There I was, walking down the endless sterile aisles of Kohl’s mere steps behind my mom. Who could say what we originally went shopping for? Maybe we intended to look for new pants for my dad, who lost weight. Or perhaps we headed to Kohl’s for my older brother, who needed neckties for his first day of high school. It probably wasn’t for my mom though; she hates Kohl’s. Or possibly we simply had extra Kohl’s Cash lying around the house. Regardless of our intention, that fateful shopping trip turned into something different for me.
As we trudged on through the aisles, my young eyes locked with a small rack full of graphic tees. In that moment, I fell in love with a shirt: a muted green shirt with nothing but an old Mountain Dew logo on it. “This will go great with the same two pairs of jeans I wear every day,” I thought to myself. I just knew I would rock fourth grade walking around in that awesome shirt.
Long story short: I wore it all the time. My mom hated it. She eventually threw it away without telling me.
At the time I felt hurt. Looking back, I am eternally grateful. I’ve made so many disastrous fashion decisions in my life that I now look back on and laugh. Another fun example is the muscle shirt phase I went through before I actually had any muscles. For whatever reason, I wanted to wear skin tight Under Armor shirts nearly every day for most of seventh grade. Also just generally owning cargo shorts at any point in my life was a mistake. I’m still upset at my parents for letting me walk out of the house wearing cargo shorts.
My fashion woes took a slight hiatus in high school because of its strict dress code. Every single day we wore dress pants, a dress shirt, boat shoes and a tie. Evidently, the fewer choices I had, the better off I was.
I always found it interesting, though, that even with a strict formal dress code designed to create a professional environment, students found creative ways to dress more expressively. Ideally for the faculty the entire student body looked like corporate cubicle workers, but kids always rocked strange colorful socks or ties. Wacky sweaters walked the halls on any given day. At one point, a trend of wearing Hawaiian shirts started. Although technically button downs, the administration stomped that one out pretty quickly.
Clothes aren’t just fabric stitched together to cover your body. It’s self-expression.
Sure, we were pigeon-holed into shirts and ties, but everyone still dressed uniquely. Through those paisley ties and ugly Christmas sweaters, students crafted their own sense of style, and distinguished themselves from each other. I remember finding out that sweater vests were allowed in the dress code, and I realized that no one else in school wore sweater vests. So, for sophomore year, that became my thing. I was also big advocate for bowties, expressing myself every week on what I liked to call “Bowtie Friday.” I took pride in those bowties, and found identity in the fact that I tied them myself.
But then college rolled around, and suddenly my wide variety of Brooks Brothers attire suddenly became obsolete. I needed to completely change my wardrobe, and by the same token, take on a new identity through the fashion.
I need to account for the slightly colder climate at my college, to start. How were other people at my new school going to dress? I didn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb. At the same time, I didn’t just want to conform to the clothing culture because I still wanted to stay true to myself. Honestly, after four years of the same shirts and slacks, I had very little idea how to dress myself at all. No one mentioned the fact that I’d need to teach myself how to dress again.
Living on your own, you realize that you can dress literally however you want. Certain conventions of dress, particularly along the gender line, begin to fade away on college campuses. Fashion may seem frivolous, but it can be an important part of your identity.
A close friend of mine largely wears band tees. He also happens to be a huge music nerd. He quite literally wears his passion on his sleeve. I have male friends in the LGBTQ+ community that dress in traditionally “feminine” clothing because they like how it looks. The clothes they wear take a piece of their inward identity and reflect it outward. I wear a lot of clothing in the style of late 80s early 90s fashion, because I identify with that era and I want to reflect that in the way I dress.
At the end of the day, fashion isn’t the be-all and end-all of identity. Sometimes clothes are just clothes. In college, though, you’re allowed more freedom in the way you dress, and the way you dress can reflect part of who you are. And if there’s one thing that you need to learn during this time, it’s who you are.