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

Objects of affection

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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.