Dressing Up, Dressing Down

This week we found ourselves back in civilisation, as Mexico City was the first stopping point for our Mexican adventure. It’s the biggest city we’ve been to since Tokyo, back in the chill of February. While most of our travels seem to have revolved around countryside, national parks and beaches, cities are probably the only place that I feel self conscious about what I’m wearing. A combination of skinny jeans and hiking shoes just doesn’t scream urban chic, and the frequent showers mean I often team it up with my very practical yet far from fashionable waterproof jacket. Such is the challenge of dressing yourself on a long trip.

Museum chic in Mexico City

Since I first opened a fashion magazine (which I don’t do these days) I was confronted with the idea of a capsule wardrobe. Apparently, it’s possible to have a few ‘key’ items that you can then accessorise or pair with other things in order to have an outfit for every occasion. There’ll be pictures of ‘from office to evening’ where you add some heels or a pair of earrings in order to glide effortlessly from your job to a fancy bar. I don’t know anyone that does this. Each time I go to my wardrobe I am confronted with a mishmash of clothes that were picked based on my mood at the time or whether or not they were in the sale.

Having said that, I currently find myself in possession of something that could arguably be called a capsule wardrobe. At least in terms of the amount that’s in it. When we left on our trip, I had less than half a suitcase to put all the clothes I needed for six months. Needless to say, this was a daunting prospect. Not only was space a factor, but my choices had to cover everything from inner city living to beach chilling. I had to prepare for temperatures ranging from 5 to 35 degrees.

Shabby chic in Australia is totally fine. Note: baby in just a vest.

I made piles for each type of weather. I slimmed it down. I did a practice pack and realised that there was way too much stuff. How could I possibly fit everything I wanted in? Then I decided to approach it in a different way. I don’t know about you, but getting dressed can seem more of a decision about what version of myself to present to the world today, rather than what to cover my body with. For the trip, this could range from ‘fun-in-the-sun me’ in a summer dress and flip flops to ‘serious hiker me’ in waterproof hiking trousers and fleece (god that sounds like I’m a Barbie doll). Not to mention the city version, the problem of possible dinners out and the added bonus of making sure everything I packed was suitable for breastfeeding (that pretty much excluded the summer dresses at least).

Instead of approaching my clothes in this way, I decided to try to see it like a man. Now, of course, there are many men that take far more time and deliberation over their outfits than me, and have a much keener sense of fashion. But for many, it seems to me that dressing yourself is a simple matter of either trousers or shorts, and T shirt, shirt or jumper. When I adjusted my thinking to include only what would be practical, the job became much easier. I have one pair of jeans, one pair of walking trousers, and three pairs of shorts. The T shirts I chose were at least different styles, then I have some long sleeves, one thick jumper and enough underwear for a week.

To begin with, I found this lack of choice incredibly stifling. It didn’t help that we were in Tokyo, where everyone was incredibly sophisticated. I felt self-conscious all the time, only rotating a few outfits. In the cold weather this was even worse, as I only had three possible jumpers to keep warm.

This trusty jumper has seen it all!

As time has gone by, I’ve started to find it incredibly freeing. There’s no point in spending time wondering what would look good today, or how to do my hair to go with what I’m wearing, because there isn’t much of a choice. Even from the few clothes I have, there’s the other matter of only being able to wear what is clean. As we’re using washable nappies and have a small baby, she gets through clothes much quicker than us and the nappies need washing once every 2-3 days, so our clothes don’t get priority. Needless to say, my morning routine is much shorter than it would be at home.

And I’m used to it. So much so that I found myself in the streets of Mexico City wearing what can only be described as cargo shorts (hello 90s) which reached my shins, sturdy walking shoes and a turquoise top with a fringe on. It was the only T-shirt left and my one nod to looking nice. I’ve also brought earrings with me which give the illusion of having an ‘outfit’ on rather than whatever isn’t too crumpled in the suitcase.

Stylish? No. Practical? Yes.

