Reader Karen emailed me this question:
My question for you has to do with how to approach clothing and style while one is experiencing grief. The Victorians had dressing for grief figured out: the grieving wore black or grey or lavender to help manifest their grief externally, and to signal to others the need for extra care or sensitivity. But in our own time, for better or worse, we seem to have lost these visible markers of sorrow.
Could you offer some suggestions for how clothing and style might help me move through the world as I am managing my grief? What are some ways that I could mark my loss for myself (perhaps with a piece of jewelry, wearing a particular color, etc.)? How might I think about dressing for grief to encourage myself to actually get dressed on those difficult days? While clothing is not the first thing on my mind these days, I believe that an intentional approach to getting dressed in the midst of sorrow could help me present myself more authentically and perhaps help me to integrate the experience of loss more fully.
Karen kindly agreed to let me post our correspondence. Here’s what I wrote to her:
I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve experienced such a painful loss. I hadn’t really given much thought to how style and grief might interact before, but here are a few things that came to my mind:
Above all, be gentle and patient with yourself. There is a huge body of rhetoric out there about coping with loss, and it’s incredibly contradictory. In my opinion, this is because no two people experience grief in the same way. This also makes most advice a bit useless, if well-meaning. But the only thing I’ve ever heard that makes near-universal sense is to be gentle and patient with yourself. What you’re going through is hard. It may take a long time before you feel like you’re even starting to heal, and that is completely OK. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s time to move on and don’t force yourself to do anything before you’re ready.
I think part of being gentle with yourself could certainly involve physical comfort, which is where style comes in. If typical comfort clothes aren’t an option for your daily life, look into middle-ground pieces: Ponte knit pants and skirts, flowy maxi dresses, waterfall cardigans, flat or supportive shoes. For me, the ultimate in security-comfort is a scarf. It envelops me in softness, and I feel safe and snug.
As you mentioned, including a practice of remembrance in your daily outfit assembly can be healing. This can be anything from wearing a locket with your loved one’s photo, to wearing that person’s favorite color somewhere in your outfit every day, to keeping a wearable item that belonged to your loved one on your person at all times. Do this for as long as it feels supportive and important.
There will be days when motivating yourself to get dressed will be challenging, and I imagine that you’ll need to handle those on a case-by-case basis. Some days, you may just not get dressed. Others, you’ll have to. And for those, it might be beneficial to create a few easy outfits that you can keep in your closet hanging together so you can throw them on without having to think too hard. Or even a few simple outfit formulas that you can fall back on when creativity feels out of reach. Try to assemble these outfits/formulas on a day when you feel a little more energetic, if possible, and also try to incorporate jewelry and/or accessories. Accessorization and finishing touches are often the hardest to care about when your mind and heart are elsewhere, but you’ll feel and look more polished if you can remember to add a few. Mapping out which ones ahead of time will be helpful.
Finally, I can’t think of a truly elegant modern-day alternative to all-black mourning attire, and agree that lacking a public practice can feel odd. Regular clothes can feel almost costume-y when you are hurting badly and constantly. The only solution I could come up with – and it might not appeal at all – would be to find or create some sort of black armband for yourself. Black armbands are a relatively widely recognized symbol of loss and mourning, but can also be fairly subtle. Wearing an armband may also inspire curiosity, though, and if you don’t feel ready to field questions about your loss, might not be a good idea. It depends on how significant it feels to mark your loss in a way that others can see, and also on your peer group and environment.
I hope some of these ideas will resonate with you and be helpful, and that you are surrounded by loving support during this difficult time.