The other week, my colleague Caroline and I were having one of those aggressive compliment battles. “You’re so stylish!” she yelled at me across the desk. “Nooooo, you are mistaken – I am a human dung heap!” I protested. “SHUT UP,” she fired back. “You always look so effortlessly put-together.” And the word “effortlessly” cut through the middle of my “Aw shucks” shield and hit a nerve. Mate, I thought, if only you knew.
I will never see myself as any kind of fashion hotshot (not while most of my clothes are covered in Doritos dust, anyway), but if I can lay claim to any style kudos at all, it is 100 per cent not effortless. I try really hard at getting dressed, actually. I think endlessly about clothes. I shop like it’s a nervous tic. A few days ago, I changed outfit three times just to go to the end of the road, hungover, to buy a sandwich.
Does the “effortlessly stylish” woman even exist? She’s the industry’s favourite unicorn – the off-duty model, the chic French fashion editor. But if I, a non-fashion nobody, find it so hard to put clothes on in the morning, then maybe behind every “well-dressed” woman is a whole lot of sweat and tears. We’re meant to pretend the perfect outfit just falls on by accident, rather than showing our workings.
And I do mean workings. Because getting dressed is a lot like an equation.
Firstly, there’s wanting to look “good” in what you’re wearing. You want something “flattering” that fits well and suits your colouring and performs whatever sorcery it is that “flattering” clothes are expected to do. But, then, there’s wanting to look the other kind of “good” in what you’re wearing – the kind that answers to fashion, to trends, to tribal identities and to your own personal idea of what makes a killer outfit. (NB: to complicate things, this part often ignores “flattering” altogether, or goes deliberately against it).
Then you can factor in a load of agonising sub-criteria, such as: is it appropriate for the location and occasion? How about the weather? And you subconsciously offset each answer against how much you actually care – because sometimes dressing inappropriately for the situation is exactly the thing that’s going to make you feel best, like when I wore a hot-pink wiggle dress to my nan’s funeral.
Then (oh, you didn't think we were done did you?) comes comfort. Comfort involves so much more than just “heels vs flats”. Comfort is a continually evolving challenge. My high-waisted, cropped jeans, for example, look great in the morning but, after lunch, the rigid denim tends to get a bit too pinchy at the crotch. This is, obviously, not ideal.
And even when you’ve worked through that mental flow chart, there are other considerations and curveballs. Was I wearing the same thing last time I saw these people? What coat works with this skirt length? Hang on, is my “good” bra in the wash? Do I now have to start this entire, godforsaken process again?
“The process begins while I’m still in the shower, when I mentally go through my wardrobe,” says Leila, a content executive. “Of course, the outfit I decided on never looks how it looked in my head and, five to 10 outfit changes later, I’m fully panicking, about to miss my train.”
“It's completely normal to get changed five times before leaving the house... isn't it?” frowns Jemma, an old colleague I bumped into on the bus. “I don't understand people who get their clothes out the night before,” she adds. “There are so many variables that may change in the morning.”
It isn’t hard to recognise that there are a whole heap of pressures on women as we stand in front of the wardrobe each morning
For most of my life, I assumed it was normal, too – just the occupational hazard of being a clothes obsessive. Or even, for that matter, just being a woman. It isn’t hard to recognise that there are a whole heap of pressures on women as we stand in front of the wardrobe each morning; as Caitlin Moran writes in How To Be A Woman, “When a woman says, ‘I have nothing to wear!’, what she really means is, ‘There’s nothing here for who I’m supposed to be today.” But could the daily wardrobe meltdown be a symptom of something internal, too?
Clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd tells me it probably does have a basis in anxiety and low self-esteem. Clothes make a handy outlet for displaced stress, she explains, and deliver quick validation when you feel insecure. “It feels like an outfit is something you can get right, whereas, for most things in life, there’s not a perfect answer. The time you spend evaluating what to wear is a kind of avoidance of those other things,” she says. “[You think] ‘because I got that outfit right, it’s going to be the perfect evening.’”
So, how can we curb the “I have nothing to wear” meltdowns? Well, you could adopt your own sort of uniform, which is great if your style lends itself to a capsule collection of grey roll-neck jumpers, but is basic hell for a trend junkie. Better-quality basics might help, though, fewer tricky prints, more “classic” shapes – the sorts of pieces that make you feel good and also go with everything else in your wardrobe. Dresses or jumpsuits are also a good bet, as you don’t have to match a top and bottom, and recently I’ve had moderate success with loose culottes, instead of the punishing jeans.
But maybe it’s less about what we wear and more about how we feel when we wear it. Dr Hibberd recommends noting down three positive comments you’ve received each day, beyond your outfit, to build confidence and self-esteem. “The scrutiny you put yourself under is 100 times more than anybody else gives you, because they’re thinking about themselves,” she says. “If you’re seeing friends, think: how much weight does their outfit hold in the experience you have with them? Remind yourself that it’s only a small percentage of what makes people impressed by you.”
If I could start getting out of the door on time in the morning, that might be the most impressive thing of all.