Are you a fashion hoarder? Karen von Hahn explores the psychology of collecting

Objects of affection

Haute Hoarders: Imelda Marcos | Daphne Guinness | Victoria Beckham

Crammed into stylist Roslyn Griffith Hall’s downtown Toronto home are vintage bust forms, antique leather shoes, tarnished metal spoons and keys, animal skulls and bones, ceiling-high stacks of Rubbermaid tubs filled with fabric swatches, and racks upon racks of clothes and shoes. “A lot of it is stuff I’ve gathered over the years for shoots, to make into art or to use for my jewellery collection [Fitz & Fur],” she says. “I love rust, so I have all these rusty old horseshoes, pulleys and weights. And then I have all these boxes and trunks, like this old Indian one, and inside each one, there’s more stuff. Surprise! It’s like those Russian nesting dolls.”

Call it an occupational hazard: If you live for fashion and have a creative eye for the curatorial possibilities of artifacts, it can be hard to resist the impulse to hunt and gather so many bright, shiny finds that you risk being labelled a fashion hoarder. Yet there is a big difference between dedicated collectors and those who are just hooked on acquiring more and more stuff. Don Collett is a marriage and family therapist based in Vancouver whose practice gradually led him to specialize in the treatment of the compulsive disorder known as hoarding. Collett finds the subject fascinating. “There is something about our culture and the compulsive acquisition of things that crosses all socio-economic borders and plays into how we feel about the material world and our objects,” he says. “Even those who do not have, want, and we all seem to need to hold on to what we have.”

Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that “to have” is one of three basic forms of human experience, the other two being “to do” and “to be.” Nearly all children, starting from the age of three, are collectors. We buffer ourselves against change with our things; children starting school often arrive carrying their teddy bears as transitional objects. In early civilizations, possessions were often seen as part of someone’s life spirit or self, to the extent that they would be buried with their things to ensure access to them in the afterlife. Clearly the line between ourselves and our stuff is a fuzzy one. As avid collectors such as William Randolph Hearst and Andy Warhol surely appreciated, what we collect and how we collect it become expressions not only of our tastes, but finally of our own curated legacy.

If collecting is such a basic, natural instinct—even, to some extent, an art form—when does it veer into clinical territory? According to Collett, addicted shoppers actually experience a rush of endorphins when they buy something, in much the same way as compulsive gamblers do. “What gamblers are addicted to isn’t gambling per se as much as the adrenalin rush they get whenever they make a bet,” he says. “It isn’t winning they are hooked on, but the flow of good feelings they get when they play.” So in the case of a truly addicted internet shopper, it’s less about the actual find than the rush they get when they click on the virtual shopping cart and hit “complete purchase.”

“This is a natural substance we are exploiting to feel good,” Collett says. “And what I have found is that the need for it is usually to distract and replace feelings of unhappiness or emptiness, typically in a marriage or key relationship.” In his opinion, there is a significant difference between, say, a wealthy art collector who hasn’t seen half of his collection in years because it’s been in storage and someone whose personal space is completely subsumed by a tidal wave of stuff that they find overwhelming. Smith College professor Randy Frost, who has written extensively on hoarding, says the behaviour has three components: compulsive acquisition; saving and never discarding; and an inability to organize those hoarded possessions.

According to Collett, the real litmus test of whether you are a hoarder or simply a committed collector is how much your shopping addiction affects the way you live. “When the sheer volume of objects interferes in your life, either physically or emotionally, that’s when you have a problem,” he says. “If you cannot use the space you live in as it was intended—if, for instance, you can’t make food in your kitchen because every surface is covered with objects, or you can’t use your bathroom because you are unable to beat a path through your objects to get there—then you are talking compulsive hoarding.”

Griffith Hall is not entirely reassured by these definitions. “When you can’t actually use the dining room table because it is covered with jewellery-making equipment and so you’ve been eating dinner every night for the past five years in these two green chairs in the living room—that’s when you should start getting worried,” she says, laughing. “I could be in real trouble here if I hadn’t purged when we moved.” After a beat, like a true borderline case, she adds, “Of course, you think you’re being sensible when you get rid of stuff, but I still think all the time of those really great vintage pieces that I let go.” 

Haute Hoarders

Imelda Marcos
When the Iron Butterfly and her dictator husband, Ferdinand Marcos, fled the Philippines in 1986, it was reported that she had left behind nearly 3,000 pairs of luxury shoes in the deserted Malacanang Palace, including multiple pairs of the same styles, all in size 8 1/2. It turned out Marcos had abandoned a mere 1,060 pairs of shoes—along with 508 floor-length gowns, 888 handbags, 65 parasols and 15 mink coats. Nearly 800 pairs from her collection are on display in the Marikina shoe museum in Manila. In the words of one U.S. congressman: “Compared to Imelda, Marie Antoinette was a bag lady.”

Daphne Guinness
Admired as one of the most original and inspired clotheshorses of her generation, socialite and couture collector Daphne Guinness has every item in her vast collection referenced on a database. This was a lucky turn of events for Valerie Steele of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum in New York, who spent two years sifting through the heiress’ collection of an estimated 2,500 garments in order to narrow it down to about 100 items for a recent exhibition. In 2008, in the process of selling her London home, Guinness decided to do a little spring cleaning. She set aside about 1,000 pieces, including stunning items from Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Alexander McQueen, to sell in an auction to benefit the charity Womankind. According to Guinness, it was quite a difficult process. “The thing is, most of the clothes I really still like,” she said.

Victoria Beckham
It is no secret that when it comes to her taste in fashion, the singer-turned-designer lives up to her Spice Girls moniker. In 2009, the Daily Mail reported that the wife of soccer legend David Beckham had redefined “posh” with her collection of 100 Hermès Birkin bags, estimated to be worth over $2 million. The bags are so coveted that there are waiting lists the world over for freshly issued Birkins (named after actress Jane Birkin), which are hand-crafted in France. They cost around $8,000, but the price can sometimes hit six figures, depending on the materials. Beckham has been spotted toting the pink ostrich skin and black crocodile versions. She also owns the Himalayan style, which comes with a three-carat diamond and is worth about $120,000.