My first introduction to the fact that people cared about what they wore came in 1984 and the release of the Nike Air Jordon shoes. Only the richest kids in my fourth grade class had them, complete with their vibrant red and white design that was unlike any other footwear on the market before that time. I was insanely jealous and begged my parents to buy me a pair. As smart as my parents were, they declined. But then the strangest thing happened... I noticed a couple of the welfare kids showed up at school wearing the same shoes. How in the world could their parents afford such frivolous spending? Only when the harsh, childhood teasing begin, did I come to realize these welfare kids were wearing cheap, department store, Jordon knock-offs. Even though they looked remarkably similar, these cheaper shoes were in fact, fake. And the welfare kids paid for it dearly.
Sometime after that, when MC Hammer splashed on the scene with his flappy, parachute pants, my parents bought me a pair of leopard print ZUBAZ pants. As anyone who was alive during the mid-to-late-eighties knows, these were crazy, out-of-the-box legwear that sported wild colors and extraordinary shapes. I was the hit of the school. At least, that is, until they too, fell out of style.
Sometime during my mid high school years, after a devastating car accident that caused my parents to lose their business and my Dad his health, shoes once again became the status symbol for kids. With a wise, planned out argument, I convinced my money-starved parents to stop spending twenty dollars every few months for my shoes, and instead buy me a pair of eighty dollar Nike's with the promise I would make them last a whole year. And I did. I took care of those shoes like they were etched in gold and laced with silver strings. I did so well at making them last, that I was able to convince my parents of the same strategy the next year.
It was during that time when I would meet the guy who became my best friend for many years. His name was Joe, and despite his parents bouncing from job to job, he had them wrapped around his little finger. Over the course of two years, he bought so many clothes and shoes that he helped them run up a credit card bill to the tune of twenty thousand dollars. Joe spent money on clothes like, pardon the stereotype, a worldly woman buys shoes and purses. He would buy eight or ten new "outfits" for the start of the school year and then repeat the process for fall, winter, and spring. He would spend a thousand dollars to buy "outfits" for a summer vacation, and then another five hundred for a one day after prom. He bought a new "outfit" for each date he went on. I loved the guy and still consider him a good friend, but he was over the top.
Around my junior year of high school, with my feeble attempts to keep up with Joe's wardrobe, I made a conscious decision to create a, "style" for myself. I loathed Joe's need for new clothes, but could plainly see it made him popular with the ladies and was increasing his status with his peers. So I chose a simple, yet calculated mode of dress that would allow me to hang out with the cool kids, but also be cheap enough to maintain. I decided, along with my new Nike shoes, to always wear jeans (Levi's, to be exact,) and t-shirts. It was a no-frills style that ensured I stayed enough out of the radar to avoid schoolyard teasing, and was still cool enough to be neat and clean. And so my path towards style began.
Of course, my love of the Grunge movement eased its way into that, "style". I allowed my Levi's to get tattered and torn, my t-shirts shifted to musical references, and I even adopted a couple pieces of vintage, thrift store headwear that set me apart from the crowd. In hindsight, I was still horribly naive to what people thought, or maybe I just chose to ignore them, but whatever the reason, I was still a couple rungs short of getting to the top of the in-the-now style meter.
Then in 1995 I met Ell and her circle of friends. They had all embraced the thrift-store style of dress despite very few of them knowing it had been birthed from the Seattle music scene of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, and their rebellion against the label driven mantra of the Eighties that demanded you wear a certain brand and design. To these new friends, it was just another season of fads that allowed them to keep up with the style of the day, only this time, for a much cheaper price tag. The on-purpose, low-key, label-less intentions of, "Grunge" had given way to a style of dress that screamed in the face of those in Seattle who loathed those kind of fashion statements. And since I was obviously oblivious to what trends were and why they were important, Ell soon had be wearing baggy jeans and untucking my shirt.
Skip ahead to 2001 and my entry into the professional world. At my first financial job I met a trainer named Gary who schooled me on the finer points of buying, and wearing suits. To that point in my life I had only one tie, and hadn't owned a pair of dress shoes or a belt in eight years. He was so incensed on fine dressing, one day he told me the way to tell if a man is trustworthy is, "... a firm handshake and shined shoes." I started to notice the seemingly mindless habits of the successful men around me. They would hang their suit jackets on wooden hangers in their cars and then put them on to walk into the office complex only to take them off as soon as they entered their offices. They had long, thin dress coats that seemed to serve no other purpose but to allow the image of professionalism when driving their cars or going into restaurants without their suit jackets on. They wore rubber shoe protectors to keep rain and snow off those perfectly shined shoes. And they never, heaven forbid, ever wore jeans, even when not at work. To me, it all seemed like pure vanity.
Slowly and surely, I began to see that vanity as projecting an image. I began to see the reasoning behind looking professional so as to calm and even encourage customers and clients to deposit their money with someone they felt they could trust. Saying that though, still belies in me a sense of false advertising and an image-driven culture. Even this morning, I felt the need to put on a shirt with a brand-name label on the chest, and to change into a nicer pair of pants so my neighbor felt he was dealing with someone of a higher caliber.
So what do I think of fashion as I sit here at age thirty six, supposedly wiser and more understanding? Still confused, admittedly. The friends I now have that I see as not having a, "style" still have a style. Even though many of them would never admit they care what they wear, they still only buy a certain flare of clothing and still only wear clothes that represent an image they are trying to project. I still have friends that only wear thrift-store buys, but they do so in a way that is stylish and up-to-date. In fact, the Grunge-driven image of the early Nineties has given way to name-brand, "vintage" stores and mail-order catalogs. And as fashion makes its ever-continuous loops, stores pop up to meet those demands while all the while the people that shop there and wear the clothes still claim, "I don't care about fashion; I wear whatever I want." C'mon, really? The simple fact of choosing what to wear each morning is as much about what other people think as it is about keeping up with trends. If it wasn't, we'd all be wearing white t-shirts. We care about how we look to other people. Period.
Despite what it may read like, none of this is in my head because I'm passing judgement. In fact, I'm often jealous of my friends who make looking good seem so easy and not thought-out. I still have very little fashion sense and often wear stripes with plaid. (Which used to drive Ell crazy. LOL!!!) I consider myself good at what I do and very professionally successful, despite the fact that I've not once ever shined my shoes. And I still hold to the, "jeans and t-shirt" style I set up at sixteen years old, except now those t-shirts are just as often polo shirts. I see the different reactions I get in the grocery store and restaurants when I'm wearing a dress shirt and tie, and while it still secretly annoys me we live in a world that puts worth in looks, I get why it matters.
So where does that leave me? Am I a sellout to style and the vanity that goes with it? Maybe. Am I still every day uncertain of what, "cool" actually means when it comes to clothes? Maybe. Am I still perplexed at the term, "suffer for fashion" despite claiming to now get what it means? Maybe. I don't know, I guess I never will. Maybe that has become my style. Whatever. I'm off to put on some plaid shorts with a striped shirt and go mingle with people who know more about these things than I do.