Being Seen

Reader Martha sent me an e-mail telling me about her recent style reawakening, and I just had to share:

I have begun working with a stylist here in Austin over the last year, as a part of my post-40, post-motherhood self care. Yesterday, when she sent me the digital photos of our styling session I had a huge shame reaction. We are “stepping out there” with my style — which, honestly, is a more true expression of my inner self. But I had this “You can’t!” reaction about it when I saw the photos and I think it’s about being seen. I used to dress to hide. The more I dress to express my true, colorful, audacious inner self, the scarier it gets. Especially as I am determined to love the body I have now, instead of wishing it were 20 pounds thinner or 10 years younger. So, the suggested topic is “personal style as a way of allowing yourself to truly be seen.” And how to deal with the fear that comes up sometimes.

A few weeks ago, I ran into a coworker as she was leaving for the day and we walked to the parking garage together. I was wearing some pretty wild tights and she complimented me on them. She said she admired my bold style, but didn’t feel compelled to wear such loud, attention-getting clothing and accessories herself. Not every day, anyway.

She said, “When I wear this one really bright, patterned sweater that I have, people comment on it all day long. And the comments are positive, but sometimes I think, ‘I can’t wear that today, I just can’t deal with all the attention.’ Most of the time, I dress to be invisible.”

I understood this sentiment. Completely.

In high school and college, I dressed to blend in. As someone who caught a lot of flak for being an overachieving, chubby, socially awkward kid, I wanted nothing more than to sink right into the wallpaper. And I dressed for camouflage.

Even now – when style has become one of my main passions – I can understand the urge to disappear, stylistically. As someone who struggles with anxiety, I often feel withdrawn and shy, and just want to be left the hell alone. And, like my coworker, I know exactly how to dress to draw minimal attention to myself. I can be invisible, and sometimes I am.

But more often, I want to express my tastes and highlight my beauty with fabulous clothes, want to reflect outward what I carry within. Does that take a lot more energy, forethought, and a bit of bravery? For sure. Do I run the risk of drawing snickers or nasty jabs when I dress to be seen? I do, indeed. But personal experience has taught me that the risks are worth the rewards.

Because very, VERY few people have the chutzpah to come right up to me and tell me I look awful. In fact, I can’t recall a single time. And even if they’re calling me a hot mess behind my back, I can quite cheerfully ignore that. So most of the attention I get when I dress to be seen is overwhelmingly positive. When I dress to express my inner drama queen, and when people see my playful confidence, they smile. It’s different, it’s interesting, it’s bold. And although most people don’t follow suit, many people long to. So they happily and vocally offer their excitement and praise.

This is not to say that dressing in a non-flashy, non-attention-grabbing manner is bad or wrong in any way. Everyone has different dressing goals and different dressing comfort levels, and that’s completely fine. I mean, obviously. The only women I’d ask to reevaluate their dressing habits are those who feel like they’re suppressing their inner snazzy dressers. Completely quashing a long-held desire to dress boldly and brightly may leave you feeling downtrodden and resentful. Not to mention lost. If you’re dressing to fit in with a peer group – leaving no room AT ALL for self-expression – then are you yourself, or someone else’s version of yourself?

Transitioning into a more visible stylistic persona can be scary, but it needn’t cause abject terror. If you dress in jeans and hoodies one week, pencil skirts and pearls the next, people will wonder. And they’ll comment, and it’ll be awkward. But there are plenty of ways to ease into the look your inner self yearns to sport. Many of them are tucked into this post, but I’ll highlight a few of my faves:

  • Amass pieces and tools that contribute to your look, but wear them in small enough amounts that it feels like your little secret.
  • Talk to a select few people about why dressing this way is important, so that you have some understanding allies.
  • Dress down Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and dress up Tuesday and Thursday. Gradually get your environment used to what appears to be an experiment until the time is ripe for full transition.
  • Wear one or two signature pieces at a time. Don’t go full Carrie Bradshaw, just tack a sparkly flower brooch to your blazer. Don’t wear a wiggle dress and bright red lips and a string of pearls, just strap on your Minna Parikkas with your simple sheath.
  • Take photos of yourself and look at them THE NEXT DAY. Get some distance and then evaluate. Learn how awesome you are one photo at a time until you feel ready to try out your new signature style in public.

Dressing boldly or distinctively is – as Martha so eloquently points out – a way of allowing yourself to be truly seen. You’re exposing bits of your inner self to the outside world, and that can feel vulnerable. But letting others glimpse your inner landscape, one little outfit-peek at a time, allows them to know you better. And if you want to do that and feel comfortable with it, you create the opportunity for them to lavish you with the praise you so completely deserve.

Image courtesy foxandfeathers.

Originally posted 2010-04-21 05:49:00.

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70 Responses to “Being Seen”

  1. Stephanie

    I have recently lost 60lbs so I understand her point about getting positive attention constantly. don't get me wrong its great but some days I don't need to be stopped 3 or 4 times and told about it. This has lead to me having no choice but to be seen and to replace pretty much my entire wardrobe (I think I have 3 things that are more then a year old). I'm really still experimenting with style itself though hoping to hone in on it one of these days.

  2. enite

    I love this topic. There are times I need to be invisible and times I need attention. A trench coat is what I wear when I want to hide. But having the option is so important. To feel like you can't have attention focused on yourself because you don't deserve it or aren't pretty enough or are afraid maybe other people will laugh, I don't like to think anyone feels this way. Great post, Sal.

