It’s called ‘dopamine dressing’, and it promises to make you feel happier with just the change of an outfit. The notoriously colour-allergic Emily Writes took the plunge.
Many years ago a New Zealand designer told me clothing is like Christmas wrapping: the gift is you. There have have been billions of words talking about fashion, style, and clothing. But these words stick with me.
Like many women I don’t view myself as a gift, don’t think I need wrapping, and feel more like my wardrobe is akin to the doors to my laundry. I press them firmly shut – hiding the mountains of washing, the mess of canvas bags that I always forget to take to the supermarket, the half empty washing powder spilling onto the floor, the pile of socks I’ll never pair.
My wardrobe hides the mess beneath. I don’t want my clothes to be my language. I want my voice to be heard while I am safe in my invisibility cloak of a dozen black sack dresses.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that I stopped wearing colour. Can’t say when the last time I wore jeans was – how I slowly began to only wear one style of dress. But I have been like this for about four years now.
It started slowly, just before my first book, Rants in the Dark, was published. I’d been writing under a pseudonym and didn’t share any photos. I didn’t want my two “lives” to cross. Sometimes people would send me my own writing – “have you heard of Emily Writes?” Generally people said I’d like her. I liked it when they said she was odd.
A cluster of people online knew me offline too, but mostly it was a separate world. I was naïve about the book. I said I didn’t want an author photo and figured that would be enough to protect my identity – I’d assumed a book about a 30-something mother struggling through life wouldn’t be much of a success. But the weekend before publishing I was followed by TVNZ’s Sunday programme for four days. The morning of release I did TV and radio spots one after another.
I realised my anonymity was probably over and called extended family to let them know. “I wrote a book. It’s out now. And I’ll be on TV. Yes, sorry I didn’t tell you.”
I began to be stopped at the supermarket, at the park with the kids, waiting for coffee, at the bus stop. Women told me they were exhausted, overwhelmed, suicidal. They begged for help for their babies who wouldn’t sleep, wouldn’t eat. Begged for help from their husbands who wouldn’t change nappies, never gave them a break, treated them like servants. They told me of their lost babies, their struggles to get pregnant, to stay pregnant. They told me their worst moments as my children yelled at me from the trolley “Mama. Mama can we get this?”
I couldn’t understand why anyone would seek out advice from me. But then I realised something: they didn’t want advice – they wanted to be heard. I was a confessional booth – draped in black, a shapeless vessel.
The sack dress, my friends and I joke, is for those days where you want to be a rectangle. It is draped so there are no angles, no edges. It is fitting then, that I was at that time struggling to recognise where I ended and others began. They told me about their fears and fantasies – “do you ever…?” – as we watched our children on the see-saw. Up and down. Up and down.
“Do you ever imagine just crashing your car into a tree? Jackson! Come get a tissue!”
“Do you ever think about just diving off a cliff? Oh she’s hungry again. She just won’t feed. Last night she fed all night. It’s never enough. Charlie! If you can’t see me I can’t see you!”
My aunty said to me, ahead of a tangi, “At least you don’t have to buy a new dress. Every day you look like you’re going to a funeral.” Some days, I felt like I was. It was as if all the gift wrap in the world couldn’t hide the rivers of pain that I saw everywhere. But the black fabric I shrouded myself in could at least hide me.
In Auckland, stylist Monique Doy was seeing pain too. Monique works with women sizes 14+ to help them find their style and show up for their lives. As a feminist she knew the way societal expectations can crush women’s confidence, and how the pervasive messaging of the diet industry leads them to believe their bodies are something to be fixed.
Monique’s business began by accident, buying and selling second hand baby clothes in a Facebook group to connect with other mothers while surviving two small children. She began helping those mums find clothes to fit their own changed bodies (two c-sections had taught her a lot) and guiding her friends with their clothes as she saw them struggle to feel good each day.
The online community soon grew into a business as Monique saw these women’s need to reclaim their identity and self-image on their own terms. Her styling service is part-therapy, part cheerleading, with some sequins thrown in for good measure.
I discovered her on Instagram. Her acknowledgement and understanding of privilege was an antidote to the curated squares of online life. She didn’t follow rules. She talked about sustainability, capitalism, straight sizing and owning your shit.
I was captivated. Not just by the content but by her. In a video on dopamine dressing – the idea that the way you dress can change your mood – she stood in front of the camera wearing hot pink pants and a knitted jumper with red and pink (two colours I thought you weren’t allowed to wear together), silver and black and orange and maroon. She was a vision.
“Put on a tonne of colour so that you give yourself this dopamine rush of ‘look at me I’m so bright and glorious’ and everyone you see says you look so bright and amazing! And then they get a rush of dopamine too.”
Look at me? I couldn’t think of anything worse. I’m not introverted at all – I envy introverts and their ability to be comfortable with their own thoughts. I am only just learning at 35 that I’m not the worst company and it’s taken plenty of therapy to get here. But I still crave conversation, something to distract from the cyclone in my head.
What would it feel like to be bright and glorious? To allow myself to be seen? I contacted Monique and proposed an experiment. She dresses me – dopamine style – for a week and we see what happens. Our first Zoom session was not what I expected. Monique is not about clothes. She’s about finding out the beliefs you have about yourself, breaking them down and making sure they are working for you. And then the clothes come in.
