Eighteen Hundred Words on Clothing

By L. Strailey

When I was in eighth grade, I swear I thought I was Stevie Nicks. I decorated my body in fringe, flares, paisley, lace, and velvet in rich colors. I solely wore heeled ankle boots, stacked leather wrap bracelets up to my elbows and weighed my neck down with a myriad of necklaces. My hair was always tangled in flower crowns and gold chain headbands, my eyelashes coated in thick mascara. On field trip bus rides and late nights, I fell asleep to (what I think is!) the most iconic breakup album of all time, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors. Although I have grown up and out of my Stevie Nicks phase, I still own all of the fringe, kimonos, bell-bottoms, flower crowns and even the heeled boots because I cannot bear to part with the ghosts of my old self. They hang in my closet, face me every morning and remind me of who I was. I like to be reminded of my past. Middle school was the most fearless and experimental time of my life in terms of clothing and confidence- I feel as though my current self was born in the pea green hallways of Welsh Valley. I know for a fact that my bildungsroman occurred while I was walking through those halls, juggling a billion binders and tripping on the hem of a pair of high-waisted, red paisley print pants. The zipper on the paisley pants broke but the thought of throwing them away has never crossed my mind- they are far too beautiful to part with.

Digging through my closet is like touring a museum of my life. As humans, clothing is part of our history; we are able to mark time by trends and fashion fads. I mark my life by outfits and styles, by hair length and the cut of my jeans. I am able to recreate my history through pieces of fabric, cut and sewn and dyed. Not only is clothing my window to the past, it also allows me to look towards the future. I am able to choose, everyday, who I want to be and what I want to look like. To me, being able to choose my own outfits is the ultimate freedom.

As humans, we are constantly reinventing ourselves, learning and buying and listening and creating and doing in order to become who we want to be. We create ourselves from books and magazines and strangers at concerts and TV shows and films with soaring soundtracks and poems that break our hearts. We build ourselves based on outside influences by applying them to here and now. Especially at our age, finding yourself and your look seems imperative but we are lucky, as teenagers, because the world lays itself down at our feet and says, “Choose.”  And we do. We pick inspirations, influences and idols over and over again, collecting pieces of other people, places and things and deeming them a part of ourselves. We create countless versions of who we are until we hone in on the one that feels the most real, the most authentic, the one that is the greatest mix of idols and icons but fully and truly ourselves. Pulling inspiration from others is not about copying or replicating- it is about becoming. Becoming yourself, trying over and over to finally hit the right note, to wear the right thing, to look on the outside how you feel on the inside. Clothing is a way for us to speak without opening our mouths, to communicate our interests and personalities, our hobbies and inspirations, without moving our lips.

With all of this talk about finding inspiration from others I do not mean to say that style and creativity do not come from within ourselves, because they do, but I want to recognize the people and true looks that came before us. Someone once told me that every feeling I had ever felt had been felt before me, had been written about in famous literature and documented in journals and experienced by people who walked this earth long before I had the chance to. She told me that I could choose to ignore the people before me or that I could embrace them, I could revel in the fact that we were all so lucky to feel immense joy or find solace in my sadness knowing that everyone had at some point felt that way that I did.  At first I was offended, I felt like I was being called unoriginal, but I realized how incredible it is to feel the same way as someone else, although I still believe that the way that emotions affect us are still deeply personal and unique. The same is true of clothing; we must look to the people before us in order to garner ideas and influences, but how we apply these to our outfits is personal and distinctly individual.