  3. Jane W.

    Six years ago a colleague said to me: "I'm telling you this because I really like you. Sometimes, it's okay not to be invisible."

    I forgot about that advice for years, but remember it now every time I try something new stylistically.

    My outfits have changed fairly radically (they now include accessories) since I started my blog 2 1/2 months ago, and one my co-workers (different company) frequently gives me the catty-highschool-once-over. She has asked me, in what can only be described as an accusatory tone, if I have a "whole new wardrobe."

  4. LegacyOfPearl

    Very intriguing thought. I never looked at it from this perspective. I often get dressed up and think if it is too much. I never defined too much, but I think the definition of too much for me is "stylish but not turning heads to see it again". I just want to express myself and feel good without sticking our too much. Even if that means dressing down sometimes, e.g., flats instead of heels even if heels look better. Does that make sense?

  5. Elizabeth

    As always, thank you for the encouragement Sally!

    I've been thinking about this quite a lot the more I've been collecting clothes that I actually like and that I actually feel beautiful in. I live in a place where everyone's dress is masculine, outdoorsy and BORING. By my critical language, you can imagine that I have no affection for any of these epithets, which would be accurate. The problem is when I do dress interestingly, femininely, and so as not to scale a mountain, I attract male attention. This has always been something I'm not super excited about. I'd like my husband's attention, and that's about it. But at the same time, I'm dressing because it is an expression of my creative self, and I can't help that apparently there's a darn lot of women where I live who don't dress like me. I don't want to go back to the clearance rack sad color version of myself either…she was sad and felt bad about her body.

  6. Gillian

    I definitely dress to be seen. Which is bizarre, because I also struggle with anxiety. I've noticed that when I do on the rare occasion show up to campus wearing sweatpants, I get wayyyyy more comments. Are you sick? Is something wrong? Sometimes looking good and put together can mean blending in as well. Odd!

  7. Lesa

    When the school year starts I dress to be seen even thought he atmosphere is casual and most of the teachers dress in khakis and school shirts like the kids (yuck! not going to do it) however as the year goes on I ind myself slipping more and more into comfort. Especially shoes.

  8. Dani

    When I went from dressing invisibly to very visibly, I got a lot of crap for it. In college, I had professors who didn't tell me I was unprofessional, but they told me I didn't dress to fit in. I had one tell me I'd never make it in science because I looked too much like an artist, and that I belonged hung up on a wall, rather than in a lab. With one exception, which I changed, I never dressed inappropriately, or in a way that would pose a danger to myself or others (no dangly things near a bunsen burner). I actually started off in fine arts, and when I had switched majors, I went from a world of over-the-top creativity to gray hoodies and jeans, which are so not me. I needed to be myself, especially when I was struggling so hard in class. I had to know that I would succeed as myself, and not some drone. It was difficult to be constantly told I was not good enough academically, intellectually, and even fashionably (and I was. In those words. I did not enjoy my college experience.)
    However, it was that same creativity and dress that got me my current job, in a lab, which I love. People compliment me all the time (although I once spilled chemicals all over my pants, and had to put on sweatpats, and people thought I was making a statement…) I am unique, and successful, and have never been happier. I stand out, and people perceive my creativity and courage as an asset. I don't know what would have happened had I opted to become a drone, but I don't think happiness would have been in the cards. Moreover, some of my labmates have been inspired by me. They figure that next to me, anything they wear will look mundane, so they are free to experiment. Long live color, creativity, and courage.

  9. Poppy Buxom

    I love this post. Bless you for writing it.

    (On the other hand, darn you for introducing me to Minna Parikka. Now I want to rock my Minna Parikka shoes with my Minna Parikka gloves, and where will it all end?

  10. burntphotograph

    i dress to not be noticed a lot of the time. i save, like, and buy more expensive clothes, shoes, and accessories than my coworkers and it embarrasses me when they comment on them. even when it's a complement i still feel self-conscious.

  11. Courtney

    What a great post! I'm working through a similar dilemma. My dress used to consist of the uniform of jeans and t-shirts, but I wore lots of eye-blindingly bright colors. Now that I'm learning how to dress to flatter my figure and falling in love with dressier, more elegant silhouettes, I'm finding myself drawn to neutrals. It's creating a bit of cognitive dissonance, because I've always thought of myself as a bright color person, but now I'm not so sure anymore! Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  12. Michael McGraw Photography

    I did a wardrobe upgrade a while back and started wearing suits to work. It only took about 2 weeks before this was my new normal and people stopped commenting to me about it.

    Just a thought for people thinking of making a drastic change.


  13. Len♥reNeverM♥re

    I certainly can relate to this sentiment! Anyway, getting dressed-up everyday is still a joy for me…well, most days but not every single day! I think it all depends on my hormones I figure~

  14. tigerteacher

    I love this post. I also love the original poster's point about not wasting time wishing for a different body and not living in and enjoying the present. I think of this topic whenever I see pictures of my younger self and see how pretty I was but back then I didn't feel pretty in any way. I am turning 38 on Friday and feel so great about it. I love dressing for fun, experimenting with different styles (yes, even some conservative ones on occasions when I don't feel like being noticed!) and feeling happy when I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a store window – and, though it took me many years to get here, it's worth the effort because it's really fun. And, in the end, shouldn't dressing be fun?

  15. marthachick

    Ooohhh, thank you! I am eager to read all the comments. Sal, your post expressed so much — and it means a lot that you "got me" from my email. Sounds like our journeys have been similar in many ways.

