I started feeling actively self-conscious about the way I dress in seventh grade. I can almost remember the exact moment in which I realized that I was not going to get in with the popular girls unless I wore Hollister skinny jeans, UGG boots — not Bearpaw, Roxy or any of the other knock-off brands — a Victoria’s Secret “Love Pink” t-shirt and maybe also a North Face windbreaker for the chilly days.
Going even farther back into my personal history, I can recall moments of discomfort brought on by wearing something that did not feel quite right, or something that simply was not as on-trend as what the other girls were wearing. Once, in second grade, I wore a dress to school, which I had never done before, having always been dead-set on my tomboy persona. Halfway through the day, I became nauseous with insecurity and told my teacher that I had to go home because I felt sick. She took me into the hallway, called my mom and told her, “Camille just isn’t acting like herself.” I stood by, angrily clutching my little teal and pink floral number, knowing good and well that the second I could get home and rip it off my body, my stomach would stop churning.
My sophomore year of high school, my self-esteem hit an all-time low. I came up with an uninformed, long-term plan to boost it back up. I would wear the same outfit, every single day, until I had the perfect and complete wardrobe, at which point I would burst out, new and improved, all at once. My everyday “outfit” of choice was essentially pajamas: an oversized ‘80s fleece pullover with tattering at the cuffs, black leggings which quickly became worn-in and see-through and a pair of white Vans. That damn fleece in particular was like my security blanket, because it concealed a body that I was deeply, dysmorphically ashamed of. It was a piece of clothing, and I could hide in it, and I did, for at least nine months straight.
Clothing, fashion and style have such a ridiculous amount of power over us and over the way we view other people. It is, of course, an expression of identity. I do not even quite know where to begin in listing all that clothing, for better or for worse, often ends up signifying — but perhaps naming gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, region of origin, religion, occupation, economic status and age is a good place to start. There is beauty in using the power of style to tell people about yourself and your idiosyncrasies; granted, it turns into a weapon when a person styles themselves in something that is not theirs to put on. But I genuinely do not feel qualified to claim that I know where a line must be drawn when it comes to determining what exactly makes an article of clothing or an accessory one person’s but not another’s. However, I do feel qualified, as someone with strong opinions, to discuss the perhaps pettier, non-political and highly performative aspects of fashion. I will not go so far as to say these aspects are objectively toxic, but I nonetheless am trying to escape from them. I do believe that for myself, and for many other people, the stress that we put on being fashionable — which only exists because of clothing’s inherent power — takes up a frightening amount of mental space, which often fuels self-hate, and makes me feel that if I am not always perfectly representing myself with my style, then I will be actively dirtying my true character.
This past Saturday, several of my Lawrence friends and I went to a party in Chicago, where I went to school for my freshman year at Columbia College. A couple of friends who I am still in touch with from that year knew about this party because our mutual acquaintance — I will call them Emery — who I have always had a crush on, was scheduled to DJ, so it was bound to be a rager. On the bus ride to the Wicker Park apartment where the party was being held, I kept trying to explain to my Lawrence friends the “type of person” that was going to be there. I knew what to expect because I had been to that “type of party” before, and I was nervous, because I knew everyone there would be so hot, so trendy, so indie, so much cooler than me. In many ways, this turned out to be true — nobody there looked “normal.” I’m talking mullets, fish-nets, bright red blouses, shear skirts, clunky-chunky sneakers, knee-high boots, double laser belts, bell-bottom jeans and shearling coats. Sitting on a couch in the corner, watching everyone dance controllably, I felt like I was at the same 2018 Chicago party at which I had called my dad from the bathroom, sobbing into the phone about how I could not stay another semester at Columbia, how I needed to come home. That night in 2018, my crack-up was triggered by the scene on the back porch of the apartment, where everyone was smoking cigarettes, all dressed up, and Emery was canoodling with their girlfriend, and they were both so stupidly hot and cool.
My Lawrence friend leaned over to me on the couch, and over the music said, “What if we’re actually the cool ones because we’re dressed so normal?”’
Obviously, “coolness” is a social construct, and it does not exist as a physical thing that can be pointed at, as much as I often talk about it as if it is tangible. But I think that if one decides that it is “cool” to dress in such a way that makes them blend in with the crowd — at least, that it is no less cool than dressing to stand out — then this is the beginning of a journey away from the often draining, implicit competition that style and fashion can be. I, for one, am certainly not removed from the mentality of style as a contest to see who can look the best, the trendiest or who can present themselves most perfectly, either flamboyantly or concisely. But my ultimate goal is to stop trying to be fashionable, and to dress however I am truly most comfortable, though I do not yet know what that looks like. I want to acknowledge the power of fashion, see how other people are wielding it and decide to wield it for myself in a way that hurts no one, including me. I want to let go of the notion that my style has to say everything about who I am, and decide to exist exclusively in clothing that makes me feel good about myself, regardless of how it actually looks.