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For my first day of school, my mother dressed me in a gorgeous velvet dress with organza bell sleeves and matching shoes. It is a common thing to dress up for special occasions, but this was something else.

Further down the road, we meet a 3rd grader with actual high heel boots, and a teen who didn’t own a plain clothing item such as a simple white t-shirt. It had to be bedazzled or embroidered or different in some way.

My first day of school picture.

My mother’s need for standing out is something I feel to this day, by always wishing to make a statement with the clothes I wear. Doing research helped me get to the bottom of this phenomenon. It got me thinking – what message are we trying to send with our clothes? What lies beneath it?

Stand out or die trying

Did you know that therapists can tell about the patient’s mental health based on their clothing? Apparently, either showing an exaggerated interest in clothes or a lack of one is concerning. For instance, research shows that people going through a rough patch try to cope with it by seeking praise and admiration based on their style. 

Fashion is a form of personal expression that we use to get attention. Take our favourite TV fashionista, Carrie Bradshaw for instance. We watched her run around New York in gorgeous heels and head-turning outfits – a lot of them would be impossible to miss on the street.  

Carrie is an epitome of noticeable fashion style. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she is case in point – does Carrie show narcissistic traits? This article suggests that she, in fact, does. Carrie is seen many times asking for her friends’ unlimited support and rarely (never) missing out on the opportunity to make her problem the main discussion topic. Carrie’s troubles always seem to be a bit bigger, life has often treated her unfairly and it is never her fault. Sounds familiar? 

By dressing loudly we often try to get a reaction and be noticed. Research shows that by trying to grab others’ attention we are actually striving to confirm our own value. That might be the reason why we try to feed our self-image through possession of stunning and one-of-a-kind pieces of clothing. 

Should I blend in or should I go now?

Dressing in a certain way makes us feel like we belong to a group, in a way defining our self-esteem. This suggests that, when we feel like we are breaking the rules of the group by standing out, it might spark an internal struggle.

Research concludes that we often try to blend in with the norms of the society or a group which we identify with. This is particularly characteristic of teens, but it might follow us to an adult age. If we are afraid of being subjected to evaluation, it is important to us to blend in with a certain group, and clothing is no exception to this rule. 

Two sides of the same coin

So what is it with the sense of self-value and clothing? Either we try to re-evaluate it by seeking admiration from others, or we minimise ourselves so nobody observes us for long enough to question it. It all comes down to this: Why are we so afraid to be noticed? And why are we so eager to be noticed? So we either seek to be in the limelight to find validation from others, or we blend in the crowd hoping to feel accepted and thus worthy.

Clothes and our idealised social self

In our modern society, some clothing items have a value that has nothing to do with money. We all know them – they’re Converse sneakers, a simple black Chanel, a Burberry coat amongst others. Our idealized social self is the image we wish to convey in public. 

When we choose our clothes, we very much pay attention to the sublime messages they are giving out. Not only that, we attribute certain characteristics to certain clothing items or brands as well.  Let’s take Converse sneakers for example. They have been mainstreamed by the global fashion community – they seem to be everywhere. What does that mean in terms of our two categories?
This means that an individual who would like to blend in will wear them gladly and heave a sigh of relief. Are the same sentiments evoked with our other group? Highly unlikely. Our attention-seekers would rather opt for something more colorful and unique.

Humans are social beings and we have been living in groups for a long time. When it comes to an uncertain sense of self-worth, we might feel that if other people are giving us approval based on how we dress, that, in return, we’ll get a glimpse of who we are.

But the truth is: Nobody will be able to define our own worth but us. Our value isn’t mirrored in the eyes of the beholder, but comes from within. That isn’t to say that clothes shouldn’t be a powerful way of self-expression and exploration. The hard part is making a line between ‘I want to express’ and ‘I want to impress’, which aren’t the same.

Using clothes as self-improvement

I have moved cities multiple times over the past several years. Each time is equally nerve-racking as it is exciting, but the one thing that makes those moves bearable is the anticipation of figuring out who I’m going to be, aka what I’m going to wear.

Fashion, for me, has always been about finding my place in the world. Blazers in an office? Too stuffy. Writing at home in sweatpants? Too casual. Writing in a boujee coffee shop wearing a hot pink jumpsuit and cat-eye glasses? Just right.

You see, who we are comes out when we’re wearing something that is precisely us. The colors, fabrics, and silhouettes that we’re attracted to end up attracting the life we want. From friends and partners to jobs and hobbies, fashion is a powerful force that pushes and pulls us into the life we crave — IF we dress for it, that is.

Facing The Facts of Fashion

You’ve heard the famous fashion quotes that have given us energy and confidence when we need it most — sayings like “Dress for success,” “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it,” and “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” — all hold serious merit when it comes to figuring ourselves out as we move from one life transition to the next.

More often than not, when we’re feeling low about ourselves, we turn to fashion for answers. It can be difficult to articulate the power of style through the written word, but we all know how special a certain dress makes us feel, or how we are flooded with inspiration and creativity when putting on that one skirt. To that end, I make the argument that fashion is little more than a feeling.

To me, trying on new clothes is like trying on new selves. Of course, there are other factors that play into how we dress, including where we live, what we do for a living, and who we spend our time with. I believe these influences to be the essence of life, giving us permission (or not) to say what we want to say, do what we want to do, and yes, wear what we want to wear.

Straight From The Experts

Colourful and charismatic personal stylist Anna encourages her clients to “dress how they want to feel,” stating that to be yourself you have to get to know yourself, which requires “lots of trying on new clothes to see which ones make you feel most alive.”

Anna does a lot of inner work with her clients on their style personality and style identity claiming, “When you know your style identity, you are free to dress however you want.”

This is something that both takes time and evolves over time, and there is no “right” or “wrong” in the process.

Fashion stylist and image consultant Jenni Lee emphasises that each of us have endless facets of ourselves to explore, noting that clothes are the easiest way to uncover the different personas we want to step into.

“A lot of women have limiting beliefs based on what they have soaked in from living in a patriarchal society and negative ideas passed down from family,” JenniLee says.

“I am continually coaxing and supporting clients to play with clothes, to try things on that are out of their comfort zones so they can physically experience what it feels like in their body to wear other styles and to see themselves in other personas.”

Finding Your Signature Style is a Journey

Whether you’re shopping in a vintage store, luxury boutique or your own closet, I think we can all agree that each item of clothing we put on, a certain feeling is evoked. This, after all, is essentially what we are all dressing for each day, isn’t it? That one feeling we are trying to grasp, may it be pride, professionalism, boldness or contentment.

And those feelings, just like our style preferences, change and evolve over time.

When I lived in Chicago, for example, I was single and childless with the world at my feet. My style, not surprisingly, matched how I felt about being young and carefree in a bustling city. It was fun, loud, playful, and energetic, just like my personality. 

Now, as a married woman and mother of two residing in Connecticut, that fun and playful me is still intact, but I have learned to lean into the chic and elegant flair of the East Coast.

The point is not to blend in, but to appreciate where you’ve been and where you’re headed. And there is no greater measure to do so than with fashion.