Who Do We Really Dress Up For?

Who do women dress for: Other women, men, or themselves? While I thought for the longest time that I was all about dressing to please myself, I noticed little blimps — little tweaks, if you will — to what I would choose to wear from evening to evening, depending on who I’d be seeing. One such moment that comes to mind was when I was heading out to a vintage fashion show in a warehouse-turned-retro collective in Chicago. I thought I’d just slip on something cute. Simply zip up a dress, run my fingers through my hair and be on my way. Two hours later and at my wit's end, I found myself standing in my underwear in front of my closet, with my hands on my hips and my eyes narrowed in a way that tried to threaten an outfit out of the messy depths of sleeves and hangers.

Nothing I put on was quite right. Everything was so... bland. I wanted something electric; something that would bring Doris Day to jealous tears. I wanted pillbox hats and dropwaist silhouettes and red lips that could stain the tops of champagne glasses. I wanted white gloves I didn’t own and hair that could be convinced into victory curls. I wanted to basically look like the other half to Cary Grant.

Which is... not what I usually go for. But I was going to be surrounded by beautiful 50s clad women, and I wanted them to coo just as much over my gingham dress as I was going to over their cage-net hats. I wasn’t dressing for myself. I was dressing for the room full of Katharine Hepburn's and Lauren Bacall's that were just a few short hours away.

And that got me to thinking, how else did my style adjust depending on who I was going to see? And more importantly, why did it happen?

Just think of the numerous Fashion Weeks of the world: Where you see exciting outfits like sheer tops layered onto sweeping evening gowns, or colorful floral dresses paired with athletic running shoes. Russian fur hats matched with embroidered pea coats, and leather pleated midis juxtaposed against wooden flatform sandals. It’s inventive, and playful, and really fun — but probably not what these women wear on a given Tuesday, amiright?


So what is the difference between how we dress for ourselves, for other girls and for men? And why do we do it?

My wager is that it comes down to something as simple (or as complicated) as this: feelings. Maybe the way we change our look hasn’t so much to do with the people, but with what feelings we’re trying to get our hands on.

For example, when I’m sitting across a handsome man with kind eyes, I’m not so much after feeling that I’m clever with my 14 subtle layers, or a regular Miroslava Duma with my plexi midi skirt. What I want is the feeling to be reinforced that I’m timeless and classic and impossibly charming, like a black and white Yurman ad. Sure, it’s nice that the guy thinks that, but what’s even better is that I know that he’s thinking it. It reinforces it — I get my hands on that feeling and get to sit in it for awhile.

Curious to see if I was onto something, I asked four other bloggers how they noticed their style changing depending on who they were with — and how they felt in the different versions of themselves.

Kristina From Eccentric Owl:

How I dress for me versus how I dress for my husband definitely changes. When I dress for myself, I tend to dress bolder, perhaps much more vintage from head-to-toe, from the hair to the makeup to all of the styling. In many ways, dressing for myself becomes a chance to just play dress up, in outfits that I might not actually wear in public or even in everyday life, so that I can express my more artistic side and give my imagination free reign. I love putting on outfits and doing photo shoots that tell a story or directly emulate a certain era.

My husband, however, is not as much a fan of the head-to-toe, crazy vintage looks, and when I dress for him I get softer, more floral (he loves a good floral on me). Maybe I go a little bit more subtly sexy, and I pretty much always curl my hair. While he does like vintage looks, he's more for something that is 50's esque, with a slightly modern twist, rather than all-out hippie, and he absolutely does not like lipstick (kiss marks). Also, I will wear jeans for my husband. I hate them, but he likes them.

In a look that I made to impress myself, I felt modelesque (ha!), imaginative, dreamy and unique. For the girls, I feel fun, quirky, colorful, and pretty. And for my husband, I feel sexy, retro, confident, beautiful and twirly (does that count?).”

That definitely counts.

Gentri From Gentri Lee:

A 'me' outfit is definitely more casual than a 'for the man' outfit. When going on dates, I always dress up: blouses, heels, clean hair... But on a daily basis, you'll catch me in leggings and t-shirts, if not oversized sweaters (and not the cute kind of oversized), and my hair is more than likely, not clean...

When dressing 'for a man,' it's definitely less comfortable. I always feel I can't move too much; not necessarily because the clothing is restricted, but because I've spent more time making sure everything is placed perfectly. When I am dressing 'for the women,' I always feel fun and energetic. There's something about new, trendy clothing that gives me confidence."

Ashley From Southern California Belle:

“I feel like I dress for girls everyday (obviously myself included). When I wear an outfit that makes me happy, I feel like I get at least one compliment from another woman that they feel the same way. To me, getting a compliment from a woman is much more valuable than one coming from a man.

A 'me' outfit is usually a modest top with a full swing skirt and a petticoat. I love the silhouette and I feel confident when I wear it. An outfit for my husband will probably show at least a little collar bone and have a 'wiggle' (pencil) skirt. While I have a few outfits like this, I don't feel as comfortable or confident. If I need Spanx, it makes me feel vulnerable. I tend to be on the conservative side but I'd like to feel there are a few times when I actually try to surprise my husband with an outfit he likes.”

Jasmin From What Defines Us:

"Ooh... that’s a difficult one. Other girls I meet are usually fashion bloggers too, so if we rephrased the question and asked for a moment where I was very obviously dressed for other fashion bloggers, London Fashion Week would be an obvious example. When it comes to situations where a lot of fashion bloggers come together, it’s all about seeing and being seen, and outshining the 'competition.' Dressing for a crowd becomes dressing against it. It’s a sad truth, but one that needs to be mentioned.

As my 'me' outfits tend to be rather boyish and inconspicuous, featuring a lot of oversized pieces, I usually stick to more fitted items, especially tight trousers or jeans, when I dress for a man. And high heels of course. Dates are usually the only situations where I force my poor little feet into high heels. A dark look with faux leather pants and heels is always a winner. It’s very popular with the boys, makes me feel sexy and desirable, but still kinda 'me.'

In a 'for me' look, I feel strong and independent. In a 'for the ladies' look I feel sweet and approachable, and in a 'for the guys' look I’m feminine and frisky."

Different looks achieve different emotions: From powerful and unique, to frisky and colorful. So maybe we do it because of this: We’re not necessarily dressing up for the people, but for the feelings we’re trying to achieve. I want my creativity and playfulness to be celebrated with other women. I want to remember I’m timeless and classic and a total catch when I’m with a man. And when I’m with myself, I want to look in the mirror and see my freckles and my bare shoulders in their unfussy jumpsuit and see a face that’s at peace and happy.

And if we keep in mind that what we’re dressing up for isn’t necessarily the approval of other people, but rather for something as lovely as emotions that we want ourselves to feel, then maybe fashion can become a little more fun and a little less stressful.

No more standing in our underwear in front of our closets, at our wit's end.

Images: Giphy; Getty Images; Courtesy Bloggers/Eccentric Owl; Gentri Lee; Southern California Belle; What Defines Us