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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.

Lingerie is a somewhat stigmatised and misunderstood form of apparel. Many people feel uncomfortable and embarrassed when faced with the topic of undergarments. However, the lingerie we choose to wear can in fact act as a form of self-expression – much like the shoes, bags and jewellery that accompany our outfits. Investing time to focus on ourselves and selecting items that flatter and honour our bodies can improve mental wellbeing, such as through increasing confidence and improving mood (The Independent). So why do so many people fear it?

Cora Harrington photographed by Bria Celest

As a form of fashion, lingerie has similar powers in portraying who we are at our core, yet it is often overlooked. 

Cora Harrington from ‘The Lingerie Addict’ emphasises the importance of valuing lingerie for whoever chooses to wear it.

She explains how “the garments closest to your skin should not only be the most comfortable, they should, ideally, be something you love and enjoy wearing”. As the “first thing you put on in the morning and the last thing you take off in the evening”, lingerie provides a “foundation to your look”. 

If we don’t feel good from underneath our visible clothes, how can we be portraying the best version of ourselves?

Furthermore, lingerie is not bound by social boundaries and expectations. Society influences the garments we wear, through imposing dress-codes and implicit rules of what is deemed publicly acceptable. This can lead to a lack of authenticity when trying to express the self through immediate appearance. However, lingerie is free from such constraints. Even if the world requires an ingenuine face to be put forward, respite can be found in knowing that what is worn underneath reflects the person you really are. This can also give people confidence in radiating their true self, through the uniform that disguises it. 

Lingerie has been a salient part of history. It has reflected key attitude changes, most notably towards women. From the corset culture that categorised the 1800s to the silky slip dresses and chemises in the early 1900s and the hyper-sexualised lacey styles that featured in the 70s and 80s. Today, lingerie is better perceived as a way to empower rather than objectify – with an array of styles suited for all shapes and sizes, regardless of who you identify as. 

Cora Harrington's book In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie

But despite this freedom, there still seems to be a significant stigma around lingerie. 

Many hold onto the belief that fundamentally, lingerie is sexual. Yet, it doesn’t necessarily have to be worn with sexual intent. Cora explains how “lingerie can be sexual in the same that red lipstick can be sexual, but that doesn’t mean lingerie is inherently or singularly about sex”. And although the lingerie industry is opening up to the idea of more inclusive forms of undergarments, a gendered stigma is still attached. As a historically characteristic form of female fashion, today lingerie is still marketed primarily with women in mind. These assumptions are entrenched into society, so significant revision and education may be necessary to update the lingerie market and match it to more modern movements. 

Although the lingerie industry is yet to accommodate some areas of the market, others have been enhanced greatly over the last decade. One example is the development of styles to suit a range of body shapes and sizes. The availability of intimate apparel that fits and flatters all figures has positive impacts on self-expression. Allowing more people to readily purchase products that fit their bodies, just as they are, portrays the idea that they are accepted by society. Cora recommends brands such as Elomi, Curvy Couture and Playful Promises (specifically, the Gabi Fresh collection) when it comes to finding lingerie that suits a range of sizes, while remaining stylish. 

Indeed, purchasing lingerie can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. 

When asked what piece of advice she would give to someone investing in their first piece of ‘special’ lingerie, Cora writes “If a pair of fancy fishnets feels special to you, buy that. If a silk caftan feels special to you, buy that. Don’t feel like you have to restrict yourself to other people’s notions of ‘special’.” Try setting stigmas to one side and buy what you love, not what you think you should love. Whether it is sexy or simple, lace or cotton, patterned or plain, what is most important is that you feel comfortable and confident in what you’re wearing. 

Wearing lingerie doesn’t have to be feared, but rather embraced. As Cora emphasises “feeling comfortable in your body as you move through the world is a benefit that cannot be underestimated, because if you’re not having to think about how much you hate your bra, you can focus on other things instead.” Lingerie can have an important role in the road towards self-acceptance, and ultimately, help us to feel proud and confident enough in ourselves, to express exactly who we are.