You'd think that your outfit would be the very last thing you'd be thinking about the night before you go to court to finalise a divorce. There's surely so much else going on - worries about dividing assets, fair settlements, what's going to happen to the children, if there are any, where you're going to live, perhaps - maybe making peace with your personal gods about dissolving a union you hoped would last all your life...
Yet what you wear to your divorce has a weight and an importance way beyond the simply practical. On the Maslow pyramid of needs, it's well above keeping you warm and dry. What you wear, and how you look and feel in what you wear, is much closer to the top of that scale, nearer to an aspect of self-realisation and fulfilment, than making sure you remembered your cardie.
I know about this firsthand. I am now a time-weathered divorce lawyer, presiding over a highly successful family law firm that deals in very complex, high net worth cases. But I can still remember exactly what I wore when I went into court for my own divorce hearing, in the days before I even went into family law. I wore a chic, highly tailored, black size 12 Calvin Klein trouser suit and high heels, to look slinky. My ex had been very down on my weight. He remarked, when I asked for patience as I was still losing baby weight, "Tell it to Elle McPherson". What I wore was all about standing up for myself in public - while sending a pointed private message to the man who had criticised me when I was at my most vulnerable: 'Look what you're losing'. There are no photos of this outfit - my divorce took place in a pre-selfie age. But I don't need a photo to remember that suit and what it meant.
I was immediately taken back to that outfit when I picked up Faith Salie's new book. Salie, a New York-based author and presenter, also knows all about the business of choosing your divorce dress. Her memoir, Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring too Much, should be compulsory reading for anyone who has known - and confronted - the pain of trying too hard to please. Among her witty, naughty, poignant essays comes a (now-celebrated) account of her divorce.
In the weeks leading up to the day in court, her outfit was on her - and everyone else's - mind. In the first place, she was not indifferent to how her soon-to-be-ex saw her: 'As righteous and sassy as I felt, [...] I still wanted to look pretty. Just because I was angry and didn't want to be married to him anymore, didn't mean I'd stopped caring what he thought'. She was not (yet) at the point where the only approval she needed was her own.
When she told women she was going to her divorce hearing, everybody, but everybody, asked her 'without skipping a beat' what she was going to wear. She even spent time in a pitch meeting going through the pros and cons of specific outfits with the TV executive. She was well aware of the ludicrous comedy of it all. Yet she also felt the pain of giving up her hopes, dreams and intense efforts to make her marriage work: 'I was ready to be over him but I wasn't quite'.
Furthermore, she had no idea, really, what to expect about the court appearance itself, which dismayed her: 'My literal appearance was the only thing I could control'. Along with the pain, however, there crept in a certain silver lining: she was finally able 'to focus on something as superficial as a dress after years of addressing deeper concerns. It felt good to dig into my closet rather than my soul'.
All of this needed to be encapsule-wardrobed. She needed to find an outfit that would acknowledge loss, and gesture towards redemption.
She went through choices. Something new, which would 'forever make it The Divorce Dress?' Should she 'hit Zara and buy something that looks good but is disposable - or was that too much of a metaphor for our marriage?' Perhaps she ought to single out 'a reliable favourite' - but then it would be tarnished by association. She consulted friends and family, and was swamped with choices.
In the end - and this is what I think will most strongly resonate with others - she was alone in her decision, just as she had felt alone in the decision to divorce her husband. The night before her flight, alone with her clothes and her mirror, she realised, 'any girly giddiness about playing dress-up evaporated as I faced reality. I was packing a suitcase to dissolve a marriage I'd vowed would last all the days of my life'..
So what, you ask, did she choose in the end? 'A Nanette Lepore silk dress with a black, tan, and purple pattern that simultaneously evokes leopard print and peacock feathers - an appropriately yin-yang combination'. And this was only the start, the top layer of a multi-layered inverse wedding cake. There were other things to consider, apart from The Dress.
As Salie says, 'On a meaningful day, everything you wear can have meaning. It becomes what I wore That Day, whether that day is a beginning or an end'. Jewellery, shoes, toenails and fingernails - even underwear - all have 'subtext'. Salie's 'hot pink lace Hanky Pankys with purple hearts' signified, in no uncertain terms, her hope that 'a future man might happily remove them from my person'. The subtext of the dress, what was going on underneath it (the 'unmentionables' that Salie laughingly refers to), was that she could embrace the ending of her marriage, if it had to happen, and believe it would be possible to love and be loved again.
It wasn't, however, the day she wore it that meant the most to Salie. Instead it was the day she bought it that carried the most symbolic weight. Salie had purchased the dress at a sale, and was walking through Times Square, with her bags, in the early evening, when her soon to be ex-husband - Salie has called upon the term, invented in the 1990s, 'wasband',- phoned her to make 'some kind of legal threat'.
For the first time, she realised that she did not need to engage with him. She ended the call: 'And the world kept spinning, and the neon lights in Times Square didn't even flicker'. In their marriage, it would have been unthinkable for Salie to have let go an opportunity to plead with, argue with, feel sad about the man she was trying so hard to have a workable relationship with.. Desperate to win his love and approval, and desperately unhappy and depressed, it was, in the end, a simple relief to stop trying so very hard, to accept that, in her demands on herself to be everything to him, she was actually placing demands on him that he could not meet.
There is a coda to Salie's essay, in which she reflects on the self she was That Day - the day that she agonised over what to wear and her ex 'never looked her way again'. As an older, married woman, pregnant with her first baby, she wishes she could talk to her younger self and tell her that 'she will outgrow old fashions and slip effortlessly into something new'.
That, for me, is the key message in divorce. At first, you cling to what was, but as time passes, your frame of reference shifts, imperceptibly, and before you know it you really can't help wondering why you bothered - if not with the marriage per se, but with the sorry, miserable efforts in its dying throes to please and impress someone that no longer forms part of your personal future. You ditch the things they liked, and you go for the things you like. And this is how, eventually, you hook up with someone who loves you the way you are.