Many moons ago, I recall reading an article in Marie Claire (or something similarly likely to dazzle a tatty 19-year-old) about how Donna Karan had cracked the “uniform dressing” code.
She spoke in matter-of-fact terms about how all you needed was just 15, or 13, or seven, or however many fewer-than-my-groaning-floordrobe items, to get you through life. I think there was a cashmere sweater, some sort of smock dress, some shirts, and a few “work” options. It was the turn of the millennium so there was probably a pashmina in there, too.
This struck a chord with me, and has remained the most aspirational wardrobe set-up for the rest of my adult life. Even as I moved through phases of dress like “new rock revolution” (vintage rock tees, white belts, Sass+Bide bootcuts), “nervous breakdown shut-in” (1950s frocks and cardigans) and “rock Forever 21 but just turned 30” (everything I bought in 2012), the “uniform wardrobe” loomed large in my mind.
Articles about successful people who wore the same thing to work every day tugged at my mind. Maybe life really would be easier, and cheaper, if I were to knock my wardrobe staples down to a handful of go-together basics? Maybe I’d be less swayed by trends, and never again troubled by last-minute outfit crises?
So, in 2015, I tried it. I started wearing the sorts of basics – typically from Japanese chain stores – that made me look like I lived in a futuristic off-world colony in a mid-’90s science fiction film: monotonal ensembles of knee-length skirts, long-sleeved tees, and linen shirts.
For a year or so, it worked: I finally had my uniform! I no longer had to think about what I was going to wear; it was either going to be the brown, navy blue, or black version of the aforementioned outfits. Great success!
Alas, as the black dog reared its head, which happens periodically, I began to feel my uniform chafing. It felt a lot less like Donna Karan’s elegant suite of designer basics and more like I was stuck in the same stretchy black tubes every day.
If there’s one thing I know about a lifetime’s dealing with depression, it’s that “wearing the same thing every day” is one of the warning signs of an impending episode, along with other markers like “don’t want to brush teeth”, “Cheese N Bacon Balls for dinner”, “watching The Brave Little Toaster on repeat”, and anything else that suggests you’ve suddenly turned into a three-year-old.
All this was complicated by working from home. My natty future uniform, which had initially made me feel as though the five-metre walk from my bedroom to my living room desk was a genuine commute, started to feel like I was just sitting around in my pyjamas.
Unlike the woman whose supportive boss went viral when he applauded her mental health day auto-reply, where do you go if you’re already at home sweating into your Stylish Basics? The office?
In much the same way that on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, when you don’t work in an office environment, every day is a “mental health day”!
I couldn’t work out where the uniform dressing ended and the depression began, as though my wardrobe of solemn basics had somehow manifested my worst melancholies. I’d yank on a black stretchy boatneck top and think “I just want to wear something fun!”
It’s hard to stay depressed in a terrible Huey Lewis baseball tee.
Eventually, I pulled myself out of it. Unlike the “depression clothes” purge that followed my darkest year, I did hang on to my uniform items, and they lived to see better days: the stretchy, long sleeved tops go under my battle vest for cosplay, the linen shirts turned into Marty McFly realness, and the knee-length skirts will be employed when I start teaching classes in second semester.
I still like the idea of uniform dressing, but I’m just not sure it works when you’re a) prone to depression, and b) the sort of person who changes their personal expression as often as their underwear.
And I say that as someone who, at time of filing, is wearing ugg boots with high-end tracksuit pants, a Big W nightie, and a Uniqlo puffer jacket. What’s my uniform? “How nature says ‘do not touch’.”
With all that in mind, here’s a scientific quiz to help you answer the question, “Am I ‘Uniform Dressing’, Or Just Depressed?” Good luck!
1. You put on an outfit and go to meet friends. Who do they tell you your look reminds them of?
A. Miranda from Sex & The City
B. Rooney Mara at Paris Fashion Week
C. Kevin Smith
2. It’s laundry day and, dammit, it looks like there’s something on your favourite shirt. What is it?
A. Mascara stain on your cuff. Turns out it wasn’t waterproof after all!
B. A light stain from the gin and tonic that your ex accidentally spilled when you told him about your upcoming novel.
C. Oh my god, is that shit? Oh, no, wait, it’s from that Whittaker’s coconut slab you ate in bed. For breakfast.
3. You’ve been wearing the same thing daily this week. How does that make you feel?
A. “Fantastic! In this linen shirt and wool skirt combo I can almost pretend the wage gap doesn’t exist!”
B. “Fine, I guess. I’m really feeling this ‘Yeezy Season 4 meets John Carpenter’s The Thing‘ look lately. I’ll probably switch it up as soon as I start seeing rip-offs in Cotton On. It’s hard being a thought leader.”
C. “I’m worried that people can smell that I haven’t washed this ensemble since Sunday. Do you think you smell worse when you’re sad, or is it just the Polyester?”
4. When you hear the word “uniform”, what springs to mind?
A. Donna Karan, Year 12 prefects, Battle Royale
B. Daniel Radcliffe tricking the paparazzi, Antwerp fashion, genderless clothing
C. Dystopian futures, sad Keanu Reeves, jail
5. Pick a Charlize Theron:
A. Charlize Theron in Prometheus
B. Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road
C. Charlize Theron in Monster.
Mostly As: Congratulations! You’ve nailed uniform dressing. There’s some other shit happening in your life but it doesn’t matter because your crisp separates will distract everyone from your personal emotional rollercoaster!
Mostly Bs: You’ve tried uniform dressing, but much like that time you were told to keep an emotional journal, you know you couldn’t keep it up for long. You favour clothes that look like you got them at a yard sale but which actually cost low triple-digits. You’re neither up nor down, just a nice, pragmatic average.
Mostly Cs: Bad news: looks like you’re depressed. Signs point towards an all-time low on the horizon. You should consider booking a therapist’s appointment, now, and look into stain removal tips while you’re at it.