Collage by Minna

A lot has been said about the power of clothes, especially by young starlets with fledgling fashion lines who always give the requisite “I just love how clothes can transform you!” kind of speech in interviews, which is so cliché, but also true (I guess all clichés start out as truths?). It’s easy to dismiss fashion as frivolous and blah blah, especially if you’re only thinking about it in terms of “Models! Designers! Vogue!” But there’s so much more to it than that. In a world where–for better and worse–we are instantly judged by our appearance, clothes can be an armor or maybe even a traffic light, letting other people know whether they can approach you, or if they should proceed with caution or just stay the hell away.

This is especially true when life gets hard. Not necessarily bad hard, just difficult—like looking for a new job or giving a presentation at school or going to a party where you know your ex AND their new significant other will be present. We all have our tricks for dealing with this stuff—meditation, exercise, junk food and reruns of Parks and Rec all work, sure, but when we have to leave our solitary fortresses and deal with other human people there is one last line of defense, the clothes we put on.

And this is where POWER DRESSING comes in. For some of you, “power dressing” might conjure images of businesswomen in the 1980s wearing their gray skirt suits with football-player-size shoulder pads, nude stockings, and white sneakers (because they change into their POWER PUMPS at the office), but that’s only because we’ve been reading too many fashion magazines and watching too many ’80s girl-power movies (not that this is a bad thing). POWER dressing is really just the way we seek/express confidence, protection, or whatever through the things we choose to wear. Sort of in the same way that you’ll listen to Fiona Apple if you’re bummed on life and listen to Beyoncé when you’re getting ready to go out with your friends; they’re all extensions of the self you are creating right at that moment.

Think of whatever your favorite garment or accessory is. Why is it your favorite? Whether it’s because it’s a hand-me-down from your grandmother or because something awesome happened one time while you were wearing it, you are deriving a certain kind of energy from it and therefore it gives you power. The first time I saw Interpol live, I went with this boy that I really liked, and I was really excited ’cause I thought maybe the date meant that he liked me too. It snowed the whole day, and when we were walking to the venue we were basically falling every three steps because it was so slippery, and then we were laughing so hard, which wasn’t helping with the falling. The show was totally magic, and at the end of the night the boy drove me home and said something off-hand about how he had told his aunt he was “seeing someone” (this would be me). We went back to my house and just fell asleep on the couch watching Iron Chef reruns, and I was the happiest I had ever been. I bought a shirt at that show, a red muscle tee that said INTERPOL in big block letters. I wore the shirt every day for like a week with black skinny jeans and my Converse because I wanted to hold on to the magic of that night—but also because something about that T-shirt symbolized this new powerful person that I had always wanted to be and that I was slowly becoming. OK, and also I was basically dressing like a member of the Strokes. I loved the Strokes.

Different situations call for different solutions, and some of them require more drastic solutions than others. The gathering of energy starts with your very first layer, aka underwear. I have a red lace bra that I bought mostly because Deb wears one in Empire Records, and she is super badass. So now any time I need a little extra sass, the red bra goes on. I mean if Deb just shaved her head at work like it was no big deal, then what wonders will it do for me?

My queen.

Your actual clothes are the second layer. There are basic-level “foolproof” pieces for different occasions: e.g., the super-fitted blazer I wear to job interviews, the platform oxfords I wear when I’m channeling Robyn to tell the world “Don’t fucking tell me what to do,” and the long dresses I wear when I play with my band because for some reason I feel safe in them. These are my safety nets, though they might not seem like “safe choices” to everyone else. That’s another way I used clothes to give me that last li’l bit of a power push—I feel stronger when I know that I’m wearing exactly what I want without giving in to the whole “but what would people say?” voice that clouds so much of our decision making (in clothes, yes, but also life). Although so often “omg I could NEVER wear what you wear” is undermine-y and totally gross, there is a certain satisfaction to be derived from knowing that you are 100% confident and comfortable in yourself and your tastes.

Me onstage with my band, Screentests. Note the combination of the long dress AND the red bra.

The outermost layer is a two-parter, comprising accessories and makeup. Accessories usually have the most sentimental value attached to them, and their protection comes from whomever or whatever they represent. I wear two necklaces every day: a gold key that my mom gave me on my 25th birthday, and a turquoise spider that used to belong to my grandmother. They are my magic amulets that secretly help me deal with my everyday life when I’m far away from my family. Then there are extra items when I need extra help. My #1 secret weapon is these leather harnesses that my friend Zana makes and that I can throw on over anything—T-shirt, dress, ball gown, whatever. When I slip one on and buckle the leather at my chest, I automatically feel invincible. I wear them when I hate everything and can’t believe I have to go out and face the world, and also when I love life and want everyone to notice me everywhere I go.

Me in a harness that Zana made for me. Photo by Zana Bayne, courtesy of her blog, Garbage Dress.

The last weapon in your power-dressing arsenal is makeup. I don’t really wear much of it these days, but a couple of winters ago, when I needed some extra confidence, I became obsessed with a dark-purple-bordering-on-black lipstick. I wore it every day; in my head it made me a little scary and unapproachable.

Dark lipstick says STAY AWAY, but so does a studded collar.

Times are tough maybe, but staying in control and keeping the POWER running through your life shouldn’t be. Use the tools you have at hand to help you get to where you need to go, whether this place is real or imagined. You are probably already doing this in your life without noticing it, like how your school might require you to wear a uniform and there are very strict restrictions on how short your skirt can be. My high school had this, and so my friends and I decided to wear our skirts as long as possible (one of my friends got in trouble because her skirt was too long!). It was our own little power move to assert our individuality in a sea of sameness, and it also let us poke a little bit of fun at authority, which made us feel like we were free to be whatever we wanted. ♦