There’s a fine line between the clothes I want and the clothes I wear. And then there are the clothes I’ve bought but haven’t worn. The pieces that sit at the back of my closet—price tag likely still intact, folded in the exact way the retail assistant first sprucely packed it.
For me, these garments are strangely specific: a black Molly Goddard ruched sleeveless top I bought with my first full-time pay cheque; an obnoxiously orange gathered, puffy dress from a slow fashion label, Jeamie; and a vintage lilac gingham maxi dress I found on a rail of second-hand clothing at London’s Broadway Market.
The relationship between clothes and confidence is an age-old, symbiotic affair—one where our levels of self-esteem fluctuate in tandem with what we choose to put on our bodies. The tulle ruffles on my Molly Goddard top don’t necessarily set off a hyper-awareness of my arms. Neither do the bulbous sleeves of my Jeamie dress prompt a streak of self-consciousness when I put it on. Quite the opposite—these pieces make me feel ready to conquer, to perform, to intimidate.
For Parveen Hassanbhai, such confidence-boosting pieces are less specific. What the public relations specialist does manage to zero in on, though, are the brands that these clothes hail from: Comme des Garçons and Burberry. Her love for Comme des Garçons stems from a place of relatability, of being seen. The visible anti-conformity embedded in each outlandish garment, Rei Kawakubo’s kindred introversion and the disregard for gendered silhouettes allowed her to lean into her androgyny.
“When you understand how your clothes are made, or the manifesto behind the collection and it speaks to you, it becomes such an emotional journey and connection.”
Hassanbhai’s connection to Burberry is palpably more nostalgic. Most of her Burberry pieces are hand-me-downs from her mother and her aunt. “My aunt worked at Burberry for decades and so a lot of the visual merchandising stuff was in our house,” she shares. “We had the Burberry sheep, my aunt had curtains that were Burberry, we have photos of the whole family decked out in Burberry—full-on checks.”
Whether it’s unofficial family garb from Burberry or avant-garde pieces from Comme des Garçons, it’s clear that sentimentality is at the heart of what Hassanbhai wears. “Every piece I own, I remember the year I bought it, why I bought it, where I bought it—even for the pieces handed down to me by my mum,” she says. “I can close my eyes and remember the way my mum would wear it.”
Angie Chen-Tan, curator at second-hand luxury e-tailer The Fifth Collection, interacts with clothes that other people have bought but haven’t worn on a regular basis. “This psyche of retail therapy and instant gratification has impacted the way people shop,” she says. “Emotional dressing—and mood shopping—are a thing.”
There isn’t anything inherently debilitating about the unworn clothes we ‘save’. The hesitance to wear these clothes runs deeper than a sartorial miscalculation of cost per wear. These pieces say more about our relationship with confidence, body image and self-doubt than the follies of our shopping habits.
“Dressing bravely or interestingly, and wearing things that are a little out of the norm, have played a role in lifting my confidence”
Chen-Tan’s personal style ethos? Clothes play the role of a conversation starter, and she’s one of the rare few who wears something almost immediately after it enters her wardrobe—no matter how adventurous the piece. “Dressing bravely or interestingly, and wearing things that are a little out of the norm, have played a role in lifting my confidence,” she says. “I relish the confidence I feel when I wear weird clothes because that’s part of my personality.”
The fear of overdressing is one most self-identified fashion lovers in Singapore have likely grown to overcome. “Singaporeans are inquisitive, we’re kay poh (nosy). I’ve learnt to take it as a compliment—if what I wore made a difference in someone’s day, I find joy in that,” she says. “Just reminding yourself of that can give you the confidence to wear whatever you want.”
Almost as universal as the clothes we ‘save’ are the clothes that give us comfort. For people who menstruate, for example, the pieces that offer maximum comfort tend to be made of the softest of fabrics and most lenient of silhouettes. For Chen-Tan, these interestingly take the form of her Pleats Please pieces, thanks to the promise of stretch and style they provide. “The fact that I now dress more comfortably and even casually—it’s a very good reflection of how I currently feel about myself, my confidence and my body,” she shares.
The mental blockade between the clothes we wear and the clothes we want to wear seems to lie in the emotional investment we make in each garment—that somehow, the stakes of simply putting them on outweigh the permission we give ourselves to look and feel good. These clothes inadvertently put an embargo on our aspirational selves, or at the very least, our aspirational appearances. We might not be reaching for the pieces that double as reserves of confidence anytime soon. But whenever we feel ready to, they’ll be right there waiting for us.