Fashion + Psychology

Fashion psychology: repetitious wardrobe complex

Growing up, how many of us were given free reign over our fashion choices? Whether your answer is ‘none’, or ‘complete freedom’, you may find that either way you now find yourself stuck in a style rut as an adult. Cycling between near-identical outfits has been linked to a number of conditions by fashion psychologists. Below, we explore a range of potential causes of ‘Repetitious Wardrobe Complex’.

Choice Fatigue

As we know, our current fashion industry is largely trend-driven and capitalist. It’s no wonder that many of us experience choice fatigue with the number of sartorial options this ‘free market’ model offers. Think about the last time you searched for a specific style online or in store. How many near-identical options did you consider before settling on one?

Even with consumers’ shifting attitudes to fashion, the vast choice the industry offers is ingrained in our approach to buying and outfit building. What’s more, constant bombardment from targeted online advertising now means we may see fashion as something ‘unfinishable’. In other words, we feel that that one ‘final’ purchase will make our wardrobe feel complete.

In reality, holding this attitude to fashion means we can’t ever feel truly secure in our ability to style ourselves. “I have nothing to wear” is a phrase often thrown around, when we simply can’t see the wood for the trees. Oversaturated wardrobes mean we refer back to familiar pieces that keep us in our comfort zones. Taking fashion risks feels like too much effort for many.

With this in mind, could we say that many of those purchases made with the intention of ‘completing’ our wardrobes are about creating an identity? At the point of purchase a garment might grab our attention. Often we attach an ideal or identity to it, something which we want to buy into. Yet, when it comes to getting dressed we feel insecure about creating that identity for ourselves – it seemed much more appealing when it was simply a notion.

Creatures of Habit

Breaking out of this fashion rut comes down to knowing how to break habits. Psychologist Ian Newby-Clark notes that we all have hundreds of habitual behaviours, through which we engage with tasks on an almost subconscious level. Clark acknowledges we don’t always like all of our habits, but taking steps to change them isn’t necessarily straightforward.

When we dress ourselves in this habitual way, we are allowing our brains to make routine choices over and over again. Our brains prefer to remain tranquil. They aren’t predisposed to taking fashion risks which might make us psychologically uncomfortable. Yet, discomfort is a key element of personal growth and discovery. 

So, psychologically we are creatures of habit. Our brains function best around routine and ritual, indulging our need for structure, comfort and familiarity. Stepping into a clothing retailer, overwhelmed with unfamiliar choices, it’s easy to see why our habitual minds may lead us to opt for the same styles over and over. 

Occasionally, we may notice this pattern and take deliberate steps to break it. In buying something unfamiliar and different to our usual style, we may feel a spark of inspiration or excitement. Yet, when it comes to getting dressed, what is the likelihood of reaching for that bold new piece? 

Fashion marketing shows us who we could be, offering us an identity. We may buy into the idea of a new identity on an impulse, but when it comes to living up to it, we may never wear those clothes, because they don’t truthfully feel like ‘us’. 

Psychology

Fashion psychologists such as Dawnn Karen have identified a number of concepts that explain our complicated psychological relationships with fashion

  • Repetitious Wardrobe Complex: wearing the same or similar outfits consistently. 
  • Polychromatic Anguish Syndrome: you feel scared or uncomfortable in trying bold colours, perhaps due to a desire to blend into the background. 
  • Mood Illustration: you dress in correspondence with your mood. An unconscious selection of garments communicates your state of mind to the outside world.
  • Mood Enhancement: an alternative to mood illustration, you dress to optimise your mood, aligning your fashion choices with the pieces that lift your spirits. 

These concepts certainly run a lot deeper than simply preferring comfort over style or feeling ‘at home’ in a certain colour . It may be necessary to dig down to past experiences, or even traumas to explain some of our seemingly trivial style choices. 

Of course, personal comfort should come above all else when it comes to fashion. But, perhaps many of us might want to draw more of a balance between comfort and taking occasional risks. Stepping out of comfort zones is important for growth in any area of life. What’s more, with fashion tied so closely to our personal sense of self, challenging our habits is perhaps crucial here.

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