Signs Your Wardrobe Is Pointing Toward Emotional Distress

The external matches the internal.

by Natalia Lusinski
Lyuba Burakova/Stocksy/ TZR
Lyuba Burakova/Stocksy/ TZR

You get up, do your morning routine, then get dressed. But do you throw on any old thing or do you carefully choose what you’re going to wear? Or does it depend on the day? According to fashion psychologists, there is definitely a correlation between dressing and mental health, meaning there are certain signs that your wardrobe is a symptom of emotional distress. But how can you tell — and what should you do about it?

Dr. Dawnn Karen, fashion psychologist, founder of Fashion Psychology Success, and author of Dress Your Best Life, says there is definitely an alignment between “the attitude and the attire.” In other words, there is a connection between the internal and external, “your emotional state and how you dress and present yourself in the world,” she tells TZR. “The academic definition of the fashion psychology field is ‘the study and treatment of how color, image, style, beauty, shape, and fabric affects human behavior while addressing cultural norms and cultural sensitivities,’” she explains. “While the informal definition is ‘it’s all about styling from the inside out.’” Karen says there are a few ways to tell if someone’s emotional state is coming out through their fashion choices. For example, they may wear the same outfit every day; wear clothes that are missing buttons/accessories; wear something out of place that doesn’t fit the environment they’re in; or dress from another time period. “I’m not sure I’d call it ‘emotional distress,’ but something is going on,” she says.

Behavioral Psychologist and Professor Carolyn Mair, author of The Psychology of Fashion and founder of Psychology.Fashion, also says there are many factors at play when it comes to our fashion choices. “When people are clinically depressed, they are less likely to care about their appearance in general,” she tells TZR in an email. “However, for psychologically healthy people, physical appearance matters. We make judgments about whether we like someone based on appearance alone in under one second and then attribute positive (or negative) psychological characteristics accordingly.” She says then we often try to find “evidence” to support our initial judgment — and for the majority of people, it is problematic, as they can be categorized according to stereotypes. For example, certain apparel can align us with a specific subculture (e.g., in the past, leather jackets, and more recently, hoodies). “Fortunately, fashion has become more diverse, and we now see people adopting a range of styles, each of which used to be associated with one particular group,” she adds. “Clothing can help us feel good about ourselves when we feel good in it — or when it is associated with a positive event or outcome.”


Sarah Seung-McFarland, a licensed psychologist, design and wardrobe consultant, interior stylist, and founder of Trulery.com, agrees that how we dress can say a lot about how we’re feeling internally. “Clothing is an extension of our imagination and communicates a message to ourselves and others about our identity, and how we want to show up in the world,” she tells TZR in an email. “Sometimes we are in control of this message and other times we are not as in control as we think, or would like to be. Clothing can reflect our ideal self, but it can also reveal our emotional distress.”

Seung-McFarland says we all struggle with a range of mental health/emotional issues, and the way these present can look different from one person to the next. “For instance, if two people are depressed, the way their depression shows up in their physical appearance can look very different,” she says. “One person can still look pulled together, and the other may not. And we may incorrectly conclude one is healthy and the other isn’t when in fact their depression is just showing up differently.” Nevertheless, she says there are definitely some signs we can look for in our own wardrobe behaviors that tell us we need to make an emotional shift. Ahead, our experts reveal some key indicators.

You Make Too Many Regretful Purchases

Seung-McFarland says a big sign that you may be emotionally distressed in regard to your wardrobe is if you make many regretful purchases. “Most of us have had a regretful purchase, but it’s problematic when it becomes habitual,” she explains. “It’s a sign we aren’t clear about what we’re looking for and may have a poor sense of our personal style. This makes us vulnerable to glitzy sales tactics that only reinforce buyers’ remorse.” Instead, she says your clothes should fit your unique energy. “But if you’re really struggling with regretful purchases, let it guide you toward understanding more about your sense of style,” she says. “After buying so many clothes that don’t work, you can’t help but sharpen your shoppers’ eye.”

Karen adds that people may have buyer’s remorse after buying something because they’re purchasing something, but not getting to the root of why they are purchasing it. “The regret comes in when you’re constantly buying things and you’re not aware of ‘why,’” she says. “Are you trying to cover something up? Are you trying to mask a feeling? Feeling lonely? And if you feel lonely, you’re overcompensating by surrounding yourself with items.” But getting to the cause of the loneliness is key versus excessive shopping.

Mair adds that if you are getting into debt because you are spending too much on clothes, you should consciously stop at the point of purchase and ask yourself if you really need this piece, when would you wear it, and how much cost-per-wear would it be. “You should also consider if you already have something similar at home,” she says. “And avoid ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes, and only buy something when you have the money to do so.” She says this is where thrift stores come in handy. “You might be able to swap clothes with friends, too, or attend swap events or learn to sew (although this can be more expensive than ready-made),” she says. “If you are shopping to fill the time, or for ‘therapy’, you could think about starting a new hobby or volunteering (maybe in a thrift store).”

