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I am mourning my office wardrobe. In prepandemic days, if I needed a boost to my self-esteem or to gird my loins for a difficult day, I reached for my black and white houndstooth blazer with the hook-and-eye clasps and deliberately frayed edges. Paired with skinny jeans and a tall caramel leather boot, it struck the right balance between authoritative and relatable.
Even more importantly, it was a gift from my mother after my first round of in vitro fertilization failed.
She subscribes to the motto, “look good, feel better,” and when I was at one of my lowest points, she bought it for me from her month’s grocery budget. When putting one foot in front of the other was almost more than I could bear, I found unexpected strength when I donned a silky pink tunic, dark leggings and that houndstooth blazer.
It was my office go-to throughout my fertility treatments. It helped to hide my ovaries, swollen to the size of peaches after rounds of injections. But it also allowed me to conceal a sadness too painful to reveal, when colleague upon colleague announced joyful pregnancy news.
Today, my daughter is almost 9 and that blazer has remained a powerful go-to piece. When I put it on, I’m reminded that slogging through tough times is just a little bit easier if I’m well-dressed for the occasion.
Next to that blazer, which hasn’t come off its hanger in nearly seven months, is a buttery, camel-coloured leather moto jacket, with a silk, navy-and-red paisley lining. It was a gift from my parents, purchased in Italy on one of the last trips my dad would take before he died. It has a European flair, and it’s probably the most expensive piece of clothing I own. It’s totally impractical for Ottawa’s extreme temperatures and there are only a handful of spring and fall days when it’s warm and dry enough to wear. But on those crisp, bright mornings, putting on that jacket and walking between the high-rises downtown, I channelled my inner Mary Tyler Moore, and felt like I could conquer the world.
A few years ago, when I went back to work full time, my husband gave me an extravagant, oversize Coach bag to mark the transition. Roomy enough to contain my lunch, a paperback for the hour-long commute and countless other trinkets – from hair elastics and wet wipes, to a pen collection rivalled only by an equal number of lipsticks in various shades of dusty coral – that bag was my constant companion.
Sometime this summer, I emptied out its contents, like an archaeologist sifting through artifacts from another era. A business card from my favourite haunt for a quick, mid-week manicure; a receipt for a $5 pizza and pop from the greasy joint where I’d meet one of my long-time girlfriends for a slice and a side order of juicy conversation; and a ticket from my daughter’s slightly off-key choir performance at the local TV station. Cleaning out that bag was strangely sentimental and the finality of tucking it inside it’s silken dust cover felt like a funeral rite.
When I used to dress for the office, I could pick an outfit to convey my mood.
My black Zara military-style jacket with the gold buttons and defined shoulder pads lent a “don’t mess with me vibe” on days when I wasn’t feeling up to snuff. My fitted navy-blue sailor dress, a Gucci knock-off purchased on a long-ago Thailand vacation, was professional with just a touch of whimsy. My tie-waist paper bag pants were the perfect counterpart to a crisp white button down, while black skinny jeans offset by a grey cashmere turtleneck were the ultimate expression of “a creative at work.” My pink and blue polka-dot Tommy Hilfiger blazer, with the natty elbow patches and tiny silver anchor lapel, was a steal at Winners – but I only got to wear it once before the pandemic virtually erased the need for office attire.
My statement rings and necklaces, none of them expensive, but all meaningful gifts or great conversation pieces, adorn a brass jewellery tree in my closet. I tried to wear them during those first few heady Zoom calls, but like a crow, got easily distracted by the shiny baubles around my own neck.
My current wardrobe has shrunk to a capsule collection of less-than-luxe lounge wear, consisting of two rotating pairs of jeans and three sweaters, spiced up with an oversized blanket scarf, but only on those days when I feel a rare burst of energy.
My former go-to staples are hanging limply in a closet chock full of relics from a bygone era.
It’s true that I don’t miss the ache in my feet after wearing my favourite three-inch black and brown patent leather heels with the gold turn lock clasp. And I certainly don’t miss the numbness in my shoulder after carrying my heavy bag on the bus when it’s too crowded to find a seat. Truth be told, I could forgo control top pantyhose for the rest of my life without shedding a tear.
But I do really miss the clothes. It’s not the rich fabrics and stylish cuts I’m pining for. It’s their ability to convey a certain mood, lift my spirits when I’m feeling low or bolster my confidence when it’s sorely lacking.
My clothes helped to shape my professional identity. While it turns out that I’m a writer no matter what I’m wearing, it just so happens I feel like a better one when I’m sporting a power blazer.
Suzanne Westover lives in Ottawa.