Can Fashion Inspire Creativity? I Dressed My Way Out Of An Imagination Rut

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As a creative person, an occasional rut comes with the territory. Inspiration doesn’t always strike, (at least, not precisely when I need it to) but for the most part I’m usually hungry for a brainstorm or outlet to express my creative energy. This year it was like someone pulled the emergency brake on the subway, and for the past few months I’ve been trying to get back up to speed. Since intrinsically fashion inspires me creatively and is a source of joy, I wondered if a little change in attitude towards my closet could help my work woes. Equipped with some advice from experts, I gave it a shot.

If you’re wondering “why clothes?” it’s because fashion can be an incredibly powerful tool, whether it’s as comforting as a lived-in pair of jeans or as special as full-body sequins. And though my general daily style leans toward the former, I felt it was time to get back in the groove of dressing intentionally each day. I’d fallen into a pattern of switching from daytime to nighttime loungewear, rinse, repeat. That simply wasn’t working.

Without answers, I called in some professional assistance. I tapped a few expert sources who could provide insights on what to do to harness creativity, even during a disaster year when a pandemic, social unrest, economic stress, and more weighed heavy on me and those I care about. “Just absolutely be kind to yourself,” said Dr. Girija Kaimal, an associate professor at Drexel University’s Creative Arts Therapies PhD program and president-elect of the American Art Therapy Association, over the phone. “Know that whatever you’re doing, whatever you can do, is enough.” This seemed like a good place to start. After all, one thing that wasn’t welcoming creative energy was beating myself up that it wasn’t there in the first place.

I also turned to advice from Alexis Rockley, a positive psychology-certified coach whose viral IG post from April I’ve read through many times, as well as designer Tanya Taylor, whose work with color therapy suggested she’d have nuggets of wisdom to dole out (she did). Below, the best of their advice, as well as some reflection on what happened when I actually took it.

Dressing Your Way Out of a Rut: Find Power in Color

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Taylor, whose eponymous line launched a Therapy Capsule collection this fall in partnership with Pantone, is someone who I turned to because of her understanding of the power of color. “Whether you realize it or not, color evokes feeling and emotion — just looking at a color sends a message to your mind to remember feelings, places, and memories that you associate with that color, “ she said. “I’ve always associated my experiences with colors, so color comes first when I want to spark my creativity and imagination because it awakens my senses and alerts me to think and feel.”

While dressing to embrace color can be as simple as donning your favorite hue, Taylor provides some prompts to consider when channeling specific feelings. “Dress in a color that makes you feel free. Create a mood board of colors that represent calm and balance. Put an object on your desk that will remind you of how you felt when you first fell in love,” she suggests.

With this in mind, one day I tried Taylor's prompt and went for a color that made me feel free. Even though I think my wardrobe relies mostly on classic pieces, I landed on this cardigan that has an especially playful vibe in turquoise with sweet embroidered flowers. I don't know if I felt "free" per se but I enjoyed it enough not to change out of my outfit until I was ready for bed that night. I'll take it!

Dressing Your Way Out of a Rut: Reevaluate Your Wardrobe

“I think of our space as an extension of ourselves right now,” said Dr. Kaimal. “Extend the sense of personal fashion to our physical spaces.” She advised using any additional time you may be spending at home in a productive way. “That might mean letting go of clutter you might have accumulated and letting go of all the things that are perhaps not really necessary and adding to your life.”

Personally, this piece of advice was easiest to follow. After all, the more time I spent in my studio apartment this year, the more I noticed how much stuff I actually was trying to pack into it. Taking Dr. Kaimal’s advice to heart — “making sure you retain the things that are meaningful and valuable and affirm your identity” — it wasn’t long before I’d sent two or three bags of clothing, shoes, accessories off to be resold or donated. And even in a year where I — like many of us — cut my shopping budget significantly, I didn’t feel like I’d gotten rid of so much that I no longer had options to play around with. It was only things that didn’t align with what I valued most in my closet.