    Today I am rocking a studded belt and a shirt with a sequinned bird on it. And platform wedges. True, the colors are subdued, but…. Wheeee!

    Thanks everybody. It is so awesome to read that other people understand this experience.

  16. Shrinky Inky

    I have a pretty loud and obvious style, and people have been staring at me for the past 30 years, so i've become good at ignoring it, but it's not to say i'm not shy or insecure about my appearance either. I lost 140 pounds in the last 3 years, and i'm heavily tattooed, i have flaming red hair and I wear mostly 40's style clothing. I also will be 50 this May. It's hard to love yourself at any given point, but you are the ONLY self you have and it's just not worth wishing for something else, trust me, I spent a full decade doing that – what a waste!

    This is great advice:

    "Take photos of yourself and look at them THE NEXT DAY. Get some distance and then evaluate."

    I have a picture taken of outfits and never look at them for a few days so it won't ruin my "style buzz." 🙂 Thanks for a great website, Sal!!

  17. futurelint

    I guess I've always dressed to be seen (perhaps growing up in neon green like any good '80s child made me more comfortable in wild colors and patterns?). I really can't see that changing in my life either… I've never had anyone give me anything but love for it!

  18. Rachel

    Thank you for this topic Sal! Sometimes I feel so alone in my anxiety and personal struggle with wanting invisibility vs wanting to be seen as a fashionable, sophisticated woman – it's nice to know that there are others who struggle also.

    I've really been transitioning for the last 2 years. In high school and my early/mid 20's I was very much a surfer girl and dressed the part. I did not want to stand out, I dressed for comfort and to fit in with my group-jean shorts and surf clothing. 30 is coming rapidly and my style and attitudes towards fashion and dressing my body have changed drastically. I've read fashion mags and followed the runway and style trends since I was a teenager, but I live in Central FL where the daily style is very much short and camis, very relaxed and casual, which is at odds with my newly discovered/changed personal style. There are days that I feel very self conscience about my choices of dresses, trousers or structured cotton shorts. I've received both negative and positive feedback, from complete strangers as well as friends and co-workers. The negative feed back usually consists of "Why are you dressed up?" or "Why are you dressed like that?", no one's ever really been outright mean, but it's uncomfortable when a stranger or shop clerk asks you why you are wearing that outfit. I chose to dress how I want anyway and take any rude questions as an opportunity to encourage another woman to discover her personal style and step out of what is comfortable. I still struggle with not wanting to be seen, but as I'm achieving some personal growth and becoming more confident in my outfit choices I feel that anxiety slowly fading away. I think it also helps that my husband has been very encouraging and likes the "new" me.

  19. Audi

    What an interesting perspective. I have always felt that the worst thing possible was not to be noticed, so I'm at the other end of the spectrum. But I suppose that at least at first, when I started dressing more adventurously in high school, it was an armor of sorts. Rather than dress to blend in with people whose approval I felt I'd never gain anyway, I went the opposite direction and dressed to distance myself from them as much as possible. Over the years I started dressing less and less as a defense and more for myself, but those flamboyant, rebellious roots have always stuck with me, even when I went through my schlumpy college years.

  20. Rebecca

    I spent my twenties dressing to blend in. It's only been recently that I've started to develop my own style, rather than copying the styles everyone around me was wearing. I like the confidence that comes with wearing something that stands out and expresses my personality, even if it may be a little loud or I don't love it in pictures.

  21. Denise

    I've always been fat. I've never felt invisible, simply because of my size. One fine day I realized that I simply don't have the option of being invisible! You can always see me :)! So over the course of some years I began to really learn what looked good on me, because whether I like it or not, people still see me and I'd rather look good, or great, than shabby.

    Because of my size, too, I've never felt like I was "running for office," for lack of better words. My body shape will never be acceptable to the masses, and that's okay. None of us is ever really accepted by the world (unless we're celebrities, and then, we're just one bad outfit away from widespread condemnation!). We can, however, learn to accept and love ourselves and others, and in doing so, be loved and accepted by those who are important to us.

    That all being said, I love attention. And if one day I don't feel up to it, I just smile and say "thank you," and move along.

  22. K.Line

    I do everything to see and be seen – it's part of my exhibitionism/voyeur complex 🙂 I say, you only live in this body once. Why not get noticed?

  23. Liz

    To reply to Jane W., above:
    please try not to take your co-worker's cattiness to heart. Most of us naturally resist change in our lives (and esp in the people in our lives!), and if she sees change in you, she may feel threatened. You've done something she didn't forsee, didn't pre-approve… she may want things to go back to normal: you back in the shadows, and she back in the spotlight.
    It's sad she didn't consider your feelings when she spoke to you like that, but it may help to consider how she might be feeling… even if it seems hurtful. At least, that's the way I try to deal with hurt feelings… I'm not always successful though.
    It's so sad when women are nasty to one another – we are all in this life together. We gain nothing, NOTHING, by dragging others down! We gain everything by encouraging, helping, and supporting each other.

  24. Work With What You've Got

    I have always dressed to be seen. At University, it was common for girls to wear PJs to class, and sleep late and be mussed and messy. But I got up early, and even at am 8 AM class, my hair was perfect, my make-up done and I had on heels and a mini skirt. People made fun of me. But I didn't care. I knew they made fun because they wished they made the effort themselves.

  25. Jasie VanGesen

    It can be such a bold act to be seen and be visible. It's so important as a person and as a woman, to not let myself fade into the woodwork and put myself out there. Especially as a fat woman who is bucking the system just by existing and being 100% happy with herself.

