Reader Request: Dressing When You’re Down

Reader Jess sent me this question via e-mail:

How does one reconcile her clothing choices with days when you’re truly down? Sometimes I want to put clothes on as armor, assuming that if I look put together, my less-than-together mental state will be disguised. But there are other times when I am feeling particularly angsty and want nothing more than to sulk around in a hoodie. I should add that I am a graduate student, but most of my classmates do dress up to some degree, so I can’t exactly waltz in wearing my nubby slippers.

This will sound like a cop-out, but I think ALL dressing choices on difficult days are correct. You know yourself, you know your needs, so do what you think is best and it will be best. If you want to be in loose, soft, unconfining clothes to pamper your body and soul, do it. If you want to “fake it till you make it,” dressed to the nines as a means of lifting your own mood, do it. Only you know what’s best.

But if you wake up feeling out-of-sorts and simply cannot TELL what would be the most beneficial in terms of dressing choices, here are a couple of considerations to mull:

  • Are you in pain? Nothing makes menstrual cramps, migraines, or injuries unbearable like a tight belt, pinching shoes, or a stiff blazer. If your body is already uncomfortable, don’t add to its woes with uncomfortable clothes.
  • Do you want to be invisible? If your blues are more psychological than physical, consider how much social interaction you can tolerate. If you’re an extrovert who thrives on activity and discussion, wearing something fun or funky may get you rolling along a path to wellness. If you’re an introvert who recharges on quiet alone-time, wearing something quiet and innocuous may allow you some healing invisibility until you’re back to normal.
  • What’s the norm? Jess pointed out that, due to social circumstances, she can’t exactly go full scrub. Probably couldn’t strap on a tiara and a set of Lee Press-on Nails and expect her peer group to accept her spirit-lifting garb without comment, either. Dressing brightly and boldly to lift your spirits is a tried-and-true practice, but be sure to adjust to your specific circumstances. If altering your daily wear drastically won’t pass and you don’t want to deal with the flak, do something less noticeable. Wear bright, cheery shoes with a neutral outfit. Throw on a necklace your grandmother gave you. Make subtle choices that will cheer you from within.
  • Is there a threat? At a former job, I had a coworker who would regularly haul me into a conference room, ALONE, and berate me. On a day that I knew such a confrontation was inevitable, I wore all black, lots of studs, boots, slicked my hair back tight. I was afraid, but I felt as “armored” as I could be in that getup. If what’s upsetting you is some sort of threat, dressing to intimidate or impress can really help shore you up.

Again, the choice is truly yours. There is nothing wrong with using stylistic choices to snap yourself out of a wretched mood, and there is nothing wrong with reaching for the leggings and squishy sweaters to coddle yourself. Do what feels best. And if you don’t know what’s gonna feel best, cruise through the above questions and see if they can help guide you.

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  • Stephanie

    Neat ideas I'd never thought of dressing my way out of a funk. Usually though on days when I'm just not in the mood for adulthood I go for comfy but not frumpy. I have some great soft jersy (sorry can't spell) so I throw on one of those or a soft tunic with my jeggings. Sometimes even my boyfriend shorts and a fitted tee.

  • Pearl

    Last year, when I was having lots of personal issues, I was fully aware that I was "dressing them out." By that I mean, my style completely changed: I stopped wearing color, stopped dressing up and wore jeans and Ts only, stopped working my accessories. Valuable lesson: no one noticed but me. Overtly, anyway. Subtly, people did notice, but frankly, my own cry for help depressed me more. So I learned that dressing up–no matter what–with makeup and accessories was the way for me to go. Makes me feel better, makes me feel armored (good word), makes me feel "fake it until you make it," which is actually okay. No matter how crappy the day, my boss, the blah blah, I look okay–which helps me make it okay. And thinking about the outfit and makeup makes me focus on something other than my problems.

  • Tibbar de Gniw

    I used to dress in comfy loose shirts to coddle myself, but now I'm more inclined to dress up more to show that bad mood that it's not the boss of me.

