Fashion as Self-Care

- 211021

Reader, I got my new boots. (NB: If you’re new to this story, I suggest you go check out last week’s post.)

Yay! My sprained ankle is still healing so I can’t wear them out just yet.

But wait, there’s more.

I’ve noticed that I’m getting ‘dressed’ again. Not just picking the easiest thing, or the cosiest thing. No, the best pieces in my closet are finally being aired.

Is this just me?

I’m not wearing bodycon dresses (yet) but a crisp shirt dress with a deep v-neck and interesting sleeves, a see-through crinkled silk navy shirt, and a great tailored tweed blazer with a leather trim collar, have all recently made an appearance. Oh and there's a sexy black jersey maxi skirt, nipped in at the waist, adorned with a gold zip that goes all the way down the back. I just love that skirt.

What’s the common thread? They are all from the same designer, who has a mission to make women feel empowered. Maybe I'm feeling ‘sexy back’ on the streets of Geneva?

Let me clarify: I never ‘not’ dressed during the pandemic. After all, I was already working from home. I’d realised long ago the importance of establishing a clear routine, particularly marking the start and the end of the workday. No sweatpants all day for me. Bar the super cool track pants I got that are printed and whiskered to look like a pair of jeans. I don't think they count, do they?

When I moved house last year, I separated my clothes quite naturally into four categories, to fit into the scattered built-in wardrobes of the new place:

Everyday clothes

Summer clothes - I have a lot of that, you can tell which is my favorite season

Eveningwear - the remnants of my fashion life

Work clothes - aka a lot of trousers (pants for the Americans), jackets and overcoats.

Even as I was moving in, I put this last category in the furthest of the wardrobes of the apartment. It was clear why: what was I going to do with all these pants and jackets? First, in a pandemic, and secondly, was I just holding on to this old 'office-life' identity? And if so, for what purpose?

Coach Martha Beck recently reflected on the same thing in a podcast interview with Oprah. Her first thought looking into her wardrobe over the time of the pandemic was: 'Why do I need so many pairs of pants?' That’s been my question too, ever since last year.

My old (read recent) Autumn/Winter look was often underpinned by a pair of tailored trousers, a jumper (sweater) or cool t-shirt and a good pair of shoes. Oh and a great jacket or coat. Zoom life, which started for me in 2017, has impacted my fashion choices. I keep trying to find cool tops to my taste, but I find that they are in short supply. In some ways I feel a little less like myself when I don’t get to show, or share, a sense of my personality (or mood) through my clothes.

In the past two years, I've changed not only how I purchase ready-to-wear and accessories but why I get them.

I now seek clothes that express my values as well. Many online retailers have thankfully done the legwork to ensure we can choose our garments according to specific ethical and sustainable standards.

When I kitted myself out to play tennis this summer, I chose to go to Adidas to picked out great outfits with items made from recycled plastic. Putting my money where my values are feels pretty good. And they are stylish pieces too.

Other designers, like London-based ready-to-wear label Hanna Fiedler, are choosing to use only natural and biodegradable fabrics of the highest quality. Fiedler also collaborates with her factory, collecting fabric scraps, which she turns into beautiful accessories. No waste! These garments are less of a toll on the planet. Isn’t that a great example? They also come with the price tag.

In continuing this reflection, I've finally realised - my fashion a-ha moment - that a great new jumper does as much for my self-care as a massage, a fancy dinner or a walk does for someone else. First, because I am knitwear obsessed. Second, I find such deep comfort in wearing pieces that truly fit me. It's not about the physical fit (although that plays a big role), it’s also an identity enhancer.

True congruence happens when a piece corresponds both to the inner me and the outer me. And when I get it right, it provides me with a lot of joy.

I recently interviewed positive psychology professor, researcher and writer Dr Tim Lomas who collects what he calls 'untranslatable words' linked to wellbeing. In looking up his 'Positive Lexicography Project', I found this word which did me such good. It's from Spanish:

'Estrenar', which conjures the feeling of confidence one gets when wearing new clothes

It was so happy to see that the Spanish culture had devised a name to express this feeling we get when we wear something new that feels right. In our interview, I shared with Dr Lomas that even renowned Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön recounted a story in one of her online courses, which I took earlier this year, about how she too feels that ‘estrenar’ feeling when she slips on a brand new cardigan. She even said: ‘I don’t know what it’s all about’. Well, at least we have a word for it now.