You Obsessively Follow Trends

Being aware of what’s happening in the world helps us to be attuned to shifts that are occurring in fashion, and we get to decide if we want to accommodate those shifts, Seung-McFarland says. “But if you blindly follow fashion trends without considering how they enhance or detract from your personal style, you might be relying on them for security and approval,” she says. “Studies show that those who use clothes to make the right impression feel good about themselves, are more confident, and think better when they are satisfied with their clothes. But they have a poor self-perception when they are dissatisfied with it. So it’s important for you to make the clothes rather than the clothes make you.” Karen adds that she talks about this concept in her book — are you dressing for yourself or for someone else? She says if someone has been pretty isolated, they may purchase something trendy or that they see online (like on Instagram) just for the notion of conformity and belonging. But, once again, she says this points to deeper issues, either from childhood or present-day ones. However, Mair adds that people like fashion because they want to look good, and they may believe that being “fashionable” is a way to look good. “But this is not a sign of emotional distress or a mental health issue,” she says.


Your Closet Is In Disarray

If your closet is a mess — or all your closets are a mess — it’s also a sign that you may be emotionally distressed. “A messy closet can make the mornings (and any other time, for that matter) feel disorganized,” Seung-McFarland says. “And if your closet is in constant disarray, it may signal chaos in other areas of your life. One way to resolve this is to get it organized and use the process as a catalyst to organize those other areas.” The first thing to do is to get rid of clothes you will likely never wear again to make room for new ones. “The act of getting rid of clothes is more than a practical one — it’s also an emotional process that can be applied elsewhere,” she says. “If you’re depressed or anxious, you may have to get rid of old ways of thinking to make room for new ways of processing and being with yourself and others.” Next, fill your closet with your best staple items and specialty pieces, and see what else you need to build your wardrobe. “The idea of making it work with what you have before adding more shows an ability to place value on what’s yours, which in turn creates a momentum that allows you to get more,” Seung-McFarland says.

You Are Preoccupied With Clothing Size

Seung-McFarland says that if you are preoccupied with clothing size, it may be an emotional issue. “With all the body positivity and body neutrality messages out there, some of us still struggle with our sense of self and body image,” she explains. “Our self-concept tends to be wrapped up in clothing size, and we manage ideas about our body and self through it.” Women often manage negative feelings about clothing size by “cheating” the numerical indicators. And since stores use different sizings for the same body type, a woman who wants to feel thinner will shop at a store that makes her a 6 rather than a 10, Seung-McFarland adds. Similarly, some women practice “vanity sizing,” buying clothes that are too small in order to make them feel better. Seung-McFarland says that if you find you’re overly preoccupied with clothing size, do some introspection to find out why you place so much value on it. Ask yourself: What does it mean about you to not be size “blank”? What other aspects of you are valuable? “These types of questions can minimize the value you place on clothing size in relation to your self-worth,” she says.

Your Wardrobe Feels Uninspiring

If your wardrobe feels “blah,” it’s time to figure out why. Seung-McFarland says there may be many reasons why your clothing feels uninspiring. “But if your clothes generally do not fit the life you want to live, there is probably a disconnect between you and your wardrobe,” she says. “This could signify that you are stuck in another area of your life.” She recommends getting to the source of what’s keeping you stuck. “Then consider the lifestyle you want and work toward curating a wardrobe that reflects this,” she adds. “If money is an obstacle, consider buying one item that makes the most difference in your wardrobe at a price point you can manage, and repeat this whenever you are prepared to shop.”

Maria Korneeva/Moment/Getty Images

If You Have An Unhealthy Relationship With Your Wardrobe, Seek Help

Since your wardrobe can be a symptom of emotional distress, you may need to seek help via a mental health professional. “Generally speaking, an unhealthy relationship with clothes typically signals deeper-seated emotional issues that must be addressed first,” says Seung-McFarland. “Our external image and our internal image support one another. And if problems with our internal image are not addressed, our clothes or appearance will never be enough or work the way we want it to.” So she recommends addressing any self-concept or self-esteem issues that present themselves and to use clothing to motivate your emotional growth. “One way to do this is to consider your life goals — and ensure that your wardrobe behaviors support them,” she says. “It may be best to do this with the help of a wardrobe consultant (like myself, ha!). They can help you detect problematic patterns in your wardrobe behavior (e.g., having a closet full of clothes you’ve never worn because you shop as a way to cope); connect it to unresolved emotional issues; and help you formulate a plan to use clothes to help resolve those issues.”

Karen also says you can try to have a “mindful morning,” which she talks more about in her book: set your alarm for a bit earlier; do a self check-in (ask yourself how you feel and how you’d like to feel today); then dress accordingly. She says you can opt for comfort by dressing in “mood illustration dress” to perpetuate your current mood. “If you’re kind of groggy, you may put on leggings, athleisure, street wear, or some type of comfort attire,” she says. “You could actually activate the serotonin [which boosts your mood] in the brain to produce a calming effect, which I call ‘serotonin dressing.’ And if you woke up on wrong side of the bed and want to enhance your mood, you can ‘mood enhancement dress,’ which I call ‘dopamine dressing,’ to activate dopamine [the feel-good chemical in the brain].” In this case, you’d go to your closet and pick out something in your favorite color or print. “You can take these steps to develop a healthy relationship with your clothing and have a mindful morning,” she adds.