March 6, 2012 9

The culling of the wardrobes

By in Musings, Theory/research


Image: by Jon Eland on Flickr.

(This post is Part 1 of a series on “GETTIN RID OF UR SHIT”.)

I haven’t really been on the scene long enough to know if this is a recent thing, or if it has been going on since tempus immemorial, or if it’s a cyclical thing that comes and goes depending on who knows what factors, but all the same, it’s a phenomenon that I find rather interesting: wardrobe culling – the act of clearing out and getting rid of all the unwanted or under-used stuff in your wardrobe.

I’ve followed assorted threads about the topic on various forums across the interwebs, and it seems that wardrobe culling can almost be infectious – once one person starts discussing “decluttering” and “purifying” their wardrobe, other people feel compelled to join in and submit their own wardrobes to the same fate. There are surely many practical reasons why someone would cull their wardrobe, and I’ll leave it to someone else to wax lyrical about whether wardrobe culling is an austerity-related response to economic recession and selling superfluous items generates a bit of money, or whether people do it in order to be able to start again with their wardrobe to accommodate a change in body shape or size or whatever, but I’m more interested in the psychological motivations for wardrobe culling. When it comes down to it, although everyone might cull their wardrobes to wildly different extents using wildly different aims and criteria and methods (one person might be aiming for the fabled “5-item French wardrobe” whereas another person might have 200 items in their wardrobe and arbitrarily decide that they want to get that number down to 100), two recurring things that might act as psychological motivators seem to be (1) a desire for greater simplicity and (2) a desire for a wardrobe that is a better representation of the person’s identity.

Wardrobe culling is particularly interesting in the context of consumerism, since consumerism and the research about the psychology and behaviour of consumers is usually concerned with how and why objects are acquired, not disposed of. Within the relatively small amount of research that has been done on the disposal of objects, there are various explanations offered for the behaviour, some that seem to make sense at face value, and some that seem a little bit, well, grandiose. For example, people passing on possessions to younger family members or friends for posterity is considered within the literature to be an attempt to “achieve immortality” – a pretty ineffective attempt, if you ask me, since your ownership of the object will most likely be forgotten at some stage down the line. But that particular explanation depends on the method of disposal – giving the object to someone else who knows that it was yours. Wardrobe culling involves multiple methods of disposal (reselling, giving away, donating to charity, chucking out) that are all ultimately aimed at just getting rid of the goddamn thing. Given the ubiquity of the capitalist encouragement to acquire more and more things, wardrobe culling is perhaps somewhat special in that it involves the purposeful devaluing of objects (they’re deemed no longer worth keeping, for whatever reason) followed by their relatively ruthless, unsentimental disposal. In a way, it’s almost subversive, reactionary – a little bit rebellious.

A desire for greater simplicity, at least in one’s wardrobe, is hardly surprising, I guess. As I mentioned in my previous post, the paradox of choice is that some choice is necessary for our happiness and well-being, but too much choice can be frustrating, overwhelming, stressful and aversive. If you wake up in the morning and feel confused and bewildered by what to wear because of the sheer number of items on offer in your wardrobe, and that happens every day, it’s hardly surprising that such a chronic stressor could make you want to change the situation. In fact, one of Schwartz’s recommendations for dealing with the abundance of choice is to arbitrarily limit your choices. He mentioned limiting yourself to only visiting two stores when on the quest to buy a pair of jeans, for example. I personally think that’s a bit ridiculous and I don’t think a lot of people would benefit from that approach, partially because you have no say in what’s contained within those two stores, except that you can choose stores that you like and that you think might stock things you’d want to buy. However, to apply the same notion of arbitrary limits to your own wardrobe: if you limit your wardrobe to a smaller number of pieces, you’re less likely to be overwhelmed and frustrated by the choice on offer, but also you were responsible for assembling what is on offer. That’s closer to being a win-win situation (as long as you don’t stress yourself out making the choices about what to include in your smaller wardrobe – I guess that would be somewhat antithetical to the whole endeavour).

