Express Yourself

What happens to your sense of style after a life-changing event?

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Why it’s normal for your taste to evolve after going through a break up or moving cities

Skintight leather trousers, vintage Metallica tee-shirts and chunky Balenciaga biker boots. That was the daily uniform of Carmen, 28, when she was living in a leafy suburb in Sydney, Australia, just a few short years ago.

“I was a uni student living my best life,” she admits, “dying my hair pink while I could still get away with it.”

But last year Carmen swapped Sydney for a life in the Middle East, and with it, a whole new wardrobe. “It signalled the beginning of my adult life and my style changed dramatically as a result,” she admits, describing her new day-to-day look as “much more polished, conservative and – hopefully! – more chic.”

Today, Carmen has chopped off her Parisian-tousled hair into a neat bob, stocked up on the red Tom Ford lipstick and filled her wardrobe with things like silk scarves to be worn draped off the shoulder, gobstopper-drop earrings and ultra-ladylike designers like Roland Mouret and Zac Posen, brands that she would have considered “too feminine” before moving to the Middle East. 

Where, once, her style icons included supermodels Bella Hadid and Camille Rowe, today she admits to being “heavily influenced by Jessica Chastain’s character in Miss Sloane,” and thinks that her new roster of pantsuits and knee-length skirts radiates some “Big Duchess of Sussex Energy”. 

Jessica Chastain was all about a pantsuit in Miss Sloane

It wasn’t just a move to the Middle East that had an impact on Carmen’s taste and style. “I had a series of big life changes at once,” Carmen explains. “New country, new job, newly single… All big but exciting life shake ups.”

If you find yourself nodding along in agreement, you’re not alone. A life-changing event such as moving countries, ending a relationship, suffering a personal loss, recovering from illness or changing careers can have a huge impact on how you approach getting dressed.

“What we wear is an expression of our self-identity,” Professor Carolyn Mair, founder of the consultancy psychology.fashion and author of The Psychology of Fashion, tells Stylist.co.uk. When people go through a big change in their life their style is bound to change, too.

That’s what happened to Anna, 32, after the end of her eight-year relationship in February. One morning she woke up, took out a garbage bag, and dumped half of her wardrobe into it.

“Maybe it’s because it was so cold,” she jokes to Stylist.co.uk. “Or maybe it was because I needed a fresh start.” Using Marie Kondo-esque principles she assessed whether each item filled her with joy and made her excited to wear it. Everything that didn’t was packed away for a few months. 

When she surveyed her closet she was struck by – excuse the pun – a remarkable common thread. Everything that was left after her sartorial purge was rainbow bright. “I just wanted to wear the happiest, most colourful, most insane things,” she says. Banished to the bin bags was anything black and dour.  

Colourful clothing can lift your mood

This is normal, Professor Mair explains. “If we’ve broken up from a long-term relationship, we’re likely to feel strong negative emotions that take precedence over thinking about style,” she says. “We may care little about what we wear… Or we may decide to up the game and dress to make us feel better about ourselves and our situation.”

There is a strange power in what we wear and how we choose to express ourselves through style. What we put on our bodies means something, even if only to ourselves. “Clothing can influence mood as long as the wearer is motivated for it to do so,” Professor Mair agrees. But, she adds, “it takes more than simply putting on an outfit for to boost mood… It needs to mean something to the wearer.”

But it’s not only break ups and international moves that can impact what we wear. Grief, loss, medical diagnoses and even the simple act of getting older all play on our sense of self and, by extension, our taste and style. “Style is a matter of personal preference,” Professor Mair says. “It changes throughout the lifespan.” 

As your style evolves over time, there’s only one rule to remember: There are no rules. When it comes to the self-expression of what we wear, the most important thing is to not subscribe to any arbitrary sartorial dictums and welcome a little bit of change, however it may come. 

“I’m not a fan of being told that certain styles should or shouldn’t be worn at particular ages or on particular body types,” Professor Mair agrees. “For me, clothing should serve multiple purposes depending on the context in which they’re worn.”

If that means going with the flow a little bit as you trial a new career, or a new group of friends, or a new partner, or even a completely new life – new city, new job, new house, new routine, new everything – then so be it. If you find yourself in an outfit you might never have worn five years previously, embrace it.

Wear what makes you happy. Wear what you love. Wear whatever you want. 

For one day only on Thursday 20 September, Gemma Cairney has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Express Yourself platform – a digital initiative which aims to inspire us, challenge us and encourage us to explore our creative sides.

For similarly inspiring content, check out Stylist’s September Shake Up initiative here.

Images: Unsplash