A couple of years ago my My Little Pony fanatic, apropos of nothing, told me, “Mommy, you’re like Rarity.” SERIOUSLY? Anyone with the slightest knowledge of both me and MLP: Friendship Is Magic knows I’m a clear cross between Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy, for one thing; for another thing, Rarity? She’s the epitome of all the girls I didn’t get along with in school, who read fashion magazines and judged people accordingly, stuck-up and shallow and “…you both love to make pretty dresses,” my daughter continued.
There was something coded in the word “fashion” growing up that felt exclusionary. “Fashion” meant wealth and glamor, supermodels and starlets, flashbulbs and fame. I was shy, nerdy, awkward, with the glasses and the braces. I wore whatever classic, featureless cuts of jeans and sweatshirts were on sale at Hills. I was uncool.
And frankly, I didn’t want to be cool. Okay, maybe a little. I wanted my hair crimped (but settled for sleeping in braids), and I wanted jelly bracelets because they were fun to play with (although I didn’t and don’t like to WEAR jewelry of any sort because it irritates me), and I wanted people to LIKE me instead of laughing at me. But I wanted to be liked for me, not for what I wore. I didn’t want to have to keep up with what was “in” or “out” just to make sure people liked me.
I was always sensitive about kindness and acceptance for one thing. I guess I felt sort of righteous, repeating lines like “Don’t judge a book by its cover” to myself, seeing myself as a crusader against looks-based discrimination. I could imagine it was all altruistic, but it was self-defense. I knew I didn’t fit in.
It was a brand of “girly” I just didn’t get. I didn’t like shopping or shoes or makeovers or giggling about boys or talking on the phone or any of the other things girls were supposed to like. I felt awkward and unfeminine.
Which was ironic, because it wasn’t like I felt masculine. I wasn’t into traditionally “boy’s stuff,” like sports or vehicles, either. I was incredibly feminine, just a more old-fashioned sort. I was a sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice girl. I was gentle and nurturing. I loved the arts and pretty things like flowers and ribbons and princesses. I grew my hair out to near-Rapunzel length, and I doodled daisies, Christmas trees, ballerinas, and beautiful, beautiful gowns.
If you had told me those doodles were “fashion design,” I would have stared blankly at you. Fashion Design belonged to that other world of what’s hot and cool and IN. My beautiful gowns were old-fashioned, and therefore out of fashion, the antithesis of what fashion designers did. It wasn’t a matter of, “Gee, I wish I could be a fashion designer, but I’m not cool enough.” I just honestly thought fashion design was less about drawing dresses and more about drawing lines between the in-crowd and everyone else.
When I was about fourteen my mother was dragging me through a department store, trying to get me to show some interest in the clothes on the clearance racks so I would actually have something relatively fresh to wear to school, when I spotted the most beautiful dress. It was a peasant dress, with a poofy white top and a skirt made of rows and rows of blue ruffles, like ocean waves. That was an item of clothing that could capture my interest. I must have been visibly in love with it, because my mother said, “Do you want that? We can get that,” and it was only afterward I noticed that it wasn’t on the clearance rack: that it was a shocking sixty dollars. But I have gotten every penny of that sixty dollars back with interest over the years. I wore it to every special occasion through most of high school. I wore it on occasions that were only vaguely special through all of college. I was wearing it the day, senior year, that I ran into a friend on campus and stopped to talk with him and his other friend, the latter of whom was struck speechless at first and then spent the next few weeks badgering our mutual friend to tell him more about “the Girl in the Blue Dress. Is she seeing anyone? Do you think she’ll play D&D with us? Ask her to play D&D with us.” He told me later, “My first thought was that you looked like a princess.”
That was it, then. Here was a guy who appreciated my sort of pretty. It was a different kind of pretty than the hot-and-stylish pretty. It was princess-pretty, and princess-pretty was a look I could go for.*
It still didn’t quite occur to me yet that I had a style, that this was my style, that I could use clothing as a form of self-expression and, basically, wear whatever I wanted. “Style” was still something elusive I lacked. I wore whatever ordinary off-the-shelf looks other people bought me for Christmas and birthdays in their chronic attempts to get me to care about my appearance. But the Christmas gift that really changed my relationship with clothes was a sewing machine.
I made a new shirt. Out of my grandmother-in-law’s old fabric scraps from the 60s or 70s. Perfect hippie clothing now pic.twitter.com/4QbQdvKfvH
— Amy W (@rockinlibrarian) June 2, 2015
At first I thought sewing my own clothes might be a way to save money (HAH. That sound you hear is a committee of Jo-Ann Fabrics execs high-fiving each other). But as I learned the techniques and the ways patterns worked, it became an art form. I rarely use a pattern without tweaking it anymore. I’ll mix and match, a skirt from one pattern, sleeves from another, an extra flounce or band, an entirely different direction for trim. I covet fabric like I’d never coveted the finished products, a beautiful print or cuddly texture inspiring me to make something.
Super-cute shirt I just made out of an old bedsheet and some quilting scraps! pic.twitter.com/o1RAg8w75b
— Amy W (@rockinlibrarian) September 29, 2015
Every year on my Performance Evaluation at work, under the question “Does this employee maintain a professional appearance?” my boss always phrases her answer a little funny. “Amy is a children’s librarian, and her dress is uniquely appropriate for the children’s department.” What does that mean? Is my style too quirky for the grownup department? It kind of makes me giggle. With a tendency to occasionally put on a costume or at least tie my outfit to the day’s storytime theme, I’ve sometimes wondered if I am going a bit Ms. Frizzle. But even on an ordinary day, I feel a bit more confident when I’m wearing something I’ve created—whether sewn by me or pieced together from unrelated separates. It may not be a look you can find on the rack, but it fits me in ways clothing dictated by other people never could.
That was what I needed all along. Having style isn’t about wearing what everyone else is wearing. Style means wearing, both emotionally and size-wise, what FITS.
There. Complete dress. Furthering my life-long ambition to become a flower. pic.twitter.com/IqZsLqmi96
— Amy W (@rockinlibrarian) June 16, 2015
*I’m still getting every penny out of The Blue Dress, by the way. At some point in adulthood the top turned yellow and irreparably ripped, so I just remade it into a Blue Skirt. And the original elastic is long gone. Good news is the dress is SO ruffly I’ve replaced the elastic with one that fits my waist nowadays and it still fits.