Purchasing hope. Why do we buy clothes? blog graphic

In the New York Times I was reading The Dress Promised Me Something the Doctors Couldn’t. The subtitle is what caught my eye: “My obsessive online shopping wasn’t really about the clothes.” Basically the essay is one woman’s journey of health uncertainty and searching for a diagnosis. And intertwined is the rise of her accompanying shopping obsession. It got me thinking about why we buy clothes (not that that’s a hard thing to get me thinking about).

“It’s not really about the clothes” is what I say when I’m asked to describe Talking About Clothes with Holly Chayes. Yes, it’s a podcast where I talk about clothes with people who wear them and so we talk about clothes a lot. But / and / also, it’s a podcast that’s not about clothes at all. 

But even when you’re not facing an unknown, uncertain, potentially fatal diagnosis, the clothes we buy are seldom about the clothes themselves. 

We buy out of boredom. Or hope. We buy out of a desire for a future. Or a longing for the past. We buy aspirationally. Or defensively. 

Or all of the above. 

We can rationalize and justify our purchases, but most of the time we don’t buy clothing intentionally or rationally. 

We click buy out of desperation or exasperation or fear. Or excitement and hope and joy. And then layer over those emotions with logic. 

Can we buy clothes with intention and sound reasoning? Absolutely! 

Is that where most of our clothing purchase regrets come from? Is that how we end up with a closet full of things we never wear? No. 

When we buy clothes it’s seldom about the clothing. Because our clothes are so wrapped up in other parts of ourselves – who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. 

On some level we all know this, and so clothing becomes the arena our dream and doubts, hopes and fears play out in, even subconsciously. 

Sometimes comfort shopping is exactly what you need to self-sooth. (Just don’t ruin, your financial future for it.)​ Sometimes buying a party dress with parties still looking fuzzy on a distant horizon, or real pants when you’ve been living in leggings all year, is an expression of hope for a future when hoping might be tough.

Asking “why do we buy clothes” is kind of like asking “why do we buy food?” 

On some level we have to eat. And on another level it’s not about the food. 

And the truth is, it’s not about the clothes either.