September 9, 2009

Un(official) Musings in the Urban Jungle

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It seems that I have always been a sucker for trends. When I was younger, I used to go to sleep in my school uniform so that I could be more efficient and have more time to eat breakfast and watch cartoons in the morning. Every night as I buttoned my plaid pinafore and folded my collar, I felt a peculiar pleasure from cheating the system. Not only did I get to watch 15 more minutes of Captain Planet than my brothers, but I also got the best pick of breakfast food. “It’s just a phase — a silly trend she’s started in her head,” my mother said behind closed doors to my father, as he stood perplexed over how to react when I was fully clothed and ready to go to school at 8:30 p.m. the night before.
But “trend” seemed too casual and offensive of a term to toss around. My surefire way of getting the most food and entertainment concerned an austere, disciplined life, not some silly inclination to appear stylish or cool. That jargon didn’t exist in my vocabulary yet. But looking back, I now see the striking parallels between my childhood trend and getting prepared to lie in a casket in my Sunday best; except at that time, I was alive and dressing myself.
Trends are fashion’s way of stealing your money and making you look like a fool. The year I began middle school and earned the right not to wear a uniform, I suddenly became drunk with the power to pick out my own clothing. Spending my entire summer’s allowance and babysitting money on a pair of cargo pants that I saw Sporty Spice wear on television, and four sets of overalls, I knew that I could and would be the most avant-garde 6th grader of the bunch.
But parading into my homeroom classroom like a peacock displaying his plumage, I looked like a suburban hunter; the cargo pants hardly stayed on my prepubescent hips, as I had begun adamantly shopping in the young teens’ section that summer and an awkward belt borrowed from my little brother only reinforced that fact. As all the girls in the room wore some variation of the cargo pants or overalls, I felt suddenly suffocated by the very hands of what I had regarded as an exclusive couture, but actually turned out to be a mass ploy. As I cried and recounted the situation later at dinner, both my older (but not necessarily wiser) brothers frankly said, “Didn’t you know? Cargo pants aren’t cool anymore.”
I refuted their claims with snot-filled pleas that Sporty Spice was still cool — and by default, so was I. My only regret from that day is that I didn’t try to return the clothing or shred it in the incinerator and use it as bedding for my now deceased rabbit. And that year, I continued to wear my overalls, reveling in their blasted comfort and surprising patience as an article of clothing that quickly came off when I needed to go to the bathroom. Maybe trends weren’t so useless?
But, even with close to 22 years of life experience and a growing anthology of fashion mishaps, I am still more vulnerable than ever to the bloodcurdling yet seductive mania of the trend. My summer spent working in New York City — and now studying “abroad” there this term — have not strengthened my immunity one bit, because for a city that supposedly never sleeps, New York City looks pretty goddamn good. Now in my fifth and final year of architecture school, I embody a pseudo-bohemian lifestyle: the carefree hippie flâneuse who floats around wearing breezy Antik Batik dresses and yielding a weathered moleskine for drawing.
This summer produced the few and rare moments when my bohemian fantasy triumphed in the city. But mostly, I fell flat on my face as I struggled to keep up with the ever-changing fashions. Supposedly breezy dresses that awkwardly plaster to my thighs and wrinkled sketch paper all too quickly became casualties to the humid heat and pace of the city. Who knew that I would not smoke and espresso my way through senior year in artsy cafes and obscure galleries?
Emaciated muses that roam the gridded streets of the borough are a far cry from the Cornellians of Ithaca’s sprawling (but self-enclosed) fashion incubator. In comparison, it appears that trends (and movies) travel at sloth-like speeds Upstate. Apart from the overly trendy Intermix girls who desperately grasp onto their city roots with their manicured black nails, Cornell has not exactly been a fashion mecca. Amidst the plethora of jersey print dresses, clothing drowned in “CORNELL” size 100 font logos (that also mockingly reinforce and prove our enrollment at a semi-prestigious Ivy), Northface fleeces, Vera Bradley / pastel Longchamp totes and pearls inherited from a grandmother’s grandmother, it doesn’t take much to look stylish in our school: All it requires is not wearing sweats and brushing our teeth (bare minimum!). And can I express how thankful I am for that.
That said, scenes have changed and the tables have slightly turned on me. Suddenly, forgiving black spandex, a pair of Miu Miu boots and a black Theory blazer ain’t cutting it anymore — not even for buying a carton of eggs at Whole Foods in Union Square. With stylish people debuting original styles everywhere I look, it is getting pretty exasperating in the attempt to look good.
My life thus far in NYC has imparted invaluable life lessons: Have a strong grasp of expectation vs. reality. Stiletto heels always seemed like a good idea for a young woman like me who only reached 5’3” by lying on her driver’s license application. Although my mother, a registered nurse and undeclared hippie-feminist, has often held raging sermons about the dangers of high heels (likening the experience to the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding) I saw the “lotus gait” — a.k.a. teetering on elevated spikes — as a literal boost to my self-esteem.
The first few weeks navigating the city were easy enough. Confidently holding onto the railing of the four flights leading me out of my West Village brownstone, the sea of yellow cabs soon became a new unconquered sea of possibilities. Each cab was not only there to serve me hand and foot, but they were a source of constant amusement as I held various conversations with “colorful” personalities that ranged from over-eager white supremacists to foreign-looking individuals who screamed into their phones.
But, alas, credit card statements without one’s father checking them and becoming increasingly suspicious of the multiple, daily taxicab transactions can only last for so long. Personal driver service was soon demoted to intricate excursions as I frantically sought the subway routes with the “less walking and more sitting” option. Not far from qualifying for handicapped, I acquired a gait in which I was obliged to stop every two blocks and hold onto a telephone booth or building molding for support. But the seductive world of fashion and looking good comes at a price. By the time 5 p.m. rolled around, and when I could no longer differentiate between pain and perseverance, I hobbled home from work reciting curses to every god for my failed efforts to become taller.
As July lurked in the dark corners of my life, my artistic appendages experienced a rapid devolution. Assertive stilettos with brave, jutting heels were demoted to cork wedges and, even after a week of walking on a level, elevated surface four inches in the air, a pair of comfy flats further demoted me to suddenly finding myself breathing the air of commoners, otherwise known as the air below 5’7”. Maybe Cornell Sweatshirts and L.L. Bean moccasins aren’t so bad after all.