What your clothes say about you, part one

A look into the psychology of clothing.

I’ve been feeling pretty fed up with this endless winter, though thank heavens, northern France isn’t copping it as badly as north Wales, for instance. But apart from the cold and the rain and the lack of light, another thing winter means is endlessly dressing for warmth. It can be hard to get motivated, style-wise, when you absolutely have to layer up.

Dressing in winter, for me, means bra, pants, mohair socks from Corrymoor, ski thermals from Five Seasons, fleece pants from Lands’ End, a Lands’ End fleece poloneck, and Uggs. On really cold days I’ll top it with a fleece gilet. It’s warm, and I really do attempt my best with flattering colours and mixtures of colours, but stylish it ain’t and I have dressed like this every single sodding day for months now. Believe me, I’ve tried with jeans and silk thermals and cashmere knits – not warm enough, not by half, not when the bedroom is 8 degrees and the kitchen 9 degrees and the office 16 degrees. Outdoor temperatures indoors demand serious cover. 

Hence, in my fed-up-ness, I’ve been reading a book on fashion and psychology: What your clothes say about you, by psychologist Jennifer Baumgartner. 

The book has its flaws and I’ll be reviewing it in full when I’ve finished it, but the intro questionnaires were very interesting and gave me a couple of lightbulb moments, so I thought I’d share them here. II think it might be worthwhile for many of us to fill in that first section and see what we come up with. 

Past

* Who dressed you when you were younger?

* How did he or she dress?

* What were you taught about getting dressed?

* Was learning to a dress a necessity, a creative process or both?

* When did you begin dressing yourself?

* Did you find the process exciting?

* Did you find the process frustrating?

* Were you indifferent?

* Have you suffered a wardrobe trauma such as being bullied at school or parent criticism?

* How has your style changed throughout your life?

* What has prompted these changes?

* What has remained the same?

* Who were your style inspirations when you were younger?

* Have you held on to your clothes from the past?

* What are your favourite outfits from your past and why?

Here are my answers, for interest.

 

PAST

* Who dressed you when you were younger?

My mother. 

* How did she dress?

Badly. Frumpy elastic-waisted polyester trousers, short at the ankle. Silly little shoes – her feet always hurt. Short, tight, shiny acrylic knit tops that cut into her fat arms. She kept her good things for ‘best’ but never had a best. She never wore her nice things because she never went anywhere. Nor did she wear perfume, or makeup other than lipstick and powder. She never owned jeans that I remember and my father didn’t like her wearing skirts in case she attracted male attention. 

* What were you taught about getting dressed?

To be modest. To cover up. High necks, long skirts, trousers. To take care of my clothes because they were expensive. We bought twice a year – one new summer dress, two new pairs of winter trousers, a coat every five years. No impulse buys: everything had to be carefully weighed for its cost per wear, etc. Clothes were ‘dear’, there must be no mistakes. 

* Was learning to a dress a necessity, a creative process or both?

A necessity. There was a degree of enjoyment to it, but we shopped low-end, at markets, C&A etc: it was often a question of what we could afford. An item from M&S was a major treat. I did enjoy, each year, picking my two new pairs of cord trousers – one year I chose teal and plum, I still remember those trousers. 

* When did you begin dressing yourself?

A little at puberty – tie-waist cheesecloth tops that bared my midriff, flared trousers, platform shoes, skinny-rib polos and tight, matching-colour jeans to go down the youthclub, learning to show off my budding figure. Then at 16, when I was into vintage fashion, I began to find my own style more. But my mother still bought my day clothes, uniforms and underwear until I went to college. My sister was horrified by my granny-pants when I was 18 and immediately gave me some sexy undies. 

* Did you find the process exciting?

Yes. I loved buying my own clothes for the first time, especially lingerie – a lilac lace set of bra, briefs and suspenders. I loved it. I’ve never forgotten that underwear. It represented freedom from parental restriction. 

* Did you find the process frustrating?

No. I found it exhilarating. I loved, with my own money and no parental oversight, being able to decide who I was. 

* Were you indifferent?

Never. 

* Have you suffered a wardrobe trauma such as being bullied or parent criticism?