    Then again, I also dress up more on exam days, so I'm not exactly a benchmark for normalcy. =D

  • Starling

    Hugs and empathy to reader Jess. I'm a grad student, too, and I recently went through a blue phase. I will say that (on most days) dressing well made me feel a little better about myself and my work. It's harder for me to feel like a professional if I'm dressed in jeans and tees all the time. It's also worth checking in with the graduate school or campus counseling center to see about graduate student support groups for stress. If your campus doesn't offer them, I say we start one πŸ™‚

  • efitzo

    It might sound silly, but nice underwear (not necessarily lingerie-style, just nice fitting, pretty -and/or sexy- and comfortable) seems to improve my mood during a 'down' day. Plus, no one else knows πŸ˜‰

  • Angela Pea

    LOL @ efitzo! I was just thinking the same thing…frilly, lacey bras are so cheering, and it's your little secret!

    I'd also like to add that if your blues hang around and you aren't getting any relief from dressing up, dressing down, eating, not eating, anything, then get some outside help. There is nothing to be ashamed about, and there is no reason to feel miserable when help is available.

  • La Historiadora de Moda

    I second Starling's comments. Jess, I am nearing the end of my PhD, and I would be lying to you if I said that it was all sunshine, puppies, and rainbows all the time. Dressing yourself out of a funk can be helpful, but it's also really helpful to be able to draw on a support group – either friends or something through your university's career & counseling program or both.

  • Cynthia

    When I'm in a mood, I tend to gravitate towards all dark, solid color. That's one of the reasons I'm embracing the "black out" — I started 2 weeks ago and I swear, it's making me feel more in control of my life, or something.

    If I don't make an effort I will just wear jeans and a black t-shirt with a cardigan every single day. I'm a professor in a science department. In the sciences the lab culture, where you dress down because you might spill something on your clothes or damage them if you're building something, has pervaded everyone, even people who are no longer really "hands on". It's a creative-shop mentality.

    The students have learned to properly respect us no matter what we wear, so no one cares what I wear unless I'm going to a meeting with bigwigs. Especially now, in the summer, any dressing effort I make is totally for me. I'm in one of those productivity slumps where you've got so much stuff that's "almost finished" that it's all bottled up and nothing can move. So I was dressing like a street urchin for a while there. The "black-out" has been helping.

  • Jess

    Thanks for answering! The question stemmed from a sense of efficiency – what is the most efficient way to dress during a low mood day? I like how you rearranged to instead ask what is the most efficient way to respond to the mood through dressing.

    I think the dilemma was associated with being proactive vs reactive to a bad / sad day. If I dress up, I feel proactive. But I thought by dressing down I was some how throwing in the towel before the day even began properly. The way you explain it, in a way, gives me (and anyone – everyone) permission to perceive any kind of clothing proactive, even if it is a furry sweater and jeans.

    Thanks for the great advice, and to those who commented as well. I like the underwear one especially! Never would have thought of that…

  • Allison

    I know that when I am down, I tend to dress down– which doesn't at all help. If I realize that I've been dressing schlumpy for a couple days and feeling down, I will make an effort to dress "up" the next day. I find that my outfit for the day can really set the tone. If I'm in my pajamas, I act like I'm in bed. If I'm wearing a sharp outfit, I feel sharp and am usually more productive. Its kind of the "fake it til you make it" philosophy.

  • Sabine42

    Oh, yes, I totally dress to fix my mood. When I'm feeling low, I more often then not pull out the cute gear to boost my mood (and second the cute underwear part!). And I often tend to "armor" up in my most put-together when I'm facing a hard day/week. However, when it's exhaustion or physical? I'm right with the most comfy yet vaguely professional combo I can get away with–soft dress and leggings or comfy slacks.

  • Rebecca

    I'm very extroverted, but every once in a while I want to feel invisible. I wear my glasses (instead of contacts) then. Because they lesson my peripheral vision, I can notice less and therefore hide more. I kind of love it.

    Also, since I sport the P.E. teacher chich, on days that I'm in a funk, all it takes is a little make-up and some perfume to perk me up a bit. No one notices but me.

    When I have the winter blues, I wear my bikini under my clothes, or some daring lingerie. It reminds me that I have a body, that there is a sun and an ocean to swim in.

  • Erin

    You are so wise. I'd never given it much thought before, but it's true that when I start to wallow, those uber-comfy clothes (sweats, t-shirts) start to feel sloppy rather than comforting.

    You're inspiring me to pay attention.

