For a long time, I believed that a little bit of physical discomfort could be beneficial at times: Stiffer, more formal clothing can put you in a focused frame of mind and encourage extended concentration. Some experts recommend dressing up for phone interviews, both because the ritual of dressing can help center you, and because speaking to someone on the phone while wearing business attire makes the interview experience feel more weighty and real. And in the midst of our increasingly comfort-obsessed culture, it saddens me to see that people choose to wear cargo shorts to the opera* and t-shirts to four-star restaurants. Dressing up lends a different energy to our activities, and I enjoy that differentiation.
But I just got back from a short session with a client in which we selected an outfit for a photo shoot. She is a makeup artist who loves helping others look their best for photos, but dies inside every time the lens swings her way. AND she was told to wear an outfit that perfectly encapsulated her personal style. We talked about this challenging request, and agreed that if the mandate had been “semi-formal” or “a blazer and blouse” or anything that provided specific parameters, it would’ve been considerably less daunting. She wanted to look classic, luxe, and approachable, but I also knew that she needed to be comfortable or her anxiety would show through in the photos. We picked a favorite utility jacket, marled white tee, and layered gold necklaces, a combination she’d worn dozens of times in real life. This grouping provided her comfort on several levels: The clothes and accessories weren’t stiff or restricting, it was an outfit she’d worn before that felt reassuringly familiar, and it felt authentic to her personality and style. Sure, she would’ve looked more glamorous in a sequined cocktail dress, but it would’ve made her uncomfortable in so many ways. Not worth the risk or potential trade-off.
I’ve also observed the link between clothing comfort and body comfort. The mild discomfort of suiting and heels, or button-front and pencil skirt can work to focus attention, or it can make the wearer self-conscious and fidgety. This may sound obvious: It’s only natural that comfortable clothes would make our physical selves feel better. But I’m talking on a more abstract, self-image level. For some people, stiff, formal clothing makes them feel like impostors, like their bodies are unwieldy or don’t belong. Discomfort in clothing only serves to amplify the discomfort in body that was lurking just below the surface.
The idea of being “too comfortable” is a fascinating one, really. Policing of comfort is likely linked to the distinctly Western fear of laziness, a state of being that we believe will descend if we spend our entire lives feeling relaxed in our bodies and minds. And while I still believe that dressing for occasions is a rewarding way to set certain events and experiences apart from the everyday, I’m beginning to think that letting people spend more time in their style and body comfort zones could lead to a happier, less anxious population.
What do you think? What does comfort mean to you? Do you feel there’s a difference between clothing comfort and body comfort? Is there such a thing as being too comfortable? What do you think would happen if all dress codes were obliterated worldwide?
*I have witnessed this first-hand. Cross my heart.
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