    One of my favorite bloggers recently posted a gem of a quote:

    "Standing out is okay. Standing up is okay. Doing both at once, well, that’s activism." – Lesley Kinzel

  26. Laura

    I've just recently been interested in changing the way I dress. Mostly its jeans and tshirts for comfort. I think it also could be attributed to wanting to not be noticed.
    I've always admired the 50's/Audrey Hepburn/Jackie 0. style of dressing and admired those who can pull it off so well. I would love LOVE to dress that way but with a more modern approach. I know what I like, its just the anxiety I get from putting it together correctly in my eyes.
    I also have a problem with attention from men I really don't want, to the point where I don't often wear dresses and skirts as much as I would like to. I DON'T like being stared at. I guess I pretty much don't like the attention at all, yet I want to dress how I want to dress without be very noticed!

  27. The Raisin Girl

    Ack! I know how this feels. When I started to express some sense of style in high school–not that it was a good style, necessarily, but it was a style–people began asking me why I was dressing so strangely.

    Usually I slump it at college. I don't get enough sleep or have the time in the morning to worry about my clothes much, but when I DO on occasion, I always get questions about why I'm so dressed up. Strangely, I don't ever feel as if I'm more "out there" when I take some time and put effort into my dress, I end up feeling as if other people are being unnecessarily intrusive. But maybe I'm just tetchy.

  28. Lorena

    As usual, I love, love your writing !
    Its smart, it's real.
    Since I began blogging about a year ago I try to dress for me. Meaning that even though I will follow certain trends I try not to go out and wear the "fashion uniform" the styles that everyone else is wearing-
    I try to stand apart with my own voice.
    It's not a loud scream, it's just a voice.
    A voice that makes me happy, a voice that is still learning… but most importantly trying.

  29. Jenny

    Today I put on a pair of muted brown plaid pants, a brown long-sleeved button-down shirt, brown socks, brown shoes, a silver necklace and earrings. Normally I'd be good to go and totally invisible (against a brown background anyway.) But I looked in a full-length mirror (a new practice for me) and said, This needs something. And put on a big teal pashmina and pinned it with a big silver brooch. Now I can be seen a little better. It's a transition I'm not totally comfortable with, but I need to do it.

  30. Pelusa

    Hi Sally!

    I just want to thank you for this post. I'm right now in the transition's beggining… I'm feeling in the mood for a change from invisibility to the 'being seen' side, and studying how can I make it happens. So, to have Martha's point of view (and yours, of course) help me a lot to see a light in my road.

  31. Stacy

    Interesting! I had a conversation about this recently with a friend who always dresses in dull-colored clothes that hide the shape of her body. She said she was nervous about wearing colorful clothes because they would attract attention. It had never occurred to me that someone would purposely avoid attracting attention (maybe not seek it out, but avoid it? That hadn't crossed my mind).

    Like Denise said in her comment, I've never really had the option of being invisible, in my case not because of weight but because I use a wheelchair. So I feel if people are always going to notice me anyway, I want them to notice that I have style, not just that I'm in the chair!

  32. nicole

    This topic really hits home for me. I've been going through a similar change. In high school (20 years ago!) I did dress differently. I was seen for sure. As time passed I drifted away from that confidence. Perhaps as a result my clothes have been a big source of anxiety and frustration for me. I couldn't get it "right" in way that felt good. I felt guilty for focusing on myself in that way. I made some comment on facebook recently about not being the girl who shops at Urban Outfitters, but now being her mom after a shopping trip with my 13 year old. A high school friend commented back that I always had such cool style and did my girls know that. It hit me like a ton of bricks-did they? Aren't I still that girl in all the ways that matter? I'm giving myself permission to spend the time on me, to have fun with my style, and to choose things because I like them, not because they are "in style". Sorry about the long comment. I just found you a few weeks ago Sally and I love the blog.

  33. Kelly

    To be honest the "being seen" part is exactly what holds me back from wearing a lot of things that I actually *do* like. I get enough attention right now, in my relatively conservative outfits. Would I like to wear some totally insane shoes or a big honking bow on my head? Sometimes. Do I ever wear those things in public? No. Because I'm afraid of seeming like someone who wants/needs the whole world to pay attention. I'm afraid that when people saw the big bow they wouldn't just think "I like/do not like the way that woman is dressed" but they would also think "who does she think she is?"

    I definitely have the "invisible outfits" though. When I'm feeling bad or having a bad day I'll just put on sclubby jeans and a loose t-shirt. So, basically what most other people in my world are wearing. It might cheer my mood up to put on a snazzy dress, but I wouldn't want to deal with the attention that comes with it.

  34. Rachel Steed

    My problem is that I'm 23 years old, and half of me wants to be a "grown-up" and shop at J. Crew, Gap, etc., and the other half of me still wants to wear low-rise jeans a graphic tees a la American Eagle. I'm struggling to reconcile these two seemingly dichotomous impulses. I want to be taken seriously and not mistaken for a 17 year-old, but I AM only 23! I don't know how to dress my age in a manner that makes others value me as an adult.

  35. Dorky Medievalist

    This is an issue–being seen and being invisible–that I am working through myself (says the woman with a pseudonym) having recently taken up a position that requires me to dress more professionally than I ever have on a regular basis and which is particularly public (and publicly funded). The funny thing is, the more I concentrate on building a professional, professionally public and a "me" wardrobe, the more I forget about the casual me, which was all I was for awhile. I'm stumped when I have to wear something to the movies, for example. This is the very question that a colleague and I are trying to work through, in this public and invisible forum of the blog. Do I have your permission to link this post?

