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Content note: this article contains reference to anxiety and recovering from mental illness.

Aged 17, suspended in the vacuum of sixth form, I gradually watched people who were so familiar to me and had been for six years grow and evolve. Year 9 house parties turned to proper nights out, people started to form real relationships, university loomed, and people’s lives seemed to be going just right.

But mine didn’t follow that pattern. It’s the classic cliché that has become all-too familiar in recent media: anxiety became the arbiter of my life, and I slowly began to lose control. A void grew between my peers, and I struggled to navigate the regularity of day-to-day life with this pain in my chest and an acute awareness of my fragility. If one more person told me “you’re a shadow of your former self,” I would have just about exploded.

"that feeling of extreme discomfort in a pair of tight, skinny jeans when I longed for my androgynous tailoring was damaging to the way I perceived myself"

The phrase ‘fashion is empowering’ can prompt significant debate. How can something seemingly so superficial and disposable amount to empowerment? Whilst this is undeniably true, the notion of empowering fashion needs to be taken past face value. Empowerment can have significance beyond aesthetics. Your choice of clothing can be a vehicle for emotional empowerment. This is exactly what happened to me. Fashion became the catalyst to my recovery.

Fashion has the power to become a vehicle of self-expressionInstagram: @dazedfashion

Grappling with this intangible realm of fashion was always a challenge. The wrack of fear, which would overcome me on the morning of a non-uniform day as I scrambled to piece together an outfit that was both fashion-forward yet socially acceptable, remains prominent in my memory. It felt like a precarious balancing act — wanting to wear unique pieces that I loved, but still fitting the mould carved out by those around me. Resentment grew within —as many young girls and teenagers would have felt — as I faced the prospect of constantly having to shun what I really felt represented me, and wear clothing that everyone else had. Fitting in became a form of safety.

Nevertheless, as the world of fashion became slightly more tangible, I immersed myself in runway collections. The Fall-Winter 2015/16 Haute Couture Chanel Show became something I watched daily. The unbelievable craftsmanship and artistic license to create something that exceeded the boundaries of my dreams was awe-inspiring. In particular, I was gravitated towards avant-garde clothing. To transgress acceptable boundaries gave me a sense of exhilaration: to walk down the street wearing men’s pinstripe dungarees that were four sizes too big and a black trench coat that was so long it dragged on the floor became my go-to. This considerably hideous concoction broke every single sartorial rule in the book, and attracted multiple comments, stares, and pointing; yet somehow, I had embraced the feeling of being a walking spectacle and turned it into something more. I became a visual representation of who I wanted to be — someone willing to challenge gender boundaries — and every finger that waved in my direction became testament to that fact.

With each pair of boxy cigarette trousers I purchased, I thought that I had overcome the dichotomy of social acceptance and began to be true to my style preferences. However, the former started to rear its head as I entered sixth form. By now, uniform was thankfully a distant memory, the students still managed to create their own. Skinny jeans, a cropped top, a bomber jacket, and Adidas ‘Superstars’ constituted the outfit of choice for 500 students. I struggled to conceptualise this. I struggled to not conform. I felt that I had to ditch my floor-length coats.

Some big names in the industry, such as model Adwoa Aboah, have become influential mental health activistsInstagram: @britishvogue

To draw a link between mental health and fashion may seem artificial, ridiculous, or even inconsiderate. How can something as important as mental health be degraded by the vanity of fashion? Even though they seem like polar opposites, the answer is simple. When fashion is the one source of refuge you have, when it’s your armour and your expresser simultaneously, it can become a safe haven and a constant. A focal point of comfort and acceptance. Recounting how I felt to people that had no vested interest in the whimsicality of fashion seems ludicrous, even now. However, it can’t be so easily dismissed: that feeling of extreme discomfort in a pair of tight, skinny jeans when I longed for my androgynous tailoring was damaging to the way I perceived myself.

Losing such an integral part of me was a forerunning contender in my anxiety battle. I mourned the loss of my creativity and my desire to eschew every sartorial expectation. I mourned the loss of the me that felt so enabled and empowered by my clothing. People are empowered by a myriad of things. These are often political or social. But this doesn’t serve to undermine the power of fashion to boost my defiance, self-worth, and confidence. Since I was not able to return to my source of refuge, my feelings of emptiness were exacerbated.

After months of relentless nothingness, I returned to that focal point of acceptance. It was the realisation that fashion is mine — and that my clothing belongs to me — that facilitated my recovery. When I entered the darkest corners of my wardrobe, where I had seemingly attempted to conceal my personality, allowed me to access that feeling of empowerment once again. To dust off the bejewelled jackets and vintage pieces that smelt as old as they looked was to return home; to return to an archived part of me that I could have never really ignored, even despite society's vehement attempts to the contrary. 


Mountain View

Fashion: A man's world?

For most people, looking in the mirror will always be a double-edged sword. I am not exempt from this nitpicking and scrutiny myself. However, I am proud to acknowledge that what I wear is my own creation. It is a medium that allows me to voice my disobedience.  Because of the very nature of its marketing, the enduring labels of superficiality and vanity will continue to be tied to fashion. Yet, it is equally important to recognise fashion as an art form. It takes an inspired and creative mind to conjure up outfits that I admire on the street daily. To me, fashion was my recovery. It allowed me to access the parts of myself that I thought I had lost. In my own clothing, I feel strong, autonomous, and in control of my own perception of myself.

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