Billie Bhatia: “There’s power in how we dress now”

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Billie Bhatia
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Billie Bhatia

Stylist’s Billie Bhatia reflects on the joy of getting dressed and the powerful feeling it can bring to all of us. 

Only when everything that resembles ‘normal’ is tossed so far out of the window it’s in the recycling bin two roads over, do we crave the steady and the profoundly familiar. The things we so frequently took for granted now seem so precious and extraordinary. Like getting dressed.

I don’t know much about your ‘normal’ routine, but I’ll let you in on mine. It starts with a double-snoozed alarm. (Yes, I am that person.) I don’t actually sleep in the extra 12 minutes I’ve afforded myself but grumpily loll about flicking between Instagram, WhatsApp, emails and news bulletins. Begrudgingly, I heave off my duvet, switch my radio on to Country FM and officially begin my day. I shower, wash my face and brush my teeth with a kind of mindless muscle memory before finally engaging my brain and confronting the morning’s hardest task: getting dressed. (That’s a lie, the hardest task is finding matching socks but play along.)

Like many people, my getting dressed is underpinned by a uniform of sorts. On most days you’ll find me falling into one of two camps: skirt and sweatshirt or chuck-on dress – the physical core that binds them both is comfort (and elasticated waistbands). Lucky for me, designers and the high street have made this a focal point, too. That’s why the loose shapes and masculine cuts of Celine, under the considerate eye of Phoebe Philo, pulled in the sales and why Zara’s throw-on polka dot smock dress was so popular it had its own Instagram account last summer. So, on the surface this might sound like a simple getting dressed process, but let me assure you, it has more layers of complication than a mille-feuille.

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In the days before social distancing there were nuances that had to be catered for – would I have a day of external meetings with fashion PRs? How far would I have to walk? Would Stylist’s fashion editor Polly Knight lure me into a carb-heavy lunch? More often than not, even when I followed this flowchart to select my attire for the day, the plan was flawed. Not just because I was regularly faced with an item of clothing stained with an easily recognisable splodge of arrabbiata sauce, but because getting dressed is as much about emotion as it is about practicality.

Beyond their physicality, the clothes you put on every morning aren’t just clothes, they are an extension of you. A sartorial armour in which you have chosen to face the day, while also divulging a vulnerable glimpse into your most inner workings. Each morning you are deciding which facet of yourself the world gets to see, and that is an incredibly powerful tool.

So, what happens when normal no longer exists and routine crumbles? For the first few working-from-home days, I revelled in my freedom, giddily plodding round the house in an Arket tracksuit normally reserved for Sunday afternoons. What a welcome treat it was to be swathed in so much unadulterated comfort. The idea of getting properly dressed didn’t even enter my periphery, there was no one to see and nothing to do that required such sartorial stimulus. It was liberating, fun and deliciously slobbish. I presumed it would take Herculean efforts to revert back to my previous practice of dressing for work. I positively balked at the thought. Why would I enforce such exertions when it was finally socially acceptable not to? 

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It took three days before I had fallen out of love with my weathered casuals. I was unproductive, procrastinating even more than usual (an embarrassing amount of time was spent learning the ‘classy, boujie, ratchet’ dance on TikTok), frustrated and lacking any kind of motivation. I tried to blame everything but the clothes: the influx of snacks, the anxiety-riddled sleep, the kitchen-table set up, the torrent of coronavirus news.

While all those things were contributing factors to my deflated mood, it was ultimately the clothes that were weighing heavy on my emotions. It was only by spending time in my grey tracksuit that I truly understood why the fashion industry is usually worth over £32billion in the UK and regularly employs over half a million people; why there are more than 300 shops on Oxford Street alone; and why when I feel deflated, sad or bored my thumb hovers over the Asos app. Because the clothes we put on our bodies are so powerful they have the ability to control our emotions. 

Desperate to get out of this funk I reinstated the only semblance of stability I could muster in these inherently unsteady times: getting dressed for the day. A chuck-on printed dress from H&M, my favourite knitted cashmere skirt from M&S with my trusty Raey oversized jumper, and an Asos satin slip skirt with a neat roll-neck all became pieces that protected and bolstered me on another unprecedented day.

These choices weren’t the brightest or boldest clothes I owned, but they were the ones that felt innately me. And that’s what I needed. I needed to feel like me. Not someone pretending to know what is going on in the world in a put-together polished look, nor someone who looks like they are hiding from it in their pyjamas, but someone who, despite all else, has a feeling of assuredness through familiarity.

Simple acts are all we have to ground us right now. The simple act of getting our groceries is a reminder we are not living in normal times. The simple act of kindness bestowed by a neighbour or friend is proof we are not alone. The simple act of staying at home is saving lives. And the simple act of getting dressed is a powerful tool to ensure we celebrate our individuality and remain entirely ourselves.  

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H&M printed dress

In keeping with my mantra to get dressed, I am adding this H&M printed dress to my WFH repertoire. Its puff-sleeves and joyful florals are the anti-tracksuit I need to inject some energy into my day. Zoom won’t know what’s hit it. 

Printed dress, £34.99, H&M