If you held up any piece of my clothing I could name the inspiration and time of my life in which it was purchased. I recently bought a grey silk slip (with the intention of wearing it as a dress) in homage to rock goddess and style icon Courtney Love. This year, I searched for plaid pants on Etsy for hours after watching the movie School of Rock one too many times. During my freshman year, I was determined to grow my hair out during an intense Penelope Tree phase and I have not cut it since. Over the past few years, I have collected several white and cream blouses inspired by Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s masterpiece Almost Famous and I have seriously considered buying a brown suede afghan coat on more than one occasion. I am now on the hunt for a mesh long sleeve shirt to layer different shirts with, a la Grimes and Fletcher Shears. These characters and people may seem random or disjointed but I look at every day as an opportunity to present myself in a new light and it is incredibly exciting to transform. I often joke that I am wearing a costume, but my clothing is so much more than that. Depending on my mood and the day, my clothes allow me to play up certain aspects of my personality and myself. Getting dressed in the morning is refreshing; it wipes yesterday’s slate clean. I am in love with the transformative, transportive nature of clothing.

Even the smell of the fabrics can take me back to a time and place. My mom’s perfume on the threads my shirt after she hugs me, the smoke of a campfire clinging to jeans or the salt water/laundry detergent blend that is exclusive to beach towels and bathing suits. The movement of fabric on my body can remind me of a feeling or a person. The swish of silk on skin or wool on itchy arms is as nostalgic as looking at old photographs. Maybe the sensory quality of clothing is why it marks all of the occasions of my life, regardless of how big or small. If I close my eyes, I can still feel the fabrics on my skin, tulle and cotton and chiffon and lace. I remember the waffle weave texture of my shirt and how it felt to be riding shotgun in a friend’s car, eyes aglow with the light from skyscrapers, heart pounding. I can picture what I was wearing to Coachella, to Tame Impala, to Mac Demarco and yes, to Fleetwood Mac, the feeling of bodies brushing mine as I danced to my favorite songs, the scratch of my voice in my throat after screaming the lyrics, breathless. I remember the delicate white embroidery of my dress and the taste waffles from an overly air-conditioned IHOP after my freshman year formal, shivering in my hand painted denim jacket as I chewed. My delight in buying a leather jacket while I was in London, feeling like Cher in her If I Could Turn Back Time music video or Faris Badwan of the Horrors standing onstage, crooning. If I think hard enough I feel the soft, crushed velvet of an ice blue dress I wore to a party and can still hear the sound of a camera shutter buzzing in my ears, the dizzying spots in front of my eyes after the flash lit up. Maybe the only reason I can recall these snippets of my life is because I am nostalgic and sentimental by nature but I refuse to believe that. There is something magical about clothing and memories- they are irrevocably intertwined and connected, at least in my mind. I keep ticket stubs from concerts, museums, plays, baseball games and aerial tramways in the pockets of my jackets, I tuck business cards and flyers and Post-It notes in the back pockets of my pants- I am forever carrying my personal history in the fibers of my clothing.

Do you know the feeling of unfolding a pair of shorts and seeing sand sprinkle out from the folds in the denim or shaking out a dress and seeing glitter fly off? The feeling of taking of your socks and seeing the train ticket you shoved in there fall out, remembering that you stuck it there while your hands were busy juggling shopping bags, the slap your feet running after the train still echoing in your ears? The feeling of putting on an outfit you love, one that you have worn before? It feels like coming home. These moments are the feeling of a full life, a confirmed existence, they are the feeling of being seen, of sunlight on the backs of eyelids (red and hot and wonderful,) campfire glow on rosy cheeks (orange and burning,) they are dancing until your feet give out from under you- the feeling of memories within your clothing is a confirmation of love. When I unfold the papers from within my pockets and realize where I have been, where I am and where I am going, I not only realize the power of clothing but more importantly, I realize what a beautiful life I am living.

Clothing allows us to feel. To feel nostalgic, joyous, loved, free, confident and beautiful. It lets us present our best and truest selves. Clothing communicates, it speaks without uttering a single word. It allows us to build ourselves, to be inspired, to present ourselves to the world on our own terms. Clothing is power and is powerful because it is an extension of us. Our lives can be told through clothing; within its fibers are our stories, our memories. If you take anything away from this piece, let it be to wear whatever you want to because you want to and in those incredible outfits, to create memories to be nostalgic about in the future.