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Why your wardrobe is far more than a big box for clothes

Wardrobes are not just storage spaces. They are sites of social engagement that communicate significant messages about our identities and values. If we define a “wardrobe” not just as a piece of furniture, but a collection of garments that is specific to its owner, we still only achieve a partial understanding of its many different functions.

Here are some of the many personal, social and economic functions of our wardrobes:

Curated display

The wardrobe is comparable to museum collections. The owner acts as curator, selecting items for display. This curation involves systems of organisation and classification. Work clothes are kept separately from casual clothes; as are winter and summer wardrobes. This process of methodological organisation makes the wardrobe more than just a storage box. [1]

The collection is curated not only for ourselves but also for guests. Select audiences are invited to view this collection as evidence of the curator’s knowledge and taste. Teenagers in particular engage in social activities surrounding their wardrobes, sharing purchases with friends or, increasingly, online followers.

In some situations, parts of the wardrobe may be on display for a wider audience. The shoes worn by women who suffered foot binding in China were often on display in cabinets their homes. These cabinets were not dissimilar to those in museum exhibitions, demonstrating both the beauty of this exquisitely decorated footwear and the unnaturally small size of the wearers’ feet. [2]

Memory box

As Saulo Cwerner observes, “wardrobes enclose not only clothes, but the personal biographies” of the owner [3]. The wardrobe is a site of personal archaeology that grants access to memories of events and significant life changes. Clothing acts as a reminder of past events, and is comparable to keepsakes or souvenirs.

Many of the clothes that we keep in our wardrobes are records of who we once were, or events that we once attended. Jeans that are now too large remind us of weight loss; a jersey stretched from maternity wear reminds us of motherhood; a dress bought for a special event reminds us of whatever occasion or anniversary we were celebrating when we wore it. Celebration. We keep these clothes as souvenirs of our past.

Tody wardrobe

Disguise kit

A wardrobe is unique to its owner, containing a collection of clothes that is not replicated anywhere else. It is, therefore, deeply connected to our sense of self. Depending on the size of a collection, it contains many varied possible outfits, each representing a different aspect of our identity.

Identity is “enacted through our clothes”, and the way we choose to dress on any particular occasion reflects a different self [4]. In this way, the identities that we present are flexible. A wardrobe stores the means for managing and constructing our various identities. By selecting any combination of garments from a wardrobe, we enhance some aspects of our identities and conceal others. Then, on our next visit, we select another outfit and transform into someone else.

Source of income

There are an increasing number of opportunities to make money out of collections of clothes. Businesses like Rentez Vous acknowledge that not everyone wants to fork out the full purchase price of a designer garment, but many are happy to pay a percentage of that price to rent a garment for an event. Making about 20% of the purchase value from every loan, a garment can pay for itself within a single season. [5]

Expression of wealth

Much has been written about fashion as “conspicuous consumption” [6]. An ability to keep up with changing fashion is a sign of disposable income. If a single garment can signify wealth in this way, then a wardrobe provides even more evidence. The size of a collection indicates how much money its owner has to spend, and thereby provides a reasonably reliable indicator of their income.

Moreover, the variety of clothes in the wardrobe may reflect the owner’s lifestyle. A varied wardrobe, with garments ranging from business suits to cocktail gowns signifies a more lavish lifestyle than a wardrobe that is filled with an assortment of jeans and T-shirts. Here, it is not just the kind of clothes that signifies wealth (we all wear jeans and T-shirts), but the diversity. Someone who has occasion to dress in many different styles of garment is likely to be of a higher socioeconomic status than someone who does not.

Full wardrobe
Photograph: Tito Atchaa/Getty Images


There are 1.7bn unworn items of clothing in UK wardrobes. Our reasons for keeping these clothes vary, but are often a reaction to the guilt that we may feel when we create unnecessary waste. An unwise purchase is shameful evidence of poor shopping skills, and clothes discarded in the bin would be an acknowledgement of that failure, as well as an unnecessary contribution to landfill. Rather than throw unwanted clothes in the bin, we choose to store them indefinitely, in the hope that they may, one day, prove a worthwhile investment.

[1] Saulo B. Cwerner, Clothes at Rest: Elements for a Sociology of the Wardrobe, Fashion Theory 5 (no. 1), 2001, 79-92.
[2] O’Keefe, Linda, Shoes, New York: Workman, 2006.
[3] Saulo B. Cwerner, Op. Cit.
[4] Strashnaya, Renata, Constructing the Visual Self: Dressing for Occasions, in Fashion: Exploring Critical Issues, Oxford: Interdisciplinary Press, 2012.
[5] The Sharing Economy, The Bottom Line, BBC Radio 4, 1 February 2014.
[6] See Thorstein Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), for the origins of the notion of conspicuous consumption.

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