This was the day I got a bit of time to myself. A very rare occurrence, but we organised it so she was fed, there was enough food to keep her going, and it was between meals, so it shouldn’t interfere too much with naps. Quite a faff, but it gave me three glorious hours to wander the city by myself, without having to worry about anyone else.

Selfie outside the cathedral – alone for once!

It was a while before I noticed people staring at me. Of course, fair hair and blue eyes is always going to get attention in Latin America, especially seeing as we are in the low season for tourists. But it started to occur to me that I wasn’t getting looks because of my skin colour. I’ve been brushing up on my Spanish on Duolingo so I can communicate enough to get by. Having spent a year in Madrid many years ago, I can understand a lot more than I can say, so there have been some moments when I’ve heard people talking about me but they haven’t been aware I know what they’re saying. Usually a simple phrase in Spanish is enough to get them looking surprised and they stop.

I think the yellow socks are a particularly strong addition here

This time, I was just walking past people, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the beautiful buildings. More than once, I heard the word ‘pantalones’ – trousers – and glanced down to look at what the problem was. Admittedly, it was only once I went to put them on for the first time in Singapore that I remembered not only were they too big, but the button had come off. I have to keep them up with a safety pin, and they are fairly baggy. Just that morning I had also noticed that there were some white marks on them. I think mould, because we’d been in Costa Rica which was very damp, and it was hard to get everything dry. If not then probably milk vomit, which has lessened of late but still a fairly common occurrence. But they are comfortable, a good middle ground if it’s too warm for jeans and too cold for shorts, so what the hell.

One of the buildings in Mexico City is absolutely stunning. It’s called ‘The House of Tiles’ and you can see why. The whole thing is covered in intricately decorated tilework, and that’s just on the outside. Inside there are ornate iron railings on the stairwells, gold-framed mirrors and a fancy cafe where the waitresses dress up in traditional clothes. I didn’t eat there, but decided to poke my nose in to have a look. While admiring the splendour, I was sure I heard another comment directed my way. Behind the counter which was adorned with small, perfectly formed chocolates, was a mirror. There I was, in all my scruffy glory. Hair scrunched back out of my face, wrinkled top and baggy short/trousers with white smears on the front, topped off by the clumpy but incredibly comfortable shoes that have carried me almost the entire way around the world. And I didn’t care. I was comfortable, I was on a brilliant adventure, and they could stare all they liked.

It’s those trousers again…

Of course, there are times when I do feel self-conscious. We flew down to Cancun after Mexico City, and while waiting in the airport there was another family waiting opposite us. The baby was a boy, probably a few months older than ours, and the woman looked like she’d wandered out of a magazine. Stylish outfit, smart shoes, shiny styled hair and striking makeup, including red lipstick. I bet she has a capsule wardrobe. There she was, feeding scraps of her sandwich to her son, no wee stains on her leg or little bits of milk vom making lines down her top. I have never felt more dowdy. It is beyond me how people with children manage to look like that, especially when they are just about to get on a flight. An inner part of me sighed, and then realised that I never looked like that anyway, baby or no baby, trip or no trip. Perhaps I’ll discover my inner chic when she’s grown up.

It’s not just me that gets scrutiny. Whenever we see other babies (and this was especially true at classes back home) they always seem to be in some sort of matching outfit. While we have brought a few other items with us, our baby has pretty much been in either a vest or a babygro every day. In the hotter countries she’s just in a shorty vest, which invariably has stains on it thanks to the lack of decent washing machines. Next to the baby in Nikes and a fashionable cardigan the other day, her grubby vest just doesn’t match up. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t care though.

Who needs an outfit when you’re this cute?

I would like to think that when I get home, my new attitude of dressing ‘like a man’ will continue. I can’t guarantee it, especially as my entire wardrobe will seem brand new as I haven’t been able to wear it for six months. Even if it doesn’t, I like to think that making do with such a tiny amount of clothing has reminded me that it really doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. It is possible to exist with an absolute minimum of stuff, which is always worth remembering in our world of over consumption. Time to wear those trousers again…

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

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