You Are What You Wear: Interview with Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner

Today, I’m interviewing Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, whose debut popular psychology book and style guide just hit shelves. Jenny, as nicknamed, was referred to me through a colleague who had found her on Psychology Today, where her blog column about “fashion psychology,” had made a big splash. Below she talks about her original concept, the one that hooked me, and what it takes to write the book you want the public to see.


You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal About You

1) What inspired you, as a clinical psychologist, to start a “wardrobe consulting” business?

I have always found joy in cleaning out closets and creating wardrobes, but I noticed that we need to be cleared out and restocked just as much as our closets! Unfortunately, we discount dress behaviors as meaningless, but this is where I am able to find a deeper connection to the self. When I was studying to become a psychologist, while working in retail, combining the two happened naturally…and the psychology of dress was born!

2) What exactly is wardrobe consulting? Why is it important?

In this process, the client learns to identify the dress problems, find if there is an internal root, address the internal issue, and dress the improved self. The examination of shopping, assembling , and storing behaviors delves much deeper than a standard makeover, and hopefully prompts greater change.

3) How is your premise different from the stylists we see on television, from “What Not to Wear” to to “Hoarders?”

I fall right in the middle of the two. WNTW focuses primarily on the external part of the self. Hoarders focuses on the internal treatment for those who are suffering from clinical psychological disorders. I have a 50/50 split between the internal and external, style and psychological…bridging the gap between the two.

4) How did you know when your blog on Psychology Today, “The Psychology of Dress,” was the right book idea to pitch to agents?

I was very lucky, they approached me. But I still created a product out of a passion, did my research on the development and marketability of my topic, and learned about the publishing process. The idea may never “feel right,” but take what you love, make a daily commitment to develop your concept (such as blogging or writing for a local newspaper) and learn about the publishing industry (through mentorship and how-to books). Your amorphous pipe dream can become a strategically “operationalized” plan of action.

5) How long did the process take you from blog to book?

In 2007, thirsting for a creative outlet amidst my dissertation, I began writing You Are What You Wear. In August of 2009, I was offered my own blog through Psychology Today. By October of 2009, an agent contacted me inquiring about the book I had written, which I had mentioned on my PT bio page. I finished the proposal in November 2010, the same month it was sold, and I wrote the first draft in May 2011. By April of 2012, the book was published!

6) How have you found the process? Exhilarating? Exhausting? How did it differ from your expectations?

It is both! When I had the book in my hands for the first time I  immediately thought “Look at what I have done!” My next thought was “Oh God, what have I done?” Under the pressure of writing, editing, marketing, criticism, and misquotes, I must remind myself to take a moment to offer gratitude for the thrill of the process. That is where I am now, just taking it all in.

7) What celebrity closets could benefit from your fashion consulting? 

With the phenomenal work of celeb stylists, we do not see as many fashion disasters as we used to. So from a psychological perspective, dress behaviors that would have indicated internal disruptions are now corrected and the inner-workings are masked. I would like to work with a celeb who is dissatisfied with or curious about the psychological underpinnings of her look. Remember, it is not the closet mistakes that I want to address, it is the unhealthy internal issues driving them.

—Personal Note:

Funny about these “virtual” client relationships: when you sign on a writer whose work you believe is groundbreaking and will sell far and wide, you rarely consider that you’re arranging your own marriage: your partner is yours for life. Jenny is the rare “catch,” the one who makes it easy and alot of fun. The kind of writer you got in the business for, and those challenges I personally love, creating a story from a singular, powerful idea.

Jenny, I still can’t believe it – am grateful for you.

David Bodanis

"Writer and futurist Bodanis imparts fresh insight into the genius—and failures—of the 20th century’s most celebrated scientist...This provocative biography illuminates the human flaws that operate subtly in the shadows of scientific endeavor." — Publishers Weekly