1: It’s a Friday evening, and there’s a party Ingrid and I said we’d go to. It’s a Friday evening, which all too often means Ingrid and I are exhausted by our work weeks, and we are not feeling it. But we promised we’d go to this party. And it’s sort of work-related for me, there’s some business I need to take care of there. And there are, in fact, people there we want to see. Or, more accurately, there are people there we want to want to see, people we would normally want to see if we weren’t so fried.
So we sigh, and we dutifully change clothes. We crawl out of our day clothes, and resist the urge to just crawl into bed, and get into our party frocks.
And like that! — we start to feel it. We start to get excited. We get a second wind, an infusion of energy. We think about the people who are going to be at this party, and suddenly we don’t just want to want to see them — we actually want to see them. We look at ourselves in our mirrors, at these gorgeous, elegant-yet-sexy, stylish-yet-friendly party people, and we think, “They look like fun! We want to hang out with them! If they’re going to be at the party, it’s sure to be awesome!”
2: It’s an overcast afternoon, in more ways than one. I’m struggling with depression, and it’s hard today. I’m in my bathrobe, rotting on the sofa. It’s hard to do anything, to want to do anything, to even imagine wanting to do anything ever again. But I know, intellectually, and even emotionally, that if I can just get myself out of the house, even for half an hour, I will feel better.
So I take a quick shower, or maybe just take a birdbath in the sink, and I force myself to put on some clothes. Not even interesting clothes, necessarily: just jeans, or a plain skirt and tights and boots. Something other than a reeking bathrobe.
And I feel better. I don’t feel great, but I feel better. I no longer feel like a lazy pathetic loser wasting her one short life sitting around on the sofa in her bathrobe feeling sorry for herself. I feel like a functional adult. Or at least, like a potentially functional adult. I feel like a person who is capable of leaving the house, capable of running a couple of errands and getting a little exercise, capable of getting out into the limited but not trivial sunlight that the day has to offer.
3: I’m at a conference. Or rather, I’m in a hotel room at some un-fucking-godly hour in the morning, getting ready for a conference. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a morning person, and I am fighting the urge to say “Fuck it,” to return to the big comfy hotel bed and sleep for six more hours, to stay in the big bed all day watching TV and masturbating and ordering room service. But I remember, vaguely and distantly through my groggy haze, that I actually do like this work, that I am wildly fortunate to be able to do this work, that once I’m at the conference I will want to be there doing this work. Also, I remember that the conference organizers are paying me to be there, and if I don’t show up they’ll want their money back.
So I put on whatever dressy suity thing I brought, whatever combination of jacket/ dress or skirt/ interesting stockings/ jewelry/ dressy-but-comfortable shoes I spent an hour picking out when I was packing for this trip. I look in the mirror.
And I feel like a grownup. I feel like a professional. I feel put-together, authoritative but friendly and approachable. I feel happy to be seeing my old friends and colleagues, excited to be meeting new people and getting exposed to new ideas. I feel like someone who gives a damn. I feel like someone worth listening to.
4: I’m sick. I don’t mean that I have a cold: I mean that I’m recovering from cancer surgery. For a couple of weeks now I’ve been in bathrobes and pajamas nonstop, loose comfy soft things that don’t make me hurt worse than I already do. But the doctors said that I need to start leaving the house and taking short walks outside. And besides, I’m sick of it. I need a change. Now.
So I put on some clothes. I don’t even remember what now: I was in a Vicodin haze at the time, I don’t remember much of anything from then in much detail. Probably a loose-ish dress, or a loose-ish skirt and top. Something not too binding around the waist, where it still hurts like hell. Something not too different from pajamas, really: but something that doesn’t read, in the current language of fashion and style, as pajamas. Something that reads — minimally, barely, adequately — as clothes.
And I feel like myself. Or more like myself, anyway. I don’t feel like an invalid. I feel like a sick person still, but I don’t feel like I am my sickness. I don’t feel like I’m drowning in my sickness. I feel like a person who has a sickness. I feel like a sick person, who is getting better.
I’ve written a lot about seeing fashion and style as a metaphorical language, a form of expression: a way of telling the world who we are, and how we feel about ourselves, and how we see our place in the world, and what our attitude is towards whatever situation we’re in.
What I haven’t written about as much is how this language isn’t just expressive. It’s aspirational. Fashion and style can express how we feel… but it can also shape how we feel. It can help make us feel the way we want to feel. It can help us express who we are… but it can also help us feel like the people we want to be.
Some of this aspirational quality is largely pragmatic, more functional than personal or emotional. Work clothes are the most obvious example. People with ambitions in the workplace are consistently advised to dress for the job they want, not for the job they have. People going on job interviews are consistently advised to dress as if they already have the job. (Advice with some limits, obviously — if you’re interviewing for a job at a fast food restaurant you’re not going to wear a bright orange pantsuit and a paper hat — but generally good advice.) If there’s something you want in the work world, dressing as if you already have it sends a signal to the people who have the power to give it to you: it signals that you understand what it is you’re aspiring to, and that you respect and value it, and are willing and indeed eager to take it on.
But this “dress as who you want to be” thing isn’t just pragmatic. It’s not just about signalling to the world who you want to be. It’s also, sometimes, about signalling it to yourself.
As regular readers of this blog may know, I’m a fan of the fashion makeover TV show, “What Not to Wear.” (I have mixed feelings about the show, but on the whole I like it.) And one of the things I find most fascinating about the show is the way that so many of the makovers turn into impromptu therapy sessions. Week after week, women on the show say that they can’t see themselves as anything other than a frumpy harried mom, or a sad sack, or a meek sheep who blends into the background. Week after week, women say that they can’t see themselves as ambitious working women, or as successful entrepeneurs, or as sexy and fun-loving. And week after week — through the process, not only of acquiring new clothing, but of talking intensely with Stacy and Clinton about how their clothing makes them feel and how they’d like to feel instead, about what they think their clothing says about them and what they’d like to be saying instead — they start to see themselves differently. Sometimes there’s a moment when you can see the switch flip; sometimes the process is more gradual. (And occasionally, the magic doesn’t happen at all.) But week after week, women on the show start seeing the possibilities of who they could be… because they’re seeing that new self in the mirror.
If fashion is like a language, sometimes we use it to talk to ourselves.
There’s a saying among some people who are recovering from addiction: “Fake it ’til you make it.” I think fashion and style can be like that. I think part of acting like who we want to be, until we become it or get closer to being it, can involve dressing the part. That can be short-term: if you want to feel a little less depressed, or a little more like going to the party, sometimes it helps to dress the part. And it can be long-term: if you want to be a sexual adventurer, or a serious adult in the professional world, sometimes it helps to dress the part.
It doesn’t just tell the world who you want to be. It tells yourself. It can help us feel like the people we want to be. And sometimes, it helps us become it.