When you open the doors to your wardrobe, how do you feel? For most people, 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. It is a complex bundle of feelings, stirred just by seeing a rail of clothes.
‘”A closet is actually a very vulnerable space,” explains Annmarie O’Connor, a ‘wardrobe wellness’ coach who helps clients to assess the emotional balance of what’s in their cupboards and spot trigger items that could be causing unhappiness. “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.”
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 who Annmarie meets may be holding on to a dress that once made her feel sexy or powerful, wanting to one day recreate the way she felt. Another may be keeping pieces that are now too small for her, with the 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, and it’s even present in young children. 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 Prof Mair. “But grief, or feeling down, old, fat, or disinterested in ourselves – those are feelings that can be linked to what’s in our wardrobes and that are amplified when we see or wear things that upset us. What we wear is a big part of our identities, so objects of clothing can become symbols of hope, or despair.”
The key, according to the 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. “Things that symbolise the past are preventing you from engaging with now. I worked with a woman who had been very unwell and had gone from a size eight 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 just 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 a wardrobe with the knowledge you could put on any of the outfits in front of you right now and feel great, is mentally empowering and confidence-boosting.
Hannah Almassi, Editorial Director of fashion website Who What Wear, 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 explains. “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.” Prof Mair agrees. The key is to know which are your everyday clothes and which you should store away as genuine 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 that time has passed. Crucially, I keep those pieces in a box that is well away from my current wardrobe so they don’t impact 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?'”