In 1989 I saw New York for the first time via an exclusive tour of the city’s garment district. I was a college student majoring in fashion and taking the trip for credit. We toured designer showrooms, watched colorists at work, attended fashion shows, and even enjoyed a private showing of the Met’s costume archives. And of course we fashion merchandising students, having arrived in mecca, shopped and coveted and fondled the merchandise and all but drooled over the textures, the lines, the fabrics, the workmanship, the colors, the possibilities!
Now at the risk of sounding cliché, I have to tell you that I had an epiphany in New York. It hit me one day as a classmate and I were conducting our study of department store window merchandising: The clothing we wear tells our story.
That may not seem that profound, perhaps, but as a small-town girl who’d always been fascinated with fashion, but had never thought about why, I understood it that day on more than one level. Today, I think about those levels according to these three principles:
Through the things with which we choose to adorn ourselves, we express who we are. I have a friend who is perhaps the most observant person I’ve known. She pays particularly close attention to clothing, accessories, and hairdos. She told me one day that she sees a “definite rocker chick” vein in my style, even though the clothes she mainly saw me wear at that time were suits and dresses—work clothes. I could have hugged her, because yes, I have always loved the idea of juxtaposing a black concert t-shirt and pearls under a tailored jacket, bad motorcycle boots with the right suit, a cashmere sweater over ripped jeans.
I have another friend whose outfits are always an inspiration: Crisp and colorful, imaginatively accessorized, perfect for her coloring and shape. I complimented her overall style one evening over a glass of wine and she got all teary. She explained that while she was growing up, she’d never had anything nice to wear, the other kids made fun of her clothes, and she was always ashamed. “We were dirt poor,” she’d said. Once she’d started to make her own money and could afford fabulous clothing, she vowed to always look her best, no matter what. To her, clothing is a way to express her feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction with a good and happy life, her ability to make her own way.
Each day, we wear something that we use to help others understand how we feel. I have a particular outfit—black cardigan, embroidered blouse, black pants—that I love to wear. One day when I was scheduled to be a guest on a local TV talk show, a co-worker pointed out, “You know, everyone’s going to start thinking that’s the only outfit you own.” She explained that she’d noticed I wear it every time I’m on TV. Well, it makes me feel comfortable doing something I’m not always that comfortable doing, I’d offered. “We get it,” she replied.
My aunt tells the story of a favorite pair of cowboy boots she used to wear when she ran a trucking company in Montana. She wore them when she wanted to feel more confident, when she had to be powerful. It got to the point where the people she worked with would hear the boots coming and hide.
Another former co-worker of mine with the most effervescent personality wears vibrant colors and has an uncanny ability to match them almost perfectly to her moods. On days when she’s noticeably more circumspect, quieter, she’s wearing purple—still a vibrant hue of purple, but a marked difference from yesterday’s ebullient orange and yellow. I love to see her coming, and to guess how I’ll find her feeling today.
And finally, It’s interesting to observe the way we dress to express where we feel we belong. One day, driving back to my job at the museum, I spotted a group of my co-workers walking to lunch, all of them chic and dressed head to toe in black. I drove up, rolled down my window, and asked, “Hey, do you guys work in a museum?”
I always love to note how different members of a group interpret the group’s identity and values through their clothing. The other day I saw four high-school girls walking home from school. Clearly, their fashion choices were influenced by a teen sensibility, and I probably creeped them out a little bit by gawking at how each of them had dressed and accessorized, died her hair a particular shade of black, experimented until she’d gotten her eyeliner just right.
To see such powers of expression at work every day is fascinating, and I think it makes people more loveable. We may not be writing poetry or composing symphonies, sculpting masterpieces or painting murals: We’re expressing ourselves in what I think is a more personal, changeable, mobile way. And whether you’re going for rocker chick, dressed-for-success or you’re just trying to cowboy up, you’ve created your own personal brand of those identities. In the words of my co-worker, “We get it.”