I’d be lying if I said I didn’t put some thought into what I put on my body. Okay, a lot of thought.
It’s not a new thing either. In a previous blog post, I explained that I was around the age of 12 when I really started thinking about fashion as a means of self-expression, but I’m pretty sure was aware of what I was putting on my body long before that.
The earliest fashion moments I can remember always involved me trying to mimic my cooler, more popular classmates. In the second grade my cool friend Bailey* (*changing names here because I still have many of these people on Facebook!) had a cropped halter top that tied up around your ribs and neck. I found an athletic-looking one at Zellers – Sportek brand – because who wouldn’t play sports in what was essentially a backless sports bra that stayed on only because it was tied up in two places at the back? My mom thought it was totally inappropriate for me to wear to school (not to mention an open invitation for boys to render me topless with one pull on the strings!) but I did it anyways. Nine year olds aren’t really ones to listen to their mothers and I wanted to be just like Bailey. I remember being at my neighbour’s birthday party, jumping in a bouncy castle and having to constantly retie my shirt as the strings loosened. I remember quietly wishing I had made a different wardrobe choice.
I made similar copycat fashion choices in the years that followed. A T-shirt that read 50% Angel, 50% Devil. Skate shoes. Anything and everything with the word Roxy on it. All in the name of being recognized and accepted. Uniform.
Something changed when I was 12. I was no longer dressing to fit in. I was dressing to stick out. But, like, aggressively stick out. I don’t think it was a positive thing at first. My often outrageous fashion choices came from a place of wanting to make myself seem more informed, higher up and better than my painfully basic classmates. I wanted to be different for the sake of being different. I bragged a lot. I was incredibly insecure and I combatted that by trying to appear fiercely independent. I remember telling a classmate that I needed to win the label of best dressed in the eighth grade year book because I was “obviously best dressed.” Yuck.
I don’t dislike eighth grade Sarah though because even though her intentions behind dressing differently than everyone else may not have been totally honourable at first, she was on to something. She knew her clothes communicated something and she was starting to put some thought into what she wanted them to say. I continued to play with clothing throughout high school but as a student in an arts program, I found it pretty difficult to stick out when essentially everyone else was trying to do the exact same thing. This was good for me though, I think. It was an open environment, a sanctuary for those who considered themselves a little different, and we were all encouraged and inspired to play and experiment as we pleased.
This thing happened in my second year of university where I started thinking I was better than fashion. Now that I think of it, it was sort of like that same insecure eighth grader came back and wanted to seem like she was “above” every thing. Instead of wanted to aggressively stick out though I wanted to aggressively draw attention away from what I was wearing so that people could more loudly hear what I was saying. This was around the time when I started learning how to talk feminism and human rights and I didn’t think this new, informed identity could coexist with the one attempting to pull off leopard print and plaid at the same time. I bought Blundstones around this time because they were a practical, functional shoe and all my Women and Gender Studies TAs wore them.
I went home one weekend shortly after I had started dressing this way and was reunited with my good friend Daniel* (*not changing names here because Daniel is still my very good friend and I want to give him credit here). Daniel is one of the best-dressed humans I know and is one of the most authentic, hardworking and intelligent humans I know too. We engaged in what had been one of our most favourite past times: a trip to Y’s Buys – the YWCA thrift store that used to be the go-to destination for printed blouses and mom jeans that would all cost around 65$ or more if found in a Toronto vintage store.
You know those montages that happened a lot in movies from your childhood where two women go on a “shopping trip” try on a series of different “looks” while upbeat music plays? I sort of remember this trip like one of those scenes. Daniel encouraged me to try on everything I had promised myself I wouldn’t wear again because fashion was frivolous and I was above it. And we had way too much fun. I remember at the end of the montage I picked up the nondescript scarf I had worn that day and Daniel said to me in a very serious tone: “don’t buy that.” And he was right: this toned-down, too-good-for-fashion thing I was doing was just not a good look for me. It just wasn’t me. Whether this conflicted with my activist-identity didn’t matter anymore because fashion was such a sincere part of who I was. Who I am. And to deny that would be lying.
Since that point I’ve learned a few things about fashion and activism. I’ve learned that feminism is about not policing women, or anyone for that matter, on what they should and shouldn’t wear. Essentially, just wear whatever the hell you want and don’t let anyone tell you anything different! I’ve learned that my skin colour, body type, and the fact that I can financially afford to put some thought into what I wear are all factors that give me immense privilege that dictates how I will be received and treated by society. I’ve learned that there are certain things I cannot wear as a white woman because to wear these things would be to steal from cultures that have already had so much stolen from them already by my ancestors and contemporaries. I’ve also learned to consider where things are made and the impact of supporting stores that use sweatshops as a means of production. Another lesson has been that sometimes it is appropriate to tone down what I wear as a means taking up less space because there is so much space and power in clothing. I knew this at 12 and I know this now – just in a much bigger context.
I love to dress up. It’s play. It’s creative. It’s self-expression. It’s a way of reflecting on the outside what I feel and who I am on the inside. I’m inspired by everything from friends to movie characters to old pictures of my great grandmother. My closet includes everything from a leather fringe motorcycle vest I bought at a punk show to a vintage bright orange, floor-length dress with flowing sleeves my Oma gave me that makes me feel like I’m a member of Abba when I wear it. I don’t spend a ton of money on individual items – it’s far more exciting for me to uncover something in an unlikely place for a good price or inherit it from family – but I’ve established a very large and eclectic collection over the years and I have so much fun taking each piece out for a spin when the timing is right.
Fashion is powerful, creative and also so much fun. I like all of those things.