The Joy of Fashion: Why Fashion Is The Perfect Antidote To The Postpartum Slump (Yes, really)
by Isabel Dexter
13 May 2022
Our Joy of Fashion series: looking at how what you wear can affect your mood, confidence and sense of self. Throughout Spring, we’ll be hearing from writers who each give a different perspective on finding the moments of joy in your everyday outfits.
Yesterday I had fifteen minutes in between an appointment with a postnatal physio and my baby’s next feed, so I wandered into a clothing store on Marylebone High Street with my bundle of joy strapped to my chest and an old rucksack on my back. I was greeted by slithers of fabric bedecked with sequins, leather skirts with tassels down to the ground and tiny, fluffy knitted crop tops. It’s the beginning of February, my birthday month, and five years ago I would have been scooping up armfuls of silly little bodycon dresses with lace hems and cut out leather boleros to try on with suede studded ankle boots or retro bow-strewn heels. There would have been a show-stopping outfit for the birthday dinner, a sexier-but-also-less-precious-feeling outfit for the birthday house party I’d be throwing at my flat in Shoreditch, and an outfit for the various extended week of celebrations with friends. It’s not even that I cared a lot about my birthday. But parties? Parties, I cared about. And even more importantly, dressing up for parties.
“When we feel good about how we look in our clothes, we are more likely to look good in them, and when this happens, our interactions are likely to be more positive.” - Professor Carolyn Mair, cognitive psychologist and author of ‘The Psychology of Fashion’
There was a time in the late noughties when every day and night was nothing more (and nothing less) than a really good excuse to dress up. I was in my twenties, working on the fashion desk at The Times LUXX magazine and assisting on shoots full of incredible designer pieces. Salaries for fashion journalists are notoriously low - hence why we all laughed at Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe collection on her one-column-a-week wages - so I’d trawl the vintage shops on Brick Lane, near where I lived, buy the best high street copies of the runway looks that I could find and supplement my outfits with the occasional high-end piece. I loved my job and I loved dressing up for my job.
In the evenings, there’d be a fashion party at Sketch or a warehouse party in Hackney Wick. Cue metallic leggings from American Apparel, a green satin vintage prom dress from Beyond Retro worn with fishnet tights or my trusty Henry Holland t-shirt. Indie Sleaze? Yes please, but make it fashion.
Yesterday, flicking through the rails, I was overcome with a wave of nostalgia. I know deep down that there’s no way I’d want to go back to those days. Yes the parties were fun, yes my job was a riot, yes the freebies were INSANE – but now I’m a mama to two beautiful babies. That I-never-knew-love-like-it thing that new parents always talk about? Well, that’s where I am right now; head-over-heels in the euphoria of new mamahood. “And yet, and yet…” whispers a small voice in my head. “The clothes, Isabel, the clothes!”
Because while becoming a mama to the two most precious little beings in the world has altered my outlook in the most incredibly surprising, fierce and powerful way, the fashions (as the industry girls say) are not so hot. And I mean why would they be? For the first few months postpartum I don’t think I even looked in the mirror. I definitely didn’t brush my hair. I wore the same two old jumpers on rotation, depending on which was covered with more or less baby spit up. (And for those readers without children, when they say ‘spit up’, they mean sick.) And the worst (best) part? I couldn’t care a jot. I was just crazy in love with these new little beans that had graced my world, and if that meant that I only wore leggings and the aforementioned spit up jumpers then so be it. Not even thinking about my clothes was great. Until it wasn’t.
“Fashion can transform your mood, give you a spring in your step and help you have fun with the tricky question of identity. It’s part of finding joy in the small things.”
The effects of this were further reaching than I’d thought. Because I had my two babies so close together (a gap of less than two years), because this also coincided with a global pandemic where even non-new parents now spent all their time in old joggers, and because my work as a freelance fashion and beauty editor means that my colleagues and editors only see the me on my Instagram and not the me typing furiously in my pyjamas when the baby naps at 3pm - I heavily embraced what my granny would have called ‘letting myself go’.
