Does your wardrobe need therapy?
When you open the doors to your wardrobe, how do you feel? For most people, whether they realise it or not, the response is usually a highly emotional one. Excitement at spotting something fun you just bought; amusement over a sparkly dress you wore to a party a decade ago; sadness at the jeans that always make you feel lumpy; a pang of grief every time you see a cardigan your grandma knitted; guilt over the coat you couldn't really afford that still has the tags on; panic that none of these things go together today. It is a complex bundle of feelings, stirred just by seeing a rail of clothes.
"A closet is a very vulnerable space," explains Annmarie O'Connor, a "wardrobe wellness" coach who helps clients assess the emotional balance of what's in their cupboards and spot trigger items that could be causing unhappiness. "It's typically in the most intimate room of your house, your bedroom, and its contents are loaded with memories. So many women put themselves through unnecessary torture by starting each day looking at clothes that make them feel negative, which can have an impact on their mood for the rest of the day."
“What we wear is a big part of our identities, so items of clothing can become symbols of hope or despair.”Credit:Shutterstock
Wardrobe wellness is a relatively new concept in the world of personal styling, but its premise is very simple and the results of a "cleanse" can be transformative. One woman O'Connor meets may hold on to a dress that once made her feel sexy or powerful in the hope that she will recreate the way she felt. Another may keep pieces that are now too small for her, with an intention of losing weight to wear them again.
We keep things because we feel guilty for not wearing them enough, or because we feel ashamed that our bodies have changed. We keep things because they remind us of our parents, or our friends, or our former selves before a life-changing event like having children, or being ill.
"It's called essentialism," explains Professor Carolyn Mair, cognitive psychologist and author of The Psychology of Fashion. "It's the idea that the essence of an object is no longer about its physical properties or function, it's about associations.
"So, who or what does the object remind you of? It happens when a powerful set of emotions take over to form a unique attachment."
With clothes, it could be as simple as knowing that a blouse reminds you of your mother, so you feel you must keep it."
Having an attachment to a skirt is one thing, but if sadness becomes the overriding feeling when you look at it, is it necessary to keep the triggering item in a place where you have to face it every day?
"When someone has clinical depression, they're not usually interested in their appearance at all," says Mair. "But grief, or feeling down, old, fat or disinterested in ourselves – those are feelings which can be linked to what's in our wardrobes and which are amplified when we see or wear things that upset us.
"What we wear is a big part of our identities, so items of clothing can become symbols of hope or despair." The key, according to experts, is to learn how to separate clothes from the things you think they represent.
"You need to live in the present, not the past or the future," says Annmarie O'Connor. "Things that symbolise the past are preventing you from engaging with the present.
"I worked with a woman who had been unwell and gone from a size 8 to a 16. She had recovered and settled at a size 12, but she was holding on to clothes in both of the other sizes just in case she went either way.
"It was like a mean girl in her closet, taunting her that she didn't fit into these pieces and presenting her with a daily problem: she couldn't easily pick out an outfit that she could wear today. Why loathe and punish your current self in this way?"
Removing clothes that don't suit you from your daily equation is certainly not a sign of defeat, or that you will never lose weight if that is your intention. But the sense of clarity gained by opening the doors to a wardrobe of things that all fit you, with the knowledge that you could put on any of the outfits in front of you right now and feel great, is mentally empowering and confidence-boosting.
Furthermore, you'll carry the positive feelings with you into the day ahead. Hannah Almassi, editorial director of fashion site whowhatwear.com, says the easiest way to make the emotional separation is to start with a physical one: out of sight, out of mind.
"I'm sentimental about clothes, so I have a lot in storage," she says. "No one likes to not fit into their favourite pieces, but I also take joy in simply owning certain items, like a vintage Aquascutum pencil skirt or a 1970s racer-striped jumpsuit. I can't squeeze into either of them today, but they are my little pieces of personal history
"For me, wardrobe wellness is about recognising what it is that can make you feel confident, centred and ready to take on the day – today."
Mair agrees that the key is to know which are your everyday clothes and which you should store as keepsakes.
"I've hung on to one or two pieces from when I went clubbing in my 20s, as to me they represent a time in my life that was so fun and spontaneous," she says. "But life is different now, in a great way, and I acknowledge that my clubbing days have passed.
"Crucially, I keep those pieces in a box that is well away from my current wardrobe, so they don't have an impact on my daily mood in any way. Every now and again I can just get them out, smile, remember and think, 'What the hell was I wearing?' "
HOW TO BOOST YOUR WARDROBE WELLNESS
Your wardrobe should only contain the clothes that you wear now.
Anything that represents the past – or the future – should be stored somewhere else.
Ask yourself: what is a real keepsake?
Wedding dresses or family heirlooms might hold enough personal value to warrant holding on to, but a photograph might sufficiently bring back the memories for something less important, like an old party dress.
Treat keepsake items as artefacts, not clothes.
Find an appropriate long-term storage solution, such as vacuum-packing or wrapping them in acid-free paper, to preserve favourite pieces.
Ask yourself which pieces in your wardrobe represent optimism.
Be aware of the clothes that make you feel good when you put them on, and make sure you wear them regularly. Don't save them for "best" days.
You don't have to throw things away immediately.
You can keep them out of sight to get them out of your mind.
Assess your "wardrobe wellness" regularly.
This is far more effective than an annual cull.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale March 24.
Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph (UK)
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