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Wardrobe Is Lifestyle

Managing our clothing can influence our psychological well-being.

Key points

  • Clothing can offer environmental protection, evoke feelings of pleasure or pain, communicate to others, and express needs, passions, or identity.
  • Carol Ryff’s typology offers a useful framework for examining clothing as a tool for physical, psychological, and social well-being.
  • Those who study clothing and communication include the textile, apparel, and fashion industries, some psychologists, and ethologists.
Source: StockSnap/Pixabay

My closet used to be a simple source of convenience and pleasure for me. When we left to spend February into March 2020 in Paris, I expected seasons to change upon our return. Forsythia would be blooming. It would be time to launder parkas, put them away for the next year, and inventory sandals. I had packed carefully, aware that four pairs of slacks, two jackets, three sweaters, and some shirts could easily last the 35 days and nights. “Lingerie Mate” and “Hosiery Mate” would support limited underwear.

Today, the spring of 2022 is in full flower. The pandemic wreaked havoc with our activities and travel plans, and we now find ourselves radically rethinking our wardrobes — clothing we own, wear, feel guilt for having bought, want to donate to appropriate destinations, and might perhaps replace in coming months. After ignoring details of fashion, finances, changing bodies, pleasures and pains of shopping, and the repetitive wear of my closet’s contents, I needed to examine my clothes from a psychological perspective.

What did I wear and why? What clothing did I want and why? What in my wardrobe evoked negative feelings, whether from discomfort (would I ever again wear stilettos?), guilt (about that dress that I bought for a family celebration and wore once?), or resentment (why were those shirts taking up precious real estate in my closet when I consistently ignored them?) Even fear (would I be comfortable given weather possibilities?) or shame (would others laugh at the style — or lack of style — of what I was wearing?) were possible.

On the other hand, how did I use clothes to regulate my positive emotions? I had known for decades that I related to different fabrics, fibers, and textures in a visceral way. When counseling a client, I would sometimes rub the edges of a sweater, pat the leather on a skirt, or massage the edges of a favorite scarf. Clearly, touch was bringing me comfort, pleasure, or a signal for reflection, perhaps in counterbalance to a challenging moment in therapy. Or why did I choose a blue shirt one day and a white one on another one? My emotions had an agenda of their own regarding color, as noted by Dr. Robert Lanza!

Decades had created a chasm between an outfit I had once loved and my body as it had become.

Source: JillWellington/Pixabay

A print silk skirt with an irregular hem, camisole, and pink linen jacket no longer complemented my skin, hair color, or figure. It looked silly, in spite of continuing to fit my yoga-addicted body. Although beautiful and unique jewelry filled a drawer, I rarely wore any of it beyond earrings, preferring instead a scarf if the weather or color instincts called for one. Other outfits were simpler, more consistent with the person I had become, less involved in making a statement or creating an image or mood than in comfort and an expression of ease.

Scanning literature on clothing and psychology, I found that most research had been done from either a fashion, textile, consumer perspective, or from that of identity. The latter fell into two camps. One saw clothing as an expressive medium, one that paralleled art or movement, offering ways of announcing one’s being in the world. Choices, preferences, perhaps the colors, fit, or materials that one chose to wear, or the associations evoked—a preference for athletic wear by the skier or runner, of unconstructed clothing by a creative artist, or assembly of unique pieces by the person drawn to the unusual—became extensions of what created protection from the environment, positive emotions, even interpersonal communications.

The other camp focused on the social side of identity, that which announces one’s role(s) and positions in the social worlds one inhabits. Clothing can announce an affiliative (or not) identity, like a uniform does, or make statements of status (or its lack) within a specific group. As such, what we wear can influence hiring, promotion, and retention decisions by employers (see references) or make powerful statements about gender identity and availability. Period films reinforce these stereotypes just as contemporary ones challenge them.

So how do we decide what to keep and what to pass along? Using Carol Ryff’s typology of types of well-being, try these tips:

  • Examine your motivation: Do you want the item for comfort? (Self-Acceptance, perhaps also Environmental Mastery and Autonomy.) For the pleasure of an outfit and its flexibility in use? (Personal Growth.) Attachment to historical associations regardless of its current utility? (Purpose in Life being backward rather than forward-focused.) It was time to retire the threadbare and faded t-shirt my daughter had bought for me in Australia more than three decades ago.
  • Examine your emotional reactions to it: Does it bring you pleasure (Self Acceptance, Purpose in Life) and, if so, why? Are you responding to color, an unconscious neural emotional evocation demonstrated valid across cultural variations? Does the material bring sensual pleasure or is it associated with comfort or movement in the article?
  • Examine statements you are making to others: Are you saying “This is who I am” (Self-Acceptance, Autonomy, Purpose in Life) or “I belong to (for example) the active aging generation”? (Personal Growth, Positive Relations with Others) Are your clothes claiming status (Environmental Mastery, Personal Growth)? Or are you announcing affiliation, “I am a member of your group — by birth, by education, by occupation, by preferences, by experience, by passion”? (Positive Relations with Others). It was time to let go of (at least some) of the jackets bought by my professional self who had retired long ago.

If the pieces that are left bring you sensory pleasure, freedom of movement, and are a wardrobe that can take you to the places where you go and through activities you engage in, congratulate yourself. You have taken a giant step towards your own integrity and thus well-being through your choices. Remember, as a friend once reminded me: "Wardrobe is lifestyle."

Copyright 2022 Roni Beth Tower


Forsythe, Sandra M. (1990) Effect of Applicant’s Clothing on Interviewer’s Decision to Hire. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 20, 1579-1595.

Gurung, Regan A. R., Punke, Elizabeth, Brickner, Michaella, & Badalamenti, Vincenzio (2018). Power and provocativeness: The effects of subtle changes in clothing on perceptions of working women. The Journal of Social Psychology, 158:2, 252-255. DOI:10.1080/00224545.2017.1331991.

Ryff, C. D., & Keyes, C. L. M. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 719–727.