Deliberate Transitions

There was an article in the LA Times in the past week about getting dressed to stay home, and the author is experiencing this HUGE backlash where people (mostly on Twitter) are saying that the idea of “enough with the sweatpants” is (1) insulting to people who are really struggling right now, and (2) shouldn’t be advice accepted from someone who looks like [insert insulting description of the journalist here]. There is certainly a conversation to be had here about privilege, and how that relates to the whole idea of “getting dressed.” Sheltering in place, but even just working from home BEFORE quarantine, required a certain level of privilege just to happen, and that feels overlooked right now. Some folks don’t have an option about what they wear, because their work demands a uniform or clothes that can take a beating. Others are in a financial situation where the mere idea of thinking about their wardrobe seems laughable, and “getting dressed” means making do.

I really spent some time mulling this over, wanting to take care that I’m not being tone deaf, that I consider not only how these guidelines developed for me in my own life, but also what it is about my life that made them possible, and what it was that made them necessary. I came away with two concepts that I suspect are the invisible underlying assumptions that have fueled my attitude toward dressing “up” each day: DELIBERATION and TRANSITION.

One day, I looked up and was jarred by what I saw, and discovered there was a disconnect between my Inside-Me and my Outside-Me, and THAT is what I want to prioritize, that sense of integrity, as in: I think what I bring to the table on my body reflects how I value what I bring to the table on my interior. I think that honors me, and that people who are struggling right now (or ever) are worthy of being honored in small ways, like wearing clothes that make them feel good, that speak to the person they are and want to be. I’m surprised at the backlash on that article I mentioned, because I’ve learned that what I wear is a reflection of how I feel about myself IN THE MOMENT.

I feel like some folks make the argument that others should accept them regardless of how they look, that “if you don’t love me at my worst you don’t deserve me at my best.” My counter-argument is that when I don’t bother to get dressed because I’m not “going anywhere,” I’ve invited others to determine my worth BY DEFAULT. Which is to say, if the ONLY reason to invest time and energy into feeling good about myself, wearing well-fitting clothing that I enjoy, or doing the work to honor who I am on the inside by trying to match it with who I am on the outside is because someone else will see me, haven’t I abdicated the deciding of whether I deserve all those things TO THE VIEWER? I am the decider, not the person I may or may not see each day. So getting dressed is for ME, not for the viewer.

That brings me to DELIBERATION: what I do, I do on purpose, including when I get dressed. It isn’t that I HAVE to Dress Up, it’s that when I put on clothing, I’m doing it for a REASON. If I spend the day in the clothes I slept in, then fall asleep on the sofa only to wake in the middle of the night and drag myself to my bed, have I used my day to better myself? to see more of the world? to consciously, intentionally interact with the NOW around me? Or have I been a passenger on the clock, riding the minute hand until it completes another circuit?

I’m going to point out that THERE ARE DAYS WHERE THAT’S WHAT I NEED MOST, to coast and to rest and to recuperate. I have learned, the hard hard hard way, that those days can also be ON PURPOSE, that I can CHOOSE them, the quiet days, the gentle days, the puttering days and the “hammock days,” choose them to feed myself. I can even dress for them in sweats and stretchy pants. Making it DELIBERATE, however, is the essential distinction between a wasted day and a redeemed day, a day I’ve lost forever with nothing to show or remember, and a day I have exchanged for peace and centered contentment.

I need a lot, A LOT of time in nature right now. I don’t wear a skirt + tights + heels to go hiking by a waterfall. I wear stretchy pants and soft socks and a flannel shirt that I can take off if it gets sunny. I select those clothes based on what I’ll be doing and what I’ll be asking of myself while I’m there: I want to breathe deeply without restricting waistlines, I want to push my body until it cranks out the endorphins I so desperately crave, I want to savor a moment when the world slips away and I can float along on the cool air above the river. I change clothes to do that, because I am reaching for those feelings. When we get back from our hike, I’ll shower and put on Real Clothes before making dinner, because I want to carry that sense of peace and calm back with me into my Regular Life.

