In my ongoing search for old-school interestingness, (and anti-hacks), I’ve been reading Mary Brooks Picken (1886 – 1981) again. She calls it distinctive dressing , but really, it’s more along the lines of “dress like who you are”. Something I talk about in my book Build Your Signature Wardrobe.
According to our Mary, your personality is the external manifestation of your individuality, and you can develop your personality by using it to express your best and highest self. And to do that you must wear the kind of clothes that inspire you to make the friends and do the things that you need to do to support you to become your highest self.
Many people find the idea that their clothes express their thoughts and feelings ludicrous. But that doesn’t stop them putting together a job interview outfit to communicate their respectability and dependability. Some wear clothes to demonstrate their availability for a relationship. Others have clothes to tell themselves that all that sweaty activity in the gym is making them more attractive.
It’s not obvious at first glance, but these outfits are carefully put together in the hope of emphasising what the wearer thinks are their good features and minimising their bad (somewhat more kindly described as “shortcomings” by Mary). Even if it’s not conscious, you choose your colours, styles, fabrics and patterns for the secret messages that they convey.
Clearly this is contextual; emphasising your slim waist and excellent decolletage is a better demonstration of your availability for a relationship than your respectability and dependability in the workplace. Brightly coloured stretchy clothes may be perfect for motivating you to keep those repetitions going at the gym, but at work, you might prefer more structured clothes in sombre colours.
Learning to Dress
While you can’t say that many things in life are all about you, you absolutely can say that about getting dressed. But if you want to do it well, you need to learn about your body shape, skin tone and texture as well as your personality. And not just those internal elements, but the external as well; your work and station in life too. Some of it comes through intuition, and some of it takes research; you know that you like green, but which one? Mint? Sage? Lime? Kelly? Or maybe camo is more your style. In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of different kinds of green.
The Place of Fashion
You can follow fashion, but when you follow fashion to the exclusion of all else, you end up with a bunch of clothes with a very limited shelf life and a very embarrassing photo album (take it from me). Or if you go to the other extreme and dress only for practicality to the exclusion of fashion, you will have clothes that you can potentially wear forever and an album of pictures where everything changes except you!
You can, of course, take the middle path and bend fashion to serve your personality. When you do, you will see your clothes as a part of who you are; they become your skin. You are who you are, expressing your beauty carefully and appropriately, and ending up with an album of comfortable and well dressed moments in your life.
Dress Like Who You Are
When you use fashion, you choose only those things that are appropriate for your actual life in the colours, shapes, and fabrics that you love. Because they fully express who you are, you wear them happily, try to live up to the promise they offer and in doing so, are more likely to see and love the beauty that surrounds you.
You take control and decide what to buy and how long to wear it. Perhaps you will buy costly good quality clothing that lasts many years, or maybe it will be cheaper things to last a season. Regardless, you get to choose what best meets your needs. Not your mother, not your partner, not your neighbours, not some fashion guru or another, no one else but you. You are the only one that knows what suits your personality as well as your body.
As An Aside
The time it takes to get dressed is not as much of a concern now as it was when Mary wrote her book (there were still lots of complicated undergarments). She reports that some women needed as much as 90 minutes to get dressed before going out and another 20 – 30 minutes to get undressed when they got home. She argued that women should “systematize their clothes” so they could dress as quickly as men; donning a hat and coat and leaving the building an instant later.
You can see in the candid picture above that the ladies have an amount of crumpledness that most modern people wouldn’t tolerate. There’s an amount of relaxation about their presentation, that has come from doing the best they can with what they have, a bit like my Shaving Soap Shampoo Adventure, only by candlelight using water from a well.
There’s something a bit Reservoir Doggish about them isn’t there?
 Brooks Picken, Mary. 1918. The Secrets of Distinctive Dress: Harmonious, becoming, and beautiful dress – it’s value and how to achieve it. Scranton: International Educational Publishing Company.