In high school when I had a rigid uniform of pleated skirts, collared shirts and a headmaster constantly on the prowl for a shortened hemline, I had something tangible to react against. My own attempts to protest against the sea of conformity were manifested in a rolled up skirt and doodled hemline. As my friends and I went off campus after classes, we never bothered to change because with our off-kilter senses of style and rambunctious attitudes, we believed we could conquer our small downtown, confident that people outside of our tiny world would recognize where we went to school and who we were by the way we dressed.
Once I got to college, the freedom of dressing to show your personality at times seemed daunting. My own freshman writing seminar was like a vignette of The Breakfast Club: There was the cookie cutter Molly Ringwald type with her headband and pearls, the rebel with his leather jacket, the athlete who wore sports logo t-shirts, the brain who could not color coordinate and finally the basket case who was a bit off her rocker because she wore combat boots in warm weather. In my case, I grew into my own sunny persona — after all, I was a “Cali girl,” (a term not even used in Northern California) and as I spent my first few weeks of Freshman year securing that status through cliché West Coast slang, jean skirts and colorful graphic t-shirts boasting smiling suns, I found myself in yet another uniform that did not feel as liberating as I had imagined.
These days, well into my last semester of college and well beyond overusing words such as “hella” and complaining that 60 degree weather is chilly, I often meander into nostalgic bouts of procrastination, flipping through old Facebook albums and observing the transformation of myself and my friends over the years; some have kept their styles the same, some have dramatically changed their hairstyles and taken up chain smoking and some have mysteriously evolved from helplessly dorky to elegantly cool after a semester abroad. I myself have been guilty of this unbounded metamorphosis, exhibiting a motley array of styles: There was the first year where I was the proud Californian complete with skirts and bright colors; the second year where I became obsessed with “going out” tops; the third year where I lived in large sweaters and scarves; my fourth year when I replaced jeans with dresses; and finally my fifth year as a muddled blend of frantic student and “mature,” soon-to-be graduate complete with obnoxious eyeglasses. My tan long gone and bright wardrobe abandoned, I realize that I am not who I was when I first arrived at Cornell.
But perhaps my current craving for darker colors and cleaner silhouettes is indicative of my blossoming maturity, or then again, just another stage. As you grow older, there are fewer moments to drastically reinvent yourself as others cling to their initial perception of you. If you wore scarves and boots, you went to art museums on the weekends and blared moody music while recording thoughts in a weathered notebook; if you wore madras pants and an equally bright polo, maybe your parents were in possession of a breezy vacation home and Range Rover to match; if you had a designer bag and nice watch, your family was definitely wealthy and you were an experienced urbanite. And though we quickly make these assumptions at face value, the very notion of a clique and its requisite uniform of status ironically form a language that matures with us as we progress through university, only to be more reinforced as we progress into the so-called “adult world.”
In my own school, faculty and students alike have their own reputation, indefinitely determined by how we appear to each other — there is the smoker who never sleeps or changes his clothes, the token sorority/fraternity girl who has resiliently withstood the architect look of black drapes and eccentric eyewear and the artsy girl with her mousy hair and oxford flats. Though I am not sure of how I am perceived by others, I know that I am loud in both personality and clothing choice, guilty of bipolar fashion choices and a moody personality to match. Some days, I appear polished and calm attracting others around me; other days, I am disheveled and stressed — allowing my wrinkled shirts and running sneakers be the sole indicator that people should stay away.
When I was much younger, I never understood why my mother (a strong advocate for sensible flats and well tailored coats) never went to lunch with the other moms who wore full faces of makeup and high heels or the ex-hippie moms who ran around with their Birkenstocks and un-dyed grey hair until I found myself doing the same; that is, choosing not to waver outside of a fashion boundary dictated by me. Just as I had found comfort in my high school uniform, I have discovered comfort once again being in a group where a similar wardrobe has become somewhat of a societal manifesto for all of us.
More often than not, without fashion and its assumptions, we are lost, as we have relied on appearance to dictate how we react to others. How will we know to communicate without a different outfit to reinforce what we aim to be — even if it is just for the moment? The professional wardrobe for the interview, the attractive dress for the first date and the skinny jeans for the indie-rock concert all have something in common as it makes it easier for us to relate to one another. But it also doubly makes it easier for us to settle into perception, and not what reality really is. So in the meantime, I will take comfort in the fact that as fashion and styles continue to evolve, so will I.
Original Author: Courtney Jiyun Song