Lots of parental criticism. My mother HATED when I got into vintage and started wearing Victoriana. She said I looked "like a nursing mother". She hated my excess weight, as she struggled with her own. In retrospect this seems ridiculous, as I was only a size 14 – a modern-day size 12 – and I had a 23-inch waist. 

* How has your style changed throughout your life?

As a young girl I wore what was fashionable, though I was pretty clueless, but I got into vintage quite young, and have always worn some vintage ever since. At college I took care to be clean and neat, ironing my jeans, etc, because I was ‘fat and fat people can’t be scruffy’. I tried to find my style but made a lot of mistakes – clothes that made me look heavier etc.

I upped my game a little when I met wealthy middle-class people who knew more about cut and fabric. When I learned to sew in my 20s, I discovered far more about construction and quality and what constitutes a good garment. When I got a job, I power dressed, always wore good wool suits (rarely separates) or coat-dresses, good court shoes, etc – I expended a lot of money on my work wardrobe and kept my clothes in good order. At home I’d wear any old rubbish – I changed the second I got through the door and ironed my blouses for work every Sunday, cleaned my shoes etc.

After I met my husband, I became a more casual dresser and wore more jeans and knits, and full leather skirts for work. When we moved to rural France, I found it a real shock, especially the cold, which absolutely dictates clothing in winter. It’s taken me years to find clothes warm enough to wear in winter, and they are not stylish – style has gone out the window, though I still make an effort when I leave the house. But it’s hard to find attractive evening wear that is warm enough – most evening wear is about exposing skin, which just isn’t suitable in local restaurants, etc, as they are freezing.  

* What has prompted these changes?

Puberty, discovering vintage at 16, leaving home at 18, leaving for college at 18, getting my first job at 20-odd, changing fashion in the 90s, moving to the countryside and working from home, menopause. 

* What has remained the same?

I am still obsessed with quality and still prefer vintage clothes to modern ones. 

* Who were your style inspirations when you were younger?

Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Tina Chow. 

* Have you held on to your clothes from the past?

Many of them. Mostly vintage because the quality isn’t replaceable. I also yearn for clothes I used to have. I regret giving away most of the things that I have given away. 

* What are your favourite outfits from your past and why?

My green 50s bubble-fabric dress, because it gave me a sensational hourglass figure; my Jaegar 60s knitted dress, which was such a beautiful colour; my petrol blue viscose jersey v-neck dress from college because I fancied myself as a femme fatale in it; my blue cotton jumpsuit; my khaki cotton jumpsuit that I wore to the Duxford airshow; my Victorian white cotton camiknickers, because I felt beautiful in them; my white cotton broderie corset with attached slip, for the same reason; my pale sage green maille dress that showed off my sensational figure in my 20s.

I notice that most of these date to my college days, which I feel were my heyday, and the last time that I was truly able to use clothing as a means of self-expression. At work I always tried to be smart, but I wouldn’t have chosen to wear those clothes in private life, and in fact never did. And now, necessity once again dictates my wardrobe, which I find dispiriting. 

—————

Well, some of that was a surprise to me. For instance, I hadn’t made the connection that even at pushing 50, I still cover up like a nun. This was absolutely drummed into me from being a tiny girl. I came from a strict, religious family – one of my cousins was sent away in the early 80s for getting pregnant ‘out of wedlock’ and there was a time my father refused to have any of his children visit because we were all living with people we weren’t married to. I still prefer high necks, long sleeves, long skirts etc, and don’t feel comfortable showing skin as I feel people are ‘looking at me’. However, I think I inwardly rebel by wearing quite form-fitting clothing – see mum, I’m covered up, so you can’t object, can you?

I also grew up with the value of clothing drummed into me – the expense of clothes, that they must be maintained. And I only really had a few years of fun with clothes before having to dress for work. I never have, and still can’t bring myself to, regard items as disposable.

And clearly, I’m somewhat in mourning for my youthful shape. Menopause is whacking me with a big hammer these days and leaving me overweight, big-busted, round-tummied and sweating like a pig – none of it useful for a woman’s self-image. I am struggling now to find a sartorial balance for my present and my future.  

Tomorrow: The present – your attitude to clothes right now.  

 

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