The Power of Clothing
We’ve all heard it said that 90% of communication is nonverbal, but how much of that 90% is what you wear? I’ve come to realize the power clothing has to make us feel more comfortable, not just in the style or fabric we are wearing, but rather in the way it can help us to fit in or conform to an environment.
My family has lived in six different countries over the course of nine years. With each move and each new city, I have changed my wardrobe to blend more seamlessly with the people around me. While at first subconsciously, I’ve come to understand the importance of this wardrobe change. I’ve become a chameleon changing my colors to fit into my environment.
I first moved from New York to Copenhagen. I went from wearing a lot of heels, short skirts, and flashy bags to a simpler style with clean lines, soft expensive fabrics, and (at that time in Denmark) neutral colors. Comfort was a priority, this was pre running-shoes-being-cool, but the Danes were already on top of that. Unless we were going to a nice restaurant or fancy house party, I didn’t wear heels. Also, a perfect blowout in Copenhagen seemed weird, I changed that for a calmed down version of air-dried hair. Yet black was a constant in both cities. I had my first baby while we lived here. I learned kids’ clothing should be comfortable and practical above all else. Naturally, outfits were cute but minimal, and Danish children always reminded me of little gnomes with pointed hats, wool coats, and socks.
Next we moved to Vilnius, Lithuania. We were briefed on what to expect in terms of attire, or rather what would be expected from us: clean shoes and no pajamas outdoors-ever. I was slightly offended, as I would never wear pajamas around town. However, I’m not sure I was prepared for how extreme the clean shoe situation was. For starters, everyone already looked like a model. Not kidding. Women wore heavy makeup and had perfectly straightened hair, all day, every day. The more you wore labels, the better. When you stop and realize they were occupied until the 1990s by the Soviet Union, you have a better understanding about the importance of individuality and self-expression through clothing. Our son attended one of the top schools in the country. It took me time to realize Denmark used clothing as a way to blend with one another and had a cohesive societal style (planned or not). Lithuania used clothing to set themselves apart from each other. It wasn’t a place where children wore seersucker collared tops, but rather more trending fashion brand looks. Yet I wasn’t buying my child Balenciaga school attire to be covered in glue and paint, so I worked hard at putting together outfits. I also dusted off my heels for Vilnius. Not just to try and be taller like the locals, but to look like a local and got the memo on evening fashion attire- I just had to mind the cobblestone streets. The questions I should have asked myself were: Do I like wearing heels? Is that my personal style? How desperate am I to acclimatize myself in this new home?
Our third home abroad was Jakarta, Indonesia. My Ibu (housekeeper) would kindly tell me I needed to cover up or change an outfit if I was leaving our compound dressed inappropriately. I appreciated her guidance because she realized I didn’t want to offend people. This was a far larger city than the previous two. The wealth disparity was greater. As a ‘bule’ (foreigner) I already stuck out in a crowd and did not want to be viewed as a tourist. I used clothing to show I knew how to be respectful. I also connected with local brands and bought dresses from young Indonesian designers. It was obviously hot on this tropical island and with that came a few concerns, like Dengue. Our neighbors’ children got the illness from mosquitoes in our yard and had been hospitalized for a week. I was worried, and researched ways to mitigate the risk of bites for our young children (our daughter was only a year old). White clothing that covered most of their body was the best protection, I could also spray bug repellant on their clothes daily, rather than their skin. Clothing couldn’t change my foreign tongue, my skin color, or the way I carried myself as a Western woman. However, it did help me show respect for a new culture and customs.
Paris was the most recent foreign locale I called home. The city of lights, good food, beautiful people, and style. Here I could easily blend in a crowd if I tried hard enough. My wish was to be accidentally confused for a Parisian woman. First thing I noticed was that the moms at my children’s school wore their phones on a strap across their body, picture a side purse but for a phone. The phone straps were everywhere. I immediately got one. As the country that produces some of the most luxurious brands, I only expected everyone to wear designer bags. They did, but in a very subtle way and not all the time. Women wore conformable styles. Rarely did I see women wearing heels during the day. Maybe a kitten heeled boot. Lots of easy jeans, nice tops, blazers and subtle designer purse or just their phone strap. This was a look I could not only master, but wanted to! The only problem - after 6 years of living in different countries, I had built a wardrobe of beautiful clothes and I was tired of not using ALL of my closet. It was like I grew up a little and felt self-assured enough to wear my different looks. When I felt comfortable in an area or neighborhood and people knew I was foreign I allowed myself to dress a little more foreign as well.
Now that I am back home in America I rarely care to dress to fit in, if anything I want to stand out. I ride my weird Christiania cargo bike with a box for my children and groceries in the front. I wear my completely black outfits, heels with my designer bags, bright patterned dresses and mom jeans with my crossbody phone strap. Being back in my home country, I feel comfortable again using clothing to set myself apart.