A Guide To Getting Dressed When You’re Depressed
Start with a clean pair of underwear.
Even if you haven’t showered. Even if you crawl back into bed right after. Even if you haven’t done laundry and it has to be a bikini bottom or swim trunks, slip something clean on your nether regions. This is the foundation for everything you’re about to do—you’re about to get dressed in the face of depression, a place many people have found themselves before.
It’s a place I have been too, throughout various seasons of my life; standing in front of a chaotic closet in my pajamas, wondering if I can get away with wearing my nightie to school or work. Other days, I can’t seem to layer on enough of my favorite garments, as if their power combined will magically create a perfect day. Either way, I costume myself as someone who is weathering a great storm, because I am.
The first step is often the most difficult, which is why I focus on changing up my underwear. It’s like breaking down the steps to getting outside for a walk: First, put on shoes. Then, step out the door. You don’t have to go any further, but now that you think about it, you’re already out the door—a little walk around the block couldn’t hurt. A new pair of undies can be the momentum that propels you into the next part of your day.
“When you’re depressed, getting dressed is a small but significant step towards reminding yourself that you are worth showing up for”
Because when you’re experiencing depression, getting dressed is a small but significant step towards reminding yourself that you are worth showing up for. Even the simplest of outfits can create a connection between me and my body, between me and the world around me.
So start simply where you can, when you can (and if you can) with a clean pair of underwear. Once you’ve done that most foundational part, it’s time to build up an outfit layer by layer. Let’s get ready together!
1. Assess the facts
At its best, getting dressed is a way to celebrate ourselves, but when we’re facing difficulties, it’s enough to get a little fabric on our bodies to protect them.
Start by acknowledging where you are today and what you need. The least helpful thing we can do when we’re getting dressed in the face of depression is to use our clothing to further self-sabotage. Acknowledge what may trigger you or make you feel worse. Maybe you need to avoid anything too baggy, too tight, too synthetic, too fuzzy, too dull, or too bright—you do not have to punish yourself with stiff skinny jeans or stiletto heels.
Instead, examine how you feel, then dig a little deeper if you have the energy. Sometimes our feelings become so overwhelming that we view them as truths; instead, find what is an objective fact for you today and start there. This might look like: I’m bloated, I’m cold, I’m uninspired. That’s it—no strings or judgmental words attached. These facts can help you with the next step.
“The least helpful thing we can do when we’re getting dressed in the face of depression is to use our clothing to further self-sabotage.”
2. Pick out an outfit
This is not where I tell you to wear a hot pink sequin dress and green lipstick and dance around the house until you feel better. (I’ve tried it, and it does’t always work.) Instead, consider the truths of your day and choose garments one piece at a time based on your needs. It’s even okay if they don’t match!
If you find yourself in the same rut with any frequency or consistency, it can be helpful to keep a small capsule wardrobe of garments that you *know* will work. I have a decade-old white t-shirt from Target I can always count on to match whichever pants I’m wearing without making me feel grungy (although, yes, it has coffee and foundation stains—but those add character, right?). Other go-tos are my stretchy and generously-fit jeans, a cocoon-like linen jacket, and some unfussy flats that match everything. My house dress is a staple for those days when all I want to do is pull a swath of fabric over my braless body and call it an outfit.
Find yours and keep them washed and at-the-ready—it’ll help. It’s also okay to have multiples of pieces you wear consistently if laundry is difficult.
3. Adorn yourself
When “getting dressed” sounds like a chore, I like to say I’m “adorning” myself. This sounds a little more indulgent, which reframes this whole process as self care. Some days a change of phrase is the best I can do.
Do what you can as you get ready; smooth some body oil on your knees and elbows, feel deserving of the soft fabrics on your skin, and laugh a little bit about how matching (or not) your outfit is. Watch a “get ready with me” video from a kind and funny vlogger. Swipe a deodorant in those pits and spritz on a bit of perfume or body spray—even if you aren’t leaving the house (or your bed). I firmly believe that what we wear and how we show up in the world is not about pleasing others, it’s about pleasing ourselves. Especially when we’re depressed.
“What we wear and how we show up in the world is not about pleasing others, it’s about pleasing ourselves. Especially when we’re depressed.”
My “adorning” looks like painting my nails even when they’re short and brittle, or remembering to wear my favorite rings. I have a few different robes to choose from that make me feel cozy and cute to wear when I’m not on Zoom, and a bright pink multistick to give myself a little color when I do have video calls. Some days are too hard, though, to add anything comforting, so I always keep simple hoop earrings on at all times so I wake up already feeling pulled together. Adorning yourself is not limited to clothing, and can look however you want it to.
