With the average woman owning 103 items in her wardrobe but reporting to only wear 10% of it, I think it is clear to say we have complex relationships with our clothing collections. But why do so many of us fall victim to these hoarding behaviours, how can we overcome them, and what does that mere 10% actually say about us? These are all questions the study of ‘wardrobe ethnography’ aims to answer.
Wardrobe ethnography is a term used to describe the analysis of the items that accumulate, to make up our wardrobes. By looking at the relationship between ourselves and what we own or regularly wear, it can reveal a form of our identities. However, this can also extend to look at the way we organise items (what we choose to hang or fold, and how), and the places we keep gifted or inherited items, which may indicate the types of relationships you hold with those who gifted them. All of these small elements can tell a story; one which you may not even be aware of.
While the clothes we wear are predominantly for assurance and fashion, the process of shopping for and selecting items can also become an equally negative experience in becoming a breeding ground for body dissatisfaction (Tiggemann & Lacey, 2009). This means the relationship we have with our clothing and the decisions we make about what to wear incredibly important when we form perceptions of ourselves.
However, it’s not just what we do wear that forms a reflection of who we are – what we choose to store in our cupboards unworn, forgotten, or treasured is equally significant (Woodward & Greasley, 2017). Our clothes and accessories act as an externalisation of our past selves, memories, and relationships so it’s only natural that as we evolve and grow, our wardrobes do too.
By looking at the relationship between ourselves and what we own or regularly wear, it can reveal a form of our identities.
One clear example of this transition and change is the patterns of behaviour women show during pregnancy when styling themselves. After analysing the ways mothers-to-be interact with their wardrobes two key themes regularly emerge glamour and display (Gregson & Beale, 2004). When pregnant, many women choose to wear items of clothing that enhance their bumps – even if this is an area they would have previously sought to camouflage. Even so, the novelty of purchasing these maternity-specific items is often only endorsed for short-term uses like special occasions, rather than daily wear. After the postpartum period, maternity clothing is regularly seen to be passed on to other mothers-to-be – once again, reflecting the changes in our clothing and self-identity that occur simultaneously.
Despite its benefits, this seemingly interwoven relationship between what our wardrobes contain and our sense of identity is also proving problematic in today’s society. With almost-instant access to affordable fast-fashion, our desire to create the ‘perfect’ wardrobe are more prominent than ever (Petersson McIntyre, 2019). Our efforts to live more minimally and sustainably are easily overturned by the lure of weekly new-collections and the need to be perceived positively by others, with our value becoming increasingly equitable to the possession of materialistic objects (Crăciun, 2014)
But where does this leave us? Will we ever reach a harmony between achieving both wardrobe sustainability and satisfaction?
Well, one answer could lie in improving not only the physical durability of clothing items, but their emotional durability too. Emotional durability is a measure of the length of time an item remains relevant and attractive to its user. By designing products with the physical properties (i.e. appearance, functionality) as well as their emotional and symbolic values in mind, high-quality garments with great emotional appeal can be created (Burcikova, 2019). This encourages consumers to hold onto and care for their clothes, ultimately reducing the desire to aimlessly add new items to their collections.
If you’re now left wondering what your wardrobe could say about you, take our quiz to find out.