Playing Dress Up

I don’t understand where my clothes came from. Somehow, in the past six years, I have amassed enough of a wardrobe to need to prune it drastically at least once a year. This plethora of clothes was not always the norm for me: For most of my life, I did not have an adult wardrobe, or even much of a young adult one. My closet was a cornucopia of t-shirts, acquired from various field hockey and lacrosse tournaments, plus a sprinkling of jeans. I went to a school that required me to wear a uniform from age five until age eighteen, so the days on which my biggest fashion decision was whether to throw on a sweater or a sweatshirt far outnumbered the ones on which I was in full control of my ensemble. By the time I hit 18, I was operating at a severe sartorial deficit.

In 2008, after thirteen years of green tartan kilts and white oxford shirts, I was headed to college, a magical land without a dress code in sight. Even by college standards, my school put the ‘liberal’ in liberal arts, renowned for its barefoot students, shirtless students, and a guy who dressed up as a wizard for a large part of my senior year. So what was a girl who was so used to, even dependent on, sartorial structure to do?

uniforms, plaid, fashion,
My friends and I rocking the plaid kilt/oxford shirt combo of our youth.

After some friend-mandated shopping expeditions (thanks Brooke!), I set off for school armed with two new pairs of jeans, a handful of American Apparel t-shirts, and two Anthropologie blouses, give or take. I was excited for my newfound fashion freedom. “This is going to be amazing,” I told myself. “I’ll get to wear whatever I want, whenever I want!” Then I arrived. And I have never missed plaid kilts and oxford shirts so much in my life.

Over the four years I spent in Baltimore, I slowly built up a healthy wardrobe of floral dresses, festive tights, plentiful leggings, and that pile of free t-shirts all co-eds seem to accumulate over the span of their studies. I had boots for days: I should have bought stock in Frye. By graduation, my style had crystallized into a theme of sorts, which I liked to describe it as what Taylor Swift would wear if she attended a very liberal, liberal arts college.

Then, in 2012, I found a new fashion icon in the form of Lizzie Bennet (well, really, the form was of Ashley Clements, since most of Lizzie’s wardrobe is from her personal collection, and most of her personal collection is from Anthropologie. “Do other stores sell clothes?”). That same year, I moved to New York, where my grad school pamphlets told me I would need to dress “professionally” for some classes. all things considered, I was relatively unfazed. By this point, I’d amassed a few blazers and a handful of dresses; my style was Lizzie Bennet approved. I could make this work. I stole a pair of my mother’s old Tory Burch flats, and we were good to go.

Ashley-Clements, Lizzie-Bennet, clothes, anthropologie,
Lizzie Bennet channeling Ashley Clements being everything I want to be sartorially.

Once in the city, I quickly learned that my style choices weren’t exactly wrong, but they were…different. In this giant city, color in clothing is easy to spot because there is so little of it. Faced with a room of little black dress-clad twenty-somethings, my green dress, tweed blazer, and brown boots felt incredibly out of place. (I sought out the few other color-wearing students and thereby made some of my best friends, but that’s a story for another time). That winter, I bought a black coat, black jeans, a handful of black tops, and several pairs of black shoes. The following summer, I learned that navy was a summer color in the big city, and I held a small funeral for many now outdated florals.

I’ve been in New York for just over two years now, and it definitely shows in my closet. I own much more black than I did when I moved here. My reds, blues, and greens have been supplanted by a sea of navy, and my wardrobe is slowly being sapped of anything that could be classified as a pattern. I understand the practical appeal of these muted tones: Black comes in handy in the fraught world of commuting, where anything from four-day-old puddle splash to a jostled morning coffee could turn your carefully constructed outfit into a neo-Jackson Pollack shit show.

But I studied art, and convention be damned, I think monochrome has a time and a place. So nowadays when I head home for a spell, I eagerly bust out the color. Black and grey can’t be entirely avoided (their invasion of my wardrobe has been vicious and pervasive), but swatches of Kentucky blue and my favorite kelly green peek through, and my florals and patterns reclaim their rightful prominence in my outfit. I find that fashion is linked to environment, a cultural signature as endemic as accent or cuisine. At home, people are happy to stand out, and so they wear colors and patterns as bright and outrageous as Lilly Pulitzer can make them (she’s not my cup of tea, but I appreciate the sentiment all the same).

The good old days of bright patterns and slouchy boots.
The good old days of bright patterns and slouchy boots.

See, your sartorial palette sends a message. Down South, people want to be approached, and their gardens of color and cheery florals invite you in for a glass of sweet tea and good conversation. New Yorkers, on the other hand, wear their neutrals like armor, a necessary shield of “don’t bother me today — I missed my train, and Starbucks is out of soymilk.” After two years, I’ve managed to halfway adopt this colorless convention, but I still can’t resist a pop of color. What can I say, my roots run deep. We all come to this city to “be someone.” How are we supposed to stand out in black and white?

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