Dressing Up Is My Coping Mechanism

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Sweats, comfy shorts, leggings, and tees have come to define the collective modus operandi right now. Yet, there’s something to be said about the power of dressing up to cope with quarantine. It may seem frivolous, but for me, it's become a healthy outlet.

In mid-March, I'd just come back to the new reality of New York City from Paris Fashion Week, where dressing up was all but mandatory. At first, canceled plans and events were a relief; it pushed the added task of outfit planning to the wayside. But once the novelty wore off I quickly came realize that I was missing a major part of my identity.

I'm someone who rarely wears neutral colors, or even jeans. I live for bright colors, mismatched prints and patterns, and 90 percent of my wardrobe is made up of dresses and skirts. My favorite fashion week outfit of the past season was a blue cloud velvet pant and shirt set by Helmstedt that I wore with a neon Wandler bag and vintage jacquard Miu Miu jacket in metallic blue. So donning navy blue sweats by Lou and Grey (as amazingly comfortable as they are) and baggy tees and sweaters in the early days of quarantine, was, for me, a total 180.

It makes sense though, that dressing up helps me feel better. First, there's the obvious: “Even if we're not going to be interacting with others, we can feel better about ourselves if we get dressed up thanks to two factors,” says Paul Greene, the director of the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. “Subconsciously, how we dress can be a conditioning cue for how we feel. If you've gotten dressed for work a thousand times and been productive, you associate dressing for work with getting things done. So if you want to get things done when working from home, it makes sense to get dressed up for work."

This is true even when you're not going to the office, too. "Similarly, if we're used to having fun or getting positive reactions from others when we go out, we subconsciously associate the way we dress with feeling good about ourselves," Greene says.

So, very recently, I've started trading my sweats and tees for the most indulgent outfits in my wardrobe: now I put on sequin embellished top or a neon sweater with an exaggerated silhouette just to go for a walk in my neighborhood. Fashion — even the nitty gritty of outfit planning, looking through my closet, and coming up with new ways of styling pieces — is what brings me joy, even in times of uncertainty. Hanging on the back of my door in anticipation of my next outing to the grocery store I currently have a Chopova Lowena shirt with massive puffy sleeves, a bright blue Lirika Matoshi sweater covered in 3-D cherries and a very chunky pastel rainbow knitted cardigan by Hope Macaulay. Even just seeing these items makes me feel a bit more normal.

Having now been in quarantine since March, there's a sense that while there's no return to pre-Covid normal, it feels a bit more comfortable re-embracing the habits I initially fell out of. Fashion historian Allison Pfingst explains of the initial shift, “it was about comfort and developing a fulfilling personal style." She notes that the pared-back aesthetic allowed for focus elsewhere. "These looks suited the vital domestic work that was taking place including working from home, homeschooling, and tending to the sick. It worked beautifully for baking banana bread, crafting, and Instagram Stories about the importance of self care.”

When I began to re-embrace my sense of style from before quarantine, I started to reclaim a part of myself. I also noticed friends and colleagues returning to more radical fashion, too. “My style and getting dressed every day has always been a huge part of my identity,” explains Gisele Milan, a podcast host. “My colorful and loud style helped me stand out when I was younger, beyond just my skin tone. It was something I could control.” Milan has been posting her outfit on Instagram stories every single day, even while in quarantine. “Honestly, they have been the only sense of normalcy I still have,” she adds.

"I dress up every day in quarantine life because I know the impact it has on me mentally and emotionally,” explains personal stylist and wardrobe consultant Jenn Torres. “There are a number of psychological studies that I talk about with clients to prove the importance of how we dress on our mental health. My favorite one that relates to your article is ‘Enclothed Cognition.’ The theory explains that if we dress in clothes that make us feel put together and confident, we will act more put together and confident. We will be more productive in our work and happier. What we wear actually impacts our self-esteem.”

This isn’t the first pivotal time in history that the world has collectively used fashion as a coping method. Pfingst contrasts today’s world with the fashion seen in the time of war. “During World War II, many who stayed at home dressed up as a matter of morale and of attempting to maintain a sense of normalcy,” she adds. “For example, nylon stockings were considered an essential part of a women’s outfit, but once nylon was rationed for parachutes women got creative. There was a trend of drawing or painting a line up the back of their legs to mimic the seam of a stocking. While women may not wear stockings on an everyday basis anymore, the return to the structural dresses, boxy handbags, and even oversized blazers once worn to the office feel like a return to past interests.

Now, I'm finding excitement at the idea of putting on my wildest pieces again. To pick up food last weekend, I wore a ‘60s printed top with extreme puff sleeves by Selkie, Issey Miyake pleated pants, and heels. Another time, for a trip to pick up groceries, I wore metallic green eyeshadow, huge earrings and a tailored dress. It felt like a statement of intent about getting dressed up and the power that it holds. And most importantly, it reminded me of how much I love fashion and the art of getting dressed up.

Right now, I feel as thought my personal style is possibly more important than ever before. it's an escape, but also a reminder every time I glance down at my feet or look in a mirror that I'm covering myself in something that brings me joy.

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