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.