When I go for a run, I am making REAL that my body is a gift and I value that. I’m never going to RUN on my “run” if I wear slippers and baggy sweats. It’s too easy to avoid. The activewear signals to my brain that I’m there to MAKE AN EFFORT, and it signals to the outside world that I do so with DELIBERATION. Changing out of those clothes to put on a skirt and tights and “go” to work in the basement signals that my work is REAL, that my efforts make an impact, and that there are multiple sides to who I am, all of which are worthy of time, attention and grace.

Every time I change clothes, I’m honoring a TRANSITION between the facets of who I want to be, and the more often I do so, the more fluid it becomes, so that all the parts of me that seem like they can’t fit together are gradually (uncomfortably, sometimes painfully) becoming integrated into the BEST version of me. Maybe I make dinner, then load the dishwasher (or get my kids to do it), and put BACK on my stretchy pants so my husband & I can go for an evening walk. I might stay in my stretchy pants the rest of the day, watch a movie, maybe mix a cocktail–that’s not hypocrisy because I’m not Dressed Up ALL DAY EVERY HOUR. It’s ON PURPOSE. I might just as easily finish a work day and put on a cocktail dress and eyeliner to meet my husband for dinner, or a sequin skirt + vintage tee to go to a concert (back when we could do that kind of thing). I might spend the day working in the garden in grubby cargo pants, then put on a pretty dress just to eat delivery at the dinner table with our family. These are PARTS of my day, broken into segments like seasons of a year, that reflect the different ways I outwardly demonstrate–to myself and those around me–that I feel my own worth. It goes beyond what I DO into who I AM.

Maybe this is all just as much about establishing an identity as it is about maintaining mental health. And maybe my identity was damaged because I wasn’t valuing myself highly enough. My wardrobe helped me heal that. It was slow and it wasn’t magic–I had to create boundary lines around me like on a ball field. Sidelines that would tell me when I’d gone out of play and needed to get myself back into the thick of it, to not give up the fight. Goal lines so I’d know where I was headed. And I learned it’s not a simple metaphor; in football and basketball, after halftime you switch directions of play and head to the other end of the field, so there’s plenty of pivots and changes of direction–but I’ve written before about how so much of our own thinking and DOING is iterative, recursive in nature. So was this, this learning to Get Dressed so that my heart and my head were in line with one another, it looped back on itself over and over until the negative mix tape of my own thoughts was paused for a little longer each day so that I could push past the parts of me that were fed by my own ego and embrace more fully the parts of me that are content.

I guess I mean, I hate that there isn’t a finish line to all this. I would LOVE to have a final ANSWER to my feelings, and the world’s issues, and my future. But there is no finish line, there is no “solution,” just uncertainty–and that makes me uncomfortable. So it’s cool if you think Getting Dressed is crazycakes right now, I get that. I’m not telling you THE answer, just MY answer. I can’t control…well, really anything. But I can control what I wear, and how I see myself, and how much I’m willing to work to show up, vulnerable and hopeful. I would love for us all to have more room to talk about those ideas, and to view sewing clothing and expressing our inner lives–artistic, emotional, intellectual–through how we dress as something of WEIGHT and WORTH. I hope this series of posts can be part of that conversation.

This is the final post in a series about how getting dressed, even when you’re only going from your bedroom to the living room and back again, can have an enormous impact on your mood, your sense of self, and how well you handle stress and change.  I know very well the temptation to wear only stretchy pants and sweatshirts when working from (or just staying) home; I also know the insidious ways in which giving in to that temptation ate away at my ability to fight through mental fog and maintain a healthy headspace.

I learned through trial and error, by working from home over the past ten+ years–and then, as the result of some dark days, actively altering what I wear over the past two years–that there are some basic guidelines I can employ when getting dressed each day that give me the tools and the margin to intentionally improve my outlook and mental health.  I’m sharing them here in hopes they’ll create a framework where we can have a bigger conversation about how sewing our own clothes allows us a window through which we can feed our hearts and minds.

