SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
At this time last year you never would have caught me in the outfit I'm wearing above. If you'd peered inside my closet, you would have seen an array of hoodies and yoga pants. Sure, I had dresses, too -- all made of jersey knit and not terribly formal. There were kimono dresses so roomy you could smuggle a terrier underneath, maxi styles that dragged on the ground when I walked, gathering leaves and twigs, and billowy empire-waist numbers.
My fashion choices were not unique. Far from it, actually. While Americans have been dressing pretty casually for the past decade or so, we seem to have hit new lows in recent years. "There's been a shift in what we think is 'appropriate' to wear in most situations," says Virginia Postrel, author of Glamour Decoded. "Some of the change was intentional, like having casual Fridays at work -- but then it became casual Monday through Friday." It wasn't long before the once-distinct wardrobes we had for work, weekend, church, and special occasions started to blur together.
Soon sloppiness was actually in style. Blame it on Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen for popularizing the "boho-chic" look: layers upon layers of baggy pieces that rarely looked chic on anyone, myself included. But the trend was convenient. It gave me an excuse to pay no attention to what I wore (and where I wore it), how something fit or whether it flattered my short and curvy frame -- concerns that didn't seem worth my time.
That was until last winter, when I finally realized I was tired of looking like a blob. I replaced my shapeless clothes with pretty, inexpensive vintage dresses that were full of personality. I wore them just about everywhere: to work, the movies, lunches with friends. I became one of those of women I'd scrunched my nose at for years, the kind who wore wedge heels and lip gloss to shop at CVS. Why did they bother? I'd wonder. But now I get it: Not only is dressing up worth the effort, it's also a joy. In my attempt to change the way I looked in the mirror, I wound up transforming the way I felt about myself.
Maybe I've always known the magical effects of dressing up. When I was a little girl I was drawn to razzle-dazzle like fish to a lure. I would have worn my spangled pink tutu to school every day if my parents had allowed it. I understood the thrill of putting on a show, even when there was no stage.
But as I got older the splendor faded. Years of crash dieting and forcing my gut into control-top panty hose sucked a lot of fun out of the pageantry. I resented the fact that women were expected to look flawless all the time while guys could throw on jeans and a T-shirt and go. By the time I got to college I'd soured on the whole charade. It felt like a lot of unnecessary work.
As I got closer to my 30s I found myself in that slippery place of feminist double-think: unsure how much I should care about my appearance, what constituted vanity and what constituted neglect. I don't know a woman alive who hasn't struggled to find this balance. I used to get into fights about it with a boyfriend I had at the time, a tall and lanky clotheshorse who wore gingham suits and pocket squares. One Saturday, as we were heading to Home Depot, he looked at me and said, "You're wearing that?"
I was, indeed, wearing that -- the same gray velour sweats I wore every weekend. What did he expect, diamonds and fishnets? He could see the steam trickling out of my ears and tried to backtrack. "I just thought you might want to put on jeans or something," he said.
Oh no, I did not want to put on jeans. And even if I had wanted to put on jeans, that ship had sailed, mister. I was going to wear that unflattering gray velour for the rest of my life. Because I needed him to know -- I needed him to recognize -- that I was never going to be one of those women who dressed up to run errands, and if that's what he wanted, we were a hopeless match. My energy went toward my writing, toward the tremendous wine drinking I did in the evenings, toward good talks and good times but not toward the outfit I wore to buy spackle, okay?
I tell this story to illustrate how hopelessly confused I was. I didn't know if I was dressing a certain way because I wanted to or to get back at him or to prove a point. We eventually broke up, but I held on to my same old clothes. I wore a hoodie to the fanciest restaurants. I walked around barefoot at work. Sometimes a colleague would have to inform me, halfway through the day, that my nightgown-esque dress was on inside out. I was too much in my head in those days, slaving at a challenging job; my clothes weren't important.
Somehow, it took me until last winter to start questioning that attitude. I realized it didn't make much sense. After all, I have never been a careless person. I pay attention to what I say, how I speak, and how my actions and words will affect other people. So why did I think that how I looked didn't matter?
In our casual, Pajama Jean-wearing culture, it's easy to forget that. "Even though the standards of dress have changed, the clothing you wear still affects how people perceive you," says Michelle T. Sterling, founder of Global Image Group, in San Francisco. When it comes to the workplace, the old adage that you should dress for the job you want and not the one you have still applies. It's partly why my friend Allison wears dresses and heels to work even though most of her coworkers dress casually. "Ambitious women don't wear leggings as pants to the office," she said.
That's a perfect example of why you shouldn't necessarily wear whatever you want, even if you can. And it's not just a career concern. Yes, you could probably wear jeans to church, the theater, important celebrations -- plenty of people do it all the time. But does that show enough respect for those kinds of occasions? Aren't they worth the effort?
Honestly, I'm not really comfortable making those judgments. What I do know, after all these years, is that I'm worth the effort. "Dressing well affects the way you think, feel, and act," says Sterling. "When you look good, you feel more capable, competent, and confident." Who doesn't want that?
My friend Mary Elizabeth knows how powerful that effect can be. "People often ask me what I'm dressed up for," she said. "The answer is I'm dressed up for me. I like myself enough to think I'm worth a clean shirt and shoes that aren't flip-flops. There's enormous psychological value in that."
The way we dress is an expression of personality as singular as a fingerprint. I actually get excited when I see people express themselves through their clothes. A few months ago, when my friend Mary showed up to our coffee date in the most adorable striped dress, I actually felt a little pitter-patter in my chest when I saw her. "Dressing up is like turning up the volume on myself," she said. "How loud do I want to be today?"
Don't get me wrong: I'm not against comfort. I will lay my body down in front of a tank for our right to wear stretchy synthetics. But I also think part of the current obsession with shows like Mad Men -- and the craft culture that fuels popular sites like Etsy, Pinterest, and Modcloth -- is a desire to bring back the specialness and femininity of 1960s fashion, without all the retro sexist baggage.
One night last spring I wore the cutest black satin cocktail dress to a friend's Mad Men viewing party. I put on white silk gloves and a sparkly headband, and when the show started I kicked off my heels and sat cross-legged on the couch, eating potato chips. And that it is one hell of a feminist moment, really. We don't have to be what our boyfriends or husbands or society at large tell us: We can be whoever we want to be.
I still put most of my energy into writing and conversation (I gave up the wine), but I also put energy into letting people know that every moment matters to me. I dress for it. I care about it. Dressing up makes me feel good, and it brings out my best self. Life is a cabaret, my friend, and I don't want to sleepwalk through it draped in a muumuu. I, for one, want to wear pearls.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, October 2012.