In this spirit, last Spring, I splurged on a bubblegum pink oversized hoodie by Acne Studios. It’s one of the best things I did for myself this year. The colour, the size, the hood, all these attributes contribute to the feel-good effect. Actually, I decided to wear it to write this story. Here’s a funny thing: my friend Sarah told me she'd bought the same jumper. She was feeling pretty giddy last time we talked, so excited was she about a new pair of penny loafers. Some days, we need that. The new thing. That 'estrenar' feeling. A joy in the new. Or a true congruence of fit.

Colour in particular has the power to help gather my energy.

I remember going through a particularly hard time a few years ago and on a specific day, after an initial outburst of tears, I got up, washed my face and put on my best red lipstick before going out. No wallowing for me. Fake it ‘til you make it, right? There is merit to trying, and more power than we realise in colour and lipstick.

I’ve always had this idea that we are like multifaceted gems. This feels very true (at least to me) with my fashion choices: different pieces show different sides of who we are. And we never reveal our full selves at any one time, some mystery always remains. But in some of these choices we make, we are saying something about ourselves, whether it's conscious or not.

This memory sparked a connection with my friend Anna. She’s been known to wear a bold lip for many years and has always had a well established personal style. We had a chat about this subject and what came up was this:

Our sense of identity is very much tied to our beauty and our fashion styles. Whether or not we care about them!

‘I always used to wear a very bold lip, red or fuchsia, either Nars or Chanel. I didn't realize how provocative lipstick was to other people until I stopped wearing it about five or six years ago, when I started to lose a little bit of a sense of myself. So many of my friends commented on the fact: Hey, you don't do a red lip anymore.

Now I’m getting back into finding the right colour for me, but I didn't realise how much of it had become a staple of my personality. Not just for me but for a lot of people that knew me as well. And it's funny that when you lose yourself, you lose some of the signature things that you used to do.’

Like me (in my move to Geneva, my grey and serious hometown), Anna had found the change of environment had affected her external sense of identity.

“I don't think I have to hide behind it (the bold lip). Quite the opposite. I kind of used it to extend myself. For a while I've found I've struggled to be that bold in my life, and to put that on, because it felt inauthentic. It was me not wanting to reveal too much of myself in a way, and wanting to be more in the shadows.”

We reflected that our multiple personalities could be named after locations, and sometimes when we don’t get to express one of them, we feel a little lost. I remember someone in my team telling me she really liked ‘Island Anne’ (aka my Italian riviera alter ego) and Anna brought back ‘New York Anna’ for her birthday dinner, a new side of herself for some of her more recent friends were very surprised to meet this new Anna.

Lately, lipstick has suffered as much as my high heels have in my wardrobe: it’s had a really tough time in the pandemic, mask and all. No wonder clever people like the guys at NARS and Dior are investing in metaverse adventures for their make-up savvy clients. Somewhere we can live our best lives through our avatar selves without the difficulties of a hindering reality.

In a random moment (if you believe anything is ever random), I re-read this article from the NYT, dating back from 2018, with the fitting title ‘How I dressed to heal my heart break’.

The connection was made not just because writer Aleksa Brown shares how in times of difficulty she strategically selected pieces in her wardrobe to design better days, lifting or soothing her mood. It so happens that she was practicing Loving Kindness, a practice she’d come across when a stranger handed her a small book, on the train one day, by the same Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, whom I mentioned above.

Clothes can do so much for us. If we only let them; that is, if we are intentional. Fashion designer Roland Mouret often talks about how he makes clothes for women who need a soft armour. For me, they can be both a shield and a mood-enhancer. His dresses certainly hold power.

So this is my love letter to clothes. And shoes. I believe that fashion has this great potential to enhance, reveal or comfort us. It’s also a huge industry that supports millions of lives, so let’s not turn our backs on it altogether. But let’s demand change from the companies that produce and retail these pieces. Our voices will be heard, if only we speak up.

With that in mind, here’s my Metta or Loving Kindness message to fashion:

May I be mindful of my purchases.

May I remember to always look at the label and provenance - choose wisely.

May I continue to respect the people who make you and how the ways in which you are made impacts the world.

May I remember to look after you, repair you, or donate you, or failing that, even resell you - aka respect you.

And in return, may you continue to bring me joy.