After giving birth to my daughter Alessia, I found myself overwhelmed by more than the usual baby-related paranoia. It wasn’t just about juggling the needs of an additional member of the family but about finding my way back to myself. Physically speaking, I did not recognize my body. Even more so, I did not feel like myself in my very own clothes.

My closet was suddenly filled with items that simply didn’t look good on me. An extension of my likes and dislikes, my pants and dresses and skirts and shirts have always been my initial presentation to the world, my first “Hi! This is me! Nice to meet you!” And now—given a few extra pounds, a shifting lifestyle (no more office!), and a different world order—I was no longer sure who “me” was and what “me” should wear.

Whereas my overalls used to indicate a sort of playfulness, they now seemed like an off-choice by someone who wanted to be perceived as stylish but clearly wasn’t. My plenty of matching skirt-and-shirt outfits, always ideal day-to-night choices, no longer translated as cool while on a walk through the park with a stroller. Although my clothes functioned as they should have (they still covered my body, after all), they didn’t send the same messages they used to.

It all got me thinking: do we dress for ourselves or the people around us? Do our fashion choices say anything about us? Did I feel uneasy in my clothes because I didn’t like how I looked wearing them or was I uncomfortable with what others might think about my outfits? Was it wrong of me to even think of others when dressing myself?

If there is one thing that the late New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who covered New York’s street style scene for close to three decades, taught us, it is that clothes are more than rags thrown any which way to protect humans from the weather and from exposing themselves. As Cunningham said: “Fashion is the armor to survive everyday life—” and he clearly meant more than a sweater’s ability to keep you warm.

Bill Cunningham Outside Balenciaga’s F/W 2014 Show

In his weekly column, Cunningham would highlight both eclectic and more traditional outfits, creating a collection of looks that told the story of the New Yorkers wearing them and those who would leaf through the pages of the weekend edition of the paper. The streets of New York—Cunnigham’s little Eden and office space—have always been filled with characters that have a lot to say, and so, as a reader, the draw of Cunningham’s photos wasn’t necessarily fashion inspiration but the dissection of the very messages that folks in bright pink heels, extravagant hats, and muted black dresses would blast out. Yes, it was about what they looked like, but it was also about what those looks said.

Valued at hundreds of billions of dollars, the fashion industry is a multifaceted, eclectic, worldly, and personal one simultaneously: it varies according to one’s unique taste, geographic location, lifestyle, and even one’s mood on any given day. Almost surprisingly, it is also understood on a universal level: I might not be a fan of brand merch (your neighborhood deli’s T-shirt, for example), but if I were to see someone carrying a New Yorker tote bag, I’d likely gather a few key factoids about him or her.

Interestingly enough, the idea of fashion-with-a-message is actually a relatively modern one.

“Clothes have not always been as influential a ‘tell’ of our personalities as they are today,” explains PsychologistWorld.com. “Only as a result of technical advancements over centuries have fashion choices become significant.”

NYC Street Style

Outfits seen on the streets of NYC

Put simply, clothes have moved from being practical objects with stated functions to something more sophisticated than that. Each garment has become a marker of personal, social, and ethical standards. According to PsychologistWorld.com, countless studies have suggested that one’s outfit might contribute to one’s attractiveness, might indicate one’s religious and cultural values and might even display one’s political leanings (case in point: suffragette white!).

An extreme example of the “clothes have a meaning” concept involves Hasidism, members of the strictest sect of orthodox Jews. Seeking modesty above all else, women within the community are to be completely covered at all times. That humility is also on display through their use of wigs or headscarves, which are meant to conceal their naturally beautiful (and private) hair.

Hasidic men are also to be modest and not attract undue attention by covering their bodies. You’ll virtually never see them wearing shorts but, rather, long pants and long-sleeved shirts. If wearing sandals (a very rare occurrence), they’ll do so with socks.

Hasidim seem to understand how important fashion is in telling a story and how connected the act of dressing is to the act of being. Their lives are to be honest and modest, dedicated to the study of the religion, and their traditionally simple outfits say just that. Almost ironically, the plainer the clothes, the stronger the message.

Of course, when taken to the extreme, the idea that the items we wear daily say something about us leads us directly to the notion of brand signalism. Do we purchase certain, usually high-end bags, shoes, dresses, and jackets because they signal to the world that we can afford them? Do we unconsciously—or, perhaps, even consciously—lean towards the $3,500 Chanel purse because it tells those around us that we are successful enough to be able to spend that money? More importantly: do we only buy the Chanel bag so that we appear rich, or do we actually like the Chanel bag?

“The appearance of having money matters more to people than actually having it,” a friend said to me when discussing the topic.

“If we look rich, we feel rich,” another friend said, agreeing that we dress the part to, well, get the part.

“But there is something to be said about actual quality,” a third pal posited. “With high-end designers, the materials are usually better than, say, Zara.”

As this bit of conversation indicates, the truth is found somewhere in-between. Sure, we care about the way we look because we want to be perceived as put-together, rational, and, yes, stylish individuals—and, sometimes, we believe that going for the most expensive item might accomplish just that (as a friend explained it to me: “I have the quilted black Chanel bag, therefore I am stylish.”). It is also true that some of the pricier items that folks buy merely to send a message of wealth are actually more durable and better made than their cheaper counterparts. One thing is certain: whether wearing Gucci flats or Zara shoes, we are trying to say something without using our words because we know people will decipher our fashion choices whether we want them to or not.

And is that truly a bad thing? Is it horrible to care so much about what people think of us based on what we wear? In a way, isn’t it more honorable to judge someone by the clothes they choose to don over the color of their skin or how much money they have in their bank accounts? I’m not sure but, for what it’s worth, I’ll spend the next few months tidying up a closet filled with clothes that make me feel really good about myself even after just having had a baby.

