Dress Like You Mean It

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By Alison Santighian

dress like you mean it thoughts fashion

When we don’t feel well,…OK…when I don’t feel well, I want to hide. I want to bury my head under the covers, close my eyes, and not see a thing. I don’t want to lay eyes on anyone, let alone myself. Whether I’m under the weather physically, or whether I’m under a cloud of some kind, or even when I’m just plain old exhausted from life’s demands, well, I want to play ostrich.

Years ago, when I felt like that, and when life still called for me to show my unwilling face in public, I would rifle through my drawers and find my most comfortable and often baggiest, least flattering sweat suit-like garb. (My most frequent use of such clothing? Exam days in college. I mean, who would want to dress for success after an all-nighter?)

Yup, I was hiding. Ostriches, I’ve got you covered.

Then, way back in 1994, I spent a year abroad, studying at a German university. I was in full-on ostrich mode, having just lost my beloved grandmother, never mind being unseen in a place that didn’t care about fashion (yes, the Germans really can be that bad). To top it off, the university where I was claimed an especially anti-establishment bent, which meant anyone who tried to wear anything other than black and huge scarves was cast as “The Man.”
I was in ostrich heaven, wearing the most unflattering garments known to man. My boyfriend at the time, who didn’t even care for style particularly, told me I was frumpy. Or at least that my clothes were. I didn’t care (really, I swear I didn’t). I was wearing what I wanted to wear.

Then we broke up.

Needless to say, I went into full on ostrich mode, truly not caring what I looked like. Comfort and ease were the name of the game. I couldn’t even tell you, at this point, what any of those clothes were.

Then I met an Italian. From Rome.

One day, maybe I’ll tell the interwebs the rest of the story, but we’ll just focus on one thing here. L, in his Roman wisdom and his Italian eye, asked me one day why I was wearing what I was, and why I didn’t dress up a bit. Somehow, from L (vice from the previous Englishman), it was simply a logical question. I can even see where we were standing in my teeny little student’s “efficiency.” He proceeded to look through my clothes and find something for me to wear for dinner.

He picked out the best that I had: a blush cotton crewneck J. Crew sweater and a pair of most likely ill-fitting khakis. The ensemble probably washed me out to no end, and certainly didn’t flatter my 21 year old body with its beloved but boxy shape, but it was better than sweatpants.

From that day on until the day I left Germany, I dressed. I even dressed to travel home on the plane. Again, I had very little that was even remotely stylish, but it was what I had. When I got back to university in the States, too, I found myself dressing. No longer did I pull an all nighter, then go straight to class in my PJs. No longer did I hide, but rather, I dressed. I pulled myself together. I showered. I brushed my hair, and occasionally even put on makeup (I still default to makeupless, though).

When I needed to steel myself, whether because I was ill or because I’d procrastinated a paper, I pulled myself together. I found that I felt stronger, better, and more capable of taking on whatever lay ahead because I bothered.

Two decades, a husband, and two “beans” later, I still subscribe to what L taught me: instead of hiding, I put myself forward in the best way possible. Now, when I’m fighting a cold, I default to reliable, but polished, ensembles. I have a navy bracelet sleeve sweater that always makes me stand taller. I have a pair of mid-height patent blush pumps that go with everything and pull me together. I have a three-step makeup routine I can do in my office parking lot (translucent powder, sheer red lips, and mascara). I might not feel at my best, but because I feel presentable – and usually look acceptable to everyone but me – I can take on the world.

About Alison Santighian:

With my first DC Celine blog post in December 2005, it turns out I'm one of the pioneers of the DC fashion blogging scene. With writing and fashion being my love, and not my day job, I'm a mistress at balancing work and play. My husband and I don’t believe badass has an expiration date, so we hit concerts, shows, restaurants, and openings as often as we can. All of those, and two “Beans,” now 6.5 and 4, keep me running, but they don't burn calories. In 2012, I decided to get healthy and strong, and started telling my “healthy me” story out loud on the interwebs, and it turns out people wanted to hear it. In 2013, Weight Watchers honored me with a short feature, “Losing in DC.” 2 years after starting to get control of my health, my relationships with food show up in my Instagram feed as much as fashion and my Beans do.

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. I love this! I find myself doing this too. If I feel crappy, I tend to wear pieces that make me feel badass like a leather bomber jacket, because frumpy baggy clothing just make it worse. Kinda the “fake it until you make it” concept.

    1. I love it, Haley! A woman after my own heart. Can’t tell you the number of Friday mornings when I really don’t want to go to the office and I *really* want to put a rocker T under a nice, demure blazer. I’d feel so badass. Haven’t pulled the trigger yet.

    1. Thanks, Nanne! I realized after I re-read it that I may have used it a few too many times in the post – guess I was just feelin’ it!

  2. Thanks so much for this – I’m not comfortable with my body right now (a work in progress) but I have some great clothes that I don’t always wear. Tomorrow I’m going to dress for my life because it’s important that I reflect myself with my appearance. I really appreciate you talking about this!

    1. Beth, I’m so sorry I didn’t see this til now. I 100% understand about that “work in progress” and not feeling comfortable. But hope you pulled out those clothes and dressed like you mean it. Some of the best advice I ever got was about halfway through my own weight loss journey, when I hated most of my closet, but didn’t want to spend money on things, so was looking, well, frumpy (as the old boyfriend would’ve said). I had the chance to meet Stacy London (yes!, and with Allie, coincidentally), and asked her about it. She said to make sure you dress the body you have right now; it will go a long way in making sure you feel good and give you further motivation. Of course, she’s right.

  3. So glad you posted this. Thank you. I am frequently ill and often fairly housebound. At home, I tend to dress very casually, but my rule is no sweatpants, unless I’m really down and out which rarely happens. When I go out, though, I get dressed. The degree may change a bit, depending on whether I’m going grocery shopping and doing errands or going to a professional appointment or business meeting. I look pulled together because, like you, I have pulled myself together. And, like you, I am much more able to take on the world.

    1. I am so very glad this resonated with you, and glad that you find the little joys and strengths in girding yourself with “together” clothing.

  4. I am so happy about this. I totally notice a difference from putting that extra little bit of effort in when you are feeling less than presentable. I noticed the other day after a hard day (who are we kidding, a hard month) that the second I received notice of the issue turning towards a solution, I put on a sweep of the brightest lipstick I had on me.

    I also like that this mentality is sometimes a reminder that being comfortable doesn’t have to be sloppy and putting in a little effort to presentation doesn’t mean dressing to the “nines”. I am going to try to focus on this more going forward when I am feeling out of sorts!

    1. Kim, I think you’re so right. That little bit of effort can turn corners, and if it’s a “set” bit of effort (for me my lipstick, powder, and mascara – used it today on my way to a lunch meeting), it’s practically no effort at all. I won’t kid you, there are days when it feels like I can’t…but I’m ALWAYS glad I did, and usually annoyed with myself if I succumbed to ostrich.

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