Happy fashion: the link between wellbeing and being well-dressed

TV presenter Angela Scanlon, stylist Annmarie O’Connor and vintage fan Zoë Coleman talk about the psychological benefits of dressing well, taking chances and not following the herd

Clothing is a divisive issue. To some it’s pure function; covering the body and preventing any potential Emperor’s New Clothes scenario. But to others, clothing can be a mood elevator, something we need as the winter reaches its final phase and we emerge from dry January and Blue Monday.

“The transformational quality of clothing is undeniable,” says Annmarie O’Connor, a freelance stylist and editor. Think of the nicknames: killer heels, power suit, wiggle dress. You can literally step into how you wish to feel that day.”

O’Connor is founder of The Happy Closet, a “lifestyle decluttering” service that explores the link between hoarding and happiness and between wellbeing and being well-dressed. She combines mindfulness exercises with behavioural therapy to find out what makes her clients tick. It is a psychological as well as physical decluttering.

Angela Scanlon, presenter of the Getaways travel show on RTÉ, has seen the positive effects of her work as a personal shopper. One elderly client sticks in her mind. "She was reluctant at first, reminding me that she only wanted clothes for 'Mass and funerals; no parties, no nonsense'. As we tried different looks, she lit up. It was like she was reawakening her 20-year-old self and seeing herself for the first time in years as a funny, strong, ballsy woman. She realised that she could enjoy clothes again and was so excited that she insisted on wearing her new gear. When she met her husband afterwards, he started to cry. It was like he too was seeing her as she really was, for the first time in decades. It is proof that clothes can have a profound effect, not only on how you see yourself but on how others see you too."

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The pursuit of happiness

Happiness is a common goal for many, but the things that make individuals happy are wide-ranging. A shopping splurge may inspire a huge surge of endorphins in one woman but a feeling of disgust in another.

The happiest colours, according to psychological research, are red, orange and yellow. But these colours have unwanted effects. Some people find yellow, the colour of hope, irritating – quite literally, as too much yellow reflects light and can hurt sensitive eyes. While red inspires passion, it also has been found to raise appetites, which is deeply unhelpful if one’s idea of happiness also involves avoiding fast-food joints.

Happy dressing might just be a matter of taste. “As a young, queer woman, my lifestyle choices aren’t conservative, and, by extension, my clothes aren’t either,” says Zoë Coleman, digital communications manager of the Women’s Museum of Ireland and a vintage clothing seller. “I don’t fit in with any crowd and my happiness isn’t dependent on conforming. My clothes celebrate my difference.”

The question remains: how can our clothes make us happier? Coleman suggests an experimental approach. “Be brave. Stop admiring and start wearing. Start small: colourful accessories can brighten up more neutral, muted items of clothing, especially if you’re a little shy of colour. Don’t be afraid to contrast colours; dressing should be fun, not daunting. Don’t play by the fashion rules or wear what is ‘flattering’ for your shape. Wear what makes you feel good instead of trying to squeeze into that season’s latest trend that in reality only suits about 5 per cent of the population.”

Scanlon advises some careful wardrobe pairings. “Colour and texture, preferably together. What you’re looking for is either bright, bold colours or tactile pieces that are comforting and playful.”

O’Connor has a pragmatic approach: “Think back to five years ago. Do you live in the same house, town, country; are you in the same job; have you got married, had children? Our lives are in a constant state of evolution, so it makes sense to evolve our visual assets with who we are today rather than who we were, or who we aspire to be.”

“Clothes are like staff and need to be treated to regular performance reviews. Review your visual assets every six months. Ask yourself: How well do they work in a team? Are they continuing to contribute to your bottom line or should you offer them redundancy? Employing valued pieces that make your life easier lessens the instances of being fed-up with clothing that is simply taking up space.”

Maybe there is a formula for happiness, after all.

womensmuseumofireland.ie, annmarieoconnor.me, angelascanlon.com