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Pauline C
Pauline C
1 month ago

A very complex question! I’m a middle class woman who loves fashion; Fashion is art and a conversation starter. It can change your mood or even take you on a vacation.
I do dress for myself, but will admit at times, I have dress down to not cause attention to myself. Throughout the years I have treated myself to lots of designer handbags. However as time change, I feel the need to keep them in my closet and not cause attention to myself. Example, during the 2008 recession I stopped carrying my expensive handbags. I felt guilty and felt like I would be judged. Also depending on my location, I don’t want to give the wrong idea, or even set myself up to get mugged. So yes it’s good thing and can also be a bad thing.

Ed B
Ed B
1 month ago

First off, I don’t care if it’s “just for looks”, people should be free to do what they want (obviously without hurting others).

Second, for me personally, it’s more about me when I buy “fashion” items, as proven by the fact that most are just inside my closet, or rarely worn, or worn to places like Walmart where even if my Hermes is real, who would know? Looks just like a Target knock off without a close look.

Part of my reasoning is that I just appreciate the design/manufacturing work, materials, and usability. That’s why I can’t imagine buying something like a flap that’s more about look with design was a million years ago, stitching isn’t good even on press pictures I see, vs Loewe’s puzzle or baskets that are new, if not unique, for example. Second part of my reasoning is that even if I WANTED to look amazing/rich/smart/hip, I simply don’t have the fashion sense for it. So genuinely, why even try, I’d look like a fool trying to look Good TM.

lalarey
lalarey
1 month ago

I def had a little fashion identity crisis after baby, even though I lost all the weight, things up top shifted quite a bit, plus I am constantly bending over, sitting on the ground, feeding her yogurt, etc. An always stylish friend pointed out that I was getting sloppy and INSISTED that I borrow a black dress to wear for the day, relatively casual but definitely sexy, “For my husband” (grr. . . I agreed to just shut her up, we were staying at her house for a week). 20 min later, I was chasing/ helping my 1 year old and realized that I smelled poop, but couldn’t find it. Turns out, it had escaped her diaper, I had SAT on it and it was all over the butt of the dress, and my socks! My friend was horrified, I was trying so hard not to laugh. This is why I have put my “nice things” on hold- though I miss them dearly.

Gayle
Gayle
1 month ago

I always dress for myself. Never about looking rich for me. I have some designer dresses in my closet but my favorite one is from shein. I dress for comfort too. I dont wear heels because they hurt my feet and i have a hard time with it. I buy designer bags because i like them. I used to buy cheap ones from zara but they dont last long so thats my main reason for buying designer ones instead. Pleather doesnt last long in my country tropical climate here. I threw away a lot of shoes and bags because they peel off if you dont get to wear them for a few months. So i go for real leather now.Many people love LV bags because of their popularity buy i dont. I feel the monogram is too out there already. I buy bold colors not neutral ones because they fit my personality. I can never have too many pink bags my favorite color.

Sandy
Sandy
1 month ago

I dress for myself. I never participate in trends simply for the sake of fashion, remember prairie dresses and cowboy boots (still cowboy boots, ugh!). I have yet to purchase a BV bag even though the influencers seem to think they are the bags of the moment, I just have not liked one of the styles enough to make a purchase. I love my Chanel bags and shoes because I love them, nothing to do with anyone else’s opinion. I have certain designers that usually speak to my idea of fashion (not everything obviously), Balenciaga, Acne Studios, Gucci, Prada, Toteme, and the Row. When you feel good in your clothing/accessories you just feel better! You will never feel good in your own skin if you let others dictate to you what to wear.

Tai
Tai
1 month ago

Congratulations on your baby, Anna!!
I used to ponder this a lot and what I learned during covid is that I actually *do* dress for me. I cared about what I wore because of how I wanted to feel and what I wanted from my clothes (I wanted normalcy, a feeling of control, put-togetherness). This was even when there weren’t any meetings or online school. Sometimes it attracts attention in the sea of school pick-up but I’d rather feel like myself in my clothes vs trying to fit in.

Also, I think it’s possible to want to wear the clothes you want to wear and/or present yourself in a certain way while also saying “props to you” to those who are perfectly happy wearing a shirt and shorts. I wouldn’t wear their outfit but you do you boo, and I’ll do me.

psny15
psny15
1 month ago

I dress for myself but I’m very aware of what people think of me based on how I dress – that doesn’t stop new from wearing things I enjoy even though I’m being judged ❤️

Last edited 1 month ago by psny15
fashionablelena
fashionablelena
1 month ago

I dress for myself. When I attend events associated with my husband’s job (VERY active social life), I wear what he likes or what he deems appropriate. Mostly because I work in a casual environment. Even then, I stick out as I love color. So, while everyone else is wearing black, I’m wearing hot pink.

I’m not about to spend my hard earned money on things I don’t like. Life is too short for that foolishness. I have worn designer from head-to-toe and still treated like crap.

Jess
Jess
1 month ago

I dress for me and (hopefully) appropriately for whatever the occasion is. I try to wear clothes that hopefully flatter me color wise and style wise. I don’t dress to impress anyone else.

ILP
ILP
1 month ago

I have a friend with tons of luxury handbags and a luxury car but with a home in desperate need of updating. I believe she is more concerned with how others perceive her by how she chooses to spend her money. I have my own version of caring how others perceive me. I realized this during COVID lockdown. I never wore make up in the house and sat around in lounging clothes. Once my friends and I were all vaccinated and could socialize maskless, I stepped up my game once again. But I obviously didn’t feel the need to look nice just for me.

Mary Smith
Mary Smith
1 month ago

Umm I get my clothes at Costco. I def dress for me. LOLz. Comfort over style every time. Yes it does match my LV LOL.

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