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EXPRESS YOURSELF

Don’t dress for comfort when working from home—dress for joy

A woman with red hair holds up a grey cat in a bee costume. The cat is not particularly happy.
Getty Images/Vyacheslay Oselekdo
Don’t dress how you were told; dress how you want to.
  • Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

Published Last updated

One of the small perks of not seeing anyone over the course of the pandemic has been that I no longer care what I look like. Rather: I no longer care what other people think about what I look like—specifically, my choice of clothing. For the first time in my adult life, I’ve started dressing only for me.

I’m far from alone. The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically shifted the day-to-day wardrobe of office workers. Sales of the sartorial trappings of the modern professional like high heels, men’s suits, and bras with underwires are suffering. Comfort is being found in the form of sweatpants, athleisure, and Crocs. The shift in work environments has provided us the opportunity to ask ourselves what clothes actually feel good. But why not take it a step further, and use this as an opportunity to discover how our clothes can be a source of joy, too?

“I think a lot about things that we can do in our space so we can experience that moment of joy,” says Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. According to Lee, joy and happiness are often conflated: Happiness isn’t a singular feeling, but rather a state that results from feeling content and secure. Joy, meanwhile, “is much simpler and more immediate. It’s defined as an intense momentary experience of positive emotion.”

Picking out the right outfit can be like planting a bulb of joy for yourself that blossoms as the day goes on. And that’s all fine and good—who doesn’t want to glance at themselves in the mirror and think, “That person’s got style!” But those tiny pockets of joy can also serve as resets to our ever-present stressors, helping us to cultivate resilience.

Stress is meant to be a short-term reaction that gives us a burst of adrenaline and high blood pressure to get through a brief scenario—it’s not meant to last months on end. Moments of delight release a spark of dopamine throughout the body,  resetting the cardiovascular system after the prolonged stress we may feel during, say, a global pandemic. There’s even a term for finding those moments of delight through your wardrobe: dopamine dressing.

Choosing your look

For most of my life, I dressed to try and tell others what kind of person I was—or what kind of person I wanted to be. This can be a very real purpose of clothing, as Vermont-based style coach Stasia Savasuk told TED. In her youth, Savusuk said, “clothes had one primary purpose—they were the liaison or the barrier between me and any social group I wanted to fit into.”

Thus in middle and high school, I donned the unofficial preppy uniform of the popular kids at my school. In college in Washington DC, I still wanted to fit in, but now I also wanted to be taken seriously. I felt so lost, unsure how I’d make it into full-fledged adulthood, and thought maybe if I faked the look of being an Important Grownup, eventually I’d wind up there. I filled my wardrobe with J. Crew-style sheath and culotte dresses, snappy casual shorts, and crew-cut cardigan sweaters.

My body didn’t change much in shape or size after college, and the clothing I wore then lasted me for years. For a while, I had no complaints. Although it was a little more formal than my job in journalism required, I remembered my mother’s wisdom that “no one ever has been asked to leave for looking too good.”

Fast forward six years to March 2020, when my job was relocated to my couch. Suddenly, I found my staid work wardrobe less appealing. Without seeing people downtown dressed similarly to me, I realized that the style I adopted in college didn’t fit me anymore. Throughout my early and mid-20s, I’d grown into a wonderfully interesting, curious, independent person. I was much more comfortable standing out—and I wanted to.

I decided to start updating my wardrobe to make it reflect me, or as Savasuk calls it, with “congruence…the just-right alignment between your outsides and your insides.” I found an online shop that prints all kinds of patterns onto all kinds of clothing, my favorites being tee-shirt dresses. As a science and health reporter, my order naturally included a black and navy blue dress featuring images of bright blue, magnified neurons.

As I hung up dresses emblazoned with artful anatomy and animals, I got rid of other clothing that no longer matched me. And when I proudly texted some pictures to friends, they pointed out that I had made myself into an adult Ms. Frizzle (the teacher on erstwhile children’s TV show Magic School Bus). I hadn’t considered that, but it fit: I love looking bright and inviting, and I want to help others see the magic and mystery of the world.

It may seem silly to think about dressing for joy when spending so much time at home. But no one on the street really cares how anyone else dresses either. We’re all just trying to get through our days. So why not give yourself the gift of dressing how you want? There’s a shortage of joy right now—we have to create our own.