It almost seems like clockwork: spring springs, I glance into my closet and am struck by how much I despise its contents—despite the fact that I, at some point, lovingly purchased (or “permanently borrowed”) it all. Are there bigger problems in this messed up world? Absolutely. But that doesn’t make a difference when I’m locked into a deep psychological struggle with a couple of t-shirt dresses and some sandals I bought off Garmentory in a fugue state during some bygone end-of-season sale.
I know I’m not the only one who experiences the occasional pang of hate when it comes to my closet—earlier this week, a New Yorker writer lamented the “Dread of Getting Dressed” in an essay on wardrobe ennui and the burden of using clothes as a vehicle for self-expression. So, what makes us want to pour kerosene on a previously beloved denim collection, light a match, and toast some marshmallows over the Madewell-scented flames?
It turns out there are a few different factors, most of which have nothing to do with what your actual clothes look like. Instead, it’s all about how what you’re wearing makes you feel. “One enduring myth around fashion, and clothing specifically, is that it is frivolous or meaningless,” Daniel Benkendorf, an associate professor of psychology at the Fashion Institute of Technology, told VICE. “Rather, clothing is rich with meaning and purpose. The link between clothing and emotions is reciprocal—how we feel impacts what we think about our clothing, and it guides our decisions about what to wear. But what we wear also impacts how we feel and what we think.”
Of course, that means before you start cleaning out your literal closet, it’s important to do a sweep of your own emotional state so you can get to the bottom of what you actually want your clothes to do for you. That means checking in on how you’re feeling about your body, your life, the influences you surround yourself with—and chucking stuff out accordingly.
You’re unhappy with your body—and blaming it on your closet
“Wardrobe dissatisfaction and body dissatisfaction go hand in hand—body dissatisfaction is often at the root of displeasure with the way we see ourselves in the mirror,” Ashley McHan, a therapist who specializes in anxiety, trauma, and eating disorders, told VICE. “With up to 30 percent of both men and women experiencing body dissatisfaction any day of the week, it's not a surprise that people struggle to find something they feel good in.”
Whether body dissatisfaction is something you’ve struggled with long term, or something that’s arisen more recently thanks to body changes over the course of COVID quarantine, McHan said it all stems from equating the way you look to what your worth is as a person. “When someone uses the way they look to assess their worth, they can easily appraise themself as not good enough if their clothes don't fit just right, aren't the newest or coolest—all of which is in the eye of the beholder.”
McHan recommends bearing in mind that a new wardrobe won’t change the way you feel about your body and—most importantly—that you should step away from the mirror if the way you look is making you upset. “The closet and its contents are a resource. They aren't the solution,” she said. “What we wear will not solve issues of self-esteem and challenges with body dissatisfaction and if we aren't aware, we are more likely to allow the way we see ourselves in our clothes to dictate our mood, state of mind and relationship with ourselves.”
You’re going through a major change and want to telegraph it
Odds are pretty good that your desire to trash your clothes isn’t coming out of thin air—and if it doesn’t stem from body feelings, larger emotional or life changes might be the culprit. “Having an ostensibly limitless variety of options available, we can increasingly use clothing as a major vehicle for the expression of identity and emotion. When we seek to reinvent ourselves or when we find ourselves in a period of transition, a wardrobe change can be very appealing.” Benkendorf said. “While some changes are harder to make (e.g., weight loss, personal development, self-improvement) changing our clothing is a comparatively easy and public way to mark a transition.”
Casting off “old” clothes might also stem from the impulse to cast aside the memories you associate with them. “Closets tend to hold a lot of history for people. If [your closet is] feeling out of resonance in any way, take a deeper look at what you are storing in it,” Lili Pettit, co-founder of holistic home organizing service Clutter Healing, told VICE. “Oftentimes we forget about the divorce papers, a dress that reminds us of a dark time, or [other] things that simply don't belong in your closet.” Pettit said not to be afraid to purge items that straight-up give you bad vibes (as in, “Ugh, I wore that to the DJ set the night I met my ex!” or “Damn, those were the earrings I had on the day I got laid off.”) in order to feel more in-tune with the things you own.
Of course, it's financially burdensome to turn over your whole wardrobe—but armed with this info, you should feel OK taking the cute wool trousers you got dumped in out of your closet completely instead of shoving them in a drawer and hoping your feelings will change… eventually.
