12/13/2012 01:35 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

How Changing My Style (And City) Changed My Life (PHOTOS)

"Dress like the person you want to be," I mouthed to myself one morning in April on my commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan. It was one of my first such trips since picking up and moving to New York City from Washington, D.C., my hometown and where I lived for a four-year period of post-collegiate haze.

In D.C. -- a city I love for its interesting and surprisingly open people, its robust dining scene, its deceptively vibrant culture -- everyone looks the same. In terms of how they dress, anyway. A morning ride on the metro is filled with standard-issue suits from Men's Warehouse, the Georgetown set in khakis and sports coats and immaculately-dressed women heading to Capitol Hill in gray-scale skirt-and-cardigan combos.

While I lived there, I largely conformed to what I saw around me. There were noted exceptions, of course, my heavy-set frames perhaps chief among them. I once took a job interview for an editorial position with the public affairs talk show The McLaughlin Group; I'll never forget John McLaughlin giving me and my glasses a hard stare. "Don't you have contacts?" he asked.

At first I was shocked by the bluntness of the question -- commenting on a woman's appearance in an interview felt like borderline harassment -- but I gathered myself and gave an equally blunt reply. "I do, but I like these." Needless to say, I didn't get the job.

When I packed up my life and headed north, partly for a job, partly for love and partly for a different way of life, it was a given that my surroundings were about to change. But I didn't count on how wildly different my mornings would look.

On that early commute in April, I saw women with wide-brimmed hats topped with pheasant feathers. I saw men with gelled hair spiked high. I saw teens in torn neon tees made of mesh. And no one was staring. Well, other than me.

I can't pretend to know the motivation behind their fashion choices, but I like to think these people -- all beautiful in unique ways -- were dressing for themselves, dressing the way they wanted to look. The clothes I saw told stories. They made people look powerful, studious, adventurous, artful. Some had a sense of humor and some were deathly serious.

In my first month, I bought up an entirely new wardrobe. It wasn't a conscious decision, hardly -- I suppose I was feeling a freedom to fashion myself in a new way. So I bought new suede ankle boots with a four-inch wedge. I bought an African-print cotton dress that dragged on the floor when I walked. I bought a brown felt hat (a hat!) that made me look like Indiana Jones. I started painting my nails in bright neon hues. I began pairing items that seemed incongruous before -- a checkered gray gingham shirt with a gray patterned swatter, a prim yellow cardigan with a ripped striped tee, combat boots with everything.

I started admiring the amazing ways in which people styled their hair. I started a blog devoted to what I saw, called Hair NYC.

Let's be clear -- at the end of the day, clothes are just clothes. But showing on the outside how I felt on the inside was empowering in a way that I hadn't foreseen. For me, a shift in style also meant a shift in attitude, in how I perceived myself.

I still wear my glasses, too, but sometimes I don't. It depends on my mood. Mostly, it depends on who I want to be -- and that changes on the day. I love that the streets of New York accepts that, encourages it. It's a place where people dress in a way that's worthy of stares, but people rarely do. Well, hardly ever.

Rachel Tepper