I don’t remember the source, but years ago I heard this comment about fashion choices and geography:Women in L.A. dress to impress men, women in New York City dress to impress other women, and women in Washington, DC, dress to blend into the walls.

At the time I was living in NYC and about to move to DC, so I was really hoping it wasn’t true and that I was not about to enter a land where women strive for blandness. Thankfully, I discovered that this stereotype, like so many others, isn’t accurate. And while it’s true that some women tone down their self-presentation when they dress for their jobs, you don’t have to be invisible to be appropriate. Nor should you.

The expression above gives you three reasons for your fashion choices: to impress men, to impress other women, or to disappear. What happened to the most important reason: to feel good in your clothes and in your own skin? The best reason to choose a particular outfit is because you feel great when you wear it. You are probably more likely to feel great if you know your clothes are flattering and appropriate for the occasion. But it would be an added bonus if you also feel that they help you to express who you are and your unique sense of style.

Melissa is a medical assistant in a dermatologist’s office. Her uniform for work includes a white medical jacket (which shows very little of her shirt) and any type of black pants with low heel shoes. For years, she wore shapeless black cotton pants, a T-shirt (also shapeless) and the same sneakers that she wore for running. Melissa’s reasoning was that there was no need to spend money or effort on clothes since she is mostly covered up anyway. Melissa was not the only assistant in the office who dressed this way and her boss never seemed to care much about her clothes.

One day Melissa was invited to a dinner event immediately after work. That morning, instead of her shapeless pants, she put on a pair of nice black trousers that fit her well, a pretty blouse and black flats with silver accents. Melissa smiled at herself when she looked in the mirror and knew she looked good. She worried a bit about “wasting” her nice clothes at the office, but she wouldn’t have time to change after work. When she arrived at the office, the white medical coat went on over her clothes, with just the bottom half of her pants and her shoes peeking out below.

And then something surprising happened. Melissa found herself standing up a little taller and checking out her reflection whenever she walked by a mirror. She actually felt more confident and pretty as she went through her day. And it wasn’t because the clothes were expensive—they weren’t. It was because they fit her well and matched her true sense of style, instead of just being something to wear under her coat.

Melissa discovered the happiness of dressing for herself. She experienced increased self-esteem even though her clothes were mostly hidden from everyone else. Maybe this self-esteem was visible to others, too, because she likely stood up straighter, made more eye contact or exuded greater confidence—but that’s not the point (it’s just a bonus).

If you focus on impressing yourself instead of anybody else, you can find a way to meet the practical requirements of your setting while still wearing clothes that represent your style sense and make you feel good about yourself. As a benefit, you’ll end up presenting yourself in a way that reflects confidence and is more truly and uniquely you. But the best part of taking the time and making the effort to wear something you love is that you’ll end up feeling good from the inside out.

QUIZ: Find the Clothes That Flatter Your Body Shape