Off Brand is a thrice-monthly column that delves into trends in fashion and beauty.
WEDDING OUTFITS get all the attention—from bespoke suits to custom gowns to unconventional but no less strategized statements like jumpsuits, Army uniforms and Renaissance Fair costumes.
But wedding style’s evil stepsister, the divorce look, is gaining clout in the zeitgeist. When child-star-turned-fashion-mogul Mary-Kate Olsen and French banker Olivier Sarkozy finalized their divorce last month via Zoom, screenshots of the proceedings taken by court reporters went viral. Ms. Olsen, whose brand the Row epitomizes quiet sophistication, wore a chic black turtleneck that was instantly dissected and memed. With her long wavy hair unkempt in a relatable pandemic-ish way, she looked uniquely herself. And was that a hint of a smile?
The enthusiastic online response to the screenshot evoked the glory days of Hollywood divorce, when plebes watched awestruck as stars like Elizabeth Taylor (eight marriages) and Zsa Zsa Gabor (nine marriages) made serial break-ups glamorous. When Marilyn Monroe divorced Joe DiMaggio in 1954 after nine months of marriage, she famously wore a little black dress, high pumps and white gloves to the courthouse. She was filmed beaming and waving outside its chambers—a scene that would have fit seamlessly into one of her movies.
No one formula prescribes what to wear to one’s divorce proceedings, whether they take the form of mediation, litigation, or, now, a video call. Yet few would deny that one’s appearance plays a role in the outcome, with so much at stake: money, home, custody. The websites of family-law practices often include lengthy treatises advising men and women on what to wear to court, with the emphasis on classic silk blouses, prim dresses and sober suits. Some firms go further: Claire Samuels Law, a family law and divorce mediation firm in Charlotte, N.C., offers the services of a high-end stylist, and posts style ideas such as Prada pumps and minimalist Valextra handbags to its Instagram account.
‘I think that a divorce or a separation is in some ways a reclaiming of who you are outside of that relationship, and I think that you can see that reflected in the clothes. The outfits are very specific.’
Janice Meredith, a personal stylist in Toronto who has conducted workshops for women going through divorce, recommends comfortable, confidence-enhancing clothes. “Obviously nothing too tight or flashy but also no pieces that you are pulling at or having to adjust which can come across as weak and uncertain,” she said. For Zoom proceedings, she does favor a turtleneck a la Mary-Kate’s, for its jaw-flattering capabilities.
The pointers don’t end with attire. An article on the website of ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere) patronizingly reminds women to “visit the ladies’ room to check your makeup, brush your hair, and evaluate your overall appearance.”
Despite all the rote advice in circulation, many women use their divorce proceedings to more expressively communicate that they’ve begun a new chapter in their lives. The Bay Area writer Aubrey Hirsch recently tweeted a call for women to share their divorce dresses, as a cheeky response to a widespread
trend of sharing photos of wedding dresses. Women eagerly chimed in: a tight red power dress; running shoes; a white lace wedding-like gown; a strapless jumpsuit; a shimmery tank top; a suit and tie; a feathered mini-dress; pink corduroy jeans; a light-up kitten headband; lots of red; many high heels.
Ms. Hirsch told me, “I saw a lot of people in bright colors, in something that made them feel sexy, that made them feel good. I think that a divorce or a separation is in some ways a reclaiming of who you are outside of that relationship, and I think that you can see that reflected in the clothes. The outfits are very specific.”
When Chicago life coach Carly Grace Herrera, 35, got divorced at a courthouse a few years back, she intentionally chose a gray dress worn as a top, a golden jacket and, over the dress, a wide floral skirt (“because I’m blooming, honey,” as she put it). To her, the cozy, colorful combination felt both secure and hopeful. “No matter the outcome of that marriage, my prosperity is up to me and my happiness is up to me,” she said.
A 2018 Will McPhail cartoon in the New Yorker showed a smiling, suited woman standing in front of a mirror surrounded by her girlfriends. It reads: “This is the one, guys. This is the suit I’m going to get divorced in.” The joke still lands; no one sets out to get divorced. But with more progressive conversations happening around couplehood (thanks, Gwyneth!) the concept of flaunting a divorce look feels a bit more believable. As Ms. Hirsch said, “A divorce, like a wedding, is a big life event, and it’s stepping into your new life…We talk about one of these things in one way and one in the other way, and why can’t they both be a celebration in some way?”
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