    I do have a funny story about pre-professional me. A few years ago, I thrifted a like-new hoodie that belonged to a member of the National Baton Twirling Association (proclaimed in smallish embroidery). I didn't even know there was such an association. It was cozy and, if you know me, hilarious. I have nothing against baton-twirling but I am extraordinarily uncoordinated so I'm certain that baton-twirling would have something against me. In any case, it was a funny and ironic hoodie that was cozy and it got a lot of wear because it made me, and others, smile. Until I moved to another country and brought the hoodie with me. No one knew me in this country, they knew that I was foreign and so, out of politeness, whenever I wore my hilarious hoodie people would enquire about this national association that I belonged to and would ask me, in earnest, to explain the sport.

    No one got my style joke abroad. So I stopped wearing my hoodie.

  36. What Would a Nerd Wear

    i'm all about transitioning into more exciting styles! often when i want to try something new or more exciting, i stick with other pieces that make me really comfortable. if i'm going to do strange harem pants, i do a neutral color palette. if i'm going to wear (um) a bright yellow skirt, it's a shape that's safe and familiar.
    and while it is often wonderful to be invisible, it feels pretty darn good to look down and think "what a badass outfit you have on today."

  37. Tina Z

    My actual style never looks as good as it does in my head, because I always chicken out and change it for the worse (or more bland) at the last minute. Never thought about why until now…

  38. Almost 40

    Sweet Sal…great, as usual.

    My husband calls it "flair" – and I try to have a little every day. If people notice and comment, fine – if not…I generally like how I look and what I wear so I'm quite content.

    Over the years I have really pared my wardrobe down to what I love so if I don't love it, I don't buy it/wear it.

    I love statement pieces and I've worked to cultivate my own personal style. It makes me sad to look at pictures where I content to just blend in. I'm not a blender but I suppose confidence comes from age and living.

  39. LPC

    I am sure I dress, not to be invisible, but to make a mark more like tone on tone than loud plaid. For work, I dress for power, but so that you don't notice I'm doing it until after I've left. In part it comes from having been a pretty young woman living alone – the attention was too difficult. Now that the Pretty Fairy has left me, I actually am more open to showing off what I have left. This is a key topic in style, I believe.

  40. Mardel

    Thank you for this fabulous post. I've been going through something of the same thing in terms of finally dressing for myself and there are times when it is hard to battle decades of insecurities and anxiety.

    I described myself as a professional wallflower in high school and college. Most of the input I got at that time was negative and I dressed and acted in ways designed to best avoid attention. None of it was "me" but it was survival. Later I mastered the corporate look and although I chafed at times, I learned the game well enough that I could push at the boundaries, but I never quite overcame my inner demons enough to let my inner diva out.

    Here I am in my 50's finally admitting that I can do and wear what I want and at times I find it very hard. I don't really care what others think as much as I am unable to completely escape decades of fears, insecurity and anxiety. I do find that on my quieter days I might wear more muted colors, but I try not to combine those with invisible styles, trying to do something at least partially interesting. I am not sure I pull it off, but the main thing is to be comfortable enough to just be and wear what I love.

    That said, I have accepted that what attracts me is not muted, quiet, or invisible-making although I do like muted colors as a whole, but not for their "invisibility factor". In my early 50s for the first time in my life, I do not feel like there are two of me — the public me, and the me that is in my heart.

    Thank you for all your positive encouragement and inspiration.

  41. La Belette Rouge

    You know those off-handed comments people make that stick with you years later? Well I had a friend who pointed out that I dressed to get attention. I remember how much her comment stung and sometimes the sting of that comment comes to mind when I am dressing to be seen.

  42. Eliza

    I really changed my look when I went to college. In highschool, it just wasn't worth the comments to try wearing heels or a pretty skirt. The one time I straightened my (very curly)hair, I was nearly mobbed.
    Compliments can create pressure, I think. They make you aware that other people are evaluating you. Do you fit in, or stand out? Is standing out a good or a bad thing?
    The thing that really helped me was tossing all the clothing that looked great on me, but didn't suit my personality. One of the reasons I hated compliments in highschool was that "dressing better" really meant "dressing to fit in". The clothing I wore didn't reflect ME, so complements meant that I was prettiest when I wasn't myself. Since I tossed all those clothes, and started wearing only things I love, I'm not so invested in compliments. Frankly, while compliments are nice, I'm not going to think about them much. I'm dressing for me, and your oppinion (whatever it may be) is incidental!

  43. fröken lila

    i dress to be seen, yes. i do most of the time. so i am kind ofon the other side of the problem right now.

    when i started working at a ticket office two months ago i was horrified when i heard i was supposed to wear uniform. wearing a uniform is one of the most horrible things i can imagine, since it means to me that i won't be seen as the person i am, but as some sort of machine. i felt better when my boss told me it was ok to wear whatever i liked as long as i wore the uniform-t-shirt during day-shift and a black blazer and white or black top underneath for evening shift. so, even though i love colour i settled for mostly grey, cream white and black (ok, and some very muted mint green and muted rose or purple) tops of different varieties under the black blazer, and mostly used a variety of black or grey skirts, with colourful tights. it worked nicely, especially since i was allowed to use colourful scarves as well.