The desire for a wardrobe that is a better representation of the person’s identity is the other potential psychological motivating factor that I identified in wardrobe culling. This is for obvious reasons: our likes and dislikes vary, our personalities fluctuate and mature, our situation in life changes, and these can all call for a change of wardrobe. People might be derisive about this, saying that the easiest solution that necessitates the least amount of effort would be to simply not give a damn about what you wear. Easier said than done, and a superficial proposition anyway: it is undoubtedly the case that a person’s possessions are perceived as extensions of their identities, wardrobe items included. William James, one of the fathers of modern empirical psychology, said as much in 1890 in his textbook, The Principles of Psychology:

a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his [mind], but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands, and yacht and bank-account. All these things give him the same emotions. If they wax and prosper, he feels triumphant; if they dwindle and die away, he feels cast down,–not necessarily in the same degree for each thing, but in much the same way for all.

It’s a notion that has been expanded upon extensively over the decades, and a paper by the title of “Possessions and the extended self”, by Russell Belk, summed up the scientific evidence for the notion and its fundamental importance in studying and understanding consumer behaviour (and that’s certainly something I want to write about in the future – some very interesting scientific studies have been done to demonstrate how closely we hold objects to be a part of our identity). So everyone’s wardrobe is an extension of their identity. If wardrobe culling is a response to a variation in personality or identity, that seems hardly surprising. And sure enough, a research paper I read about object disposal and simplified living, which investigated why people voluntarily “downshifted” and downsized the number of objects in their lives, has this to say:

[...] disposal can be viewed as a necessary step for consumers to re-order their lives and forge new consumption lifestyles based on desired selves or new life directions. [...] getting rid of the surplus of objects is crucial to evolve through life and circulate along new consumption lifestyles. [...] The analysis of the 10 downshifting stories clearly suggests that material possessions can confuse or contradict our sense of self and build up to a “not me” identity.

Once you get to a certain point of possessing objects that you come to realise are no longer “you”, it’s hardly surprising that the result is fast, ruthless, unsentimental disposal of the wardrobe items that are no longer true to your identity (usually easily identified by the fact that you haven’t worn them for ages, presumably if not because of practical factors such as poor fit, then because it just doesn’t feel right in terms of your identity and image). And it’s a compelling act, since it often seems to kick off the same behaviour in at least a few other people when publicised (I know for a fact that quite a few people have been avidly following Cats Say Meow’s culling adventures, for example).

Despite “I culled a heap from my wardrobe… but then I bought more stuff” seeming to be a relatively familiar refrain on wardrobe culling discussion threads, followed often by a number of sad face emoticons, I think wardrobe culling is ultimately a positive phenomenon. I don’t think the majority of people are primarily motivated by the desire to get rid of stuff in order to justify getting more stuff – I think it’s just a corollary of simplification that sometimes you need to get rid of a bunch of imperfect items but then replace them, albeit hopefully with fewer items of a more perfect nature. The overall aim seems to truly be for simplification (which can only be a good thing when it comes to curbing unnecessary consumption), and for possessions to more closely reflect one’s identity (which means they’re more likely to feel satisfying and more likely to be enjoyed for a longer time, so – hey, again less need for consumption!). A culled wardrobe can then reach a point of equilibrium, where slight tweaks can be made and individual items can be added (i.e. purchased) or subtracted (i.e. disposed of) according to changing needs or attitudes. It’s only with a relatively simplified wardrobe that that’s possible, since an enormous wardrobe is too complex a beast to be able to make judgments of regarding what’s necessary and unnecessary, where the gaps are, where the redundancy is. Well, unless you’re willing to invent some sort of amazing indexing system or to put together some detailed, cross-referenced database to keep track of it all. I have to deal with Excel spreadsheets enough with my data analysis, quite frankly, so… I’m going to stick to having a simplified wardrobe that’s easy to select outfits from and that I feel reflects my identity (I’m aiming for the “fiercely intellectual” look, thanks for asking).

Next in the GETTIN RID OF UR SHIT series: research on the ways in which people actually do get rid of their shit and why some ways are better than others.

9 Responses to “The culling of the wardrobes”

  1. The Waves says:

    I found your blog via lapindelune, and wow, your writing really resonates with me. I’m in the process of wardrobe culling as well, and I have a history of having hoarded clothing, then culled, and then drifted back to my old ways. This time around I’m trying to be more -dare I say- analytical about my approach to culling, and your posts on the topic are very impressive and thought-provoking.

