When you get dressed each day, external forces typically dictate what you wear. We dress for the weather…specific ­occasions…for work or a party. We rarely dress just for ourselves, and even if we do, we may not feel like our best selves in the clothing we’re wearing. Example: Wearing baggy sweatpants all day can put you into an all-day emotional slump. 

Many of us are spending more time at home now due to the COVID-19 pandemic and rarely, if ever, donning that fitted dress or suit and tie to feel empowered. Even if you don’t need to dress for the office, why not take this time as an opportunity to re-examine your clothing choices? To align your internal and external selves to find clothing that truly reflects who you are and what makes you feel good about yourself? This is a great opportunity to move beyond old dressing habits and dress for what makes you feel confident and proud.

As a pioneer in the social science of fashion psychology, an emerging field that looks at the ways in which clothing impacts mood and behavior, Dawnn Karen has seen how wardrobe choices impact people’s lives. She has helped hundreds of clients achieve better self-esteem and a happier outlook by changing what they wear. Here are her tips for dressing to feel your best, wherever you are…

Figure out your signature style. Is Halle Berry (elegant, glamorous) your style icon, or are you more of a Jennifer Aniston (classic, relaxed, minimalist) or Jennifer Lopez (colorful, fashion forward, trendy) type of dresser? For men, do you identify with Brad Pitt ­(ultra-cool, artsy and bohemian) or Will Smith (sporty, colorful, streamlined), or are you a Clint Eastwood type (rugged, casual)? By identifying the style you gravitate toward and that you feel is most authentically you, you can hone in on your best clothing options while also leaving room for creativity and experimentation.

Clean out your closet. You may not realize it, but you have a relationship with everything in your wardrobe, some of which may have been hanging there for many years and through assorted phases of your personal growth. Take some time to go through each item you own to assess if it is serving you well now. You even may want to do a fashion show for yourself and try it all on to gauge how you feel. 

If you don’t plan to wear something again, choose to get rid of it or understand why you might want to hold onto it. If it’s a piece you’re keeping for only sentimental reasons, how would you feel if you were to get rid of it? Is holding onto it an emotional drain? Maybe giving it away—or even throwing it away—will be a needed emotional release.

If you love a piece that is in good shape but not currently in style, I suggest that you keep it if you have the room! Styles come back around, and you may never be able to replace a beloved piece. 

For the balance of your wardrobe, ask yourself if you want to see yourself wearing each item again. Is it in sync with your signature style and the image that you want to project? Is it demotivating or motivating to wear? Does it make you feel confident and powerful…or nervous and meek? And remember—just because you like something aesthetically doesn’t mean that it looks good on you. A kind and trusted friend may be able to give you some helpful feedback when you’re not sure. Feel good about giving away the pieces you no longer want—there’s someone out there with that style who will enjoy owning those clothes. 

Change your outfit. During the pandemic, we haven’t had the option of going out to a lot of places, but even if you’re home most of the time, changing your outfit at least once a day creates an emotional boundary between work and leisure time. 

Example: Beyoncé told Oprah about how her attitude and mind-set change when she puts on the clothes and wig of her stage character Sasha Fierce. “My posture and the way I speak and everything is different,” she said. Likewise, donning a favorite outfit will energize you for dinner with your partner or a video call with friends…luxurious, soft loungewear will signal your mind and body that you are in the off mode, and it’s OK to calm down and release the stressors of the day.

Boost your mood. Actors and performers will tell you that when they put on a character’s clothes, they start to embody that character more fully. I recommend dressing to enhance your mood—to chase away the blues or feel more energized, for example—and faking it until you make it. Whatever the season, wear your favorite colors, patterns, prints and styles, even if that means wearing white in winter and black in summer. 

Example: Jim, a lawyer in his mid-40s, was getting divorced. He looked rumpled and undone, with untied shoelaces and untucked shirts. He avoided looking in mirrors because they reminded him of the person he had become—a divorced man disconnected from the people he loved most. But ignoring his appearance only added to his anxiety and damaged his self-esteem. During our sessions, he began to be more conscientious about wearing ironed, unstained clothing and tucking in his shirt, which led him to stand taller—a small tweak that improved his feelings about himself.

Think about how you feel when you wear different shades and hues. Yellow typically makes people feel happy…red, sexy and empowered…orange, fresh and alert…blue, calm and peaceful…green, upbeat. Figure out the colors that make you feel the best. No matter your skin tone, there is a hue of any color that will look good on you. 

Example: One of my clients was a doctor who was feeling depressed. She was treating COVID-19 patients at work and just throwing on whatever was clean to wear under her white coat. I worked with her to wear happy colors like yellow and professional clothing like a dress and nice shoes under her hospital coat to boost her confidence and energy. I also suggested that she buy pretty loungewear to switch into at home to help her relax without feeling frumpy.

Eliminate ruts. Extroverts typically enjoy switching up their outfits and ­introverts, like Mark Zuckerberg (t-shirt and jeans), feel anxious if they have to select a new outfit each morning. Having a uniform actually boosts introverts’ productivity. But: If you’re reaching for the same clothes because it’s convenient—not because you like them—you’re in a rut. And you can get yourself out. 

Example: Patricia was laid off from her job at a nonprofit after-school program. Her work uniform had been leggings and sweaters paired with sneakers or flats—and she was wearing the same outfits while at home. But now, these clothing items reminded her of her lost job and exacerbated her feelings of sadness and failure. I advised her to get out of her rut by putting aside her former work clothes and dressing in an outfit that would put her in a confident frame of mind—a button-down shirt, gray slacks and heels that would encourage her to sit at the computer and look for a new job

When You Shop

Before buying a new item, ask yourself these questions… 

Does this make me feel great?

Does this project my personal style? 

Do I like the way I look in it? 

Will I still love it in a year or two…or five? 

Is this an impulse buy that I will later regret?

Do I need it?

Can it update my look and replace something else in my closet?

What do I already have that will work with it?

After you buy: To keep your closet from being overrun, get rid of one old item for every new item that you buy.

Fashion psychology is not retail therapy and buying brand names. Rather, it’s about selecting clothing that reflects who you are, raises your spirits and makes you feel stronger, safer or more empowered. 

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