    however, now we have a new boss. coming from a corporate environment (we're in the public sector), she wants us to dress in uniform. completely. black skirt/pants, black tights, white blouse, black blazer. alternatively the uniform-t-shirt under the blazer. it horrifies me. right now i'm putting all my hope into pushing through my colourful tights since we're sitting all day anyways (plus, the opera where i am working is supposed to be a creative environment. i count style as a part of that…)

  44. lisa

    What a great topic to address, Sal. I like dressing for myself and according to my whims and moods, but sometimes when I wear a dress or put on red lipstick, I notice I do attract some, er, male attention with non-platonic undercurrents. It's always jarring, sometimes flattering, and sometimes not something I want to deal with. For example, one guy stopped me on the street and asked me out for coffee on my commute home. It startled me (I had my iPod on) and I was sort of flattered, but that day I really just wanted to get my grocery shopping done and get home and veg after a long day in the office. So yeah, I can understand the desire to dress to be invisible sometimes. 🙂

  45. KrissyBell

    I recently moved from my home town (living on a farm) to a city about 45 minutes north. It has been a process, because I started out just going north socially, and then decided to make the full plunge of moving. Because I was mostly going up for social events, my friends thought I dressed a certain way all of the time, but the 'dressed up' look that I sport in town does not work on the farm. I have been re-evaluating my style since moving, trying to reconcile the city girl with the country girl, and find a happy medium.

  46. Shannon

    I had a day recently where I was just not feeling great about myself and rather wanted to be invisible, but I was wearing what I'd picked out the day before – a fun dress with a mod black & white pattern and a bright blue cardi. I got compliments, but couldn't really appreciate them – which was frustrating in and of itself. I described the feeling to a coworker as "wearing peacock clothes on a pea hen day".

    Then again, there have been days where I've started out feeling that pull to be invisible and worn fun, colorful clothes anyway where that has boosted my mood by a few hours into the day. So I guess the trick is to figuring out which days are the true pea hen days, and which ones can be turned around. Any tips?

  47. Moni

    I definitely dress to be seen. This is NOT my intent, but my personal style causes me to stand out. I mostly wear dresses and skirts, which causes me to stand out from my law school classmates who mostly wear jeans or sweats. In addition, I love bright or jewel tone colors (fuschia, purple, turquoise, forest green, etc), which causes me to stand out from the darker colors that other people tend to wear in the winter. I even have a fuschia coat. Even though I don't necessarily try to stand out on purpose, I have no problem with it. I love getting compliments on my hair or clothes, but I won't change who I am if people don't like them.

  48. Beannie


    You are on the right track in many ways but on the wrong track in a very important way. Just as you are only thinking of yourself in your style choice so is everybody who sees your fashion choices.

    When you are genuinely complimented on your clothes/shoes/accesories you have made the complimenter happy (possibly because they enjoy the asthetic or hope to mate with or befriend you). When you are criticised on your style or fashion you have made this person insecure or threatened.

    Please do what you like and dress how ever you please with the firm but somewhat sad knowledge that people aren't thinking of you and only of themselves.

    Dressing for either attention or invisibility is pointless. No one is truely thinking about you – only themselves (as frankly are you and I).

    Stop worrying about what people think and start worrying about what makes you comfortable and happy be it outrageous or conservative.

    Great topic. Thank you for the opportunity to contribute.

  49. fleur_delicious

    bang on, Sal! Getting involved with wardrobe_remix 3 or 4 years ago changed my life – yes, in a small way, my life. I always loved clothes. My whole family does, actually. I had amassed a business casual wardrobe with some very nice pieces, but I always felt like I didn't have permission to wear them if I didn't have an "excuse" – like working a retail boutique sales floor, which required this wardrobe. Heels, dresses, accessories hung in the closet and I went around in jeans and tanktops if not at work. Though I wouldn't say I actively dressed to camoflauge myself, I definitely put the kibosh on dressing in a way that would "stand out." But I've always had a strong personal aesthetic (some call it weird!) and I did have to ignore that in order to not stand out.

    Then I started posting at w_r, actually because I thought it was unhealthy, unethical, AND unsustainable for me to amass clothing that I refused to wear. And gradually – it took awhile – I found I could give myself that permission to dress as I wanted. I still take "days off" and pull on jeans and a tee, when I'm tired or I don't feel like I have the energy to perform this vibrant, outgoing side of myself.

    And honestly, it still unnerves me sometimes when I realize just how much attention I'm grabbing – especially as a kind of cumulative effect. Last night, at a dinner party, a (male, no less) friend raved about my fashion sense – where do you get your inspiration? he asked. Where do the ideas come from? And while I don't necessarily want to think about how many eyes are on in me in a day (yikes! my shy side squirms), I have to admit that it is very gratifying to realize that, just by being true to my own self, I am also brightening my friends' and colleagues' days. And let's be honest: I'm nearly 6' tall WITHOUT heels and I like playing with colour, texture, and details. There's no way I'm not going to grab attention unless I suppress that side of myself, so I think it's better that I just bite the bullet and get used to it.

    sorry to go on so long, but this really hit a chord!

  50. maryeb

    I rarely read long posts but I read every word of this one. Thank you for saying so eloquently much of what I've been thinking and feeling as I try to free my true 'style' self.

    I'm bookmarking this post to read over and over, whenever I need some encouragement.

  51. madam0wl, a.k.a Sandra

    Very interesting! I think primarily I dress for myself, but a big part of the way I dress has to do with being "seen."

    Socially I'm a very quiet/reserved person, so if I dressed to be invisible it would be a double-whammy. Dressing "loudly" helps my inner artist to be seen & heard.

