June 2, 2010
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?