    I agree that there are those two aspects of culling one’s wardrobe: one somewhat practical, the other identity-related. I have no problem accepting that I’m trying to cull because of practical reasons: too much money spent on clothes, too many clothes that don’t fit right, not enough space, clothes that I bought for all the wrong reasons, and what have you. But the identity aspect is something I struggle with a little bit, only because I am not entirely comfortable with the link between our clothes and our identities. I find it troubling that our clothes are somehow “supposed” to mirror our identities, and I can’t seem to get my head around what my clothes are supposed to say about me, and why that would be important. At this point, all I have is a lingering discomfort regarding clothes-and-identity, and nothing to show for it. Maybe I’ll just need some time to think about it, or maybe my-identity-in-the-making is a minimalist, who just doesn’t know it yet. Thanks for this great post!

    • Jess says:

      I guess the thing is that garments don’t necessarily constitute a clear, articulate language in which you can easily convey the message you want to. Some identities are just easier to visually communicate through clothes (e.g. punk style developing as an unambiguously rebellious, anti-establishment image) but if your identity is particularly nuanced or difficult to translate into a visual appearance (and most people surely can’t be reduced down to one clear visual image anyway), it can be discomforting to think about whether you could ever figure out an image that feels particularly “you”, or if the fact is that you don’t actually want to engage with the clothes-as-extensions-of-identity concept at all and you’d prefer people didn’t judge you on your appearance. I think a lot of people out there would fall into the latter category, but judging people by their appearance is such an ingrained reaction for the vast majority of people that, if you opt out trying to communicate your identity through your visual style, you have to be content with the fact that people are going to make assumptions about your identity based on your appearance anyway.

      There’s quite a bit of research on the sort of catch-22 situation of communicating to others via your possessions (including your wardrobe) – we want to feel unique, but we also want to be similar enough to other people and to fit in (we don’t want to be social outcasts), but communicating your identity through your possessions requires a mutual understanding (e.g. people know what particular brands represent, they recognise if you’ve chosen to be conspicuous or discreet with the brands you carry, they recognise that you have made the choice to wear outfits of a particularly masculine or feminine or androgynous style, etc), which means that you’ve got to be similar enough to other people to understand how to communicate, but that mutual understanding prevents you from ever being too unique because then other people won’t understand what you’re doing. It’s a fine line and most of us aren’t even aware that we’re constantly treading it.

      So don’t worry – it all seems to be a bit of a minefield, really, so it’s not surprising that there are no clear answers. I really just stumbled across my own person style that made me feel content, just because I happened to try on a particular combination of clothes and realised that I finally felt like it was “me” (although being able to actually identify a stable identity for myself might be something to do with the fact that I’m in my mid-twenties and I’m no longer really exploring or experimenting with my identity as I would have been at a younger age). I totally get your point that it’s kind of troubling that our image has to reflect our identity, and I feel that maybe that’s because, in an ideal world, we think that people shouldn’t be judged on their appearances. I guess I’ve chosen to embrace the fact that we don’t live in that ideal world and that people are going to judge me by my appearance no matter how much I don’t want them to – and I’ve also been lucky enough to figure out a way of saying what I want about my identity through my clothes. However, again, there’s another possibility for worry and doubt because if you got 10 different people to look at the way I dress and hypothesise about my personality based on that, you’d get 10 different answers, and I’m sure plenty of them would be less positive than I’d hope for. But that’s where I draw the line – I’m willing to try to convey my identity through my clothes, but I’m not willing to worry about whether I’m conveying my identity successfully to even the majority of people. It’s good enough for me.

      So don’t feel too concerned about your qualms and reservations regarding clothes and identity – it takes some time to work through and it takes a fair bit of trial and error, but I’m sure that eventually you’ll work out where you stand and you’ll be able to act accordingly in a way that makes you feel most content! (Phew, long comment, sorry.)

  2. Ammu says:

    Such an interesting blog! I have been culling my wardrobe consistently over the last three years – I just find it soothing to get rid of things I don’t wear often. And I do feel good when I see them go to a better home where they will be enjoyed better ;)
    Of course I do shop too, but usually I buy less than I give away. And I see that the culling process has made me a better shopper, more careful with my money and less inclined to fall for a brand name.

