Trouble in our closets can be a sign of trouble in our lives. People with a wardrobe full of clothes who insist they can't find a thing to wear are likely struggling elsewhere, such as with overspending, disorganization, working too hard or body image anxiety, says Jennifer Baumgartner, PsyD, a Baltimore clinical psychologist who moonlights as a wardrobe consultant. Those who say they can't wear bright colors may be too risk-averse in other areas, perhaps quick to reject plum career opportunities they think are beyond their reach, she says.
"The clothing you put on your back is an incredibly accurate indicator of what you think of yourself and your life," says Baumgartner, author of "You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You" (2012), which explains the roots her theories have in psychological research on reward, self-esteem, operant conditioning and overeating.
While stylists offer fashion pointers, Baumgartner goes a step further in her consulting business, InsideOut, by helping clients figure out why they buy clothes they don't love, spend too much, wear outfits that are too big or too young for them, or hold on to old frayed button-down shirts. She helps people take more care with their clothing as a step toward being more mindful about their personal and professional lives.
A closet enterprise
Baumgartner visits clients at home. She inspects their closet for dress patterns, examines how they assemble outfits, observes how they organize and store their clothing and even shops with them.
One client, a 60-year-old surgeon whose closet was "a hot mess," says Baumgartner, had multiple versions of the same outfit he didn't like. Most of his clothes were stained or too large. As they talked, she discovered that his finances, social life and office administration system were as muddled as his wardrobe.
"I taught him that by organizing and having a system in his closet, it could be the one place he could find calm in his otherwise chaotic life," she says. She then encouraged him to apply the same strategies to his other problem areas, so he began carving out more time for leisure and organizing his surgical practice. "The consult took on this greater, larger life," she says.
Baumgartner uses cognitive behavioral therapy strategies to assign clients homework, such as keeping a diary of how the media influence their clothing purchases. Sometimes she goes shopping with clients, but most just seek advice and insight into their behavior. But if she notices that an InsideOut client's wardrobe challenges go beyond organizational or emotional problems such as body image anxiety, and stem from a more serious concern such as a substance abuse problem or anorexia, she advises the client to seek professional help rather than a wardrobe consultation.
"The clinical stuff does not enter the wardrobe," she says. She asks InsideOut clients to sign a waiver that states she tackles emotional issues relating only to their clothes.
As a child, Baumgartner would explore her grandmother's closet for hours, asking questions about the history of each garment. During college and graduate school, she worked at Ann Taylor and Ralph Lauren, and discovered she had a talent for giving fashion advice. Baumgartner became so skilled at styling people and overhauling closets, friends and family starting asking her for help.
While pursuing her doctorate at the American School of Professional Psychology in Arlington, Va., Baumgartner grew her client list, launched her business, and started writing a book based on what she was learning about dress and behavior when she needed breaks from writing her dissertation on childhood obesity.
Baumgartner's take on dress behavior has taken off, and she does regular media interviews and blogs for Cosmopolitan, StyleList and Psychology Today, sharing research from psychology on topics such as color or self-esteem. She also hosts the University of the District of Columbia television program "A Better You with Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner," available on YouTube and UDC.tv, where she and guest speakers provide psychoeducational information on such topics as anxiety, the dangers of the Internet and dressing well for work.
One tip she often offers viewers and readers is to buy quality clothing. Many Americans have fallen into the habit of "fast fashion," or buying lots of poor-quality clothes that end up in landfills after six months rather than selecting fewer, quality garments.
"We are creating this consumer frenzy, where buying clothes is almost like a drug," she says. "We are never satiated, and we have to have more and more."
Jennifer Baumgartner explains how to build a professional wardrobe.
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