Looking in the mirror these days is a weird exercise in disappearing. I take myself in only in half-glances: the sleeve of a sweatshirt with a hole at the cuff, thick socks, a shock of hair falling strangely across my face. Sometimes I get up close in order to pick at my pores, and then I am all eyes and jaw, smudges and the fog of my breath on the mirror. For the most part, I avoid myself. I don’t like what I see. If I do have to confront myself, by accident or by design, my first thought is this: That looks like a girl who has given up.
Six months ago, I moved to a new city, a move that meant a drastic change in my employment situation that has left me financially dependent on my partner and without a fixed schedule. When I leave the house, it is mostly to run errands. I plan my days around laundry and the post office hours. I have dinner waiting on the stove. I walk around my apartment looking for things to clean. I imagine this is called ennui, but it isn’t sexy or French — it is just lonely, unproductive and at odds with what I thought my life would look like at this age. I don’t like myself much these days, and I think my clothes reflect that.
I know the way I dress often reflects my emotional state; I slip in and out of clothes that change with the season, my mood, my job. I can tell that, right now, what I am experiencing is a fundamental rearranging of my sense of self. I do not know how to present myself to the world anymore, and I do not know how to dress for this current life.
One thing I do know is that the parade of sweatpants and old sweaters isn’t helping. If you work from home, are a student, are in between jobs or phases of life, or simply don’t have a concrete reason to get out of bed in the morning, perhaps this sounds familiar. For the past six months, I have stared into my closet feeling like there’s no point in wearing the clothes I bought to make me look like a person who is interesting or intelligent or creative — I’m not that person anymore, so why would I costume myself like I am? I have prioritized comfort, blandness and utility, and, whether consciously or not, have told myself that the life I’m living right now doesn’t deserve beauty, joy or attention.
It is very easy to lose yourself this way, behind a grimy scrim of unwashed leggings and excuses — it’s winter, I have nothing to wear, I still don’t understand cropped flares. What I do know is that this way of life is no longer working for me, and my moping around the apartment like an extra in a dystopian film about out-of-work yoga instructors is doing nothing to help my feeling of aimlessness. Could getting dressed more thoughtfully have an effect on my current depression? I had no idea, but it seemed a small enough step to try. Below, a documented week of willing myself to actually get dressed.
This (above) is what I look like on a “normal” day. In my defense, I am on my way to spin class. That said, I’ve been wearing this all day and it is 4 p.m. and I have yet to leave the house.
I approach my old clothes with trepidation. I try to remember what it was like to feel like I had something to be proud of. I look at a pair of silk pants I bought in Paris, wild with splotches of multicolored paint. I reach, instead, for high-waist jeans and a cashmere cardigan I stole from my mom (thanks, Mom!). This is an outfit I feel comfortable in, something that is familiar but doesn’t look like it has been dragged out from under my cat. Before my fiancé takes a photo, I put on bright orange watermelon socks. I decide to get off the subway early on the way to my hair appointment to see if I feel like a different beast out in the world. I treat myself to a tofu banh mi and watch a toddler attack a bowl of pasta he could swim in. Two people compliment my socks. My hair looks great!
I had put away this dress, deciding it wouldn’t be worn until spring dusted itself off, but it is raining, again, and I am glum. The dress is a red floral print that refuses to be ignored. I pair it with tights and glittery ankle boots I bought a couple of years ago as a hat-tip to Harry Styles. My keychain, in fact, reads “What Would Harry Styles Wear?” This used to be my daily reminder to be a little bolder than I instinctively am, but clearly I have forgotten it and am no longer worthy of the keychain. I want to believe that better things are coming, like sunshine and maybe the ability to once again be a useful member of society. I take a photo in the lobby at my therapist’s office. The lighting does nothing for the potential of these sequined boots, but I think I look nice, if a little unhinged.
My partner doesn’t like heels (also did I mention I never leave the house?), so these Rachel Comey boots are covered in dust bunnies that I have to attack with a lint roller. They are purple suede and snakeskin, can you tell? I think they are fabulous. I put on a dress but then realize it looks like effort, that I look like a person who believes she has the right to look good. I cover it up with a huge vintage Pendleton flannel. I am not sure if this outfit works, but later I go meet a new friend for dinner and her dog seems to like me a lot. Part of what is keeping me out of “real” clothes, I’m realizing, is my desire to telegraph to the world that this is not my “real” life. And yet, it’s the only one I’ve got.
I have meetings today that require me to look like someone to whom strangers would be comfortable giving things, like large sums of money or real estate. I dig my Steven Alan blazer out of the back of the closet. My mom bought this for me years ago before a job interview. It is the most expensive item of clothing I own, and when I put it on, I roll my shoulders back with such ferocity that I crick my neck. I could command an army in this blazer. I could lay siege to a city. I forget to take a photo, but trust me when I say you’d be comfortable putting your life in my hands.
So, did it work? In a way, yes. I found myself lighter on my feet, looking for reasons to leave the apartment, stopping at CVS to buy lilac eyeshadow. I’ve been more conscious each morning of what I want my day to look like, and I’ve started planning weekly outfits on Sunday evening, a little reminder to myself of the good that is to come. I remembered what I’ve always loved about fashion: the way it emboldens me to slip into a version of myself that is slightly more than — a little bolder, a little stranger, someone who could be anyone at all, not just a tired human on her way to yoga.
I know there is more to the way I clothe myself than vanity, and what I learned from a week of intentional dressing is that taking the time to ask myself, “How do I want to feel today?” is an excellent way to start the day. Mental illness cannot be cured by the thoughtful donning of a colorful cardigan, but if you feel unmoored from the self you thought you knew, allowing yourself to care about the things you drape over your own body can be, at the very least, a powerful balm.
GIF by Emily Zirimis; Photos provided by Meghan Nesmith.