  3. Ali says:

    Thank you for this incredible and thoughtful post. I particularly loved what you said about wardrobe culling be a “little bit rebellious” and this:

    A culled wardrobe can then reach a point of equilibrium, where slight tweaks can be made and individual items can be added (i.e. purchased) or subtracted (i.e. disposed of) according to changing needs or attitudes. It’s only with a relatively simplified wardrobe that that’s possible, since an enormous wardrobe is too complex a beast to be able to make judgments of regarding what’s necessary and unnecessary, where the gaps are, where the redundancy is.

    Yes! I’ve been culling and writing about it. It feels so much better.

    • Jess says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ali. I just tried to comment on your latest post but Blogger/Blogspot hates my OpenID at the moment for some reason so I have trouble commenting on any Blogspot blogs that don’t have Name/URL as a commenting option, and I can’t use any of those other options (WordPress, AIM, etc.) for verification. So this is what I was going to say in my comment:

      I worry too about whether I’m coming across as judgemental or like I’m trying to make people feel bad when I write, which is why I try to focus on critiquing my own behaviour, and if people feel like they see some of their behaviour in mine, then they’re free to choose whether to be critical of it themselves or not. But sometimes you’ve just got to say what you want to say and not worry about being too delicate about it. Some people will unavoidably take it personally, but hopefully the vast majority won’t, and people who are open-minded enough to not take it personally are also the type who will give more serious consideration to your ideas!

  4. petrichore says:

    As I go down the merry path of adopting minimalism, I have a couple of fears: one, that the wardrobe culling will take on a somewhat bulimic binge-and-purge aspect (not meaning to trivialize anyone’s eating disorder–sorry), and two, that I will irritate the hell out of my husband by constantly moaning about how having fewer belongings would allow us to live in a smaller, cheaper house/apartment. To counteract the first concern, I’m trying to curtail new purchases, and the second, well, I try to not mention it as much.

    Interesting point that the wardrobe simplifying is something of a trend–a reaction to our Forever21/Zara/H&M-indundated shopping atmosphere? Or are we finally all drinking the Hermes marketing team’s Kool-aid, and looking for long-lasting purchases of the highest quality that we can afford?

    minima/maxima, a blog about minimalist style

  5. Nyssa Jayne says:

    I started my “wardrobe rehab” just before I started therapy. My therapist said it was a classic sign of wanting to change and such. it turns out i was shopping when I was feeling down and such. I wish I could be more scientific about it, but we talked about how my mother hoards (not to TV-show standards, but I grew up in a relatively untidy house) and how purging my wardrobe was my reaction to that environment.

    I am shopping significantly less as well — i have made only one or two high street purchases since I began 9 months ago. I have focused on making my own clothes, op shopping and high-end pieces worth the splurge. Overall I have been much happier with my wardrobe, although I still feel there are pieces in it that need to go. (It got to a point where my fiance said, “you know, you don’t have to throw everything out.”)

    i am not a minimalist or “chic french dresser” by any means, but I do feel better with a smaller wardrobe.

  6. Clara says:

    Hey Jess, sorry I comment so much on your blog -but truth is the subject fascinates me.
    It would be very interesting to go deeper into this ‘culling’ trend. Everyone goes on about how purifying it feels, how free you become, how chic having a style of your own and quality items feels etc etc.
    But does it not also bring frustration to a lot of people -that won’t admit it ? If despite your effort you still don’t look as sleek and chic as, say, Clemence Poesy (intense jealousy) ? If, like me, you feel torn appart with guilt by the act of giving away stuff, even if it’s absolutely necessary ? Also, is there not a danger of becoming a bit of a control-freak, and becoming de facto even more obsessed with clothes ?
    Thank you, and thanks for the great job with this blog

  7. S from a very cold place :) says:

    I absolutely love your blog – I just discovered it via Dead Fleurette and I sense that it will become one of my favorites :)
    Keep up the good work and I’ll try to be good and only go to Zara when…actually no…I will never set foot to Zara again :) (yeah…right)

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