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I still remember shopping for an outfit for my eighth-grade graduation. My mom and I originally set out on a quest for a dress, but the right dress proved hard to find, and time was running short. But we wouldn’t let the rush get in the way of the fact that we were in search of perfection—we painstakingly searched the racks of skirts before settling on an elegant cream-colored one with a brown pattern, then with equal care found a blouse to match.

I remember every element of the outfit—the way the soft skirt felt drifting down toward my ankles, the thin cream-colored sweater with the puffed sleeves, the brown necklace with the gold pendant, the jaunty cream-colored beret in what now seems to me dubious taste. I’d never cared much about clothes, but in this outfit, even under the semitransparent eighth-grade graduation robes that were certainly in poor taste, I felt somehow brought a step closer to the heroines of the books I’d always preferred to shopping trips.

The outfit made the day significant—it made me significant. Or rather, it acknowledged the significance I already had—I already was the girl who, even in her slightly-off-kilter eighth-grade semi-maturity, belonged in drapey skirts and cream colors and warm browns and elegant little necklaces. I’m still that girl today. And with that girl comes a long litany of outfits like that—from the dress I wore to my first dance to the perfect dangling earrings I lost atop a plateau in Israel to the long linen pants that make me feel like a real photographer to the interview outfit that’s never failed me yet.

I don’t think I’m the only woman who has had an experience like this with clothes. As much as we might hate picking outfits day in and day out, as much as we might throw up our hands in despair and say that there just isn’t anything to wear, we all probably remember that one dress, that one little wool coat, that pair of shoes, that transformed us for an evening or a day or a season into Cinderella at the ball.

Why we think we shouldn’t care about clothes

But decrying fashion is low-hanging fruit for the would-be serious woman. “I’m not the kind of girl who cares about clothes,” we are wont to say breezily. We want to be taken seriously, after all, in politics or journalism or academia, and sometimes we let the hard-nosed disinterest of most of our male counterparts in anything fashion-related chasten us. Like them, we want to claim complete ignorance of the difference between rose pink and salmon, or the different styles of collared shirt. It’s strange how virtuous one can feel about not knowing anything about something. I spent most of my middle-school years in a hooligan array of ripped jeans and flannel shirts when I was out of my school uniform, and dismissed the “girly girls” with unmasked contempt. In my mind, not caring about clothes made me better than them, and I’m afraid that principle worms its way into the adult world, as well—who among us can say, “I spent all of Saturday shopping for clothes” to a coworker without just a little wince?

It’s no secret that our workaholic culture in the United States is a descendant, at least in some significant ways, of the famed Protestant work ethic. But it’s easy to underestimate how much various religious schools of thought—predominant at critical periods of America’s growth—have influenced public opinion about fashion. (Though the argument is often made that they are two different things, in this piece I'll use ”style” and "fashion” interchangeably.)

The Puritans, an influential sect in the early colonies, were strongly opposed to people dressing above their societal status. They took this disapproval to the legal level, implementing sumptuary codes to enforce political status that banned “excess in apparel” among the lower classes that could make them appear to be of higher rank than their income warranted.

The Society of Friends (commonly known as Quakers), a Protestant sect that fled persecution in the British Isles to seek refuge in North America, had strong opinions about dress. As founding member of the Society of Friends, George Fox exhorted his followers, “Friends, keep out of the vain fashions of the world; let not your eyes, minds, and spirits run after every fashion (in attire) of the nations.” With these instructions in mind, Quakers intentionally chose “plain dress,” simple clothing without decoration. While modern-day Quakers have largely abandoned the practice, we can still see examples of “plain dress” today among Anabaptist sects like the Amish and the Mennonites.

[Quaker woman’s ensemble, c. 1830.]

Early Free Methodists, members of a sect founded in New York in 1860, also discussed the question of personal adornment at length. A Free Methodist woman of the time records the debate:

Sister Crider made her clothes perfectly plain. A plain waist with long sleeves, perfectly plain, sewed in the waist with no gathering, a long skirt gored and no gathering. The skirt, of course, came down to her feet . . . My mother was not radical like that. While she did dress quite plain, she never went to extremes. We had lace curtains and pictures, etc. She was taken to task at one time for putting pretty lace collars on our dresses, but she didn’t think it was wrong, so we kept the lace collars.