For the introduction to the series, visit this post, and for a deeper dive, join us at the League of Dressmakers, where we’re developing this topic in greater depth, complete with silhouette guides, sewing pattern suggestions, video discussions and live chats!

text image describing the author's journey to dressing better

6 Comments on “Deliberate Transitions

  1. I’m glad it worked for you, but it’s still coming off as a bit judgmental when it comes to those of us who are making do in sweatpants and t-shirts. I work from home, and not dressing up has worked perfectly fine for a decade. I absolutely support and will not guilt a world of new teleworkers for not looking their best right now.

    The part that’s bugging me is this: There’s still traces where I feel like you, personally, would judge me for sitting here in a conference tee and a pair of super baggy cargo pants. You say that you think others would judge you for wearing sweatpants, which, whether you meant it or not, implies that you would judge someone for doing that. When people express that they’re worried someone else will judge them, there’s a pretty good chance that they, themselves are doing that themselves.

    It’s perfectly fine to say “I prefer to get dressed up even if I’m not going out.” I know fellow teleworkers make a point to put business attire every day. They often say something similar (it helps them transition into a particular mind set), but they don’t think it means they’re a worse person when they say, screw it, wearing gym shorts.

    • I agree with you: there’s a whole world of new teleworkers who are just getting through each day right now; I have zero interest in guilting them, but instead to share how much it meant to me to discover that changing my clothes helped me change my mood. This whole series is about how creating guidelines that nudge me into unfamiliar territory helps me ask questions I need to answer, and led me to challenge the default of “it doesn’t matter” and point out that it DOES, and thank goodness! That means when I make these conscious choices to get dressed, whether I dress “up” or wear my most lounge-y loungewear, I can change my emotional outlook and outwardly reflect my intrinsic value. I’m so surprised to read your reaction! It’s not at all my message that our clothing determines our worth. My point in this post is actually the opposite–that it isn’t WHAT we wear, it’s the CHOOSING that matters, because my value is ABSOLUTE, and getting dressed on auto-pilot did me a disservice.

  2. I think there are some people who aren’t affected by what they wear, but I also think they’re a minority.

    Myself, I haven’t changed what I wear, because special occasions aside, I don’t have different clothes for when I’m at home. (I never want to wear the kind of clothes you just can’t wait to get out of.) I wear the same thing at home all day that I’d wear if I was going out that day: mostly dresses. I do change into different clothes if I’m doing something vigorous in the garden, and if I’m sick I might stay in my pajamas all day, but getting dressed is part of my routine in the morning, and I’d feel discombobulated if I skipped it.
    That said, I have the privilege of taking my mornings slowly if I need to – no kids waking at 6am needing attention or the like.

    I guess the mood-altering effects of clothing are like the beneficial effect of exercise when you’re suffering from depression: maybe you know it would be good for you, but sometimes, when you’re in that place, it’s just too hard, and that’s ok. As with so many things, it should be a stick to lean upon, not to measure yourself against or beat yourself with!

  3. Keep doing what you’re doing; you are inspirational. Love our posts.

  4. I appreciated this post–first time to your blog here. I am thinking through some things about my self presentation in these strange times, and I agree 100% with the mood lift of intentionally dressing for yourself. I learned this in college over 30 years ago, when I had taken a break and my cohort had graduated without me and I found myself with few acquaintances and almost no time in grad school to make more. I would dress to go out for a walk by myself, which in those days did not involve athleisure, and didn’t really think much of it at the time until my new roommate commented once in public about it. She was admiring, but even to my ear it sounded like I must have been sneaking off to meet someone–perceptions and judgments can make us so hard on others and ourselves. Anyway, just wanted to say that you made my day, and I hunted down that roommate on social media after having lost touch. Keep writing!

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