5 Signs Your Wardrobe is a Symptom of Distress and What to do About it

I’ve always loved clothes. I still remember my first favorite dress given to me as a gift for my 5th birthday. It was deep red and white, and very fluffy. I felt like a princess in it. Even then I reveled in the power of clothes as a transformative force that can make me feel like my most amazing self. Fast forward to my college years, and clothes had become a hallmark of my self-expression. I didn’t use it as much to fit in as I used it to stand out. Through clothing I could express my individuality, my awareness of trends, and my willingness to mix it all up to create my own sense of style. I even became more aware of the therapeutic benefits of clothing. I remember many years ago, feeling really anxious about giving a class presentation, and my roommate told me if I put together a nice outfit, it can ease my nerves. So I wore a sensible, stylish pencil skirt, and layered on a bunch of pearl necklaces. I felt like a lady who lunched with a touch of rebellion. And although I was still nervous, the outfit helped me feel more prepared, and I got an A! But dressing up isn’t always the cure for a restless mood. Sometimes dressing down does the trick. I find that dressing moody (e.g., ripped up jeans and a t-shirt) when you feel moody is as much of a pick-me-up as a bluesy jazz song.

On the other hand, there are times when clothing becomes a symptom of poor mood and distress rather than a prescription for it. As Jennifer Baumgartner says in her book You Are What You Wear, your clothes reveal more about you than you may realize, and each item signifies a deeper, unconscious choice. When your clothes become a sign of your distress it is a signal to make some internal changes. No, changing yourself on the outside won’t always fix what’s going on, on the inside. And as a counseling psychologist, I’m well aware of the need for people to make internal changes a priority. But aside from having to deal with deeper-seated emotional issues, working on the outside with a little guidance, can be an impetuous to get your internal self in order. There are numerous signs that your clothing is telling you to make some inner changes. Here are five indicators below and what to do about them.

1. One Too Many Regretful Purchases

Most of us have experienced a regretful purchase. The one we made when we were rushing to pick up the kids or to get to an appointment. Or, the one we made because we were so excited about it that we didn’t really stop to think it isn’t practical or not very comfortable. While a few regretful clothing purchases are to be expected, it is problematic when it becomes a pattern. That’s when you regret nearly every purchase, maybe because you aren’t sure it’s right for you, or you’ve concluded  it definitely isn’t right and do not see yourself wearing it. I remember when I was searching for a well-made jumpsuit--one I could wear for a long time, but wasn’t able to find one in my price range.  So one day when I was rushing with my daughter, and had no business shopping for anything, I went into a store and came across this multi-colored, animal print, patterned jumpsuit. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I bought it without much thought. The fit was workable, but the pattern and colors were overly trendy and not long-lasting. As I got home and tried it on, I knew it was the wrong choice, and never wore it.

When we habitually make regretful purchases, it’s a sign that we are not clear about what we are looking for, and may have a poor sense of our individual style or what enhances us.  This makes us vulnerable to gimmicks or glitzy sales tactics (e.g., half-off sales, looks great on the model) which only reinforces our regretful purchases. But through my jumpsuit purchase, I learned two things. One, don’t go clothes shopping with a new baby. And two, regretful purchases can actually teach us something about our style. For me, the colors and pattern of the jumpsuit were wrong and I felt more comfortable with a simpler one that functioned as a staple in my wardrobe. As Tess Whitehurst says in her book Magical Fashionista, clothes should fit your unique message and energy. What energy or vibe do you give off? Simple or fussy? Edgy or girly? Colorful or brooding? Somewhere in between? For me, it might change depending upon how I’m feeling that particular day. But if you aren’t sure, let regretful purchases guide you towards understanding more about your sense of style.

2. You are a Slave to Trends

I enjoy fashion trends and love to follow them. Being aware of trends helps us to be attuned to shifts that are occurring in fashion and design, and gives us the opportunity to re-evaluate our personal style so we can decide whether we want to accommodate to those shifts.  But being attuned to trends and being dependent on them are very different. Trends are fresh and exciting, and it can be easy to get swept up in the hype of it all. If you blindly follow fashion trends without considering how those trends enhance or detract from your personal style, you might be relying on trends for security and approval without ever really finding your unique style. Studies show that those who use clothes to make the right impression feel good about themselves when they are satisfied with their clothes, but have a poor self-perception when they are dissatisfied. This is why it is important for YOU to make the clothes rather than have the clothes make you.

To minimize the chances that you will be overly dependent on trends, do an assessment on your wardrobe. Are most of your clothes staple pieces, trendy—lasting one or two seasons, or some mixture of both? If you want to build a wardrobe that you do not have to change out every season be sure to have more staple pieces than trendy ones, and be selective about the trends you buy. There have been times when I searched long and hard for a trendy item, and for good reason when I felt I found something fabulous that fits me. But there have also been times, as with the jumpsuit fiasco I mentioned, I’ve jumped at a trend without really thinking about whether it works on me or not. And even if I like it at first, I usually tire of it quickly. Before buying the next big trend, consider what message you want to convey to the world through your clothes? Then assess the trend(s) you’re considering. Will it enhance the message you want to convey? Or does it just show that you’re trendy.

