I’m standing next to a rack of Prada, wearing more than $10,000 worth of Tiffany & Co. jewellery, when I feel a panic attack coming on. In my visions of wardrobe transformation, I didn’t factor in an emotional meltdown. But here we are.
Fifteen years ago, a woman underwent a similar transformation, though I’m not sure hers involved as many tears. In The Devil Wears Prada, a film that defined an era of aspiration, small-town girl Andrea Sachs takes a job at Runway magazine, where she is introduced to the world of fashion by a begrudging editor’s assistant, Emily, then ushered in by a creative director named Nigel, who takes her under his wing and completely overhauls her look with “a little Crisco and some fishing wire”. It was the ultimate movie makeover that delighted and inspired countless young women who were dreaming of leaving behind their awkward schoolgirl pasts and becoming new, sophisticated versions of themselves.
Like Andy, I’m a journalist and recently got a job at a monthly magazine. But unlike Andy, I’ve always had an “interest in fashion”. I grew up with my bedroom walls decorated by collages of images from fashion magazines and dyed my hair pink after seeing model Abbey Lee Kershaw photographed with dip-dyed fuchsia hair. I dreamt of being a buyer for Bergdorfs or the next Cathy Horyn.
As I entered adulthood, however, my interest in fashion took a backseat to my interest in culture and politics. Like Andy, I would have wanted to write an editorial on the janitor’s union rather than attend Fashion Week. Don’t get me wrong,I’ve never worn harem pants or hemp; I just no longer cared about being fashionable and polished.
Then 2020 came along and I cared even less. After six years of wearing fake eyelashes every day (and I mean, every day), I stopped almost completely. By the time I got my job at marie claire, my work uniform consisted mostly of pants with singlets or T-shirts and Tevas. It’s comfortable, and I reasoned that the pants are Camilla and Marc, so it’s not as if I’m a complete fashion ignoramus. My editors have never commented, so I’ve never questioned it.
Until, that is, Australian Fashion Week loomed – which happened to coincide with the anniversary of Anne Hathaway walking through the doors of Runway magazine and swiftly swapping her cerulean sweater and bulky black orthopaedic-looking shoes for Chanel boots, berets and gorgeous cream coats. In the film, her sartorial evolution bolsters her career and communicates the ushering in of a new phase. She starts being taken more seriously, is given more responsibility and, ultimately, the trip to Paris. Arguably, her life didn’t necessarily change for the better. Her boyfriend (now remembered as a Very Bad One™) didn’t support her aesthetic glow-up, so they break up. Meanwhile, her friends basically abandon her. Nonetheless, a decade and a half later, the film still raises the question: can transforming your wardrobe transform your life?
Rosie McKay, stylist and founder of My Virtual Stylist, believes so. “People think fashion is materialistic but it’s actually a really powerful tool to change your mindset,” she explains to me. After working in magazines, McKay now runs her own business where she specialises in helping people dress for success – both personally and professionally. “If we get up feeling a bit dour and then go put on some old trackie daks, we’re just going to perpetuate that feeling all day and not do anything to break that negative cycle,” she says. “So I always say if you are feeling like that, you should make a concerted effort to actually get dressed. Dress how you want to feel and not necessarily how you do feel.”
I’m enticed by the idea of revisiting my commitment to clothing as a way of getting myself out of my sartorial rut, and to find out once and for all if changing my appearance will change how I feel. I pitch the idea to my editor as a story for the magazine, and she’s totally on board with the very meta feature. In fact, she’s so on board that I question whether they actually have been speaking about my work wardrobe behind my back. Pushing that thought aside, we agree I’ll need some help with my transformation. So, like Andy, I journey into the depths of our fashion department.
Naomi Smith has worked in fashion for more than 30 years. She’s been on staff at every major Australian fashion magazine you can think of, and now helms the style team at marie claire. She’s a stalwart of Australian fashion, the local equivalent of Emmanuelle Alt or Tonne Goodman. With legs for days and dark curtain-bangs, she’s rarely seen out of her black blazer, tailored pants and stompy boots. She’s the one who styled Kershaw in the shoot that inspired my pink hair nine years ago.
Given that she’s worked with everyone from Elle Macpherson to Margot Robbie, I expect she’s not going to be overjoyed about the task of overhauling my wardrobe. When I approach her to discuss the idea one morning, she’s doing her makeup in front of a mirror on her desk. “Naomi,” I approach cautiously.
“… Yes”, she replies with trepidation, knowing something is up.
“We have an idea …” I begin.
“Mmmmm …” – I pause, Naomi knows she definitely isn’t going to like this – “keep going.” She’s got one eye on me and one eye on her mascara application.
I explain to her the idea of giving me an Andy Sachs-style makeover and she takes me in fully for the first time. “That’s a big job.”
While discussing what we might change, I ask her thoughts on my current wardrobe. “It’s cute,” she says simply. “I like that you have the confidence to wear a red sweater.” Why it takes “confidence” to wear a red sweater, I’d rather not know.
