Slashed to the navel and held together with crystal bow embellishments, the Camille mini dress by Saloni might not seem like a natural choice for a new mother out for a Monday night dinner. It’s certainly not something I would have worn before becoming a mum – fearing it would flash too much skin, or worrying it was for someone younger and cooler. Yet newly flat-chested (thanks, breastfeeding) and recently single, I quite literally took the plunge and bought it. And I’ve got no regrets.
‘You are what you wear’. It’s a cliche that has an element of truth to it: after all, how we dress is a form of self-expression. And for me, my wardrobe has always been a way of showcasing how I’m feeling about myself. I’ve dressed in girlish, midi-length dresses from Rixo, Ghost and LK Bennett when in a long-term relationship. Days-old pyjamas, leggings and hoodies are the go-tos when I’m feeling blue. Inevitably, when I’ve been single, I’ve dressed a little more sexily – not to ‘attract’ anyone, but because it’s a confidence boost.
When you first leave the hospital after giving birth, your wardrobe mostly consists of nursing bras, high-waist postpartum pants, joggers and hoodies. It can be a bit of a shock: one day, you’re dressing a blossoming baby bump, the next, you’re deflated in some areas and bloated in others. So much of postpartum style is about comfort and practicality (as well as breastfeeding access, if you’re doing it), and it’s easy to feel that you’ve lost yourself slightly because of this. It’s hard to express yourself via leggings.
I found this shift particularly difficult, because I was also suffering from postnatal depression. Indeed, it was my complete lack of interest in my appearance (and basic hygiene, to be honest) that was the biggest clue to me and those around me that something was not right. It didn’t help that I wasn’t eating, either, which coupled with round-the-clock breastfeeding meant I drastically lost weight. All of my intended postpartum clothing drowned me, a poignant metaphor for how overwhelmed I felt at the time.
While still in the midst of the fourth trimester, my relationship with my daughter’s father broke down. Suddenly, I was keenly aware of how scruffy and unkempt I looked (what I was wearing on the day we broke up will forever be seared into my memory – leggings with a hole in the crotch, an oversized knit and mismatched Christmas socks). I was mortified, in hindsight, that I’d let this man who no longer loved me see me in this vulnerable state. The monotony of maternity leave during the winter started to feel a little like lockdown, when working from home meant many of us didn’t get dressed. Something needed to change. In order to gain some semblance of self-worth, I needed to start dressing for myself again.
I started with my underwear drawer. Nursing bras and big knickers triggered me. I would have happily set fire to them all if I could have done so without seeming unhinged. I couldn’t wear my old stuff because I was now a cup size smaller. So I bulk bought Underdays ‘cheeky’ briefs in every colour, as a day-to-day basic, and stocked up on Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s always reliable lingerie for M&S. The only items I bought in the Boxing Day sales were a delicate, sheer pink bra from Dora Larsen with matching knickers. I won’t go so far as to say that nice underwear empowers me, but it’s certainly a start.
Dipping my toe into the dating scene also required a wardrobe rethink. I hadn’t been single for over five years, and in that time, I’d not only gotten older, but I’d also become a mother. How does one dress for both roles? There’s this idea that if you are ‘someone’s mother’ then you should dress a certain way. It’s a term that’s bandied about all the time in reference to how we behave. Got drunk at a wedding? You’re someone’s mother! Topless sunbathing? You’re someone’s mother!
As a single woman, I can’t be blamed for wanting to avoid what would be described as ‘mumsy’ style – after all, the word has connotations with dull domesticity and a lack of excitement. (Case in point, a friend once received granny-esque slippers for her birthday and was devastated that her husband saw her like that). How many times on TV have we seen the plot line about the laissez-faire husband neglecting his wife until she turns up in a new dress with her hair done? (See: Dinosaurs, The Simpsons, et all). As if he couldn’t see her before?
And it’s not to say that my fellow new mums in secure relationships can’t also want to dress a little more provocatively and a little less predictably. Ultimately, it’s our prerogative. There’s something about fashion that is so transformative – who can blame someone for wanting to escape the doldrum of motherhood’s endless unglamorous admin for a hot minute by wearing a mini skirt and some heels.
When I’m at soft play with my daughter, of course I’m more likely to be in my Levi’s 501s and a Bella Freud jumper. But if I’m out for a rare dinner with friends, or on an even rarer date, I’m going to dress up – because it makes me feel happy. For a third-or-fourth date in the summer, I turned to my trusty Realisation Par Ozzie dress, with its pretty red pansy print and low-cut neckline, last worn in the first flush of new love. I went out of my comfort zone at an October wedding in Reformation’s Gloriana gown, with its slashed skirt and sculpted bodice. A hen do called for Kitri’s Carlotta mini with fun marabou feathers. With all of these looks, I wanted to signal that I was happy – not a victim. Being able to dress as a single woman and a mother shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.
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