Love it or hate it we have to make fashion choices every day. What’s more, these choices can have an impact on how we feel. Let’s find out how to make them wisely.
Stylewords by Cerstin Henning
Clothes have many functions — they keep us warm in cold weather, shield us from the sun and protect us from preying eyes. But they are also a powerful tool for sending messages — intentionally or not — about who we are. In that way they can help us establish our identity. We can use our clothes and the way we wear and style them to signal which group we want to belong to or not belong to and what we have achieved in life so far. “The messages clothes give off always have a social and a psychological dimension,” says Dr Nick Baylis, founder of the Cambridge institute of Well-being and author of The Rough Guide to Happiness (Penguin 2009). He emphazises that they are always about both — fitting in and standing out. So we dress for others just as much as we dress for ourselves. “Even the most seemingly functional clothes are making a statement,” the psychologist indicates.
Clothes are a means of adding something to our personality. A sharp suit or a well-fitting dress can make us stand and walk taller; they can even change the way we perceive ourselves. At a graduation ball we want to show that we know about the festivity of the occasion. For a job interview we need our clothes to say that we are professional and know what is expected from us, we need them to signal that we fit in. They are the door opener.
For some people, such a door would remain forever closed if it wasn’t for the California based charity organisation Working Wardrobes.
Working Wardrobes helps men, women, and young adults in life crises to get back on track and into the working world by supporting them with career development and wardrobe services. This charity’s volunteers are personal shoppers and stylists who provide and assist in choosing work appropriate clothes and give tips on how to enhance personal and professional images. Founder and CEO Jerri Rosen believes there is a strong link between clothes and self-confidence, “We have so many anecdotal examples of the change – heads held high, great eye contact, the walk of confidence, the feeling of being successful and willing to get out for interviews.”
One of the doors they opened was for Phillip, a former veteran who five years ago was living in a park, sleeping on a bench, eating out of garbage bins, and now serves on their Board of Directors. “He has managed to get his daughter back in his life, has his own apartment and holds a job making six figures,” Rosen proudly relates. When Rowena left a domestic violence situation with her three children and their belongings in a plastic clothes basket, Working Wardrobes helped her fit in the working world again. “Today she has a wonderful job, returned to college, has a place of her own, her children are doing well in school and she speaks for Working Wardrobes at special events,” Rosen adds. More often than not the changes that started with a trouser suit are for good. “We want our clients to be as confident inside as they look on the outside. No empty suits!”
This is why they provide more than just the outfit. “We offer a very powerful series of Career Success workshops that change our clients’ perceptions of who they are, enable them to articulate transferable skills, gather their work history, prepare a resume, and handle answering difficult questions with grace,” Rosen elaborates. “We believe success comes from the inside out.“
Dr Baylis confirms this. “If you want to be more confident, go out and join a drama class or volunteer at a shelter for stray dogs. Make friends. If it’s a severe problem, have therapy. Clothes will not take you there.” he says, “An inch, yes, a mile, no.”
But for most of us, who can afford and have more clothes than we actually need, an inch might make a big difference.
So how do we get there? Choosing clothes that make us feel good is a skill not easily mastered. It needs playful experimentation as much as it needs knowledge. There is nothing wrong with getting help. “If you want to find out which kind of clothes will work for you in any given situation, by all means, ask a friend to go through your wardrobe with you or hire a stylist or a personal shopper,” Baylis suggests.
Clothes are important elements in our day to day interactions with ourselves and others. “It‘s nice to imagine that appearance doesn’t matter,” says Dr Linda Sapadin, a psychologist and success coach, “but the fact is that for most people, and especially for women, how they look – or think they look – adds or detracts from their confidence level.“
But this is not about buying more and more clothes. It‘s about choosing carefully for our body shape and skin colour while keeping the existing pieces in our wardrobe in mind. “Someone who has really thought about their clothes will always look authentic and interesting and I think this is what style is about: to show off the real you and feel comfortable doing so,” says Rahel Schwietering, founder of the Perfectissimo Styles personal shopping agency. The main objective in her style consultations is to make her clients realise that they are good the way they are. The session is all about teaching people how to present themselves best.
It usually comprises of three steps: first, an image consultation including an analysis of the body structure and colour type, then a wardrobe consultation, and finally a personal shopping experience. This is usually the biggest ‘aha’ experience, she says, because her clients then dress for the first time not only the way they already see themselves but the way they could see themselves. Her aim is not to change somebody’s way of dressing but to find clothes that display and emphasize their personality.
She selects three kinds of clothes. Those that suit the clients and they already feel comfortable with, the clothes that take up the changes she has discussed with them and finally the clothes she personally sees in them. Most of her clients say: ‘Yes, I do like the outfits that incorporate the changes we have talked about, I can see myself wearing those. And I really like the items you are suggesting, too, but actually I don’t dare wearing them yet.’ According to Schwietering, many of them come back six months later and say, ‘I’m ready now for the next step, let’s do it.’
So do clothes make the woman?
“Not totally,“ Sapadin explains, “However, if you’re seeking to enhance your self-confidence, paying attention to your attire, carriage and look is a good idea.” Does this suggest we should embark on yet another shopping trip and that the next dress we buy will make us happy? Dr Linda Sapadin strongly disagrees, hinting that this kind of thinking could well be a sign of low self-esteem in a person. We might use our clothes to conceal the way we feel about ourselves and mislead others but in the long run they cannot change our sense of self-worth, our body image, how much we feel loved by our family and friends. “What it does suggest, however, is that we should dress in a way that makes us feel pleased with ourselves,” Sapadin adds. This means finding our own style, feeling comfortable in our clothes and getting rid of things that make us feel fat or ugly.
Choosing clothes wisely can have many dimensions — from dressing appropriately for an occasion, to finding out the styles, shapes and colours that suit us and make us feel special. If we allow our clothes to make us feel good we will soon notice a difference. It‘s up to us to make a deliberate choice; even if it‘s one we have to make every morning.