Comfortable out of My Comfort Zone? On Dressing for a Special Occasion

Despite appearances to the contrary, my primary goal when getting dressed is to look appropriate. Don’t get me wrong: I like to sparkle, but I try to do so within the boundaries of what is appropriate. I am in my comfort zone when I feel confident that my outfit will be approved—and, yes, I hope even admired—by those around me. I really wish there were published rules for every social occasion. I am so much happier knowing when a hat or covered shoulders or a designer handbag is required. It’s a funny little irony that this experiment (learning to be comfortable in my clothing) requires me to step so far outside my (social) comfort zone. 

The most difficult task in the past three weeks has been contemplating Easter Sunday. For Easter, I feel an imperative I have learned is not unique: I want to look a little bit fancy. The annual habit of wearing pastel ruffled dresses and shiny new shoes dies hard. On a barely conscious level, a lot of girls feel compelled to fuss with white gloves and lace-trimmed anklets, hats and purses, flowers and baskets and bunnies and bows. When it comes right down to it, every Easter I fight the urge to buy a frilly new dress and—so help me God—a bonnet.

I am almost always disappointed in my Easter attire. In Colorado, it usually feels like brand-new springtime on Easter Sunday. The sun blazes in an azure sky and the sweet scent of the Russian olive trees hangs lightly in the air. I want to bare my skin and dress to match the showy blossoms springing up all over. But I haven’t quite shed the winter layer of my skin. My toes, upper arms and knees are not quite ready to see the light of day. A kicky little floral dress that might look beautiful on me in July is a mistake in March or April. What’s more, I have often selected outfits that look more like my idea of Easter than they look like me. I recall an asymmetrical linen, mauve suit in the 1980’s, for example, and an early-nineties shapeless lavender sheath intended for a much, much taller woman. Easter is often a case of the dress wearing me. All the time and energy I spend planning what to wear inevitably lead to disappointment and hating all Easter photos of myself.

So this year, as I noticed the thawing of the earth and the end of Lent, I was aware of a slight panic creeping up my spine. I mostly kept it at bay and tried to trust that when it came time to choose my Easter ensemble, I would have what I needed. I tried not to worry about it. Mostly, I didn’t.

Then on Saturday, it got Real. My husband and I drove to a neighboring town for a very special Easter vigil service at 8:00 PM. It was raining hard that night, but it was not terribly cold. I felt a familiar confusion mounting as I struggled between looking “appropriate” for Easter (light, bright, springy, flowery, pastel!) and “appropriate” for the time of day and the cold weather. I will admit I spent some time the night before trying on outfits in my closet. To no avail. I started to feel panicky and worried. Instead of laying out my entire outfit, as I used to do, I went to bed. I looked at my closet, assured myself I would find something appropriate, and fell asleep in peace.

It worked. On Saturday night, I chose a white twinset with gold and silver embellishments. I wore my new low nude wedges because I thought they were neutral enough not to matter. The church was warm and the service was long, so I was happy I had not caved into the weather and opted for boots. I also wore a big gauzy scarf, the value of which my pre-menopausal friends and I are discovering together. The possibilities for layering in response to any crazy temperature change are fabulous!

I wore the same outfit the next day, minus the scarf. In order to do this, I had to talk myself past a few roadblocks, as such: 

1. I would not be seeing any of the same people on Sunday. Only my husband and children will know that I am wearing the same things two days in a row. And I certainly know they won’t care.
2. My skort and white sweater set are not an Easter dress. And that’s okay. I am a grown woman. As hard as this is to swallow, I do not require a twirly dress for any occasion.
3. The best word to describe our family Easter celebrations is casual. Dinner is a raucous potluck; everyone sits everywhere to eat and drink and catch up on family news. It’s a huge group of people. Children run around and crack confetti-filled eggs on each other’s heads. Despite my inclination to dress in a “special” way, a comfortable skort makes more sense for this celebration than anything I have ever worn.
4. I did not wear a colorful Easter dress. For Easter, the priests’ robes are white and gold. My outfit, I decided, was in fact is as Easter-y as the ruffles, pastels, or bright florals tempting me each year with their siren songs.

My white and gold Easter vestments

My white and gold Easter vestments

Because I am still in the habit of seeking external cues and approval, the outfits of two others helped me contemplate my year-long experiment in terms of this first special occasion. First, my tall, beautiful, effortlessly appropriate cousin Jennifer showed up to the family celebration in a black skirt. It could have been a skort and in fact was an “exercise dress,” according to Jennifer, who found the concept amusing. Over the dress she wore a black-and-white-striped cardigan with a kickly little coral trim – tres springtime! On her feet were a pair of casual but attractive leather flip-flops that looked very, very comfortable. Realizing how attractive and appropriate she looked—and how very much we were dressed similarly—helped me realize I might also look attractive and appropriate. I started to look around. Many people were wearing black—skirts or shorts or trousers—with white, or with a pop of Easter color. No one over the age of 14 was wearing anything like a frilly dress, or even an outfit for much of a special occasion. 

I had a few truly wonderful conversations with cousins I don’t see often. I enjoyed the broad, unrestrained laughter of teenagers and young adults hearing stories about their parents’ pasts. I ate good food and loved the feeling of the sun on my face. I sat on the floor, on a couch, on a deck chair. I was comfortable. On Saturday night, we celebrated a life-changing event with one of my former students and his friends. I was honored and filled with joy to be included. And today, I do not hate the photos of me in my Easter finery.

The other outfit that helped me see things in a new way was the dress of a four-year-old girl. It was stripe-y and spring-y and bling-y. She wore it with contrasting and colorful tights and I admired her spunky sense of style. Then, as I watched her racing across the lawn in pursuit of those elusive colored eggs, it hit me. I can admire the bright beauty of a child, or a peony bush or a Technicolor double-rainbow on the horizon, without imitating it. My daily wardrobe does not in fact need to reflect the changing seasons or the mood of the occasion or my love of fun and color and design.

Indeed, when I don the gay apparel of a four-year-old child or of a Chinese ring-tailed pheasant (seriously, the colors are amazing!), I maybe look a little bit insane. A little clown-like. I have to admit it, as I stare this skort project in the face: maybe every so often I dress like a crazy person. Certainly people remember me based on how I dress. I’ve always assumed that was a Good Thing, but I’m re-thinking that idea, too. Perhaps I prefer it when people remember me based on our conversations, our connections, the times we laugh and cry and break bread together.

In my more subdued, more mature, more appropriate Easter togs, I felt just fine. I felt just like me. I felt comfortable, even though I started way outside my comfort zone. I wore something that felt mundane for this “special occasion,” but it turned out to be a perfectly special day, after all.