  • Almost 40

    First – hugs to Jess! We've all been there in one form or another.

    Honestly sweet Sal, I don't think I've ever paid attention to what I wear or don't wear when I've been in a funk. Though, on a subconscious level, I'm sure I'm probably stuck in a comfy pair of pants and some variation of a sweatshirt. I will take notice the next time.

  • Dorky Medievalist

    I have a sweater that belonged to my dad that my grandmother knitted for him and I wear it when I need warmth, both physical and psychological. It is very unflattering on me but magically cozy even on the coldest of days.

    That said, I would like to reiterate what has already been said by several readers already. If you are persistently blue and you cannot pull yourself out of it with the equivalent of a valuable sweater or a chocolate frog, seek help. Sometimes dressing up a problem masks it. Many of us are very skilled at disguising moods, be it with clothing or other methods, but sometimes this coping strategy is not enough and it it necessary to speak to someone who can offer a wider array of solutions. Sometimes we don't know what we need, even if we think we do (and by "we" I mean "I").

  • WendyB

    So I shouldn't be wearing a Madonna concert t-shirt from 1990 and no pants?

  • isleen

    I second the "armor" suggestions — I once got through a particularly bad patch in my life by going goth. Wearing my attitude on my sleeve gave me some much-needed boost and as a bonus, nobody messed with me! I actually found that people responded more positively to my tough lady gear, and I still keep some pleather, plaid and studs around for the days when I need a boost.

  • Sadie’s Momma

    Really needed this post today! I've been in a funk all week. I started with a migraine, passed out while giving blood yesterday, and woke up with the worst cramps in the world this morning… It's been a capri, t-shirt, flip-flop, cardigan week for me. I've been comfortable and finding other things to write about on my blog than my outfits. Glad for the three day weekend to help me move out of my ickiness!

  • Katie from Interrobangs Anonymous

    I had a week o' wallowing last week, and finally dressed myself out of it this past Monday. And you know what? It totally worked. Le situation in question is still tres crappy, but my mindset on how to tackle it is completely different now.

    http://interrobangsanon.wordpress.com/2010/05/25/katie-daily-style-faking-it/

  • Anne

    I trust a perfume to make me feel better. I can smell it continuously even when I'm not thinking about it.

  • Anne

    Wow, very timely post (as always)! I'm reading this in my boyfriend's hospital room. He's recovering from surgery, and I've hung out at the hospital pretty much all week. I'd love to just wear my coziest sweats or pajamas to visit him, but I've been making myself dress nice (a notch below business-casual I guess) just so I feel like I have some kind of purpose in the morning, and it does make me feel just a tiny bit better. Like even if I feel like I can't hold things together now, I still look like I am πŸ™‚

    I've noticed the opposite of what Pearl experienced though – on days when I don't feel like dressing up for work, people always seem to ask if I'm feeling okay. I guess it's nice that they notice, but sometimes I'm not trying to express anything except wanting to be comfortable and not spend a lot of time in the morning.

  • RoseAG

    I think the armour strategy has some merits. For me pockets are important.

    Long ago I got into a meeting, got upset and had to spend the entire time fighting back tears, with no tissue in sight!

    I learned my lesson. The real solution is to add a phrase like I think I need to take a break here, can we discuss this later to my verbal wardrobe!

    Since sometimes I'm not as assertive as I ought to be I also always wear something with pockets for a tissue. If I have any reason to suspect things won't go well I'll put 3-4 in that pocket!

  • All Women Stalker

    These are wonderful ideas, Sally. Usually, I grab a pretty dress and comfortable flats. πŸ™‚

  • Sassy Molassy

    THese are all great ideas. I truly feel like dressing in comfort with a little pizzaz (even if that just means a splash of pink), is the way to go. Comfortable fabrics and things that aren't tight are the way to go. And sometimes wearing a dress/skirt just perks up my mood because it's a little more creative and sassy than slacks.

  • Anna

    Dress in my part of the world tends to be quite informal. I can go out in a tee or T-neck and jeans and blend right in. But yesterday, when I was feeling not really terrible, but not topnotch either, I had to go out in public for a while (as alternative to usual work at home) and added a red-patterned scarf and red earrings to my black tee and capris. Such a simple change, but everyone I met gave me a compliment! What a kick! Must do this more often, feeling low or no.

