Every year, when the calendar flips to July, a new fashion anxiety comes over me: It’s time to choose my birthday outfit. While my personal style is a revolving door of neutral colors, oversized blazers, and wide-leg pants, birthday outfits always force me to tap into my inner child’s fashion fantasies, substituting the blander color palette of my everyday life for bows, rhinestones, pastel colors, and voluminous shapes that scream, “Hi, I’m the birthday girl.”
As evidenced by pop culture, I’m not alone. From Paris Hilton’s 21st birthday look — a metallic cowl-neck mini dress — to Kendall Jenner’s replica many years later, birthday outfits allow people the space to play into the most exuberant parts of their personalities. After all, it’s the one time a year when being the center of attention is, well, the whole point.
“The birthday girl or guy has to shine,” says Jazmine Motley-Maddox, an Atlanta-based stylist. “They have to be the center of attention because it's their day.”
When Motley-Maddox found herself on the hunt for birthday outfits recently, she considered a few sources, including a local vintage shop, websites like Thrilling, Modesense, and Farfetch, and IRL retailers like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. “I always want to have options,” she says. “I may wake up on the day of and not want to wear what I chose.” This year, her options included a silver Dolce & Gabbana dress, a bustier-baring Bottega Veneta look, and a pair of Kimberly Goldson orange metallic shorts that she’s planning to pair with a bolero jacket. According to Motley-Maddox, all of them are variations of her personal style, with a party twist that matches her celebration’s theme. “I want to be comfortable and I always want to look like myself,” she says.
Writer Amanda Randone is also familiar with this process. In fact, she says her favorite part of turning older is choosing what to wear. This year, for her 30th birthday, Randone planned the entire party to match her outfit: a Stine Goya sequin set she first saw during Paris Fashion Week last September. Even when lockdown restrictions were in place, Randone says she centered her quarantined birthday celebrations around her dress: a yellow long-sleeved turtleneck dress by Solace London, which she shared on Instagram with the caption, “The key to a great lockdown birthday? A great dress.”
For both Motley-Maddox and Randone, the formula to a good birthday outfit boils down to a perfect mix of comfort and sparkle. “As long as you are comfortable, you're wearing that smile and you're radiating and you just love what you have on, I think that makes for a great time,” says Motley-Maddox.
Pop culture depictions of the perfect birthday look match that line of thinking. While Hilton’s 21st birthday look channeled a disco ball via a deep, low-cut cowl neck mini dress, it was still a simple, slip-like silhouette. Jennifer Lopez chose a monochrome red strapless top-and-mini skirt ensemble for her 30th birthday that was equal parts casual and glamorous, while Beyoncé opted for a simple tank top and denim mini skirt for her 20th birthday party. In entertainment, the pattern persists: On Gossip Girl, Blair Waldorf’s multiple birthday outfits, including a Valentino black tutu dress for season 1 and a J. Mendel scarlet dress for season 4, are elevated versions of her on-screen style. Carrie Bradshaw sports a red crop top-and-skirt ensemble with a velvet headband for her 36th birthday in season 2 of Sex and the City, reflecting her knack for simple, yet chic outfits that always carry an out-of-the-box element (like the headband).
Over time, retailers have learned to tap into people’s hunt for the perfect birthday outfit. Websites like Princess Polly, Pretty Little Thing, and Lulus now incorporate birthday categories into their selections, often featuring dresses and ensembles that are sparkly, voluminous, or skin-baring. “We believe that finding the right dress is all about showcasing your personal style and making a statement on your special day,” says Leigh Chesterman, trend director at Princess Polly. “The section is truly a one-stop shop, designed to not only excite our customers but also inspire and help them curate head-to-toe looks for any type of birthday celebration.” Pretty Little Thing also created a birthday section, which Chris Parnell, the company’s head of design, says is specifically targeting customers looking for something to wear on their 21st. For both sites, the initiative to create a targeted birthday space came from a noticeable spike in searches for these types of dresses, which, on Google Trends, reflect an increase since pandemic restrictions were lifted.
Much like the celebration itself, dressing for one’s birthday appears to be an exercise in flexing our identity muscle, looking to reflect who we’ve grown to be in one outfit that will last a lifetime in photos and memories. This year, for my 28th birthday, I opted for a voluminous short pink dress with black velvet straps that featured bows and rhinestones from Dream Sister Jane, a fitting choice to embrace my inner child as I near 30. Until next July…
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