Clothes modification: How fashion defines us

A woman I used to work with had a bad clothes reputation. Her problem wasn't overt sexiness or mindless trendiness. Rather, it was that she dramatically changed her "look" every few months.

One season she seemed desperate to be the office's arty romantic, wearing lots of floral skirts, peasant tops, and bangles, and carrying around huge volumes of W.H. Auden. The next she apparently decided that a sophisticated international businesswoman suited her better: The office soon saw her in a lot of short fitted skirts, Jil Sander jackets, toting sleek briefcases.

At the time, we all found this sadly amusing– she was the Madonna of the magazine, desperate to find both herself and our regard through her choice of clothing. But while this woman certainly represents an extreme case, I have since come to believe that she may have been onto something: Sartorial experimentation may actually be good for women. Not only does it allow us the ability to draw out our individuality, but it can help us work toward the women we'd like to become.

In many respects, using clothes as a means of self-development was inevitable a result of the fact that both femininity and fashion have become hugely elastic in the past few decades. Women no longer have to sit, stand, talk, and dress in a certain way in order to be considered properly female. This freedom can be exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. Constructing an identity from scratch necessitates the kind of emotional investigation that most of us would rather avoid.

Meanwhile, the high priestesses of fashion no longer force us to wear only one set trend romantic or minimalist or exotic or one set hemline each season. Indeed, mixing periods and price categories is now "in."

Nevertheless, many women still hide in the uniform of their peers uptown women cover themselves head to toe in couture logos; downtown women won't be seen without the frayed jean du jour; midtown women do sleek minimalism day into night.

Clearly, certain clothes can make us feel more confident, and it's not just because they make us look thinner or taller or more beautiful. Yet while uniforms may get you an approving nod from others similarly attired, they do nothing to help you figure out who you really are, or, more important, who you want to be.

For the longest time I fit myself into the Euro-bohemian camp black turtlenecks and black jeans were my stock in trade. A few years ago, I began to feel that this get-up was way too limiting. Not only did it represent only one side of me (I do more than just sit in smoky caf├ęs), but it hardly represented the woman I (hoped) I was becoming.

So I started to experiment. One day I wore a skirt and blouse that gave me the bearing of an Italian aristocrat. Another day I wore a scarf that made me look like a Spanish dancer. One sweater I bought made me feel like an Argentinian art dealer. (Yes, I have Mediterranean coloring.)

All of these "looks" began to merge into a broader style, one you could call arty sophisticate. Whenever I wore them, not only did I feel more confident and self-assured, but I would actually act in a more, well, sophisticated way more poised, self-possessed, in control. Soon, more than half my wardrobe was filled with these clothes, and they began to almost literally take on a life of their own. I began to imagine in detail– the kind of woman who would wear them all the time. Whenever I was confronted with difficult situations I started to ask, how would "she" cope?

Much of the time I still didn't feel as though I lived up to the clothes I didn't feel or act as in control of my life as I imagined "this woman" was. But as silly as this may sound, the clothes helped strengthen and focus me whenever I felt a bit lost. I would admonish myself: Can you imagine Her acting this pathetically? This imaginary arty sophisticate woman my clothes– had become a role model.

I've come to call the theory behind this process clothes modification: If you dress like an independent, worldly woman, you will begin to feel like an independent, worldly woman, and you will ultimately begin to act like an independent, worldly woman. People always say "Dress for the job you want to have." Why not dress for the person you want to be?

Behavior modification– which has its roots in the "learned optimism" school of psychology (if you continually look at the positive aspects of situations, you will be happier), is not limited to clothes, of course. You can eat like the woman you want to be, exercise like the woman you want to be, work, shop, and take vacations like the woman you want to be. (I once bought a soap container that I didn't need because I thought it so perfectly reflected my ideal woman.) But clothes are more direct– they're with you all the time and sit right next to your skin.

In the end, of course, clothes are not even skin deep. They may help us to feel confident while we're wearing them and help us figure out what type of woman we each want to be. But they won't do us much good in the long term if we're not simultaneously working on developing internal strength. Yet using clothes as a supplemental tool to help find and transform yourself is far more healthy and effective (not to mention efficient) than, say, using men changing your personality every time you're with a different guy.

So next time you're about to hide in a trendy uniform, try experimenting with different moods, styles, looks– until you find one that sets you apart from the others, that maximizes your individuality and feels somewhat like a more self-assured version of yourself. Watch how you act when you wear these clothes. I guarantee that they will help propel you to become the person you want to be.

Karen Lehrman, author of The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex, & Power in the Real World, is writing a book on style.