Anne T. Donahue on Dressing for What You're Feeling (Even if You're Feeling Like Shit)

Everything felt terrible, but at least I could exist in a portable burrow

Dressing for how you're feeling: A stock image of a woman in a grey dress burrying her face in its turtleneck-inline

(Photo: Getty)

I usually love winter. I love the early nights and humidity-free weather and the endless excuse to buy new (old) coats. I look forward to Christmas and New Year’s Day and the discount candy that comes after Valentine’s, and I bask in the comfort of knowing that nobody—including myself—is going out and doing much.

I went into this winter ready to dress like a Victorian ghost.

I stocked up on black sheer button-ups, lace skirts and silk robes, imagined a season defined by vintage jackets and slacks and plotted which boots to wear with what outfit. I went through my closet and tossed out anything that didn’t fit the scene I’d created and recreated in my mind: me, wearing clothes I really liked, sitting in front of The Godfather for the millionth time, while my enemies wept. (Because I was haunting them.) Winter, I told myself, would be my time to shine.

Except that it wasn’t. As the stress of extenuating circumstances began bleeding into the realities of the season I’d looked forward to, I began to feel the effects. And by the end of January, I felt sad, overwhelmed and completely unsure of how I could make it through the season of darkness and cold and cancelled plans because of too much snow. My new clothes sat collecting dust in my closet as my Victorian ghost fantasy was replaced by a day-to-day reality of jeans and old sweatshirts and any other pieces that were easy to wear and easy to work and hide in. Plus, it wasn’t like anybody was doing anything, anyway: this winter’s theme was defined by isolation. And everyone I knew was desperate for winter to end after being confronted with life events and revelations or even the harsh realization that life tends to change dramatically the further into adulthood you get. I used my clothes as glorified blankets. Everything felt terrible, but at least I could exist in a portable burrow.

And then at some point in late February, things began to change. Sometimes it wasn’t freezing out. Other times, the sun would shine in a way that reminded me that spring really would arrive. I watched The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel obsessively and re-acquainted myself with colour and scarves and  Real Outfits™ and coats that weren’t the one I’d lived in for a month because it happened to be next to me. Plus, I’d begun to settle into what life looked like thanks to Winter 2018. I’d come to make peace with the way life can be quick and cruel and relentless, but also that nothing is permanent—not even sadness or feeling terrible or wanting to hide in fleece. I remembered that like the seasons themselves, circumstances and mindsets also change and evolve, and I’d made it through things before and I would make it through things again, and by May or June, I wouldn’t remember looking at the clock and wanting to cry because it was only 5 p.m. and already so dark outside and I couldn’t stop overthinking everything.

But first, baby steps.

So on a sunny and mild Sunday afternoon, I got dressed. And for the first time in what felt like many months, I chose something colourful—something that reminded me of how much things change. I picked out my pieces carefully, trying to dress for what I felt in that moment (hopeful, happy, high on the promise that my friends and I would make it out of this winter) and less for what I’d bought and stocked up on when I felt (and was) so different. I didn’t leave until what I had on made me feel stronger, better and like I knew myself to be. I dressed enthusiastically, the way you do after missing a lot of school because you were sick with the flu and couldn’t want to come back in time for lunch recess. I pored over my small collection of yellow and blue cardigans and the few bright printed blouses I’d kept buried under my neutrals, once sure they wouldn’t serve much of a purpose among my monochromatic wardrobe. But instead, I opted to marry my two worlds: a black, lacy tank top with tweed trousers and a bright, pink, floral jacket—so vivid and colourful it could speak for me if I felt like being quiet. Finally, I could dress for spring, but not the season. I dressed in a way that made me feel like I could thrive, not just survive.

Later that day, I bought a pink and purple scarf to wear in my hair. And then I went home and through my closet where I made a donation pile for the clothes that didn’t fit into my life anymore. I’d felt like a ghost this past winter, but not a cool Victorian one. Instead, it was more like I’d died and gotten trapped in a season and a life moment that was infinite and difficult and relentless. And now, being a ghost didn’t seem romantic or interesting or even powerful. Instead, it felt like a reminder of how I’d actually felt: stuck and sad and pining for colour and for when I’d dress with intent. But this time, I’d learned my lesson. And instead of using my wardrobe to outfit a whole season or to appease a vision I’d drummed up on my head, I began using it to help dress for how I felt in that moment.

Even if the only theme for that moment was “happy to be here” and “blissfully alive.”

More from Anne T. Donahue:
You Can Go Home Again Whenever You Damn Well Please
Even Unf-ckwithable Women Need Help Sometimes
Why What You’re Sifting Through Is No One Else’s Business