For Whom Are You Dressing?

for whom are you dressing

You flip through catalogs and magazines. You browse around clothing and accessory shops, both in person and online, and make choices about which pieces to incorporate into your own wardrobe. You peruse the style blogs and note tempting trends and bold pairings. And then you open your closet door to choose the day’s outfit.

Who is your audience? For whom are you dressing?

Obviously, the answer will change depending on the woman, the day, the activity. Also potentially at play: Age, mood, season, and other individualized factors too numerous to count. There is no single answer to this question, and there is no WRONG answer, either. When I asked this question of myself, I realized that, like so many theoretical stylistic queries, it leads me to goals rather than maxims.

On a regular work/life day, I dress to engage. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I dress to draw attention, but I rarely dress to blend in and thoroughly enjoy the interactions that my outfits can generate. I’m the kind of person who, when offered a compliment, gushes on about where I got the shoes/skirt/necklace in question and quickly jots down the retailer, price, website, and any other pertinent details so my complimentor can get one of whatever it is for herself. I absolutely love to engage people in dialogue about style and clothes and looking good.

I also strive to dress to please myself. I can’t pull it off all the time, but I do make a goal of it. There are days when I must dress to please my clients, or the Minnesota Weather Gods, or my bloated-by-PMS body, or my in-laws. There are days when I dress because I want to look pretty or unusual or interesting in order to pull myself out of a funk. There are days when I dress to impress my cats, who love nothing more than a good sweatsuit. But the older I get, and the more I learn about myself and my personal style, the more I strive to dress only for myself.

I don’t feel like I have ever dressed to impress men. At least not in any traditional way. I lack cleavage, a flat stomach, and slender legs. As a young, single girl who heard everything the media told me about heterosexual attractiveness, it never occurred to me that a body lacking these features should or could be dressed provocatively. (I was a very different person back then, of course.) So I just didn’t bother. I still got dates, but I’d wager it had nothing to do with what I was wearing. Which was mostly denim overalls and beat-up Doc Martens.

But many women do dress to impress men or other potential love and/or sexual partners. And since women can be quite competitive with one another, much has been written about our tendency to dress to impress – or even outdo – our fellow ladies. Anyone who feels she doesn’t dress to please anyone at all is likely dressing to please herself. Countless potential audiences exist and countless motivations underlie our choices. Although dressing exclusively to please others without giving a thought to your own taste, comfort, or preference strikes me as somewhat limiting, I’m inclined to reserve judgment. Some lives have more constraints than others, constraints that may stem from rigid work dress codes, harmful social prejudices, or other influential forces. Some people may not have the option to dress to please themselves, while others may view dressing as a tool for catalyzing action rather than a tool for self-expression. I would love to see a world in which we can all dress for ourselves, but am all too aware that we’re not there yet.

Figuring out how you want to look – and how to make that look a reality – is a long process. An ongoing process, even. And sifting through the desires that are truly yours from the ones that are thrust upon you can be challenging. But we can all strive. We can all ask ourselves when we pull open the closet door: For whom am I dressing today? And WHY?

Image courtesy Fani Tsakiridou

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4 Responses to “For Whom Are You Dressing?”

  1. Gemma

    I love the idea of “I dress to engage.” That hits the nail on the head for me.

  2. Lisa

    I think about this a lot. I dress for a social construct and an identity construct, but I make them both up, so, don’t I in the end dress for myself?

    • ainomiaka

      Yes and no. I mean, if you want other people to interact with you as an “x identity” you are also on some level dressing for them. Which let me say, I totally support. I don’t think anyone ever dresses just for themselves. And I think that’s a good thing. We’re all at least dressing to make sure cops don’t arrest us for indecent exposure if we leave the house.
      Also, just because something is a social construct doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  3. Sarah Pugh

    I think I dress to hit as many clothing goals as possible on any given day, depending on my needs. Sometimes I need bright colours, or warmth, or coolness, or to feel attractive, or comfort, or utility, or to be invisible, or to be noticed… or some combination of multiple factors. If my outfit can hit as many of my emotional/practical needs as possible on any given day, it’s a win. I actually assess my outfits in my head before I get dressed, across multiple factors, and I do this consciously – I find it a good exercise to relax me as fall asleep, and I usually wake up in the morning knowing what I’m going to wear. (And then am sometimes foiled by the weather, because, well, West Coast…)