[26 March 2012]
Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner is “a psychologist who analyzes closets” and her book You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You is a self-help book designed to make readers “think more deeply about the patterns surrounding the way [they] dress”.
Baumgartner is quick to note that this book is not about teaching someone how to transform a business look to an evening look by switching out some jewelry and a handbag, nor is it simply about helping people figure out what colors fit their complexion. Instead, Baumgartner is trying to make connections between clothing and state of mind. “There are all kinds of stylists who can offer your image a surface fix: a little makeup here, a pencil skirt there,” Baumgartner states. “That is not what I do.”
Instead, Baumgartner lists several “fashion flubs” such as a 50-year-old mom wearing her daughter’s clothing, and contends “If you think these are merely examples of fashion ignorance or style apathy, you are underestimating the real meaning behind your clothing choices. Our clothing is a reflection of what we are thinking and what we are feeling. Often, wardrobe mishaps are simply our inner conflicts bubbling to the surface.”
The book opens with a wardrobe challenge that involves several dozen questions about clothing—past, present, and future. From “who dressed when you were younger” to “how often do you shop” to “do you have a style icon for each stage of your life”, Baumgartner wants readers to analyze every aspect of their wardrobe.
In the chapters that follow, Baumgartner covers specific clothing issues—purchasing more than you need, keeping clothing forever, wearing overly baggy clothing, wearing overly skimpy clothing, obsessing over labels. She provides general advice—such as her “golden wardrobe ratio for cleaning out a jam-packed closet: for every three items in the closet, two must go” and throws in some psychological terminology—such as the Social Readjustment Rating Scale: “on this scale, life events are given a numerical value based on the level of stress they induce, from coping with the death of a spouse to enjoying a vacation”.
Through it all, Baumgartner maintains that clothing is not just about a look but about life. Most chapters focus on one or two of her clients (Baumgartner is the founder of InsideOut, a wardrobe consulting business) and the impact Baumgartner (or Dr. B as her clients often call her) has had on their lives. Consider Megan—the case study in Chapter Seven “Working for It: When You Find Yourself Forever in Work Clothes.” Megan, “a physician, lived in her scrubs. Both in and out of the hospital, she wore heart-and-puppy-dog-print smocks with white rubber clogs everywhere and anywhere. Megan worked in her scrubs, relaxed in her scrubs, did errands in her scrubs, and even slept in her scrubs”.
And, according to Baumgartner, it wasn’t just Megan’s wardrobe that needed more life—Megan’s life needed more life. Megan didn’t just need new clothes; she needed to have a little more fun. By the end of Megan’s InsideOut makeover, she had not only a new wardrobe, but also a new identity that included playing kickball and speed-dating.
On the one hand, it doesn’t seem like someone should need a psychologist to tell them that wearing scrubs all the time or wearing an outfit that showcases your bra to work isn’t a good idea. On the other hand, we’ve all probably seen people at work, at the grocery story, or even just walking down the street and wondered, at least briefly, what were they thinking. Kate, the case study for Chapter Five “Your Cover’s Blown: When You Bare Too Much” was one of the what was she thinking types.
Here’s a peek at her “work” attire: “Kate teetered toward me in the sky-high heels. I can certainly appreciate a beautiful shoe, but these needed a matching pole. Her body-hugging skirt left little to the imagination, including the lace thong underneath. The white button down, the one item I had thought would be conservative enough for wearing to work, was unbuttoned low enough to reveal a seemingly endless line of cleavage. I could see why she had attracted attention.” Kate, however, could not and did not until her employer said something and even then still didn’t seem convinced.
What convinced her? They went to the bar, once with Kate in her super sexy clothes and once in a more appropriate outfit. Soon Kate was dressing more professionally and tastefully “and more and more, she enjoyed the company of men rather than the objectification she had received from some of them”.
Baumgartner showcases many success stories in the book and with phrases like “closet constipation” is often witty and fun. And in doing so, she fulfills the book jacket’s promise to help readers break out of fashion ruts, “look current at any age” and “create a balanced, beautiful wardrobe”. Additionally, she shows why some people are drawn to a, for example, too young, too beige, or too sexy look.
Still, it seems a bit of a jump from “dress well for the body you have” or “stop your closet from overflowing” to believing that “the slightest change in your wardrobe can lead to a domino effect of adventure, discovery, and great memories”. In the Epilogue, Baumgartner states “Here we are at the end of the journey. If you have taken anything from this book, I hope it is that your closet contains so much more than your clothes. It holds your story. In this small unassuming space, you can find where you have been, where you are, and where you need to go.”
Can your wardrobe change your life? Baumgartner, and her clients, certainly believe so. The rest of us may have to wait and see.