Far from being a pretentious vindication of the modus operandi of the women’s glossy magazine, there does seem to be quite a direct link between what you wear, how you see yourself, and thus what you are capable of accomplishing on any given day.
I remember watching what seemed to be a legit YouTube clip once about ‘a study’ that tested how well one group of people performed on certain arithmetic tests while wearing a lab coat they were told was a scientist’s coat, versus people in a control group who wore no coat. The results apparently showed that the ‘scientist’ group performed better on average. They redid the experiment with a further two groups that were both given white coats. One group was told they were scientists’ lab coats, the others were told they were artists’ painting coats. The scientist group again performed better on the arithmetic test (fuck, I wish I could remember the name of the clip!) but the artist group produced better drawings or something like that.
Now it could be that I am just shallow, but this resonated strongly with me. I have always been someone who was particularly susceptible to feeling frumpy. It was and still is very easy to set me off. Slightly oily hair, a frayed hem, a bad cut of blouse, too-baggy pants, scuffed or overly casual shoes, chipped nail polish, clashing colours, a tatty handbag, lack of eye makeup – all these are things that will make me creep about obsequiously until finally I am rid of the offending item or have rectified the problem.
It is probably the case that this is not entirely normal behaviour and may have its roots in a more sinister phenomenon such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder of the milder variety. My wardrobe has been whittled down and pruned to the point where it is almost impossible for anything to clash with anything else mostly because everything is black or charcoal-grey or white, beige, maroon, or navy blue. I often purchase clothing loftily e.g. “Let’s add this beautiful blue strappy top to the wardrobe – all that black is so drab.” However, it will not be long before the item is added to that category of neglected clothing that is eventually considered for giveaway.
All this is the most taboo kind of talk for a purportedly emancipated hard core feminist but luckily I don’t give a shit because idealism in certain cases needs to be interpreted intelligently in order to avoid becoming senseless dogma. Such is the case of clothing for me. I wear daily, for all intents and purposes, a highly curated cosmopolitan and more than slightly gothic uniform.
Why the uniform? Because it expresses those characteristics that I feel are fundamental to who I am; someone disciplined in execution, practical, edgy, rational, efficient, bold, versatile. Above all my wardrobe conveys that I am ready for anything (which is why heels are always a bit of a challenge for me as they do make my options feel limited in that I would be unable, for example, to beat up a gang of goons in a dark alley wearing the sexy beige stilettos I’m currently sporting).
Edith Piaf, too, had a uniform. She would always and without fail wear a little black dress to her performances. Who can surmise why she felt this was necessary. I think I have an idea. There is an economy in this approach that is alluring.
Once during a period of being too tired and demotivated to care about properly coordinating my outfits or wearing makeup, my mentor gave me a pep talk. As a powerful woman tempered and refined by two decades in a massive Blue Chip company, she had defined a wardrobe that made her capable of conquering continents. Each and every outfit looked simultaneously magnificent and effortless. And oh, the footwear. She was also a firm believer in the merits of a good lipstick. She advised on her strategy: when you were at your worst, no-one should know about it except those closest to your heart, and this was precisely the time when you should look your best. Lipstick was critical.
I followed this advice closely until I suffered from a serious burnout, at which point getting out of bed seemed like enough of an accomplishment, and then I looked like shit for weeks (which seemed like a necessary and even healthy ego death).
Writing this calls to mind an unfortunate episode of a few years ago when I wore tracksuit pants to work. I hated where I was working and noted that my colleagues and I, all cream-of-the-crop graduates from the best universities, were like a herd of racehorses put to pasture with dairy cows for the fattening, never to race again. This could have been fatal, but luckily my soul rebelled in the same manner as that German tourist’s had (Meditation 1) and I resigned without a plan or a clue as to what was to come next. The tracksuit pants had been an outward manifestation of a deep loss of faith in myself and my abilities – a precursor to losing one’s edge and succumbing to unforgiveable mediocrity.
The point here is that every time I have ever deviated from my standards of dress, I have regretted it on account of feeling less capable of executing that unique function that appeals to me: getting shit done, elegantly and with impact.
My self-expression is deeply connected to my physical presentation, as is it indicative of how I’m doing (never mind that the strictness of my dress has something to do with my parents’ eccentricity – see Meditation 10).
Subsequently I have discovered that I actually feel like complete crap when I am bare-faced, which forced me to re-evaluate the way I had previously judged other women who like to wear lots of makeup. It is, after all, about personal style, and your personal style (including your prerogative in electing of your own free will to don religious headgear, to shave your various regions, to pluck eyebrows, to spray tan, to Botox, to do weird shit like running marathons without a tampon etc.) is all about finding what works for you.
If we, as feminists, judge women who wear makeup or shave their armpits because they supposedly bolster the patriarchy by conforming to masculine ideas of beauty we are missing the point of freedom of expression. Why is my rouge lipstick not as much an expression of who I am as is another woman’s decision to go without shaving? Why not shave in the first place – because you actually don’t like it or simply for the sake of rebelling in a general way? Once you get going here, inevitably it gets down to how much you really believe in freedom, whatever it looks like. Can you tolerate it if freedom looks different for someone else?
Zoom in even more, and suddenly nothing makes sense anymore. What you see others doing can no longer be interpreted properly, as you are seeing it through the lens of your own paradigm and everywhere you look you see only your own limitations and prejudices.
The only place to go from here is to accept one’s own ignorance and narrowness, and to protect fiercely the unique expressions that constitute what others choose to present in whichever way, to ask rather than assume, and to honour your own requirements.
Mine are shaving my legs, avoiding garish colours and bizarre combos, never wearing leggings as pants, wearing a little makeup from time to time, and tying my hair up on day two after a wash (the beanie never fools anyone).
I celebrate the hairy, the bold and wool-clad, the daring, and the bare-faced, too. Those are easy to applaud.
Will I celebrate the difficult ones, though? The Botoxed, the niptucked, the base-caked, the skinny-zillion-dollar-jeaned? The hijabed…
The ones that make me jealous?
From the 16 Meditations for Deranged Workaholics series.