How To Dress for Toubled Times

Fashion rags around the world are gearing up to run stories on recession dressing, the art of finding a way to approximate a fashionable look even in the toughest of economic times. Get ready for a chirpy stream of annoying advice on "how to get 'The Look' for less" and tips about "fabulous finds for less than $50." Given the shock we're about to go through on a global scale, it seems a little strange, if not downright delinquent, to continue doing things the same way as in the days of overtly conspicuous consumption.

The crisis may even offer the opportunity to redefine our core values: saving more, investing long term versus immediate yield and prioritizing sustainability. When people come around to absorbing these lessons, they'd be wise to include a re-examination of their aesthetics as well. In place of the perpetual pursuit of a hotter body, an unlined face, a fancy car and a logo-laden outfit that announces one's socioeconomic profile from 50 feet away, people might begin to ground themselves in a more authentic appearance, one that echoes the truth of who they are, instead of projecting the semblance of who they wish they could be.

This shift in priorities might be easier said than done. The self-esteem of many fashion followers is rooted in the sense of belonging that hitting all the right lifestyle notes allows. (Limited-edition Gucci bag, check! Waitlisted $5,000 Balenciaga jacket, check! Gas-guzzling Mercedes convertible, check!). But perhaps a more appropriate philosophy for these soon-to-be-hardscrabble times is the uplifting mantra of personal style, which is based in confidence about who you are and what you find beautiful, as opposed to adopting an external prescription for fitting in.

Diane Pernet, a former designer and fashion journalist who publishes the blog A Shaded View on Fashion, is an example of an individual with an uncompromising personal aesthetic. For more than two decades she has adopted an austere look she terms "minimal baroque" inspired by the young widows who featured in Italian neo-realist cinema—a uniform consisting of high hair, a veil, hair ornaments, black sunglasses, a long black skirt, simple black shirt and platform shoes. Wherever she goes, people gawk, but Pernet maintains that she doesn't "dress to attract attention to myself although [some people] interpret my look that way. My look is a reflection of my personality … strong but quiet. Clearly, [it] puts a distance between me and the general public. What does [it] reveal? Probably that I'm not out there looking for a fifth husband. Like the Great Greta Garbo, 'I want to be alone'."

The fashion world is full of eccentric dressers who use clothing as a means of expressing their unique interior lives: longtime Vogue Italia contributing editor Anna Piaggi, with her clownish ensembles and doll-like makeup that suggest a surreal imagination, and towering American Vogue editor at large André-Leon Talley, who has a propensity for enormous satin capes and outsize accessories that celebrate the fact that because of his race and size, he has never had any choice than to stand out. The list goes on.

These are examples at the extreme of people using their appearance as a canvas to communicate with the world, and their approaches aren't for everyone. The point is that they make no apologies for being different. Some might get off on all the attention, but others, like Pernet, couldn't be less interested in that kind of engagement. In her case, her appearance bears witness to the woman she has grown into, to her quiet decision to step away from the world and, in an echo of widowhood, a sense of absence that has been embraced and transformed into a source of strength.

Few people would be interested in going out on a similar visual limb, but there are more subtle ways of being true to yourself. A businessman who dons a dark blue suit and white collared shirt each day doesn't necessarily stand out, but isn't that preferable to young people wearing T shirts that say PORN STAR? A middle-aged woman in a cashmere twinset might seem conservative, but that's a more respectable sartorial decision than wearing low-riding jeans and flashing a thong and artificial tan in a misguided attempt to approximate youth.

Contemporary pop culture suggests that life is a series of set pieces, and that people should costume themselves for the parts they wish to play. The problem is that everyone wants the same roles: the prom queen, the cheerleader, the quarterback. They want to appear younger, sexier, richer. They want to look better than they feel. But life isn't a virtual-reality exercise, and our troubled times are now demanding that people grow up and take responsibility for their credit-financed fantasies. Beyond the artificial façade lies the option of an authentic choice, the decision to embrace the truth of one's experience. If you're a quiet librarian who likes to wear gray flannel skirts and baggy blouses, what's the problem? If you're a middle-aged hockey mom, who says you're not attractive if you shop at Wal-Mart? And if you're a bona fide sexpot, then by all means, wear as little as you please. The point isn't that people need to be prudes or defer to any social norm. It's a matter of feeling empowered to tell the truth about who you are, instead of conforming to society's unforgiving and unrealistic ideals. One request though: even if you're actually in the adult-entertainment industry, no PORN STAR T shirts, please.