Dressed in my garish fuchsia T-shirt with AEROPOSTALE emblazoned across the front, white denim shorts fringing at the bottom and Sperry-brand boat shoes, I was armed for my first day of sixth grade. Walking through the halls of Fred J. Carnage Middle, the social uniformity of my outfit made me unroastable — stylish, even.
In middle school, popularity was my primary concern. At 13, popularity came through tangible goods: charcoal gray Converse, ripped Hollister jeans and an Abercrombie henley. Desperate to fit in, I begged my parents endlessly to dress me in the newest trends.
Despite never discussing what to wear, my friends and I all dressed exactly alike. It was an unspoken truth around school that each of us chose our clothes very consciously.
What would bring me more social capital, a ruffled miniskirt or a sequined one? Jack Rogers sandals or Tory Burch ones? My floral American Eagle cardigan or my studded Charlotte Russe one? The middle school food chain was simple: If I dressed with the appearance of popularity, my peers would like me more. I needed to fake it until I made it (spoiler alert, I never did.) By dressing like everyone else, I would get the social visibility that I wanted. But by looking like everyone else, I was not standing out. And that was OK — sacrificing what I actually wanted to dress like was worth the clout.
In middle school, as they do now, people generally liked my clothes. (Or, at least, I think they did.) They liked my Uggs. I had cool shirts. But fashion is looked at differently now that I am 19. Uggs are a symbol of materialism, narcissism and animal cruelty. While stylistic risks were seen as fun personality quirks when we were younger, now they can come off as self-absorbed.
Of course, the fashion industry isn’t faultless. Magazines undoubtedly portray a narrow, unhealthy vision of beauty. High fashion corporations are often seen as production engines rather than art houses. Television identifies modeling as a self-absorbed, drama-filled profession. Fashion influencers fall prey to the newest trend, brand fever and frankly, capitalism, feeding into the vicious cycle of unattainable peer emulation.
Looking stylish is a social requirement, but it must be done effortlessly. So often, we shrug off a compliment on our clothes as “whatever was in our closet,” as second thought. Fashion is frivolous, unnecessary, unartistic.
But curating a sense of personal style functions far beyond the connotations of being a “fashionista.” Both social and traditional media’s expectations of femininity and masculinity are crushing: A lifetime of subliminal reinforcement of beauty standards has been destructive to my self image, a quiet reminder every time I look in the mirror.
Fashion, somehow, has allowed me to reshape that. When I slip into my favorite pair of jeans or a new (faux) fur coat, it feels like I am reclaiming a piece of myself. I can’t immediately change my figure or features, but every new garment transforms not only my physical appearance, but how I view myself. By dressing fearlessly, I feel more comfortable in my own shoes. Fashion becomes reclamation: Reclamation from my own insecurities, of course, but also social standards of dress and beauty.
“Good” fashion, therefore, isn’t defined by an off-the-runway garment that exceeds most budgets, or the latest hyped streetwear drop. By viewing fashion through a reclamatory lens, style is no longer defined by inaccessibility and exclusivity. A designer handbag and thrifted sneakers can equally revolutionize your morale, be equally empowering. “Good” fashion, frankly, is fashion that makes you feel good.
Now when I get dressed in the morning, I take my time. I choose my clothing very consciously. But now, instead of evaluating the social capital of my outfits, I try to pick something that excites me. Starting my day off with a new favorite outfit is like a filling breakfast: invigorating, energizing.
Of course, dressing differently can’t revolutionize who I fundamentally am. I still have days filled with insecurity. No pair of shoes can resolve that. But the next time you get a chance, try approaching the way you dress a little differently. There’s no harm in reframing fashion as a tool of personal empowerment that transcends pure consumption. Don’t let your clothing determine your value. Determine the value of your clothing.
Grace Jin is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .