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Conduct a "dig' in your closet

(ran NP, TP, PT, HT, CI editions)

The next time you wonder what you've done with your life, check out the clues among the clothes in your closet. You'll probably see chapters of your life unfold in the garments you've kept.

Fashion consultant Jacqueline Murray, who calls such cherished clothing "nostalgia pieces," believes that we shed these different costumes as we shed those phases of our life.

The onset of this nostalgia, whether over clothing or career, is a sign of normal transition. What's more, if your overstuffed closet yields nothing to wear, maybe it's really your attitude that's changing.

"We've realized that clothing is not going to solve our problems, is not going to rescue us, is not going to get us out of a depression, is not going to find us a prince," says Murray, whose own metamorphosed skins include a black fur miniskirt and European haute couture. The study of clothing as a language and the psychology of clothing have been her passion for many years.

What we wear _ and especially the meaning of what we wear _ changes as we pass through various stages of life. A grandmother whose "hippie son" is now a father, Murray says that children, teen-agers and some young adults choose clothing for its expression of their independence. In the first age of life, clothing is about rebellion.

One day, when her youngest child appeared ready for school in Minneapolis winter with all the fingers cut off her leather gloves, Murray commented on the "cute costume" she was wearing.

"This is not a costume; these are my clothes," replied her daughter seriously. "I learned a lot from that comment," muses Murray.

These days, as Murray cleans out her clients' closets, she finds evidence of upward mobility. In the second age of life, she says, we're still dressing up for our dreams. "The costuming that adults do is business dress, business suits _ they go into this certain framework of clothing," she says. There are "rules upon rules" about what you wear if you want to be an insider in a certain group, she says.

Men in particular demonstrate this lockstep conformity by the way they choose and wear neckties. In a social milieu where clothing standards are otherwise about quality and fit, the necktie is the most visible expression of personality a man makes when he dresses himself.

"Doors are opened and closed by the right necktie," says Murray, adding that the first positive thought crossing a man's mind at retirement is, "I won't have to wear a necktie anymore."

Some clothing says, "I cooperate!" The necktie is "like a leash." While working or in mid-life, "You want to be like (someone or something)! Like Ralph Lauren. We all want Ralph Lauren towels _ or the houses they look like they belong in." Branding and marketing are strong motivators. As a result, clothing styles are made overnight, like the open-throated suit blouse made famous by L.A. Law and the opulent, bejeweled tops spun off by the heroines of Dallas.

But later in life, tastes and character outgrow the realm of fantasy, and, with it, the current world of fashion, comments Murray. "Once you know in your bones that these clothes are not going to bring that dream, it can't work on you anymore.

"That's when (people) lose their way in the fashion world, where the obsession with youth obscures the market opportunities . . . But you have to go through it to know."

So how do you find clothing that's utilitarian, comfortable and appealing _ and expresses your highly evolved taste?

Think about your needs _ from the top down. Be organized and deliberate. Get some help. Make friends with an experienced salesperson at a good store in your price range. When such a person gets to know you, your sizes, your taste, your style _ and your wardrobe _ you can call and say, "You know that gray suit I bought last year? I need something for that."

Don't be discouraged. "In the beginning of any new phase, you try this, you try that, and you're uncertain," Murray says. "But once you get back in place, this is your new normal. When you've found your style, it feels good again."