What Are You Wearing?
Growing up, my mom made many of my clothes. We’d go to the fabric store together and select patterns and textiles, then she’d measure me and get to work on her sewing machine. She is a skilled seamstress, so the fruits of her labor were beautiful and looked more custom-tailored than “homemade.” That may sound luxurious, but it was an act of economic necessity, not one of leisure. Nonetheless, it instilled in me a love and appreciation for clothing from a young age.
Fashion is often thought to be the realm of the privileged. But it’s more than a capricious frivolity. It is also a powerful social tool when used properly. Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes about growing up in Nigeria, where a failure to invest in one’s appearance is frowned upon — only to come to the U.S. and realize that the inverse is true amongst certain intellectual circles, where she found that women are often asked to choose between beauty or brains if they want to be taken seriously.
Sure, excessive spending and the mindless accumulation of consumer goods is neither powerful nor fiscally responsible. But if that’s the extent of how you view fashion — as merely a dangerous trap or a marker of excess — then you limit its potential and exclude yourself from its transformative capabilities. You don’t want to shun fashion, but strategically embrace it. Here’s how.
Dress Beyond Your Bio: Who Do You Want To Be?
Stop worrying about what’s trendy this season and starting thinking about the role you want to play. What’s the image you’d like to project? What’s the persona you want to embody? Think of individuals or style archetypes you associate with this image, then start piecing together your look from there. And remember: It’s less about “being fashionable” and more about aligning your image with your desired role.
I combined my love of fashion with a sociologist’s eye to transcend the circumstances of my childhood. It was fashion that served as my everyday tool for personal transformation and social and economic advancement. Clothing served as the packaging for the content I’d worked so hard to hone.
We’ve all been told to “dress for the job we want,” but it pays to broaden that philosophy to our identity at large: Dress for the role you want to play in life, not the circumstances into which you’re born. Follow the fashion lead of the highest ranking woman in your office, or if you’re an entrepreneur, identify your professional icon and carve your visual niche in a similar realm. Identity is not fixed — it’s fluid. Dressing aspirationally communicates confidence and facilitates the actualization of that future-projected identity.
Rest assured: Choosing to embrace a visual identity that is not traditionally associated with the biographical realities into which you were born does not put your “authenticity” into question (if we want to invoke that loaded word). We all wear social masks, and those masks are not false personas, but rather different facets of our identity. You may be buttoned up with clients and more bohemian with friends, but one isn’t more “real” than the other. Embracing fashion as a tool for self-discovery and personal expression helps you radiate authenticity. You are the self you project — and your image plays a huge role in defining that self, whether you like it or not.
And the transformational power of aesthetics extends well beyond the sartorial. Bodily manipulation and personal grooming techniques also help or hinder your ascent toward your aspirational self. Play with specific variables — try different silhouettes, hair styles, and color palettes — and make note of how your audience responds.
Invest in Only What Matters
The clothes I grew up with were the opposite of “fast fashion.” Rather, they were the very definition of sustainable. But most people — including me — do not have time to sew their own clothing. The mindful allocation of time and resources is a crucial component of financial freedom and for me, sewing my own clothing doesn’t make sense. (The economics of opportunity cost are not to be ignored, and I’m a big advocate for outsourcing for success.)
As someone who grew up appreciating fashion, but not understanding just how much it can cost, I’ve come a long way toward reconciling my frugal upbringing with the realization that my image is worth investing in. I choose pieces carefully, each one a conscious addition to my identity. I keep a wish list and try to purchase only from that list — sometimes I’m able to find those items on sale, but other times necessity and expediency demand that I purchase them at full price. Make your own list and set financial boundaries. The time and effort will pay off.
Find Fashions That Fit Your Figure and Your Situation
The styles we like or what we see in magazines are not always figure flattering or context appropriate for us. It’s great to wear what you love, but if a look doesn’t serve you physically and contextually, consider adopting a different image or tweak it to customize your needs. Understanding how your body wears clothing and how that dressed body is perceived in your particular social and professional settings takes self-awareness — but a positive response from your audience demonstrates that it’s worth paying attention.
Knowing who you want to be, with considerations for your budget, as well as a sober eye to your body and environment, are all crucial components for creating a powerful appearance. And once you do develop a visual formula that works, don’t be afraid to wear it on repeat.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is the founder of Sociology of Style (formerly Closet Catharsis), her wardrobe and image consulting company, where she is the "thinking person's stylist." Find out more and follow her on Twitter.