All Dressed Up with No Place to Go

At the height of lockdown, I was an unkempt mess. With hairdressers and clothing stores shut, and university transitioning to online learning, there hardly seemed any point in getting ready. I slumped around in tracksuit bottoms and with unwashed hair as my mood plummeted. I stroked my patterned dresses with a sigh, lamenting that I couldn’t wear them anymore. Then I saw something on Twitter.

It was American author Laura Lippman, posting selfies of herself in glamorous outfits. Sometimes she would wear pink stilettos with an orange sundress, and other times – red over-the-knee boots with a black chiffon dress. Laura continued dressing up ‘real clothes’ (as she calls them) every day, working through her extensive wardrobe, and posting selfies on Twitter.

I wondered whether there was merit in this. Why couldn’t I wear my clothes (new additions and old favourites) or use my (undoubtably) excessive makeup collection? I wondered whether our external appearance really did affect our internal attitude. A quick session with my therapist revealed she was about to suggest the same thing: ‘Put a bit of makeup on and a pretty dress and try to do that every day.’ Every day? ‘Well, not the weekends. We’re allowed to have the weekends off.’ So, I started reaching into my wardrobe and pulling out pretty dresses. I refreshed my makeup collection and started putting it on in the mornings. While I didn’t take daily selfies like Laura, the sheer act of making myself look more put together gave me a rush of serotonin. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much it helped me.

While my makeup routine has simplified during lockdown (I’ve certainly moved away from ‘full glam’ to a more natural, everyday approach), I still find joy in doing it. I still feel a boost when I pick out a dress that I love that I haven’t worn in a while, and that uplifted mood carries me through the day. I’m more confident, more studious, more optimistic, and for someone who has struggled their whole life with depression and anxiety – this is a big deal.

Does this mean I’m shallow or insecure? I don’t know… maybe? It’s hard to know how much of something like this is driven by reinforced societal expectations, and how much of that is driven by the patriarchy. Most women I know wouldn’t go to work in a corporate office bare faced, or even do it on a Zoom meeting. How much they do that for themselves, and how much to be taken as seriously as their male colleagues, is up for debate.

YouTuber Lex Croucher posted a video last year where she explained why she stopped wearing makeup, and the societal implications surrounding that decision. Comments underneath the video like, ‘I have been told before that “of course you don’t wear make-up, you don’t need it”… Need being the word that feels icky here’ add weight to the pressure women feel to keep up appearances.

My own relationship with beauty has always been a tricky one. When my boyfriend and I went on a holiday with his family, which required an early morning flight, I skipped makeup because it was freaking 4am. His aunts continued remarking how tired and ill I looked and urged me to have a lay down. I went back to the hotel and instead of sleeping, I put on makeup. When they saw me later that day, they remarked that the rest had ‘done me a lot of good’. A quick survey of my female friends confirms they have similar stories of often well-meaning people saying they looked tired or sick without makeup.

The thing is, it sucks that women have to wear makeup to avoid these comments, or to be considered on a level playing field with men. I get frustrated that I have to put on makeup to feel good in my own skin. I don’t know if I dress up because I feel like I have to, or if I genuinely want to.

With people at home more since the pandemic hit, we arguably have more time to watch YouTube tutorials on how to perfect winged eyeliner or on eyeshadow colour theory. The safety of not having to face the world means we can experiment more with makeup at home. We still shop online for clothes, even if that’s purely for the joy of clicking ‘add to cart’. And yet, with the fact we aren’t going out as much, it hardly seems worth it.

I messaged a few of my friends to ask if they bothered getting dressed up anymore, and their responses were pretty unanimously ‘no’. ‘I just can’t be bothered,’ one friend texted back. But when they did, their thoughts reflected what I’ve been seeing on my Twitter feed: ‘I decided to curl my hair and put [on] some makeup. Haven’t been doing this that much since the lockdown in March. I feel a bit more like my old self today.’ The verdict was that getting ready made them feel better. British YouTubers Leena Norms and Lucy Moon have jumped on the bandwagon of dressing up at home, filming videos showing their outfits and both expressing an improvement in their moods.

Even though our relationship with fashion and beauty may be a complex one, it still doesn’t negate the happiness and confidence we feel good about ourselves. And if wearing makeup and dressing in nice clothes is how we get there, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. But maybe lockdown is an opportunity for us to reclaim why we’re doing these things.

Most beauty YouTube videos these days, before recommending a lip product, add the caveat, ‘I know no one is wearing lipstick these days’. But, why not?  Why do we feel like we have to go somewhere in order for dressing up to be worth it? Is the sole purpose of getting dressed up so that other people can see us? Laura Lippman wasn’t just wearing the clothes, after all. She was photographing them and posting them to social media. Similarly for YouTubers Leena and Lucy. So perhaps being seen is an important part of our self-expression – and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But even Laura says, ‘This isn’t for my daily photograph, for social media… It’s not even for my husband or my daughter. It’s for me.’

If we embrace that wearing makeup or pretty clothes could be making ourselves feel good even when we’re not out and about, perhaps we can find empowerment in this self-expression. Maybe we need to start dressing up for ourselves.

Lippman copped flack for her ‘tone deaf’ self-isolation outfit pics, and those comments totally missed what I think is a revelation. Here was a woman who had found a way to cope. Not only that, but she had inspired other Twitterers like me to do the same.

It’s an often Tweeted anecdote that some people have ‘an irrational fear of wasting a good outfit on a bad day’, like somehow it is a waste for us to wear something nice just because we wanted to. That we need an occasion to dress up, to wear those pink stilettos. I think that reveals a deeper psychological perspective of how we view ourselves as unworthy to give the gift to ourselves of feeling good. We can have that whenever we want – we just have to reach into the wardrobe and grab it.

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