Anyone who has seen TLC’s popular TV show “What Not to Wear” will recognize the psychological issues discussed in Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner’s recently published You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You. For that matter, anyone who has looked into her (and yes, this book is definitely geared toward ‘her’) closet without satisfaction will benefit.
Dr. Baumgartner is not a stylist, but a psychoanalyst of closets: She runs InsideOut, her own wardrobe consulting business. She is also a practicing clinical psychologist and a former math teacher, lending credibility to her analytical and psyche-focused approach. You Are What You Wear centers on how we can learn to see our clothes as a link between our internal and external selves. Only by fully understanding this connection can we begin to improve our whole person.
Dr. Baumgartner begins with an initial questionnaire about the past, present, and future of your clothing choices. Following the results, the reader is directed to the applicable chapter(s), all of which follow the same outline: a checklist for self-assessment, a case study as illustration, and a step-by-step action plan, ending with “Your Turn,” a section of specific techniques for implementation.
The first few chapters cover familiar territory, at least to those who watch reality television: shopping addiction, hoarding, and being stuck in a rut. Or, as they are known to Dr. Baumgartner: using shopping as therapy, having your clothes stand in for goals and dreams, and general apathy toward life. She stresses that we all have these problems at some point, specifically emphasizing the roles of dopamine and social learning.
The middle section more directly concerns body image issues, such as dressing too young or too old for your age and too small or too big for your size. Everything from the media’s sexualization of women to vanity sizing to fear of mortality is examined in context of the reasoning behind wardrobe choices.
The final portion of You Are What You Wear deals with the more complex situations of work/life balance, designer obsession, and of course, the dreaded ‘mom jeans.’ The through-lines of having pride in your appearance, not fusing your identity with your clothing, and being true to yourself continue, connecting anecdotal case studies with broader lessons.
The book concludes with an epilogue, appropriately titled, “Now What?” It leads directly into a Do-It-Yourself Analysis, using the information in the preceding chapters to guide the reader through a complete wardrobe overhaul, step by step.
Dr. Baumgartner’s emphasis on the commonality of the wardrobe problems addressed here, and the reasons behind them, allow the reader to feel understood and that she is not alone. The reasons and motivation behind these behaviors are explained using an application of hard science and psychological theory to clothes, including social learning theory, transtheoretical theory of change, and exposure therapy. It may seem odd to some to combine such a ‘frivolous’ subject with academic research, but whatever the entry point is to greater self-awareness, the goal remains the same.
Dr. Baumgartner also makes sure not to neglect her responsibilities as a therapist, raising notes of caution for when symptoms progress to clinical disorder:
Ricki struggled with poor body image, but fortunately her negative feelings did not reach levels that would have warranted clinical diagnosis and intervention. Body dysmorphic disorder […] is a psychological disorder characterized by excessive concern about and preoccupation with perceived defects or minor deficits in one’s physical features…Treatment is essential owing to the disorder’s distressing symptoms as well as its high risk of suicidality. (p. 113)
For more externally-oriented readers, You Are What You Wear includes pure style advice such as balance between accessories and clothes, the importance of a good fit, the formality of different occasions, etc. This advice does tend to get oversimplified, though (most likely because of space restrictions). For example, if “…you [are] a younger woman with items from your grandmother’s closet…it may be time to rework your favorites (p.165)”—this comment implies that you can only be fashionable if you dress exactly in the current styles for your age and your era, but vintage style (sometimes directly from a mother or grandmother’s collection) is frequently seen today on some of the world’s most admired fashionistas.
While You Are What You Wear is overall an extremely readable, enlightening look at how our clothing choices reflect our internal states, there is some room for improvement. As mentioned in the introduction, if the book’s cover image and title don’t make it clear, let me reemphasize that this book is definitely for women. There is one short anecdote of a male subject in the entire work. Acquiescing to the general gender stereotypes, however, it seems that the appropriate audience is being targeted.
Dr. Baumgartner seems to have a personal anecdote for every chapter concerning every situation. At first this is a nice tool to increase relatability, but after a while it becomes hard to believe that she personally has experienced all the issues. She mentions Internet resources in a few chapters, but suggesting specific sites would be much more useful. Finally, there is a great section of “The Dos and Don’ts of Office Wear” in Chapter 7; it would have been even better to see similar lists in many of the other chapters.
The book’s well-explained and well-justified lesson remains, however, and that is that we live our lives now, not in the past or future, and our clothes need to fit us, not vice versa. You Are What You Wear even inspired me to clean out my closet, armed with new knowledge and an entirely different perspective (and the abovementioned appendix analysis, which is surprisingly helpful and easy to use). Dr. Baumgartner has found a unique niche in psychoanalytical wardrobe consulting, and her book makes it very clear it’s much more interesting and even perhaps more respectable than it first appears.
You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal about You
By Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner
Da Capo Lifelong Books: March 27, 2012
Paperback, 272 pages