‘I dress to feel alive in the moment’

Image expert Mandy Lehto speaks to Suzanne Arnold about how clothes helped her rediscover her identity after 10 years as a Buddhist nun


'I dress to feel alive in the moment'

For Suzanne Arnold, getting dressed is about fantasy and illusion. Style, as she sees it, is about relating to each moment. ‘Buddhism taught me about the impermanence of the self – that’s so helpful when getting dressed,’ she says.

In her twenties, Suzanne trained at Harvey Nichols as an assistant buyer. When she traded in her fashionable identity to become a Buddhist nun, clothes took on new meaning. ‘The night before I was ordained, a nun cut my long hair. That was a turning point, seeing my hair on the floor. I was letting go of an identity. My robes were symbolic, but it took time to get a sense of myself as a nun. I’d see my reflection in a window and be horrified. There were no hiding places – no hair, no make-up, no pretty garments.’

Becoming a Buddhist nun meant Suzanne was free to commit all her time to meditation and teaching without any other claims on her energy. And wearing the robes removed ambiguity in her relationships with people. ‘As soon as I was ordained, I found that the change in my appearance affected people – on the whole, they were more relaxed around me.’

When she disrobed a decade later, Suzanne’s identity was deeply shaken: ‘I had one burgundy outfit, no hair, no money, no idea where I was going.’ Her ‘this too shall pass’ philosophy eased the transition into secular society. And so did clothes, which helped her to re-identify with feeling feminine, now as a middle-aged woman. ‘Who am I?’ became, ‘Who do I want to be today?’

Now married and in a new career, Suzanne still contemplates her mortality daily. ‘Our impermanence brings playfulness. It stops me getting too earnest about clothes or ageing. I dress to feel alive in this moment.’

How to dress for the moment

  • Have fun! Style is about the enjoyment of clothes 
  • If you can’t move properly, then you won’t look stylish 
  • Team bold or clashing colours with neutral ones
  • Clothes tell a story – who do you want to be today? 
  • Think: more playfulness, less perfection 
  • Always try to celebrate your uniqueness 

For more about Mandy Lehto, go to mandylehto.com

Photograph: Ki Price

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Read A message from the Dalai Lama by David Head on LifeLabs

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