    Ironically, because I'm a bit shy, I've found that dressing to be seen is also pretty effective at distancing yourself. Or to spin it a different way, it is good way to weed out the friendly types from the rest. Sure, maybe you are highly visible, but like you said, not a lot of people actually take the time to approach me. Those that do are usually worth getting to know.

    There are times when I dress to "hide" though… it can be overwhelming or inappropriate to try to be "on" ALL the time. I'd say the days when I post to w_r are my "on" days, and lately that has been only a couple days a week. On the other days I usually dress in varying degrees of visibility depending on what I'm doing or what I feel up to.

  52. Little Sugar Mama

    Once again, you've hit the nail on the head … I started a new job in DC at the beginning of the year, and after working in Baltimore for more than a decade, it took me a while to find my stylistic stride.

    I've prided myself for quite some time on putting together "interesting" outfits, taking sartorial chances and embracing the results for at least the day. Now my difficulty is recognizing that, because I take risks and don't interpret "professional dress" the way most other people in my office do, I almost never receive feedback on my ensembles, positive or negative. Now I'm dressing purely for myself … and anyone else I can drag along.

  53. Walking Barefoot

    I can relate to Martha's story and the "but you can't feeling" about dressing to be seen. I can remember three distinct occasions – grade school, the beginning of college, and early in grad school – when others (always women, oddly) told me that I was dressing too nicely by wearing cute skirts and flats, and that I didn't fit in/ should tone it down. A professor in my grad program told me that I didn't look as though I belonged in that program, when everyone else was wearing jeans and hoodies.

    The subtext, I think, is a strange kind of policing that women do to each other: who do you think you are? What gives you the right to be special and flaunt it, when I (the speaker) do not feel that way?

    I'm sorry to say that in each instance, I succumbed to the policing, and adopted the uniform of choice: jeans and sweatshirts/ Ts. It made me sad to see all my cute shoes and skirts go to waste, but I couldn't fight the power, and ended up dressing not to be seen.

    When I started a new job last fall, I determined to set my own agenda from the beginning with pencil skirts and heels. Some may think I'm overdressed, but I like to think that it brings an air of professionalism and seriousness to our work.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

  54. Anonymous

    This post hit me where I live.
    I used to always dress to blend in, and that's because I thought if I dressed to get attention, it would mean I thought I deserved attention. I didn't think I deserved attention. I thought I should try to make myself smaller, take up less air and space, hide, efface, erase.
    I have great big boobies, as my 4 year old likes to point out, and when I wore formfitting clothes and men looked at them, it didn't feel like admiration, it felt threatening and shameful.
    I didn't like the way I looked and even if I found something that flattered me, I still didn't want to be looked at. The thought of someone looking at meant they were evaluating my appearance meant they were finding me lacking meant that I was ridiculous for even trying, who did I think that I was?
    It's never really just about the clothes, is it?
    Of course the irony is that I looked just fine back then. But it's only now that the "Pretty Fairy" (I love that!) is about to make her departure that I seem to be working out some of the above, um, issues. I am a little mystified by my newfound interest in fashion and clothes blogs but I think it means, on the whole, good things. At 42, I may be ready to emerge into the light.

  55. Kelly

    Walking Barefoot – I wonder if your professor said that as a compliment, not as an insult? Maybe s/he was trying to say that you didn't look as if you belonged because you looked more polished than your classmates.

  56. Clothes Coquette

    Omg, I absolutely love this post! I completely understand where she is coming from! Even though I love having my own sense of style, sometimes I will dress a little more plainly just so I don't feel like I stand out; I'll just want to blend in for that day(s). I always get compliments on things I wear, and no one has ever said anything negative to me. Expressing yourself/ being yourself and trying to get over what others think is so important, but it's also so hard <3

  57. Fabuliss

    GREAT post, Sally! And I can completely relate. I had a huge all-black phase because of weight changes/fluctuations.

    Because I'm older, because shows like What Not to Wear changed my life and because I started liking things that I see, I can now confidently be present.

    It's a process. It's not perfect. And my style journey has included many fashion faux pas.

    After 8 years of working at it, I've come to love my style! I love evolving it and making it work hard for me.

    Happiness is possible!

    Thanks again for the post.

  58. do dah

    the range of reactions to this post is kind of fascinating; nice job, ladies.

    i am an unusual-looking person and often get stared at. i used to deal with this by trying to blend until i realized that this usually had me wearing unflattering clothes and nobody really CARED anyways. now i figure that if people are going to look, i might as well give them something to look at. sometimes these little experiments turn out well and sometimes badly, but it's kind of a fun game to see what gets a reaction from others (and from myself).

    to anyone wanting to play a bit more with their look, i recommend jewelry. it's amazing how many friends a good bracelet will find for you.

  59. elnajay

    Another thoughtful, insightful topic…very interesting to read both the post and the comments! Personally, I have been pushing my boundaries farther out in terms of what I wear (especially at work)/how noticeable I'm willing to be. I am a student and research at a science/tech/media school, so there's some flexibility for individual expression, but the majority of people tend to wear the stereotypical jeans and a t-shirt. Over the past few months, I've transitioned from variations of that to wearing skirts and dresses most of the time, even heels sometimes, and generally have gotten good feedback on it. It's seen as normal for me (or at least people have stopped asking whether I have an interview/special event I'm dressed up for). But even with this, I still am careful about wearing things that I know would really, really stand out — bold-colored dresses in interesting styles, very dressy shoes, any visible makeup. The "invisibility" issue is interesting, as I suspect I'm currently dressing to be noticed-but-not-too-noticed. It'll be interesting to see how that changes as my style keeps evolving.

