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2012 March 27

Closets As Windows To The Soul, With Dr. Baumgartner

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Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, left; her book, right Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, left; her book, right
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(NEW YORK) Are closets more than just places to store one's most treasured purchases, everyday staples, and nostalgia-inducing reminders of who and where we've been? Absolutely, says Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, a practicing psychologist who blogs about the intersection of fashion and our brains for Psychology Today and recently penned her first book, You Are What You Wear. Just a quick skim or chapter of this relatable read and you're bound to be overcome with an urge to purge your hangers, buy better fitting jeans, and change the way you shop. The Daily chatted with the doc for some wardrobe S.O.S.! 

Why the fascination with closets?
It started very young, with my grandma—she worked in the fashion industry, dressing clients so she always dressed beautifully. Whenever I’d go to her house, the first thing I’d do is go in her closet and look at everything. I probably drove her crazy. Of particular interest—don’t ask me why!—was her button collection. She had the coolest buttons; they looked like jewels. I’d ask which buttons coordinated with which outfits, and I’d learn a lot about my grandma’s life through those buttons. They were conversations I probably would’ve been too young to ask, or know to ask, without talking about her closet.

How did you continue with your interest in fashion post-childhood?
I worked retail and studied psychology at the same time. I noticed that a lot of the issues I was learning about in school showed up in the dressing rooms. Confronting oneself in the mirror can be a very difficult thing. That’s how I decided to tie the two together—I was good at psychology, and good at dressing people. One thing led to another; I was trying to write for different venues, and none of them wanted my heavy psychological stuff—they all were interested in fashion stuff. My Psychology Today editor rejected my story idea but asked me to write a blog about fashion and psychology.  

How did you parlay this into a book?
Friends and family would ask me to go to their closets and I’d help them in a purely organizational way, but I noticed that that really didn’t create long term changes. The choices you make about shopping, storing and organizing your clothing are indicators of what’s going on internally at the time in your life.

What are those indicators?
I look at three parts of one’s dress behavior: One is how people shop. The second is how they assemble clothes and outfits, how they dress. And the third is the actual organization and storage of the closet.

What red flags do you keep an eye out for?
I look for patterns; that’s what usually causes distress. It’s about habits that keep people from being their best. That might be spending money you don’t have; spending very frequently; always buying the same items; not dressing for your current body shape; dressing inappropriately for your age; or wearing clothes that don’t work for your lifestyle. Sometimes people will have a lot of tags on their clothing, and that’s of note, too—there’s a reason to have so much stuff you don’t actually use. If someone is hoarding or shopping psychologically, we’ll jump right to the psychological piece.

How about the storage factor?
If it’s complete chaos, completely crammed, and if there’s lots of clothing that hasn’t been worn: Those are a few things I look for. Sometimes there’s resistance. We’ll be out shopping together, planning how to organize the closet or put outfits together, and the person resists. Usually, it has nothing to do with clothes; it’s something deeper.

How would you analyze your own closet?
Sometimes I get really stressed out and have this desire to buy a bunch of stuff—which is that “shop till you drop”  mode from chapter one. Or, I end up giving away a bunch of stuff, so I act from a place of abundance rather than desperation—shopping becomes a form of emotional soothing. I also dress very faithfully, like in chapter three—I have a fear that I’ll make mistakes. 

How honest! Any other chapeters that especially resonate with you?
I’m also a recovering logo-maniac; that’s chapter eight. I had no business buying any of that stuff while I was in grad school. I felt like a newbie professionally and didn’t have any money yet. I wanted to create an external shell of success. That also happened because I was self conscious about looking young. Sometimes I would have patients come out of the waiting room and look for Dr. Baumgartner; they’d walk right by me. I thought that logos made me look older and prevent people from questioning whether or not I could do my job well.

Is this your niche, or are lots of people doing the same kind of work?
No! There’s are plenty of stylists, coaches and image consultants who look at how the external influences the internal. But very few are looking at it in reverse: here’s the external, now let’s figure out what’s going on internally. There are people who look at the psychology of fashion and style from a sociological perspective—for instance, women’s dress trends from the Victorian era with all of the cinched waists—but not using an approach like mine. I looked for people to interview while working on my book, but there really isn’t anyone. I guess I created it!

Whose closet would you most like to raid?
I would love to see Ralph Lauren’s closet—he’s my absolute favorite designer. I worked there at one point because I loved his stuff. I love how he designs like it’s for a movie—so I’d be fascinated to see the “movie” of Ralph’s own life, based on how he creates his wardrobe. 

What would you expect to see in the closets of celebs with wilder senses of style? 
When you can, and do, expect the unexpected from someone, that is a pattern!  Even Lady Gaga. I don’t think there’d be much shock to see her closet. Someone like Betsey Johnson surprises us, sure, but there’s definite consistency to what she’s wearing and how she wears it. But the way they shop, and how they store it, is where the surprise lies. 


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