If You Can't Choose Your Own Clothes, Does It Change Who You Are?

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
It used to be that — to some extent — I had always dressed sexily for men. Did I look thin? I wondered. Did I look tall? Young? Sexy?

But in the months after my stroke, from which I suffered short-term memory and decision-making problems, my husband, Adam, literally chose the clothes that went on my body each morning.

The first morning after I came home from the hospital, I stared at the clothing in my closet. For a week, I’d made no decisions whatsoever — food came to me on a plate, and I’d worn the same pair of pajamas for days on end.

I stared into my closet at all the textures and categories. Blouses. Silk. Dry clean only. Machine washable. Cotton. What could be worn? What was practical? Which colors went together? The decision matrix for an outfit is astounding and sophisticated. Then there are all the intuitive factors: Creativity. Individuality. Identity. Pragmatism. Personality.

That first day, I chose what was a particularly abominable combination. I don’t remember what it was — it might have been stripes and dots. Or plaid and stripes. Or a less offensive blue and black. Either way, Adam guffawed. I do remember that.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew these things did not coordinate. I had been trained by society to follow a standard. But that rubric no longer existed.

I was exhausted. I knew I needed to not be naked in public. But I could not do it. I couldn’t figure out what patterns were, let alone colors.

“Will you pick my clothes out for me?” I asked. Adam stared.

“I don’t know how to match anymore.” And so Adam matched my outfits.

He dressed me in clothing he had always wanted me to wear, but to which I’d previously objected: clothes he’d bought me that I had relegated to the back of the closet, behind my shifts and boho blouses. Tight V-neck tops. Body-con dresses. I was the living embodiment of “What Guys Want Girls to Wear” articles in women’s magazines. I might have looked "better." But my outfits were no longer my decision. I became what the male gaze wanted to see. I wore low-cut things more often during those months than I had worn during my entire life. And because I was so brain-damaged, I’d forget to eat and became very thin — I attracted more attention than I wanted.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew these things did not coordinate. I had been trained by society to follow a standard. But that rubric no longer existed.

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee
I made the decision to be dressed by my husband out of necessity. Though now, in hindsight, I think walking out in stripes and plaid might have been the better decision for my psyche. I was defined by someone else for months, because I could not define myself. I was a blank slate to him. I could become anything he wanted me to become.

It was in this recovery state that he convinced me to throw away my Black Watch plaid flannel robe —it was an L.L. Bean affair, one I’d had since my undergraduate days in the dorms at Berkeley. Not pretty, but sentimental. I’d written term papers while wearing it. I wrote fiction in it. It was my beloved writing robe — the source of my inspiration, something I never wore out in public, but an item of clothing that gave me solace and comfort and, because of that, inspiration.

But in my state of mind, I had no sentimentality, because I had no memory. So I threw it out, happy to be compliant. I remember showing Adam the robe in the garbage. “Good riddance!” he said.

And as I recovered, I began to make decisions again. I coordinated as I pleased. I learned to identify T-shirts and jeans as safe choices. I wore them. Faithfully. I wore the same shoes all the time, a pair of Camper flats.

As my brain healed, I found myself buying more orange clothing. These were different colors than I’d worn before. Maybe it was because Tangerine was the Pantone color of the time, but I acquired an inordinate number of citrus colored dresses. In my everyday wear, I became even more attracted to comfortable clothing. Loose tops, leggings — athleisure. Again, maybe influenced by fashion trends; I veered away from obi belts and corsets and stiletto heels. I kept my boho blouses.

Years later, I bought myself another L.L. Bean robe. In Black Watch plaid. Because you have to like your clothes. They have to mean something to you. And you have to dress yourself. Because dressing yourself is defining yourself. And I’ve learned to wear what I want to wear without consideration of men. Years after our separation, I slipped on a pair of Birkenstocks.
“I can’t believe you’re wearing those,” Adam said as he greeted me on the doorstep.

“Believe it,” I told him. "I like them."

“Normcore,” I added.

Recently, Adam dropped off our daughter, and I was wearing a pair of orange Adidas Gazelles. He commented, “Those are cool.” And I responded, “I know. Because I like them.”

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee is the author of Tell Me Everything You Don't Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life, out from HarperCollins now.

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