The Meanings We Wear

What is the Psychology behind object meaning and how can it be applied to understand how people grow attached to their clothes?

Words by Judith Achumba-Wöllenstein

I worked with one of my closest friends, a talented fashion designer, to make my wedding dress. After sharing my vision and ideas in countless moodboards, she helped me pick the fabric, introducing me to Italian manufacturers she had worked with on previous collections — fabrics I would never have had access to as a mere mortal. Taking my wishes into account, she created the most intricate design, involving me at every step of the way. We spend countless hours chatting life and love, while draping, fitting, hemming and re-adjusting.

The first time I got to put on the finished dress was moments before I walked down the aisle. All the anxiety I had felt when waking up that same morning disappeared in an instant. The dress fit me perfectly: the fabric embraced my body like a long lost friend accentuating every curve with its soft folds, while my personality and style were stitched into every seam. I felt as if by putting on the dress, I was embodying the preparation of the past months and was already the wife that I was about to become. And while the dress had been designed “sustainably”, i.e. in such a way that it could be easily adjusted to be worn for more commonplace occasions thereafter, I have never touched it since. The significance it carries feels too heavy on my shoulders; though I’m certain it will come out of its garment bag when the right occasion presents itself. Until then, it shall be the first thing I grab should my flat ever catch on fire.

David Luraschi Image by David Luraschi,
Edun Image by Edun,

The current debate around sustainability in fashion is primarily focused on how to improve our technology and processes in such a way that we can produce products that leave a smaller ecological imprint. Research around household goods, however, has argued that in today’s throwaway culture, this will only lead to landfills brimming with sustainable waste.

This research proposes, that to address the challenge of sustainability, human behaviour towards objects needs to be assessed to gain insight on the meaning and place of these objects in our lives.

Objects, including clothing items, have both private and public meanings. Public meanings are socially constructed by the history and culture surrounding a garment, uniforms being one of the more obvious examples. Private meanings, on the other hand, are often unique to the wearer only. This is especially the case with those items of clothing to which we are particularly attached. A recent study revealed that participants believed that their favourite garments had been imbued with a unique essence, which the researchers called “symbolic resonance”. By wearing these garments, this symbolic resonance was embodied and profoundly affected the wearer by immediately instilling emotional security, comfort and strength.

Eddie Chacon Image by Eddie Chacon,

This impact on the wearer’s psychological state points to the fact that the purpose of most clothing transcends its utilitarian function. Unlike fashionable clothes, garments that we have a special attachment to, are unique, as they do not lose this power over our psyche once the initial excitement of their newness has worn off. Attachment items are removed from the norms of fashion. We do not seem to care, whether the item prescribes to the current modus operandi of fashionable dress. Its value is anchored in our strong emotions felt towards it rather than its monetary worth. While the item is factually worthless in the eyes of others, it has become priceless to us. This can take on such extreme forms that garments that are worn out to the point of almost falling apart are still kept safely in our wardrobes. Their value is in their mere existence.

They are a tangible extension of the stories, which they have come to represent; helping us to tap into old memories and perhaps to hold onto the person we once were.

Toby Coulson Image by Toby Coulson,

My example of the wedding dress is perhaps an extreme one. Nevertheless, my story serves to illustrate how the process, design, materials and narrative can influence the personal meanings we associate with garments and their influence over our psychological well-being. It also explains our subsequent behaviour towards these objects as a result of the meaning, purpose and place they have acquired in our life. In today’s “throwaway” culture, simply investing in the design of longer lasting products by means of better technology, new production methods and newly invented materials may not be enough. Instead, researchers have proposed that to address issues of sustainability in fashion, we have to better understand human behaviour in relation to the clothes they own and the meaning these clothes hold to the wearer. By helping fashion brands to better understand and influence this meaning in order to positively affect behaviour towards clothes, psychology can assist fashion in solving some of the most pressing issues currently faced by the industry.

Further Reading:

Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences And Empathy by Jonathan Chapman
Possessions And The Extended Self by Russel Belk — 1988


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