Now, ‘letting yourself go’ is obviously a ridiculously outmoded and more than vaguely patriarchal attitude to what naturally happens when a woman is spending all her time and energy on her children, but the truth is that four months after my second baby was born, I began to feel very uneasy around clothes. And very uneasy around mirrors. This was new to me and frankly, it did not feel good.
“What we wear says a lot about us. It is a way of portraying our identity to those we interact with,” explains Professor Carolyn Mair, a cognitive psychologist and author of ‘The Psychology of Fashion’. “When we feel good about how we look in our clothes, we are more likely to look good in them, and when this happens, our interactions are likely to be more positive. We engage more with others or the task at hand, have better relationships and even better physical health. This can boost self-esteem, a measure of our sense of value based on our opinions and beliefs about ourselves.”
Taking Professor Mair’s advice I decided to eschew the cookie-cutter approach. I might be a mama now, but I’m also myself. So I dug out some former faves; a gold silk designer dress from seasons back, an old Radley London cross body bag, an investment belt from 2006 and started to put them together with some new purchases from brands I’d always been curious about but had never really felt ‘me’. Plus, I bought larger, roomier clothing that I actually loved, instead of waiting to go back to my pre baby body. I bought a silver sequin, 70s-style dress with a high neck and long sleeves and wore it with my beloved vintage fake fur boots. I wore my new Radley London Cuba Street bag with an old favourite cashmere jumper and simple black trousers. Just that one small tweak made all the difference - accessories have a power that is truly underrated. I started wearing floaty frocks from cool Danish brands with good quality thick tights and understated jewellery for the school run and felt as good in them as I ever did in the bodycon numbers and heels. According to Professor Mair, this is no coincidence.
“It’s easy to lose sense of who we are when we have a new baby, but having a strong sense of identity is important for many reasons. It motivates us to make better decisions and find meaning in life,” she explains. “People with a strong sense of identity also have better platonic and intimate relationships. Your style can reflect ‘who you used to be’ as well as ‘who you are now’ and help you have a clearer sense of self.”
I feel as though I’m having a fashion matrescence. A re-birthing of my sartorial self. And in doing so, I’m hopefully bridging the gap between my former life as a fully-fledged fashionista and my new-found domesticity. While caring about fashion or clothes is easily dismissed as shallow, especially for parents doing the obviously much more important job of raising a small human, the truth is that the self-esteem-boosting magic of a great outfit is impossible to overstate. Fashion can transform your mood, give you a spring in your step and help you have fun with the tricky question of identity. It’s part of finding joy in the small things that we do every day, such as getting dressed. It’s as simple as choosing a dreamy leather bag we love from our closet or a brightly coloured pair of earrings to give our day a pick-me-up. As the Italian fashion designer Miuccia Prada says:
"What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language."
Pretty handy now my cultural references all centre around Peppa Pig and most of my chat revolves around Montessori toddlerhood. Now excuse me while I wipe off the baby sick from my new Radley London boots.
Isabel’s pick of our Spring collection
From Radley London’s Spring collection, I’ll be carrying the new Cuba Street. I love a slouchy hobo bag and this one has a cool colour-block patchwork design with more than a hint of downtown New York ‘70s vibes. It's the perfect size for everyday glamour.
Isabel Dexter is a Fashion and Beauty Editor with nearly two decades of experience writing for ELLE, Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, The Independent and The Times. She’s previously held staff jobs at The Times LUXX, ELLE and Conde Nast Paris, as well as writing a column for Marie Claire for five years based on her experience of fashion and dating in Paris. She is currently working on a book and raising her babies.
As part of our Spring series, we also hear from journalist Natasha Lipman on how becoming a wheelchair user helped her find the joy of fashion. And next month we’re looking at the importance of never following the dress code – coming soon.