Dressing Your Way Out of a Rut: Return to Your Roots

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“Go to the forms of creative expression that are comforting,” said Dr. Kaimal. As it pertains to “stress of uncertainty and lack of safety” the educator advised returning first to forms of creativity that feel more natural. For Dr. Kaimal that also meant tapping into her past career in textile design. “I started to make a quilt with my daughters. I found old scraps of fabric that had traveled with me all the way from India in the ‘90s when I first moved to the US and we made a quilt together. That was one of the ways in which I coped [this year].”

Dr. Kaimal suggested thinking about comfort creativity, “just like we think about comfort food.” When it comes to fashion it made me consider what might be the equivalent in wardrobe form. What was my go-to outfit that I'd feel my best in when I was running around for work all day long, hopping on and off subways, networking over lunch, and catching up with friends over dinner? I landed on some version of a skirt-and-top combination — something with rich texture and a little pop of color. The example seen here I wore to work from my apartment all day and take a Zoom call. I only really went out to treat myself to a cookie at my favorite local coffee shop. Maybe it's a placebo effect, but that was an especially good cookie.

Dressing Your Way Out of a Rut: Make Room to Play

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“The creative art form of getting dressed is a micro task that can boost your confidence momentarily,” Rockley told me. As she explains it, confidence — something that tends to run low alongside creativity, in my experience — is kind of like a muscle. “It isn’t related to self-esteem, it’s like an archive of all the times your brain has tried something and survived,” shared Rockley, “and the more that we do to branch out try something new, a micro risk, the more receptively our brain can archive and repeat it. And we can continue to move on from there and it becomes an archive of confidence that fuels us so we’re much more resilient.”

Rockley suggested approaching styling an outfit each day — even if there’s no specific occasion to do so — as a micro-risk to try. “It’s deciding it matters,” she said, “It’s saying that there’s still some room to play in your life and it’s worth doing so.”

I indeed kept my risk micro, as I'm not an avant-garde dresser by nature. In my mini way I opted for a denim jumpsuit I'd never usually wear — mostly, because I've never found one whose fit I like. I paired it with a contrasting sweater and wore it to work from home for the day and run a couple errands.

Dressing Your Way Out of a Rut: Fake It Until You Make It

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I’ve heard of fake it until you make it in a work setting, but as designer Taylor said, a bit of make-believe in your wardrobe can do wonders. “I approach my own style to spark creativity,” said Taylor. “I like playing dress up, thinking of myself as a character and really enjoying fashion and the intention it creates. I suggest always wearing what makes you happy and brings you joy — to me that is embracing spontaneity and allowing my instincts to experiment with color combinations, proportions, print mixing etc.”

Taylor also recommended not taking this dress-up approach too far, if it's outside your comfort zone. “If you are comfortable and feel confident it will shine, just always gut check to make sure you feel like yourself!,” she added.

I figured if I was going to fake it or play pretend, I might as well give more formal dressing a shot — within reason. I spent an afternoon answering emails from my couch in a crisp, oversize blazer. It might have felt a little silly at first but I came to appreciate all the reasons I'm a fan of blazers to begin with. They are polished and sharp, the perfect ones are slightly oversized but never sloppy, and they make anything it's paired with feel more special. In my case, jeans and slippers.

Dressing Your Way Out of a Rut: How It’s Going

I didn't set out looking for advice on sparking creativity through clothing as a simple solution to a simple problem. It doesn't, and hasn't, worked that way. I don't feel like my writing or brainstorming sessions significantly improved since sitting around in a blazer or wearing an outfit I feel good in. But what I've found from the expert advice is a little relief, understanding, and an appreciation of what I could get done in a day when I set an intention. Sometimes that's coming up with new ideas at work, or attempting a new recipe for dinner, or making calls to voters in Georgia. Sometimes it's not much else besides scrolling through Twitter. It's a work in progress. At least now I'm dressed for it.