Ultimately, what you wear does not matter; but how you wear it does. Cloak yourself in compassion and drape words of affirmation over your heart like a string of fine pearls.
4. Look in the mirror (or don’t)
When you’re clothed, it’s up to you whether you look in the mirror. Perhaps you find it best to scuttle out the door before you have a chance to pick apart your outfit or criticize yourself needlessly. And to that I say, get hustling! Getting dressed does not have to be another way for you to be down on yourself.
“Recognize yourself as someone who is facing something difficult, and embrace any growth you can.”
For me, I find spending a little time in front of the mirror can help me remember I’m more than just a chaotic cloud of thoughts. I make eye contact with myself as I gently wash my face and brush my hair and teeth. I admire the way I’ve showed up for myself that day (even if it’s minimal).
Sometimes I even take selfies for no one but myself, do a little dance, and have a little practice conversation with my reflection. Again, recognize yourself as someone who is facing something difficult, and embrace any growth you can.
5. Change your outfit when you need to
If you’ve dealt with depression, you know everything can be going fine—until it isn’t. It’s jarring and complicated to navigate. And that is true of what we’re wearing, too.
You can give up on an outfit halfway through the day, or even halfway through getting dressed. Change your clothes when you need to, whether that’s emotionally, physically, or due to external factors. You do not have to to wear khaki pants 24/7 if that’s what’s required of you at work.
I have three types of clothing to ease me through my day: Morning clothes are usually some variation of my pajamas or robe that I drink my coffee in and start working in. Afternoon clothes are cute but comfortable (like a house dress), enough to help me get out of the house on a few walking breaks throughout my day or wear to my third space after work. And night clothes are sweatpants and sweatshirts I don’t sleep in but enjoy feeling cozy in. Since I wear each garment for a much shorter time, I feel okay re-wearing them for a few days or folding them back up in my drawer.
6. Or, change your wardrobe
There may be a time when you feel external change, like buying a new dress, will support internal healing. This can be true.
However, new clothes may not be the solution your depression thinks it is. In my experience, I attempt to purchase garments that make me feel *less* like myself so I can emulate someone who I perceive is happier or more put together. Or I purchase aspirational clothing that doesn’t fit my size or lifestyle, only to feel disconnected and more sad when it arrives on my doorstep.
“There may be a moment when you feel external change, like buying a new dress, will support internal healing. This can be true.”
Instead, if you do want to shop while you’re experiencing depression, try to focus on the pieces that remind you most of yourself. Your favorite colors, patterns, and fabrics can delight you and support an embodied dressing experience rather than a dismal one.
It’s also okay to leave clothes in your online shopping cart or in a bookmarked tab for a few days and assess how they’ll suit you later. And if shopping online is complicated for you, due to lack of representation, inclusivity, affordability, or otherwise, you can shop in-person or at thrift stores. This doubles as an opportunity to get out of the house and step into the sunshine, even if only for a moment.
Sometimes, though, it’s less about what we need to add to our lives and more about what it’s time to let go of. Don’t let your closet be a painful reminder of who you once were or who you wish you could become. I’ve found that releasing clothing that no longer suits me is a tangible way for me to process grief. And to begin, however slowly, to move forward.
7. Care for your clothes
And finally, when it’s difficult to care for yourself, care for your clothes as a proxy for yourself. Wash them, mend them, dust them off and take them outside to breathe. Don’t give up on your favorite pieces just because they have a stain or tear; enlist a friend to help you take a batch of clothes to a dry cleaner and seamstress.
Your clothes are the armor you wear into the most challenging seasons, treat them well. And when you don’t like who you see in the mirror, it’s okay to give your clothing the attention you crave for yourself. It’s a practice in compassion either way, and the better we get at it, the easier it is to extend love to ourselves.
Most importantly, while you’re navigating this season, know that there is no one way to “do it right.” If that means sweatpants and sports bras one day followed by high heels and a pushup bra the next, so be it. Depression doesn’t work like an on-and-off light switch—it’s a cycle of dimming and brightening that colors your perception. If you’ve lost your light, I hope you can find one little part of your daily ritual, like getting dressed, that offers a little spark.
“Depression is a cycle of dimming and brightening that colors your perception. If you’ve lost your light, I hope you can find one little part of your daily ritual, like getting dressed, that offers a little spark.”
What’s most important is honoring your needs as honestly as you can, and at the pace that feels right for you.
And, of course, a clean pair of underwear.
Emily Torres is the Editorial Director at The Good Trade. Born and raised in Indiana, she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her in her colorful Los Angeles apartment journaling, caring for her rabbits and cat, or gaming.