“So what are your ‘rules’ when it comes to dressing?” she asked me. Well, I don’t have rules. I’m a feminist!
Um, hold on, actually – I don’t wear anything across my waist. I don’t wear jeans. I don’t really wear pants at all if I’m honest – except tracksuit pants inside. I don’t wear anything tight across my tummy. Don’t wear belts. Don’t wear silver and gold together. If I wear any colour – I only have silver or gold – then I have to dress it down. I don’t wear sneakers. Don’t wear shorts. Don’t wear skirts above my knee. Don’t wear jean jackets. Don’t wear any jackets that don’t come to my knees except for my beloved leather jacket. I don’t wear anything strapless. I don’t wear wedges or kitten heels.
“Yes, somewhere along the line we all pick up these little rules that govern what we wear. I’m not a fan of giving women even more rules to worry about. So what do you wear?”
I wear black. I wear sack dresses.
I’m not sure.
“What do you wear when you’re on stage?”
I’d never considered this before I spoke to Monique and began writing this piece. I thought my sack dresses were just Wellington comfort. Yes, I’d taken it to the extreme a little – but it was my style.
I guess I don’t want to have all the attention on me.
“Why don’t you want anyone to see you?”
I don’t know. Sometimes if it’s a party I’ve organised that I’m hosting, if I know it’s safe – I’ll dress up. Have a laugh. But generally being on stage is a vulnerable space. I don’t picture people naked, I feel naked. I feel as if I’m being dissected.
“But people have paid to see you. Why would you not want to show your authority to be there?”
“I’m not saying that you need to stop wearing black. I’m saying it’s about choice. Have you chosen this for yourself or have the pressures of the world chosen it for you? The first thing I ask my clients is what do you like? You’d be astounded at how many women have been so busy in service to others that they no longer know.”
So began the experiment. Monique’s box of clothes arrived with a manual. It included photos of her in each outfit – including accessories and shoes. I let the children pick my first outfit – a pink and turquoise jumpsuit with gold shoes and a soft pink jacket. I stared at the jacket. It was so femme, and it was what I consider a short jacket. It would make me look fat. Plus I was sure the sizing was too small. I’m not a 16, I’m an 18.
Surprisingly, the jumpsuit fit perfectly. The jacket was the most comfortable thing I’ve ever worn. It was perfect for Wellington – not too light but not as heavy as my long coats.
I took the kids to the Special Kids Christmas Party where I was complimented a lot on my outfit. Were people smiling at me more? I did feel brighter – though a little nervous I would spill food on Monique’s lovely jumpsuit.
The next day I wore a pink t-shirt with a bright green skirt. My mother-in-law was ecstatic. She’s had many frustrating shopping trips with me where I’ve told her grey is “too bright”. I looked…younger?
On Monday I wore a hot pink suit. Yes, PINK, head to toe! Three people complimented me before I even got to the office. “You’re so brave! I’d love to wear something like that! Especially in Wellington!” I stood taller in meetings. I definitely felt more confident. In fact, I felt like a boss bitch. I felt powerful.
I had a desire for the first time to be seen. I wanted to go out after work. I wanted to lean against a bar and drink a whiskey neat. I went home instead because it was raining and I was tired. But the feeling remained even after I put my PJs on.
On Tuesday I wore a green tiered dress and my husband said I looked like a Christmas tree. My children were delighted and each time I caught a glimpse at my clothes I felt a little tingle. Was that dopamine?
On Wednesday I was exhausted from being up with the kids all night. I could barely stand to dress and I searched the box for something neutral. Jeans. I haven’t worn jeans in at least four years. I tried to shop for a new pair after my kids were born, but it felt so wrong standing in front of the changing room mirror with a size 6 teen asking if I wanted a larger size. (Monique tells me that’s why you shop with her – you don’t have to talk to shop assistants at all!)
These jeans had elastic. Wait, are elastic pants OK now? Did that make them…mom jeans? But they were so comfortable. I looked in the mirror and was surprised to see a waist. Is this what I look like? It’s… not bad?
On Thursday, with my mojo back, I tried a rainbow dress. I felt like everyone was looking at me but they probably weren’t. It’s true that if you wear a rainbow dress in Wellington you will stick out like a sore thumb… but I didn’t feel sore.
Friday, nearing the end of the experiment, I needed the pink suit again (who am I now?) As soon as I put it on I understood what people mean when they say they dress for battle. I put on lipstick, something I rarely do. I put on my stiletto boots.
I wanted to be seen.
On Saturday I put on my black sack dress. But I paired it with bright earrings and glorious necklace. I went online and began looking for a suit. I guess I was taking a step towards discovering my own personal style.
I asked Monique what it all means. Was it the clothes?
“It’s not the clothes,” she said. “It’s dressing unapologetically. It’s saying ‘I deserve to be here, I deserve to take up space’. It’s taking that light inside you and showing it out on the outside, in your own unique way.
“It’s showing up for yourself, Emily, the way we as women have to show up for everyone else in our lives.”