How Wardrobe Envy Affects Your Friendships

And how to keep the clothing comparisons from becoming toxic, according to a psychologist.

fashion accessory collage

Instagram @iamthatshop/ Getty Images/ Amanda Lauro

During a recent Zoom call with a college friend, I found myself drooling over her wardrobe. As she excitedly showed me some of her new fall finds, including tailored jackets, Pucci-inspired dresses, and colorful vintage clogs, I wished they were mine. It wasn’t the first-time “wardrobe envy” struck. I still remember coveting my classmate’s pink satin jacket at the age of 8. Just the other week, it was the 580-pound Molly Goddard top that Harry Styles wore on the cover of his new album that I was pining for.

As a psychologist, I know envy is an everyday emotion but my history seemed worth investigating. Was there something deeper behind my lifelong habit of pining for other people's shoes, handbags and clothes?

“Envy is an emotional experience that arises when another person has something we desire,” explains Miriam Kirmayer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and friendship expert. While pining for someone else’s closet might sound like a scene from the 90's movie Clueless, Kirmayer says this emotion impacts real-life friendships, too. 

“Some of my clients feel envious of their friend’s wardrobe or sense of style,” she shares. In her work, Kirmayer finds that wardrobe envy often coexists with wanting your friend’s confidence, physique, or professional opportunities.

Monica Corcoran Harel, founder of media company Pretty Ripe, can relate. "One of my dearest friends is a costume designer with a beautiful wardrobe, and when I see her closet, I get triggered.” 

Harel shares that her friend often dresses lavishly, drawing attention to herself wherever she goes. “Right now, I'm wearing vintage overalls, and she could be wearing a ball gown,” she shares. As the founder of a new business, Harel is on a budget, but she says her envy isn’t tied to money. My friend’s clothes say, “look at me,” and sometimes I want to stand in her shoes, Harel confesses. 

Even though envy is a part of nearly every relationship, we often misread its meaning, says Marisa G. Franco, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, and author of Platonic: How the science of attachment can help you make — and keep — friends. Because the emotion feels terrible, we mistakenly believe it means we're “bad,” explains the friendship expert. However, understanding the driver behind this green-eyed monster can dial down shame and help us find ways to cope. 

When it comes to wardrobe envy, our need for social belonging can play a role. Researchers call this 'stylistic affinity,' and have found that dressing like someone we admire can foster a feeling of closeness.

For starters, when it comes to wardrobe envy, our need for social belonging can play a role. Researchers call this “stylistic affinity,” and have found that dressing like someone we admire can foster a feeling of closeness. For instance, we might buy the same athleisure that our best friend wears or the same dress that our mentor owns. 

But when the need for “stylistic affinity” goes unmet, feelings of inferiority and exclusion crop up. For instance, consumer research shows that not being able to afford luxury items can ignite envy and in some cases, schadenfreude, which is deriving satisfaction from someone else’s hardship. For example, you might secretly feel elated if someone steals your friend’s Louis Vuitton.

However, these unpleasant emotions aren’t always related to couture items. “Style doesn’t have to be expensive to invoke envy,” says Kirmayer. “Purchasing new clothes and keeping up with trends requires disposable income that many people do not have, and this disparity isn't just an individual problem.” 

Freelance writer and editor Sara Radin has a handful of friends who can buy whatever they want. “When they wear designer outfits that I can’t afford, I still get an icky sense of discomfort,” she shares. 

[Wardrobe envy] can tell us what we want from life and our relationships.

While envy can feel unpleasant and embarrassing, Franco says it’s a powerful messenger. "It can tell us what we want from life and our relationships," she shares. According to the psychologist, the key is to befriend the emotion instead of letting it control us. 

Here are some ways to prevent wardrobe envy from tearing apart friendships. 

Suspend judgment and acknowledge the emotion.

Too often, self-judgment stops us from talking about any flavor of envy, including wardrobe envy. In fact, it might seem downright petty to tell your friend that you covet their new necklace or how they dress like Carrie Bradshaw. But when envy goes unaddressed, we can behave in ways that sabotage the relationship. 

Tanya Trevett, an author and mental health advocate, admits to brushing her envious feelings aside. “One of my friend’s has impeccable style, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t mimic her look,” Trevett shares. Instead of bringing up the topic or asking her friend (who owns a boutique) for styling advice, she avoided her. “I felt guilty and immature for feeling this way about someone I love.” 

One of the best ways to prevent envy from hurting friendships is to just acknowledge it, says Kirmayer. “Recognizing and validating our experience can help us work through the emotion in healthier ways,” the psychologist shares. 

With the help of her therapist, Trevett came to understand the real source of her envy. "It's really about my lack of confidence," she shares. Now, she's working on feeling more comfortable and examining how her self-limiting beliefs impact her relationships. 

Befriend curiosity.

Another way to find envy’s silver lining is to exercise curiosity. Ask yourself, “What is this emotion trying to tell me?" suggests Kirmayer. 

Sometimes, envy has less to do with the coveted piece of clothing or jewelry and more with what those items represent, she explains. For example, it might mean that you want to take better care of yourself or pursue a new creative outlet. 

To temper her envious feelings, Harel turned to self-reflection. “I asked myself, ‘What’s this really about?’” She discovered that her feelings weren’t about her friend’s fancy dresses and Tom Ford sunglasses. “I realized this is more about feeling worthy of attention and that my friend isn't trying to diminish my shine.”

Talk honestly with your friend.

According to Franco, there’s nothing like honesty to cleanse a fraught friendship. Starting a conversation by saying, “This is really hard for me,” shows courage. Kirmayer says we can take this a step further by adding, “I’m working to understand what my envy is really about, and if I’ve been distant, this is why.” 

In the end, these vulnerability exercises can help us confront envy in ways that protect our well-being, as well as our friendships. 

Turn envy into inspiration.

Despite its bad rap, envy can point us toward our true desires, which can help us feel empowered. When we uncover this message, we can take active steps to cultivate meaningful change in our own lives. 

Instead of focusing on the clothes she couldn't afford, Radin poured energy into curating her wardrobe. “I started vintage shopping, and I take a lot of pride in my style,” she shares. 

While Harel still doesn't feel comfortable mimicking her friend's look, she's taken new risks. "I've bought a few more colorful and flamboyant pieces," she says. "Emotionally, it's helped me accept that sometimes I deserve attention, too.” 

Related Articles