just a thought – recovering fashion victim

For some people, style is instinctive. I am not one of those people, and yet, here I am, with my fashion blog, ostensibly working in the fashion industry, and I am still in the process of figuring out who I am and what I like.  Sometimes I feel ridiculous, being surrounded by so many innately stylish people, recognizing in them the skill I work so hard to wield inexpertly.  I used to feel ashamed.

I grew up in a very small town with only one clothing store, to parents who were proudly un-style-conscious, and even anti-consumerist.  Perhaps it was the absence of style and fashion around me which made me so fascinated.  I was homeschooled, and once a week my parents would drive me to the library, where I would check out and renew the big books on classic Hollywood, LIFE Magazine photo essays, and costume history.  I was always a small kid carrying a big stack of oversized books that were nearly as heavy as I was.  I took up making paper dolls inspired by pictures in books – slavishly historically accurate wardrobes tightly rendered in ballpoint pen and pencil crayon.  I created stacks and stacks of these.

My own clothes were besides the point – hand-me-downs and thrifted by my parents with no aesthetic considerations, chosen to get dirty with lots of outdoor play.  I didn’t like my clothes and it began to really bother me when I started going to school as a teenager.  I had no money and even if I did there was nothing to spend it on.  The bleak offerings of the SEARS catalogue, the local church Thrift Store, and the preppy basics at the lonely clothing shop on main street never quite matched my desires, not that I had any clear idea of what I wanted.

When I got my first part-time job, I was able to go down to the mall in the nearest small city with my best friend and her mom.  Even though it was a tiny mall in a tiny city, I was awestruck by the abundance available.  Cheap polyester and tacky raver gear was bright and shiny and there for the buying, and I bought it, randomly, cluelessly.  Back home I sifted through the moldy piles of clothes at the thrift store and tried to modify them, and I even bought fabric from Fabricland and attempted to sew together jeans and dresses, shoddily and unsuccessfully.  My clothing was now a lot more colourful and varied, but it still didn’t bring me any satisfaction, and none of it seemed to “go together”.  Even in my small town high school, I could see other girls who were born with stylish eyes, who could combine thrifted stuff with Le Chateau stuff with more panache than I ever could.  The more I tried to look cool, the more self-conscious I felt.  I was a loser – a fashion victim.

When it was time for me to figure out how to leave town, I was at a loss. I didn’t know what I wanted.  I knew I liked to read and write, so I considered taking English or History.  But I decided on a more applied program – Fashion Design – with sort of a selfish, half-formed thought that maybe I would be able to figure out how to dress myself if I learned how to sew properly.

Entering fashion school was far, far worse on my fragile sartorial ego than any experience I had ever had before.  I was surrounded by people who were not just innately stylish, but flamboyantly so.  Seasoned shoppers, armed with knowledge from all the current fashion magazines that I never read. Before, I was dissatisfied with my scrappy wardrobe – now, I actively hated it.  I became a recluse, living in the library and inside my mind.  Every time I did take some of my OSAP money to buy clothes, it was a disaster – I would choke and buy expensive, trendy stuff that I didn’t wear. All around me were girls who were enthusiastically, brilliantly expressing themselves with clothing, and somehow no effort I made was able to transform me into that kind of girl.

By third year, when I was beginning to come out of my shell, I had made a decision, one I know now is a fairly common one in the fashion industry.  I would renounce fashion, resigning myself to admit that I was unable to work a decent outfit.  Over the next five years, I whittled down my wardrobe to the barest essentials – a few pairs of good jeans, tank tops from American Apparel, Dr. Martens boots, messenger bags and black jackets.  I even became proud of my asceticism.

At the beginning of this year, I did my yearly purge of unwanted clothing, and for the first time discovered that I liked almost everything I owned.  After years of anxiety about clothing, to the point of giving up on it, I was finally comfortable with where I was at.  The paradox was that I was too comfortable, that the way that I dressed was boring me.  So this year, for the first time, I’ve started to experiment more – with colour and with shape.  I am starting to pick items of clothing that are unusual and interesting, and for the first time in my life, enjoying the process of figuring out how to incorporate them into my wardrobe.

Style isn’t a competition – it can be a game, where you make up your own rules, where the point is to have fun.  Even if you don’t know how, you are still allowed to play.  Now I just wonder why it took me so long to figure that out.

Were you born with a sense of style or did you learn it? Are there any other recovering fashion victims out there?

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10 thoughts on “just a thought – recovering fashion victim”

  1. I go with what works best on my body – tall, boobs, butt, ability to eat – and start from there. I do like to create outfits based on my mood. One day I might decide to be a secret agent, another day maybe something vaguely sixties. It’s dress-up for me.

  2. What a good and interesting question, Danielle! Is there anyone who hasn’t been a fashion victim at some point or another? Even if you’ve always managed to pull off clothes, there are always hair and make-up fiascos!

    Curiously, in my early fifties (can you believe I said that?) I dress much like I did in my teens and twenties, albeit with garments that fit better thanks to the wonder of alterations. 😉

  3. Thank you for this post, Danielle! It actually made me evaluate my own shopping/fashion habits…

    I am still a fashion victim, I think–I’ll never be on anyone’s best dressed list, which used to infuriate me, but I think I’ve pretty much come to grips with it. I know there are people with innate fashion sense, and I don’t seem to have it – I’ve learned some things just from reading blogs, magazines, etc, but mostly I’ve realized that I’m just not one of those people who mixes and matches perfectly–I think as long as I enjoy my outfit and how I mix and match…what else matters? I guess I’m sort of recovering, too, but I’m probably not as far along in the recovery phase as you are!

  4. “All around me were girls who were enthusiastically, brilliantly expressing themselves with clothing, and somehow no effort I made was able to transform me into that kind of girl.”

    This is still me now. I was never interested in fashion until about 19 when I went to university, and I’m still trying to sort out things for myself. It doesn’t come easily to me. It’s kind of funny, too, since I see your clothing choices now and think “hey, there’s someone who dresses like me”. Not in a bad way or anything – it’s just nice to know that there’s someone out there working on it, too.

  5. I went through a similar trial-and-error process concerning my personal style. It takes time to figure out what’s flattering and what makes you feel good. I’ve figured it out, and as a result I insist on being extremely picky on what I allow into my wardrobe.

  6. Growing up my mother or some other family member did my shopping for me despite my protestations so I had to be creative with what I had. When I finally began shopping for myself in high school and university I was a fashion victim and fumbled around with colour (I dressed loudly in clashing colours) and styles.

    Today, I’m still trying to figure out what my personal style is. It’s been an interesting journey to say the least but I’ve had a lot of fun with it along the way.

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  8. Hi! I just found your blog from a link at dramatis personae. It really resonated with me because I am NOT naturally stylish. Not by a long shot. I wouldn’t even necessarily say I’m stylish now, but I really do try. That’s why I have a personal style blog – its main purpose is to encourage me to get out of my shell and really critique the choices I make with my clothing. I will never be someone who can just throw on ten random things and make them work. I just won’t. But I’m slowly becoming someone who can put together a respectable and semi-interesting outfit, which is more than I could say for most of my life. I spent grade school in uniforms, with Saturdays having only “play clothes” of jeans and hand me down t-shirts, and Sundays being just a rotation of the same three church outfits. In high school we had a strict dress code but no uniforms, but even then I still just had about 7 set outfits I rotated endlessly throughout the year. Every August I went back to school shopping and those clothes pretty much had to last me a year. In college I just didn’t have the budget to experiment. So it’s only the past few years where I have the interest, and ability, to get “into” clothes.

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