  • Branka

    This is a great reader question, and I love your input on this Sal. I've had some personal issues lately and have noticed that I've been dressing down. I work in an office, very professional environment, so in a way I HAVE to dress nicely, but sometimes when I'm down I would love to just throw on jeans and a Tee and flip-flops.. that alone would help me feel better. Oh well.. nice post, made me think.. thanks Sal.

  • Karoliina

    I went through a really rough patch at work recently. On the days I knew would likely be the hardest, I armored up. I wore some of my favourite scents that week, and tried to fake a sense of togetherness by trying to add an edge of polish to my look. Other times I'll wear more colour (particularly when I'm tired or something like that).

    When I'm in pain, I wear what's comfy.

  • Audi

    My suggestion to Jess is to have a couple of comfy yet stylish outfits all worked out in advance for those days. I find that the biggest hurdle on days when I'm feeling down is finding the inspiration to put anything together at all. Having a couple of canned fallback outfits for those days could be a big help.

  • Rachel

    I'm usually a dresser-uper (for lack of a better made up word)to begin with, and I try to lift my spirits with my clothing on down days, but lately I've had a lot of arthritis pain and been depressed so have been dressing as casually as my office will let me get away with. Yesterday I forced myself to wear and tailored skirt and blouse with heels b/c of potential client meeting, but other than that this weeks choices have been boring and borderline frumpy, which has the effect of making me feel worse.

    There is definitely something to be said for pushing yourself to dress well, esp for work, regardless of how you feel. For example, the Big Boss took me to lunch *unexpectedly* this week during one of my more frumpy I-Don't-Care-How-I-Look days to discuss staff cuts of all things, and after walking into the Yatch Club, I really, really wished I had've dressed better!

    Thanks for the timely post Sal! Next week I will push myself to put together an "outfit" instead of just grabbing things out of my closet that go together. I think the depression of staff cuts, cutting the work week back to 4 days and worrying not only about how that will affect my family but about my team and their families is getting to me and it's reflecting in the way I've been presenting myself. How about a post how stress affects fashion choices and how to reign that in???

  • KIRAFASHION

    it is the hardest time…

  • Marie

    what a lovely and caring post. i feel like you're really taking care of us (your readers). you're like the fashion blog Mama. i'm not down, but i feel cheered up just reading that post. thank you

  • Angela Pea

    @ WendyB – LMAO!!!! Madonna Teeshirt and no pants!!

  • In The Heyday

    Gosh lots of comments already. Not being able to figure out what to wear can seem like even more of a battle, even on relatively ok days. I agree that whatever you want to wear is good enough! (hey, you got out of bed right?)
    I sometimes have to pack for going away when what I wear is important. I find that I have started taking pictures of the outfits as I put them together so now I have a file of ideas for travelling with. The pictures are silly – taken with the self timer but they still help refine the outfit.
    I wonder if that might help on hard mornings too?

  • *Suzan*

    Hello, Sally! I just love your blog… I'm from Brazil and have a blog either about beauty,style, and many kind of things in our female universe. I love to see your photos and look to the garden, house, street around… I'd like to live in a place like that some day. I'ts the american houses style. Well, success for you. Hugs!

    Suzana,30 / Fortaleza,CE-Brazil

    My Blog >

    http://beautye-style.blogspot.com/

  • Rad_in_Broolyn

    When I was in grad school, and I felt a down and bad, I sometimes made an effort to dress up, and I rarely dressed up back then. So invariable someone would ask, "hey, how come you look nice?" and I would tell them that it was my mood lifter. This would lead to encouraging conversations with fellow g-school sufferers. It's not a solution, but it can definitely be a pick-me-up.
    That said, I don't always do that now, and I second everyone who has encouraged getting professional help if it's not just a temporary, circumstantial thing. Best of luck!

  • The Raisin Girl

    When I'm feeling really down, I put on my "rainy day" shirt. It started out as a shirt to wear on, well, rainy days. But it ended up being a shirt I wear whenever I'm feeling out-of-sorts. The colors are soothing blues, greens, and hints of purple. The material is extra-soft, extra light cotton. The shirt fits my shape without being clingy or uncomfortable. And it's tie-dyed. It's perfect.