Dressing to Find Yourself

How clothing choice in the wake of trauma or abuse can empower healing, as seen in Netflix’s Maid.


COPY EDITOR: Eishvinder Gill

Dressing yourself is a complicated and tangible way to express your identity. There’s an anxiety attached to identity expression that getting dressed can quell — simplifying and smoothing out murkier, deeper questions. Selecting and putting on an outfit can be a way to ruminate on past versions of yourself, to ground your current identity, or to express who you hope to be in the future.

I thought about how overwhelming getting dressed can be while I binge-watched the Netflix mini-series Maid on my laptop in bed. The story is centred around Alex, a young mother rebuilding her life after escaping an abusive relationship. There’s a scene where Alex, seeking refuge with her daughter at a domestic violence shelter, is invited to pick out a new wardrobe from the shelter’s consignment store (where everything is free). Treading around the racks of clothes, with a shopping basket clutched tightly in her hands, Alex is visibly anxious. It is clear that her mind is drawing a blank. Having seen Alex navigate her relationship with her alcoholic ex, I understand her fear. She couldn’t invest the time and energy into her identity development that 20-somethings often do in order to find themselves. Her face tells the viewer that she doesn’t even know where to start.

“It’s because our circuits have been completely fried by what we’ve been through,” the shopkeeper, a fellow shelter resident, tells her. “When I first got here it took me weeks to remember my favourite colour.” To ease Alex into the process, the shopkeeper asks her what her daughter likes to wear. Alex’s response is immediate and reflexive. Her daughter’s wants and needs are second nature to her, constantly prioritized above her own. She is proud to be a mother, but the fight it has taken to survive and protect her daughter has consumed her own sense of self.

Ricardo Hubbs / Image Courtesy of Netflix



This idealistic identity exploration is ultimately a fantasy, separate from Alex’s true inner world– at the end of the day, she goes home and the illusion is broken

Before Alex slowly begins to heal, we see her dabble in a fantastical form of identity expression through clothing. Alex, a domestic worker, steals and covets a cashmere sweater from a wealthy client’s home. Entranced by the expensive fabric, she slips it on and wanders around the client’s home in it as if it were her own. She drinks cold, expensive white wine and impulsively invites a Tinder date over to the client’s house. Through Alex’s imaginative dress-up, an oatmeal colour, cashmere sweater comes to represent money, sex, and power. But this idealistic identity exploration is ultimately a fantasy, separate from Alex’s true inner world– at the end of the day, she goes home and the illusion is broken. When she takes off the sweater and confronts herself, the questions awaiting her are terrifying. She needs time and to heal in order to rediscover herself.

In recovery at the shelter, as she fights for custody of her daughter and applies to post-secondary school, we see Alex explore her sense of self outside of her circumstances. She fills out applications wearing black, winged eyeliner and silver hoops. She gets back in touch with herself: she is a writer, she is sexual, she is a mother, and all of these things are true at once about her. And, as Alex later announces to the shopkeeper, her favourite colour is sky blue. 

Making the decision to claim makeup or clothing as one’s own can be healing. 

One third of all women experience domestic violence. Alex’s story (based on a memoir) is unique, but her grappling for identity in the wake of complex trauma is not uncommon. This is in part due to the tactics that survivors employ to protect themselves, such as compartmentalization. By compartmentalizing, survivors distance their inner world from the version of themselves that is being abused (effectively dissociating). Research has shown that “possession-control” is an effective tool to bridge this gap, as it reconnects the mind, core self, and body. Possession-control involves survivors identifying what is theirs – it could be a material item, a family member, or a specific place. Exercising control and ownership helps survivors to feel capable and independent in re-building their identity. Making the decision to claim makeup or clothing as one’s own can be healing. 

In one of the episode’s final scenes, Alex meets with her ex to let him know that she is going back to school and moving away with their daughter. Her hair is brushed and she’s wearing a sweater from the shelter’s store. She’s applied some light eyeliner and sports a pair of hoop earrings. When her ex greets her, he says that she looks nice.

“It’s not for you,” she replies.