Still, she agrees to the task, as unlike most priestesses of high fashion, Naomi is no Miranda Priestly (read: she possesses a sense of humour and a kind heart, which compels her to help the sartorially challenged).
For the following month, I commit to caring. I never wear the same outfit twice, always choose heels, and it takes me an extra hour to get ready every morning because I have to actually think about what I’ll put on (imagine!), apply makeup and do my hair. For two weeks, I go to the Blow Bar Co. in David Jones to get a blow-dry in lieu of washing my hair, and I even have my eyebrows done for the first time in more than 18 months at Kristin Fisher Eyebrows, because I feel that’s where I’d go if I cared. It’s entirely millennial-pink with velvet couches, and they offer me sparkling water while I wait.
Initially, things go well. I regularly receive compliments from co-workers (the deputy editor, Mel, is convinced I have a new love interest), which genuinely leaves me with a pep in my step. Perhaps I should care more?
Then comes the real test: Naomi styling me. She dresses me in an oversized black Prada coat with neon-pink trim, black knit dress and heeled boots that more closely resemble weapons than shoes. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if I could walk in them, but I can’t. I barely make it 10 metres before my feet cramp and I look like a wounded ostrich.
The shoes of mass destruction are nothing, however, compared to the second look: a sleek Matteau blazer, white tank and silk pants. You’d think it would be fine – after all, it’s not that different to my regular uniform – but looking at myself in the mirror, something snaps and I burst into tears in the fashion closet. I realise that while my hair is slicked back into a ponytail (I never wear my hair up) and I have red lipstick on (I never wear lipstick), my outfit isn’t that different to what I currently own. I feel so uncomfortable partly because of the hair, and partly because I’ve totally built up the experiment to be something it isn’t. Turns out, part of the transformation is realising the clothes aren’t necessarily the problem at all – it’s me.
It would be wrong to liken Fashion Week to a circus, because the circus isn’t a magnet for poseurs. In the space of half an hour, one woman has paraded two separate outfits for a photographer desperate for her picture. Another woman is repeatedly jumping back and forth, one foot extended out in front of the other, and a group of girls are congregating by a wall and fake laughing. It’d be haunting if it weren’t so funny.
Our second day starts at 7.30am on the shores of Tamarama Beach in Sydney. Having survived the first day and seeing some people go all out, I decide it’s time for me to go all out. I pull out my bright-pink Rejina Pyo dress, which is the most obnoxious (and beautiful) thing I own. With sleeves that balloon, a silhouette that hugs all my curves and a hemline that skims my calves, you can spot me from a kilometre away. I pair it with black boots and a beanie to dress it down. I’m feeling good, but slightly apprehensive about the whole thing because I’ve only ever worn this dress to gala dinners, so I feel incredibly overdressed. Upon arrival, my stomach sinks. Absolutely no-one is wearing colour. It is quite literally a sea of black mixed with neutrals, and I am a hot-pink buoy.
Arriving at Carriageworks, my anxiety begins to dissipate as we meet Naomi and she exclaims, “Ohhh, I love this!” Then, in the space of 20 minutes, three people ask to photograph me. On day one, there had been zero. I feel this speaks not necessarily to my outfit being incredible (though it was), but to an anecdote Naomi shared earlier about a famous fashion editor who underwent a particularly memorable style evolution. “I used to see her walking through the Tuileries in Paris and it was snowing, but in the boutiques would be a new Celine shirt – which was a summer shirt – and she’d be wearing it! I’d think, ‘My God, that girl must be freezing her ass off,’” she recalls. “She was always wearing something that would attract a photographer. She couldn’t be understated. Always had to scream a bit.”
Observing the thoroughfare in Carriageworks, you start to notice that street style isn’t really about style at all – it’s about creating an illusion. Plenty of the influencers and editors act as if they’re being randomly selected and snapped on the streets for their impeccable style, when in fact they have their own photographer in tow.
It’s also an appropriate metaphor for my own experience. At the end of The Devil Wears Prada, Andy gives her new clothes to Emily, gets a job at a newspaper and reconciles with her boyfriend. Her values and aspirations are unchanged. The idea that her transformation altered her innate DNA was a mirage.
My breakdown in the fashion closet served as my own realisation. Often, what others see for us is not what we see for ourselves, and while putting in a concerted effort to how we dress can improve our self-esteem, or help us feel hot-shit, sometimes all we need is a reminder that, actually, we already have the tools to change our lives. We just need to realise it.
On the third day of Fashion Week, I wear my favourite T-shirt, my Camilla and Marc pants and my Tevas. I add a blazer and an old Louis Vuitton clutch to elevate the look in a way Naomi taught me (“a blazer is always a good idea”). I get no comments from colleagues, and no-one asks to take my photo, but my housemate thinks I look amazing. “This is the best outfit I’ve seen you in,” she says. It’s probably because I feel like myself.