You’re letting social media and the churn of fast fashion get to you
Comparison is the thief of joy, but after more than a year of mostly living through our phone screens, it’s all too possible to get sucked into TikTok dresses and the online sale cycle—especially if you were barely spending money on anything else. All that window-shopping, whether it’s on your friend’s feeds or your favorite retailer’s website, can make the things you already own feel inadequate, fast. “If a person looks at an image on social media and believes it to represent happiness or belonging, they may subconsciously assess that to mimic it will lead to their own happiness and sense of belonging,” McHan said. “Then when real life and the insta image don't line up, they fall short of the happiness they hoped to attain from the jeans or that dress in their closet.”
And when it comes to shopping at fast fashion retailers specifically (brands like Forever 21, H&M, and Zara are a few popular examples), Benkendorf said there are psychological and practical factors in play. “In the era of fast fashion and social media influencers, trends shift rapidly, leaving the fashion-conscious consumer with a lingering anxiety that their wardrobe is out-of-date because there is always something new,” he said. “Additionally, because fast fashion often compromises quality in terms of materials and finish, seams rip, colors fade, and items fall apart with little use, leaving the consumer in need of replacements.”
It’s hard to resist all the messaging that drives us towards consumption, especially when it’s packaged as attainable. “A generation or two ago, unless you were a king or queen, it would have been unthinkable to toss out your entire wardrobe and start over,” Benkendorf said. “Now people in the middle of the socioeconomic ladder can participate in this kind of reset.”
Cool off, then go ahead and dump stuff (within reason)
None of the experts we spoke to suggested taking a sledgehammer to your wardrobe as soon as the impulse arises—but all of them said that, within reason, it makes sense to act on it after you take the time to think about why you want to do so.
If body dissatisfaction is an issue for you, McHan wholeheartedly recommends starting a closet clean-out with anything that doesn’t fit you anymore. “Don't keep the jeans!” she said. “Donate them. Your closet will no longer feel like a testing site. Allow it to become a friendly environment.”
If a life change is at the root of your desire to throw your clothes away, make sure you’re making decisions a few days after the sting of a breakup or the excitement of getting into grad school wears off to ensure you don’t toss anything you’ll want later. “If an item holds symbolic or sentimental value, it is likely worth waiting until you are in a cool emotional state where thoughtful deliberation is possible before you decide to toss it,” Benkendorf said. “But often, we do not miss the items we donate and so dropping off these unused and unloved items at your local thrift shop is prudent.”
Pettit said she tells clients who are insistent on doing a major overhaul to weigh a few different factors, like what they hope to accomplish via decluttering, whether they’ve done a major overhaul before, and whether something like a childhood memory triggered their desire to get rid of their clothing. After considering for a few days and making a pros and cons list, she said the last step is to dive in and throw things out—with the caveat that they need to do so responsibly.
“Please recycle and donate clothing,” she said. “Clothing is one of the top 10 environmental polluters and when you donate clothing and recycle items that can't be donated (underwear, bras, socks, some swimsuits, etc.) you give the garment two additional years of life and keep it out of the landfill!”
Let go of the avatar of the “perfect” wardrobe
If you don’t have the resources to throw away a bunch of clothing, or find the idea of actually organizing your closet to be more trouble than it’s worth, then you’re going to want to work on changing the way you feel about your clothes versus the actual clothes themselves.
“I would recommend keeping a clothing journal or, if you already keep a journal, adding a section referencing your clothing,” Benkendorf said. “You can keep track of what you are buying, what you are wearing, and what you are tossing. You can set goals for your wardrobe. This will enable you to observe how you feel about your clothing and gain self-awareness. The hope is that as we take steps to achieve our goals, we gain skills in mending our dysfunctional relationship with clothing.”
Part of that dysfunction, according to McHan, comes from misunderstanding what “the right” clothes can do for us. “No outfit will bring lasting self-confidence, enduring happiness, but it is also OK that sometimes we feel good in the clothes we are in.” she said. Instead, check in and make sure you feel good about why you’re getting dressed, too. “Ask yourself: Are these people I really want to spend my time with? Is there where I truly want to go? Could getting out and being in these places and with these people contribute to me feeling the way I want to feel? If so, throw something on and forget the mirror scrutiny.”
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