapists, our wardrobes may be imparting more information about us than our interpretations. What is it we communicate to our clients by the way we dress? How does our unconscious enter the analytic suite in terms of our sartorial self-expression? Do our clothing choices help or hurt our ability to come into the work “naked”? I know that I remember the wardrobe of each therapist I have ever seen and my fantasies about what their wardrobe revealed about who they really are.

Therapist #1, who I saw when I was ten, wore a stuffy mix of tweeds, Pendleton knits, bland plaids and orthopedic shoes. I have long wondered if under all that comfort and conformity was some sizzling hot lingerie. Her therapy involved many superego-like suggestions; she was forever teaching me about etiquette and rules and order. She was also a bit obsessed with sex. She was forever asking me about fantasies and/or masturbation (which seemed very strange and inappropriate to my ten-year-old self). I do, in retrospect, wonder what was under her superego suits.

I saw Therapist #2 when I was in my early 20’s. She was an intern fresh out of grad school. Her wardrobe was a bit Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians: prairie skirts and shawls and beads and natural fibers. Her hippy-dippy ways found their way into our therapy. She was constantly suggesting we do guided meditations and relaxation exercises. I should have known by her hemp handbag that we weren’t going to be a good fit.

I feel sure that if Hippy-Dippy therapist continues to practice today, her style might have morphed into the very popular style of therapist as the archetype of healer or shaman--this is a very popular style of dress for therapists that you would undoubtedly find at many a therapy conference. These therapists often wear flowing tunics, dresses and/or Eileen Fisher type separates, and a big, old honking archetypal accessory that implies ancient knowledge and access to the spiritual secrets of the psyche.

Therapist #3 dressed in a wardrobe of 1940’s vintage wear, formal suits in obscure colors and shoes that could not be found in any store. Her hair was up in rolls and twists that made her seem otherworldly, not of this time and place, which added to her mystery and allure; this appearance of “otherness” only amplified my transference. It was as if she was a Jungian time-traveler and, I can tell you, that we did a whole lot of time traveling through my past.

Therapist #4, a Jungian analyst that I saw for over 11 years, dressed in a uniform of conservative plaids and checkered dress shirts, warm sweaters, dependable trousers and brogues. Everything about his appearance read as academic, and truth be told, this analyst was made for a classroom. I always felt that he was lecturing me, and that he was better suited for a lecture hall than an analytic suite. This preppy professor aesthetic is related to another kind of therapist who dresses in a collegiate, grad school, haphazard manner that also sends the message that only the mind matters. Such Preppy Puers and Puellas might be eternally rejecting a grown-up wardrobe in favor of clothes of an earlier age of development.

In my own practice as a therapist, I can see how my wardrobe has changed as I have changed as a therapist. When I worked with children, I didn’t want to appear too formal, and chose colors and prints that might appeal to children. I also chose fabrics that allowed me freedom of movement for play therapy. When I began to see adults or do intakes, I dressed more professionally. And I know that when I was a pre-licensed intern, I dressed even more professionally as an attempt to compensate for my pre-licensed status--authority and structure through attire (maybe my version of a white coat). Now I dress as I always do, a lot like my own therapist: in classic, timeless, and enduring styles. I add a charm bracelet or, as I mentioned in “Nina Garcia Goes to Therapy,” a leopard pump. It is a way, I think, to say that I am serious and yet have a sense of humor and fun.

At the end of my last session, my analyst asked me what I would make of a therapist who wanted to wear jeans and t-shirts to work in. I told him I would be horrified. He admitted that he did wish he could wear more comfortable clothes to work in. I told him to stop telling me about this. The truth is that I need him to be a person who doesn’t even own jeans and a t-shirt. He asked me why I would be so horrified. I replied, “I guess it would mean to me that you weren’t taking your work seriously. That you have less respect for the process.” “But,” he defended, “it wouldn’t change the work I did at all.” “But it would for me,” I explained. “I know,” he answered, “and it would for others and that is why you will never see me dressed that way here.” I thanked him and tried to move the image of him in jeans out of my mind. It is going to take a session or two to do that.

Copyright 2010 Tracey Cleantis