3. Your Closet Stays in Disarray

An organized closet can make the mornings feel so simple and smooth, especially when your outfit is on the hanger waiting for you to grab it and go. On the other hand, a messy closet can make the mornings feels disorganized and rushed, especially if you have to sift through piles of clothes to get what you want. And usually you can’t find what you want which then leads to the inevitable “I have nothing to wear!”  Never mind that you have tons of tops, skirts, and pants that you at one time or another loved enough to buy. But now those clothes seem unflattering on the floor or stuffed in draws, making it difficult to create a look for the day that feels right. Your initial reaction may be to buy more clothes to fix the problem, but if your closet never gets organized, new clothes would likely only add to the chaos. In fact, if your closet it in constant disarray, it may signal disorganization or chaos in other areas of your life. Maybe you’ve been in a slump, dealing with depression, or experiencing high stress, and feel disorganized. If so, it is not uncommon for these issues to shows up in your wardrobe, waiting to get your attention.

A simple and direct way to resolve these closet issues is get your closet organized, even if you don’t feel like it. And as you organize your wardrobe accordingly, use it as a launching pad to organize other areas in your life. Start with clearing out your entire closet until it is empty, and sort your clothes into specific piles. For instance, you can make a pile for clothes with holes and rips; clothes you haven’t worn within the last year or more; clothes you wear regularly; and clothes you wear on special occasions. Throw away all the clothes that are old and beyond repair, and give away the clothes that you will likely never wear again. All of this makes room for new clothes. The act of throwing away and getting rid of old clothes that no longer work for you is more than a practical one, it is also an emotional process that can be applied elsewhere. For instance, if you are depressed or stressed, you may have to get rid of old ways of thinking to make room for new ways of processing and being with yourself and others. 

As you put back the remainder of clothes into your closet, create sections (e.g., skirts, pants, dresses) for each type of clothing. Then go through your staple pieces, the clothes you wear regularly, and see what other staple pieces you need to build the foundation for your wardrobe. If you don’t know what staple pieces to buy, this is your time to do your research. See what pieces are out there and decide which ones are right for you. Beyond the staple pieces, you’ll want to assess your more specialized pieces (e.g., clothing with patterns, colors, sequins) and see what you would add to give your wardrobe that something extra. You may have to do some research with this as well if you're not sure what is out there. This idea of making it work with what you have and adding more when you can, is powerful, as it shows an ability to place value on what you have, which in turn creates a momentum that allows you to get more.  For instance, if you have a skill but don’t value it, others probably won’t either making it less likely for you to expose the talent and possibly benefitting others and/or making a living off of it. So while organizing your closet may not fix all of life’s problems, it can be an important to help you make significant shifts elsewhere in your life.

4. You Are Overly Preoccupied with Clothing Size

What size are you? This may feel like a loaded question, kind of like asking someone how much they weigh or how old they are. This is because our sense of self and body image are so wrapped up in clothing size, and we manage ideas about our body and self through clothing. Let’s say a store carries tons of size 6’s or 8’s but very few 12’s or above. This can send a message about the value they place on bigger sizes, and we may start to internalize the idea that a specific size equates to degree of value. Studies show that women in particular, often get around these feelings by “cheating” the numerical indicators of clothing size. That is, stores use different sizings for the same body type, and a size 6 in one store may be the equivalent to a size 10 in another. So if a woman wants to feel thinner, she’ll shop in the store that makes her a 6 rather than a 10. While striving to be a size “blank again" is all of us, how we feel about ourselves and our bodies should not be dependent upon the sizing used to quantify our bodies. And if it is, it’s often reflective of deeper-seated issues about our worth and value."

If you find that you are overly preoccupied with clothing size, perhaps you can do some introspection to find out why you place so much value on it. What does it mean about you to not be size “blank”? Are those meanings accurate? Or, what other aspects of you are valuable? These types of questions can go a long way in challenging some faulty ideas you have. Then the next time you go shopping, try to avoid looking at the sizes and choose clothes by how well they fit you. You'll feel and feel more confident in clothes that fit regardless of the size. If you need to take a friend with you for support who can help you pick out sizes without being preoccupied with them, then do so. The idea is to lessen the value you place on clothing size in relation to your own self-worth and sense of value.

5. Your Wardrobe Feels Uninspiring

There may be a number of different reasons why you feel uninspired by your wardrobe, but if your clothes generally do not fit the life you want to live, there is probably a disconnect between you and your wardrobe. You may feel stuck with nothing to wear, or the clothes you wear may not enhance your life in any meaningful way. This could signify that you are stuck in another area of your life. Maybe you feel stuck in a job, a relationship, or a lifestyle that no longer works. In the book, Magical Fashionista, Tess Whitehurst says your clothes should help you feel as if the life you want is already in place. Putting together outfits each day that enhances your life and conveys a message about who you are in the world is a very important creative endeavor, and the more fitting the outfit, the better equipped you are to fulfill your purpose.

One way to cope with feeling uninspired about your wardrobe is to get to the source of what’s keeping you stuck. Consider the lifestyle you want. What are your career goals, your relationship goals, or your educational goal? Once you determine that, you can start to curate a wardrobe that reflects these goals. If your goal is to spend more nights out, then consider buying more party clothes. If it is to get a particular job, then buy outfits suitable for the position. Even if you don’t have the job yet, the very act of buying a suitable wardrobe for it shows you have the faith and guts needed to make your goals a reality. It’s certainly a process and may not get resolved overnight but remember, changes in one area can make it easier to make changes in another area.

What other ways do you think a wardrobe is a sign of distress, and what tips do you have for dealing with it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.