  60. Anonymous

    I am so glad you wrote this post, and so glad I found it. It comes at exactly the right moment for me.

    After struggling with major depressive disorder for more than three decades, I have just this year become confident enough to put serious thought into my clothing choices. I've always been interested in style; I always tried to buy colors and shapes that flattered me. But I was scared to take any chances. And of course, my self-esteem was low, so I didn't want to stand out.

    Now, I feel better than I ever have, and I'm undertaking a wardrobe transformation. I've been buying new colors, experimenting with color combinations, trying styles I'd never have worn before, and thrifting lots of interesting, unique pieces. Having the confidence to put together outfits I like, and knowing I look good without caring about what other people think, is completely new for me.

    I don't know how I feel, though about the phrase "dressing to be seen." For me, it's more like dressing with so much confidence that I'm happy to be seen. Being seen is not the goal, because the confidence comes from me. Of course I still have moments when I wonder if I look ridiculous, but I remind myself that it's not about what other people think.

    I'm also not sure about how this will work over the summer. I live in a big city and I take public transit or walk everywhere, so I'm in front of many hundreds or even thousands of eyeballs every day. I get a lot of unwanted male attention–catcalls, "smile for me, baby," "nice rack," "why won't you talk to me, bitch?"–even in winter when I'm bundled up in six layers. I'm good at ignoring it or occasionally telling them off, but it can sometimes present a safety issue. I don't yet know how I'll feel about being more visible when the jackets come off and I'm wearing bright colors and high heels. We'll see.

    Thank you for making me think about all this!

  61. Walking Barefoot

    @ Kelly: The professor who told me that I didn't look as though I belonged in my grad program because of the cute skirt I was wearing followed up by saying that I should look more prepared to be working outdoors, as that is what many people in that program do (although not on that particular day). From her tone and subsequent comments, it felt more like policing than a compliment. I appreciate the suggestion of a more generous reading though.

    Ironically, I ran into the same person recently, post-graduation, and again she made a comment about my outfit, though this time it was more positive – perhaps because I am now a colleague, not a student?

  62. Paula

    just wondering: you really think people who critizize your style are small minded? this is nothing to be proud of.

    I "dare" and say the black short blazer combined with the pink dress lifts the taille waistline towards the shoulders which isn't flattering for women with a larger bust size. the high waistline suits women with flat breasts better.

    Now that I critizized a style you chose, call me smallminded, I know what I say, having anything but flat breats. of course people may wear whatever the choose to wear.
    I just don't get the point – why wear something, that lessens your strong points.

    I think it is easy to play bold and still highlight the strong points.

  63. Sal

    Paula: If you'll go back and read what I wrote one more time, you'll notice that I did not say that all people who criticize my style are small-minded. I would never hold myself up as a flawless paragon of style, and do not consider myself beyond critique, as anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows quite well. I said that people who spend their energy talking smack about what I wear behind my back aren't worth worrying about.

    Additionally, feel free to pore over the comments on my various outfit posts. You'll find criticism and praise alike. I have no problem with open discussion and constructive criticism. I published your comment, didn't I?

  64. Paula

    Hi Sal, I was referring to this sentence in your posting:

    "I have no proof of such conversations, and rest happily knowing that anyone small-minded enough to waste energy criticizing my style isn’t worth one iota of my energy."

    anyhow, glad you did not censor this posting of mine.

  65. Sal

    Paula: Yeah, I know which sentence you meant. I feel you misinterpreted my meaning. The sentence that upset you was taken out of context from the rest of the post, which is what I was pointing out.

  66. Cal

    1) Love the post. Interestingly, there are times when I still dress to "be invisible" but those times are few and far between and usually have lots to do with hormones.
    2) Can I be the random person who says that I love the picture you used at the beginning of it? That color is gorgeous…
    3) That is all.

  67. Jess

    I’ve been struggling with this and similar issues for almost three years…I can’t decide whether or not I want to be seen! I too suffer from anxiety, but I also have that urge to be the girl walking down the sidewalk that makes people glance at her a second time. I know what kind of style I want, in a sort of abstract way…I don’t want to be too bold; I sort of want to fit in and dress comfortably and cozily, but have that little bit of quirk that sets me slightly apart. But whenever I walk outside, I assume everyone is judging me negatively if they even so much as look in my general direction. Sometimes it gets bad enough that I end up staying inside all day. It’s like I think I’m pretty, but I expect others to disagree.

    Wow. This comment when in about eleventy-five different directions. I’m sorry, ahaha.

  68. Anon

    Thank you!!! I searched “dressing down to please others” on your site and found this article. I still struggle with wanting to blend in and wanting to dress to make myself happy. I finally have a wardrobe that I love, but feel selfish and materialistic when I shop or wear something new to work. Most of the women there don’t dress up, they have family and lots of pets (even farms animals) and clothes just aren’t a priority for them.

    I’ll be glad when I can wear what I want and not care! I love your posts….

  69. Julie Wychor

    Unwelcome comments are the number one deterrent to dressing the way I want. At my last job my boss was the worst offender with an opinion or snarky comment every day, even about my eyeglasses! It got to the point where I had anxiety getting dressed each morning, wondering if what I wore that day would garner a critical comment. After attempting to address this with personnel and getting nowhere, I quit that job. It didn’t seem that important at the time but I am still dealing with anxiety about what to wear each day after going through that experience.