Expressing Your Identity With Clothes

I’ve been struggling my whole life with my identity, trying to see where I fit into the world, and I’ve always used clothes as a short cut. Putting on certain clothes has always been a way to look like I am someone in particular – a corporate professional, a bohemian artist, whatever – even if I wasn’t really sure this was who I was, who I wanted to be, or who I should be.

I’ve spent too much time putting on clothes instead of doing the hard work of figuring out the answers to all of those tough identity questions.

Putting on a tailored suit makes you look sophisticated, powerful, and professional, but it doesn’t actually make you those things. I think we forget that. Even though at various times I have tried on various looks – punk, corporate, beachy, cosmopolitan, rich, sexy – that didn’t actually transform me into any of those things. I always remained me, just me dressed in a costume. But we should be wearing clothes, not a costume.

If you are playing dress up, wearing certain clothes because you are trying to appear to be a certain person, you are wearing a costume. If you are wearing clothes because they are clothes that you like and that you feel comfortable in, you are expressing your identity through fashion, dressing from the inside, and this is how you should be using clothes.

You will never be able to achieve the “perfect wardrobe” until you start putting on clothes that express the real you. If you are dressing up in clothes that you think should be the real you, but aren’t, then you are just covering up a problem.

I wanted to write about shopping and style partly because I wanted to explore this issue. Yes, clothes embody our dreams like nothing else in our lives. They can express our creativity and be a vehicle for self-expression. But the quest for clothes has a dark side too, and it’s easy to fall into a trap. We can let shopping and dressing be a shortcut. We can put on clothes that make us or other people think we know who we are, instead of trying to figure out who we are and then dressing in clothes we like.

So what is the secret? How do you make sure you don’t fall into the trap?

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19 responses to “Expressing Your Identity With Clothes

  1. A thoughtful, well-written and very timely post Jenny – I am planning my bigger autumn purchases at the moment and have been ruminating on the questions you posed here. I think if you’re style-aware, one of the biggest pitfalls is seeing a look you admire on someone else and trying to adopt elements of it without questioning it rigorously enough to see if it’s accurate self-expression for you. Fortunately as I’ve got older I’m better at defining who I am and judging what clothing best speaks that. That’s come as my self-awareness has developed. To answer you, I think it’s important to nurture your whole self – intellectual needs, emotional ones, physical ones – in a very conscious way, so that you acquire not just sound knowledge of who you are, but of how you’re developing as a person. Then make clothing choices on that basis. That for me has been one of the routes to self-expression.

    • Tallulah, thank you for this thoughtful comment. What you said is basically why we created this blog – because we believe that knowing and loving yourself is the key to knowing your style… which in turn can offer a wonderful and unique outlet for self expression!
      Jenny, how great are our readers??

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  3. Thank you. A frank and thoughtful post. Good ideas for us all to ponder, no matter where we are in our journey. I esp. related to the notion of clothes telling us ‘how’ to be, instead of clothes being an expression of our inner selves. Thanks again!

  4. Jenny, I think I’ve struggled with many of the same issues as you – for a lifetime; you’d think I’d have worked it out by age 58, but no, I just keep on looking. In part some of this confusion is down to not looking “right” as a child – a beautiful blonde mother who didn’t hide her disappointment with a tall, striking child who had the frizzy red/brown hair and the angular jaw (fine on Dad, but not on me). Bullied at school for the hair, the height and the looks, I went inward and hid.

    Away at college, I flowered somewhat, escaping into a casual, natural/scruffy student look. Married and finding myself struggling with infertility and multiple miscarriages, I fell apart again, confused about who I was – certainly not a mother, not a “normal” woman again, so retreated into the small, feminine, tight look of the eighties, all pastels and frilled edged blouses – awful on someone I now know is a Soft Dramatic.

    Later with added qualifications, I hit the late 80s/90 in power mode, adopting the professional working woman look – hiding the emptiness over lack of family (extended and my own) in this rigourous, outward display of earnest office wear – not really who I felt inside – but who was that anyway, lost somewhere down the line. Going to art school in my late fourties prompted the shaggy student look again, albeit a more mature version.

    Now I teach art and design to mature students, am just beginning to “find myself” again, metaphorically and in clothing. Have been analysed by Lora Alexander as belonging to the new (16 seasonal groupings) Soft Autumn Deep or Toned Autumn as I get older and soften from the Deep Autumn I used to be. Have also worked out I am Soft Dramatic, angular face with some sensual softer factors and hour glass figure, but tall and long limbs and body overall. At my most intuitive, know this is right, small and fiddly makes me look big and lost and awkward. Am trying to unit this look with the more casual clothes a part time art tutor needs – but feel I am coming of age – at last! Will watch this site with much interest, hope you find the answers too. Thanks so much!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article. It sounds like you are finally figuring out your style. I think you are certainly more sure of it than I am! I myself have thought on and off about going to art school – I certainly think artistic types are more prone to obsessing about their clothes because they are more visual than other types of people. Being visual is a blessing, but I think also a curse because you can’t ignore things that other people don’t even notice!

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  6. Wonderful post! I have been struggling with this too these past few months and i am glad finally i found some words to match my feelings. Do you have any tips? What has helped you getting over the “outfit anxiety”?

    I have been going to extremes, from spending hours on my looks to rolling out of bed and heading out. I guess it doesn’t help to live in Alaska, where the weather is pretty unforgiving and snow boots and puffy jackets are the best we can do for 6 months a year….

    • The only thing you can do is to figure out who you really are and then dress that person. Have you done that yet?

      • You know, I have been working pretty heavily on that these last few months and i feel at a crossroads. It just feels like, as women, there are so many contradictory messages out there!

        I am the daughter of two fashionistas who delighted on fine fabrics and Audrey Hepburn type of glamour, so i was instilled very heavily that that’s what a respectable, talented and audacious young lady is supposed to look like. It’s been hard letting that go since I love the outdoors and bike everywhere (yes, even here in Alaska in the middle of the winter!) and blending them both has taken much more time and effort that i am willing to put into it, (and money, fancy gear is expensive) because in my core I know that it is an unfair double-standard to expect women to look perfect and glamourous even when they are hiking up a glacier!

        Ahhh, adding a few self-image issues and scars of previous eating disorders and you have a very confused girl =S

          • Yeah, honestly it is so much easier to be a guy. I was thinking recently that men only have to wear pants – there aren’t even any other real options for them. Whereas we have to choose between pants, skirts, dresses, and then types of those things. And that’s just one example. Plus they don’t have pressure to wear makeup or have long hair – all things that women feel pressured to do and then it’s a maintenance thing. I think for some people it’s much harder to figure out who they are – at least I’ve noticed that some women don’t seem to agonize over this as much as I do or have in the past. I think some of us have a harder time coming up with our identity – I know it seems like it shouldn’t be so hard, but other things sidetrack us, and keep us from getting there. I always feel like I shouldn’t have to “make” or “figure out” my identity, because it should just be there, but it isn’t that easy. It really isn’t. I think we make progress gradually. You just have to stick with it.

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