After the stock market crash in 1929, America had another formative experience in chastening fashion: the Great Depression. The saying, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” (a different version of the slogan is attributed to Calvin Coolidge) summed up the attitude of the time: this was no time for luxury. While the public made efforts to make the best of what they had, the lack of disposable income meant hand-me-downs or dresses made out of flour sacks for children, and no doubt few new clothes for adults.

A little more than a decade after the stock market crashed, the United States entered World War II, which brought rationing including more restrictions on clothing. A poster from the WWI era, though it was put out by the British government rather than the American, sums up the prevailing attitude nicely: “To Dress Extravagantly In War Time Is Worse Than Bad Form, It Is Unpatriotic.” In the United States, restrictions on dress included heel height and non-functional trimmings.

Add to these the well-grounded concerns that have arisen in recent years about the fast-fashion industry and unethical practices among mainstream fashion brands, and it’s no wonder that many of us viewed fashion as suspicious before even watching The Devil Wears Prada. From the media to church coffee hour, the word on the street is that fashion is, at best, shallow and unimportant. At worst, it’s unpatriotic, inconsiderate, foolish, unethical, and even religiously suspect.

Fashion as communication

I had all these biases and more as I embarked upon the fraught fashion world of my teens and early twenties. But, slowly, over many parties and meetings and interviews and class sessions, moving several times, dating, making friends, and getting jobs, I realized something that I couldn’t fully articulate until I read a book that pointed it out. Everyone already cares about fashion. Whatever you wear, you’re making a statement—it’s up to you what you want to say. Most fundamentally, clothing isn’t decoration, vanity, or frippery—it’s communication.

In the words of George Brescia, author of Change Your Clothes, Change Your Life:

You’re probably familiar with the concept of the statement piece. The term sprouts up all over the place in fashion magazines and on makeover shows—it’s stylist code for an eye-catching, colorful garment or accessory that defines your entire look in one fell swoop. But if you think about your clothing through the lens of that ten-second rule [of first impressions], you’ll come to realize that there is no such thing as a non-statement piece.

Everything we wear makes some kind of a statement, whether it’s a dull army-green puffy coat paired with faded black khakis or a great-fitting pair of jeans flanked by a crisp white tee and a classic navy blazer.

Whether we like it or not, we are being seen. Our statement is being deciphered. And the reach of that statement goes far, far beyond the fleeting impression of a stranger on the checkout line.

So, that cream-colored skirt and thin sweater from my eighth-grade graduation made a statement, but so did the ripped jeans and flannel shirts I wore much more often. My flowered spring dress makes a statement, but so do the flip-flops I throw on when I go take out the trash and the summer pajamas I wear when I’m relaxing at home. Whether that statement is to a long-lost love I might meet in the airport or the official at the DMV or even just myself, I’m communicating something.

Our clothing communicates more than whether we conform to the current prevailing ideas of “style.” The fact is, our “style” is whatever it is that we choose to communicate with our clothes. In her book The Curated Closet, blogger and writer Anuschka Rees tells a familiar story about style:

Apart from my questionable shopping strategy, I also had a very warped idea of what it meant to dress well. To me, having great style and dressing according to the latest trends were one and the same. And consequently, I also thought there was only one version of style, only one way to dress well that I somehow had to get behind and emulate.

I think this story is familiar to many of us. I have gone through phases of picking up the “neutral colors,” pencil skirts, and work-to-evening wear trumpeted by everyone from fashion magazines to capsule-wardrobe junkies. Don’t get me wrong; all these things can be helpful, in the right time and place.

But, unfortunately, there just isn’t a one-size-fits-all wardrobe because style is communication. Either your style is communicating you, or it’s communicating something or someone else, maybe even traits that you don’t want on display (or don’t even have!), like carelessness, laziness, or boredom with life. Don’t get me wrong—I am a strong believer in casual wear, and requiring everyone to dress up every day in a pencil skirt and heels couldn’t be farther from what I’m suggesting. I’m just saying that when I wear my worn-out college RA shirt and little old workout shorts, I’m not communicating myself in the same way that I do in a matching sleep set or cute sweatshirt and flowered shorts.

