'I Feel Like A Failure Because I Don't Know How To Dress Myself'
The Debrief: We live in a world where everyone is supposed to be massively clothes confident. But what if you can't bring yourself to trust your own sartorial choices?
I don’t know what to wear. I am standing in front of my wardrobe, like a hundred thousand million women before me, from Emmeline Pankhurst to Cher Horowitz, and I am wondering which of the hundred thousand million women bought all this stuff because it cannot belong to me. It’s the confused collection of a Thatcher fixated, disco loving WI member.
Caitlin Moran put it perfectly when she defined the repeated women’s wardrobe lament. ‘There’s nothing in here for the person I’m supposed to be today.’ I know I’m not the first, or even the ten millionth, to tearfully wave a white shirt and plead fashion defeat. But right now, everyone I see - from beautiful celebrities to thousands of normal girls and boys with blogs and Instagram feeds - seems so aesthetically sure. And dressing myself has never felt so daunting.
My anxiety disorder, when bad, mainly manifests itself in episodes of breathlessness and panic. I can’t. I can’t leave my flat, I can’t answer my phone, I can’t get the bus, I can’t use the ATM, I can’t walk past that dog on the street, because something terrible will happen. Someone will be angry. I must expect the worst because I am the worst. At best, it manifests itself as a low level, constant hum of unease, like living in an Edward Hopper painting. I cannot trust myself to make any choices, because I know they will be the wrong choices. Which brings me back to my wardrobe.
We live in a world in which everyone else appears to be massively clothes confident. When fashion magazines were my only visual style source, I’d occasionally feel a bit shit about not having the sort of body or budget that could exist comfortably in that world - but I’d be able to remember that most magazines are lovely lies. A photo shoot featuring, say fairy dress couture in a forest was otherworldly enough to enjoy as art as its own right. I knew that teams of stylists and make up artists and hours of effort were behind this vision, and that the models probably didn’t live as woodland sprites. Or if they did, they’d do it in denim. Now, my social media feeds are jammed with real life examples of people living the magazine dream. People so sure of who they are and what their clothes communicate that they can shout it out to strangers. And I feel sad and scared because I can’t make myself heard - anxiety has led me to lose my aesthetic voice.
My friend Rachel*, 28, a fellow anxiety sufferer explains ‘Honestly, if the worst symptoms disappeared or were easier to control, I think I’d happily wear grey jogging bottoms and a hoodie for the rest of my life. The fashion freak outs are the least of it, but they do make me sad. Because I love beautiful things and beautiful clothes. I really like seeing someone in the street in a fabulously put together outfit, and watching them own it. But I am so scared of getting it wrong. I don’t know what I’m allowed to like. In every area of my life, I’m so terrified of making mistakes that I am reluctant to make decisions, and I’d sooner avoid challenges - a voluntary project at work, the chance to travel somewhere cool - than risk something going wrong. And that applies to fashion, and the way I present myself. There’s a girl trapped inside me wearing a sparkly party dress but I’m so scared that she’ll get laughed at that I trap her, and stick to my jeans and jumpers.'
Vi,* 26, feels similarly. ‘I’m genuinely terrified of shopping. I’m just so convinced that I can’t look good in anything, and I wish I didn’t care about it - but work, parties, any kind of social thing is a nightmare, because my friends are so fashion conscious. They’re all really kind and encouraging, and I struggle to articulate the ways in which I feel totally alienated from their world. Even people who don’t like fashion seem much more loud and confident than me - you need guts to reject it.’
When I’m feeling confident, I get curious. If I feel calm and secure about life’s dilemmas (the doorbell, the email inbox, the postman) I shop for Dream Me - the woman I wish I was and the self I’d like to present to the world. This is why I own a golden jumpsuit. The trouble is that the occasional episode of happy shopping leaves me with a wardrobe that isn’t wearable in real life. When my head feels too chaotic to live in, I want clothes that heal and soothe and calm. My sad, sweaty sportswear feels safer than sparkles and sequins. But I wish I could find the confidence to fix myself from the outside in. By making a sartorial statement, maybe I’d find a bit more inner courage through my outer layers.
In his wonderful book, Eccentric Glamour, author Simon Doonan says ‘Knowing who you really are and dressing the part - with an air of amused recklessness - is life affirming for you and life enhancing for other people.’ But what do you do when you feel like the only one who doesn’t know who she really is, and she’s desperately scared of finding out and being known forever as the idiot who spent fifty quid on a vintage poncho that makes her look like a human* stall at a church fête? (*a stall made out of a person, not vicar-endorsed trafficking)
Well, Simon suggests that we revel in getting it wrong. ‘[Any] self-appointed arbiter of “appropriateness”—deserves to be confronted with as many “inappropriate” transgressions as possible.’ So if, like me, you fear the mean girls - even if those mean girls are just voices in your head - saying withering things like ‘Florals for Spring? Groundbreaking,’ as you finger a pretty poppy print frock - flick them a V.
Deep down, I know that fashion should be fun, not frightening. If a skirt makes me smile, that’s enough of a justification to allow me to try it out. When it comes to more serious life issues, my gut is usually right. When I question it endlessly I get terrible indigestion.
I’m not a model, a blogger, a sprite, or Anna Wintour. But I’m not a disaster in a poncho either. I feel like a failure because, at 30, I don’t know how to dress myself. However, I know that pretty clothes make me feel cheerful. If I take a deep breath and psyche myself up to make some mistakes, I might be able to channel those feelings in a way that helps me to combat my anxiety, instead of being yet another cause of it. I can keep hiding away in muted monochrome, hoping no-one looks at me. But I think I’d rather be a joyful foiled fool in my golden jumpsuit.
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Picture: Lukasz Wierzbowski
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