LPC popped this question into the suggestion box:
I’d love to know how you dressed beFORE you started looking at style the way you do now. Or as a teen. You have a very distinct style now. Was it always that way? I know you’ve talked about it here and there, but I haven’t seen a full post, I don’t think, on this topic.
I expected to cringe and groan as I sifted through old photographs of myself, embarrassed by my obliviousness and ashamed of my formerly messy style. But you know what I learned? High school wasn’t much fun and I could barely scrape up a single photo from it, but MAN, I loved college. Loved it. I looked radiantly happy in every photo, even the hilariously weird ones. Which I will now proceed to share with you.
But first a little exposition:
From the day I hit puberty, I felt ashamed of my jiggly, seemingly-unruly body. I had no idea what to do with myself, or how to dress my shape. A potent cocktail of media messages and peer pressure convinced me that my body was unacceptable and unworthy of showcasing. So I cultivated a wardrobe of huge, formless, sexless clothes in which to hide myself: Osh-Kosh-B’Gosh overalls, enormous flannel shirts stolen from my dad, 90-pound Peruvian sweaters that hung on me like vibrantly colored burlap sacks. And I hid.
OK, so this is a prom photo and I’m not wearing anything sacklike. But it’s literally the only high school photo I could find. As you can see, I also had no idea what to do with my hair either. I washed it every day and brushed it out, for optimum bushiness. Though, to my credit, there weren’t many hair products marketed to curly girls back in the day. It was Depp gel, mousse (which was used for spiking purposes only at the time), and hairspray. I truly had no idea that putting some gunk in my hair would make it form actual curls.
P.S. My mom made that pink dress. Does she rock, or what?
This is a college photo in which I’m wearing what I considered, at the time, to be my most stylish outfit. And it was definitely the most form-fitting combo I had in my arsenal. I wore that leather strap as a choker for ages, loved those pants and that shirt, and wore my hair in that style nearly every day.
(No making fun of the friend-clinging-to-legs photo. Everyone was wacky in college, for crying out loud.)
But this is what I looked like most of the time. Yes, I realize this is an exaggeratedly unflattering photo, but I want you to note some things: I am wearing overalls, still wearing the choker, still bushy in the hairs.
Here’s some flannel for yas. It was the 90s, after all. I’m pretty sure I thrifted that one, but I did have a very similar shirt that once belonged to my dad. He’s 6’1″ and weighs half again as much as me so you can imagine how it fit.
With the exception of the mustard jeans and rose tee anomaly, all, all, AAAALLLLL of these outfits were designed for total comfort and total hiding. I wanted my figure masked as much and as often as possible. I spent a lot of time wishing I could be a brain in a jar.
My last year of college I chopped my waist-length hair. This is how it looked initially. I made my housemate take a bunch of photos of me in my fanciest duds to commemorate the occasion. At the time, I thought that dress was SCANDALOUSLY short. In fact, I’m not sure I ever wore it for anything besides this series of photos.
Although I mainly stuck to jeans, flannel, overalls, and oversized tees, I accumulated a couple of dresses, most of them similar to this batik dealy. Worn with Birkenstocks, which were my ONLY pair of sandals at the time. (If you can imagine that.) This photo was taken the summer after I graduated from college on the day we started our cross-country drive from upstate New York to San Francisco. Me and the tall guy, that is. He’s my college ex.
Kept the hair short in San Francisco, and continued with a relatively androgynous look. I was miserable in SF and don’t have many photos from that time period, but this is a pretty representative outfit. I worked in a very casual office and did jeans nearly every day.
Once I moved to Minneapolis, I decided to grow the hair out. I know you can’t see what I’m wearing here, but just wanted to prove that there was a painful in-between phase for the Insane Mane. I am wearing lippy because this is at my birthday party, but I swear I’m not wearing rouge. I was just warm. And possibly tipsy.
By now I’m in my mid-twenties and finally beginning to accept my physicality. I realized yo-yo dieting wasn’t making me any healthier, and grudgingly joined a gym. But simultaneously, I took a real interest in clothing and style. Although my weight continued to fluctuate, I recognized that I was maintaining the same basic body shape. I noted which cuts of clothing suited my curvy little figure, and accumulated flattering, interesting pieces while steadily ditching the formless ones.
This is approximately what I looked like when I met Husband Mike in 2001. I spent several years in the flare jeans and bulky sweaters phase.
OK, not really, but I HAD to throw this Halloween photo in. I made that costume myself from thrifted goods and craft store finds, and cannot believe I got rid of it.
This is a few months before we got married. We’re in the South Padre Islands shooting someone else’s wedding. So it’s not my fault I’m frizzy. That place is like a sauna. I’ve got on a top that fits in a color that flatters with a good neckline. Definite progress.
This is right around the time that my girlier style began to take shape. This was the tightest, sexiest top I owned and I felt amazing in it. Also, that’s a skirt I’m wearing. Among my first. Seriously.
Then I spent several years looking more or less like this: Cute and stylish, but super matchy and lacking creativity. I relied on the clothes to be interesting for me instead of creating interesting mixtures myself or playing with accessories.
This is pretty well into the blog and I’ve started to hone. By this time, I’ve described my personal style as “arty-eclectic with a broad streak of retro influence,” which I still believe holds true. I think this simple outfit with marvelous details encapsulates the beginnings of that style.
And y’all know what I look like NOW.
The most significant result of my personal fashion evolution was that I began to view clothes as tools. I came to accept that I would always be shaped the same way, but that, if I wanted to, I could use clothes to subtly change how my shape was perceived. I started buying clothes that drew the eye to my tiny waist, my shapely shoulders, my delicate ankles. I learned that I was a total knockout even if I wasn’t built like a lingerie model. I fell in love with fashion, and I’ve never looked back.
Hope you enjoyed this stroll down my personal branch of Stylistic Memory Lane! Thanks to LPC for a really fascinating suggestion.
(Bits of this post are drawn from this older post, which is an essay that I submitted to NPR’s This I Believe.)