Rees explains her insight about style as communicating the self in this way:

The people I most admire for their style aren’t those that follow every trend and dress in designer clothes from head to toe, but people like Sofia Coppola, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Grace Coddington. These women are style icons not because they follow rules but because they make their own, and each have a strong sense of style and a clear signature look.

In other words, style doesn’t descend from on high. It isn’t the chic French-girl wardrobe or the perfect New York street style wardrobe that we should have in mind when we think of fashion—unless you really do happen to be a chic French girl or a prima donna of the Fashion Week scene. Many of us hate fashion because we think we’ll be trapped in pencil skirts (can you tell I don’t like pencil skirts?) for the rest of our lives. But the fact is that style is just the clothes you choose to communicate who you are to the world. You can communicate that well or badly, and it’s a process, not a one-stop “essentials” list or mix-and-match ready-to-wear clothing line.

As Rees puts it, “The perfect wardrobe isn’t something that you can cook up in a weekend. Your personal style is the result of many different influences, all the people you have met over the years, all the places you have traveled. It’s a truly personal thing that can take a little digging to fully uncover.” We need to stop thinking of style as “dressing like the mannequins in Macy’s” and start thinking of it as “dressing like the women we are.”

How we feel and what we wear

In a recent interview for GQ, singer Billie Eilish made this connection: “Here’s a bomb for you: I have never felt desired. My past boyfriends never made me feel desired. None of them. And it’s a big thing in my life that I feel I have never been physically desired by somebody. So I dress the way I dress as I don’t like to think of you guys—I mean anyone, everyone—judging it, or the size of it.” How she feels (undesired and wanting to avoid judgment) is reflected in the baggy pants and sweatshirts she wears. But what’s interesting is that it’s a reciprocal relationship: how we dress also affects how we feel.

In Change Your Clothes, Change Your Life, Brescia recalls the adage “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Not only do our clothes have an effect on those around us (making it more likely you’ll get that dream job if you’re dressed for it!), they also have an effect on how we see ourselves:

When we’re dressed more professionally, we feel more professional. When we’re dressed more festively, we feel more festive. . . . powerful, approachable, cheerful, sophisticated, playful, serious, pretty, expensive—or on the flip side, dowdy, messy, bland, confusing, mismatched, threadbare, cheap. Whatever its content the message your clothing communicates to the outside world is also internalized by its first and most important witness: you.

Many studies confirm Brescia’s claims. We’ve all heard the advice to “dress for the test,” but did you know that students wearing white coats they were told were lab coats performed better in focus tests than students who thought the same coats were painter’s coats? As the researchers summarized the results, 

The main conclusion that we can draw from the studies is that the influence of wearing a piece of clothing depends on both its symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes. . . . There seems to be something special about the physical experience of wearing a piece of clothing.

Clothes can change how we see ourselves at work and make us feel more powerful. There’s even a study suggesting that we feel more attractive when we’re wearing red.

As Brescia provocatively puts it, “What would it look like to dress for the life you want? What is it that you want more of in your life? Adventure, relaxation, professional recognition, romance, fun? Are you dressing to reap those possibilities, or turn them away?”

If our clothes have a strong effect on how we feel, stepping back to give ourselves a vision of what we want to look like and how we want to dress can be a way to move that vision forward and bring it to bear in our lives. I’ve been a longtime fan of Caroline at Unfancy’s capsule wardrobe planner (free and printable!) because of the amount of space it invests into building a vision, asking questions like “Write out a list of words or phrases that you associate with your style.” Anuschka Rees’ The Curated Closet is a much more expansive method for detoxing your closet and discovering your own personal style. Knowing what our style is might not come naturally to many of us, and that’s completely fine. But it’s so powerful to dress for our vision that it’s worthwhile to invest some time in learning how.

On my eighth-grade graduation day, my clothes weren’t just an external ornamentation—they helped me feel that, fittingly for the occasion, I was coming into my own as a grown woman. Our clothing has the power to help us be more of who we are. While many of us steer clear of fashion for fear of being shallow and frivolous, the fact is that what we wear is an integral part of our lives, and it’s a tremendous chance to communicate who we are to ourselves and to others.