New Clothes, New Woman?

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Henry David Thoreau cautioned us to not think that clothes make the [wo]man:

Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes…Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles. Our moulting season, like that of the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives.  (Walden, Chapter 1)

For most of my life, I was a woman after Thoreau’s heart. I never bought anything new unless I was absolutely forced to. That included my four weddings: I didn’t buy a new dress for any of them. (I wore my mother’s wedding dress at the first one.) I just realized that the only times I had a new dress for a wedding was the one time I was a bridesmaid and for my third daughter’s wedding almost two years ago (and I’d wear that again for my fourth daughter’s wedding this year if it weren’t for the wedding pictures. It would look kind of odd. I guess.)

I’ve never been convinced that clothes make the woman. I have always believed strongly that a person should never be judged by the clothes she wears. But that was just me making like an ostrich with its head  in the sand. Of course we’re judged by the way that we dress!

As you probably know if you’ve been reading my blog for awhile, I’m a devotee of What Not to Wear on The Learning Channel. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a fashion show where a woman in need of a fashion makeover is given $5000 and a lot of advice to build a new wardrobe that is flattering to her. The core of the show is the “aha!” moment when the woman finally gets that the way she dresses is a reflection of the way that she feels about herself. If she sees herself as unfeminine, she will dress that way. If she doesn’t value herself, her clothes will reflect that.

If you read Thoreau’s quote carefully, you’ll notice that he doesn’t say that you never need new clothes. In fact he seems to be saying that it is totally appropriate to buy a new outfit if the old one will no longer express who you have become. Any major change in your life should cause you to reassess your wardrobe. A new career, a marriage, the advent of motherhood—all of these are watershed moments. If you don’t know how to transition into your new role, new clothes will help you to do so.

Three years ago, I had settled into a middle-aged slump. I figured my time in the limelight was  over. I was too old to be sexy or even attractive. What I didn’t realize is that I was actually embarking on an exciting new stage in my life. For the first time  I could be who I wanted to be: I didn’t have to be defined by being someone’s mother or wife. I could pick out fabrics, prints and colors that I loved. And I did! I delighted in new clothes, shoes, hairdos and makeup. I discovered that I’m not washed up, I’ve evolved. Like Thoreau wrote, I had a moulting season and I’m decked out in new finery.

I’ve even carried that over into my new life as a Muslim. While there are some guidelines that I have to follow, I’m perfectly free to make my new fashions mine. (For more information about how this is possible, check out my column on Muslim women’s fashion at Examiner.com.)

New clothes can help you to visualize the new you. The clothes themselves aren’t magic: they can’t make you change if you’re not ready. But the buying and wearing of them can be a signifier that you are ready. Think of them as an outward symbol of the person you’ve decided to be.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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