Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images; Estrop/Getty Images
Stephanie Trong
Feb 08, 2018 @ 9:00 am

Sometimes I think I ask too much of my clothes. I’m staring at the bulk of them now, jammed onto a rolling rack about 5 feet from the foot of my bed. It’s a hilariously uneventful spectrum that goes from black (T-shirts) to white (T-shirts) to a mix of black and white (skirts) to a mix of black, white, and a few jewel tones (silk button-downs). Still, despite their subdued, uniform appearance, each and every one of these garments once held a wildly exciting promise before I handed over my credit card—I will make you a better person.

Clothing has the ability to do many things and shade many distinctions: to signify power and class, to reinforce standard roles within society and carve out new identities on its fringes. A trusty, chunky turtleneck can cocoon in turbulent times, and the right suit, studies have shown, might even get you a raise. For me, I use clothes to cover up insecurities and make up for what I perceive to be personality flaws. Think of those deep-conditioning ads in which they show a close-up illustration of a hair and how the product slides right in to make strands shiny and new. That’s me and, say, a new shirt.

Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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It’s always been this way. I can remember becoming fixated on a pair of jeans when I was an anxious, slightly chubby biracial 12-year-old growing up in conservative Texas. Looking back, I realize those jeans were awful, but at the time they were the height of chic— skinny, acid-washed, and shredded with small holes from waist to ankle. My mom wouldn’t hear of it: She said they looked like someone had been attacked by a piranha. But I persisted, even rallying my dad and brother to the cause over dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant.

The reason I had to have them, why they were so important, was that I firmly believed they would make everything OK, that they would make me OK. I would show up at school, and the kids who had previously made fun of me would suddenly welcome me into the fold, and I would not be awkward or fearful about it. I would say all the right things and make everyone laugh because that’s what people in jeans this cool did. That is a lot of pressure to put on a pair of pants (spoiler alert: I got them, wore them, and nothing changed).

Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

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Now that I work in fashion, the outfits have improved—or so I like to think—but the hopes behind them remain variations on the same theme. When I look at runway shows or go shopping, my brain is flooded with a rush of dopamine-laced, make-better potential. Some women seek out things that will disguise ample upper arms or camouflage a tummy. I see a Céline blazer and dream about how it’s going to hide my procrastination or sometimes inability to make decisions at work. Same goes for a dolce vita-esque, fire-engine red dress from Brock Collection. That is not a dress for someone who eats cereal on the couch for dinner out of sheer exhaustion and overload, as I do about every three weeks. No, that little number was made for the adventurous, laughter-filled life of the party.

Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Winter, as I’m writing this, is always the worst. Freezing temperatures and gusty winds permit nothing but big sweaters, jeans, and oompa-doompaty-do parkas. Paradoxically, I feel exposed, stripped, lacking. But this time I’m telling myself, “Tough luck.” Instead of muddling through these months in a state of frump-induced despair, I’m using them as a chance to grow more comfortable in my own skin and accepting of my rough edges, nice clothes thrown on top or not. And come spring I still plan to wear that jazzy red dress, damn it. Only you may not see me because it’ll be to a very private dinner. Of cereal. On the couch.

For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Feb. 9.

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