May 20, 2019

PIETSCH | From Birkenstocks to Black Heels

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A few days before I started classes at Cornell, I walked into the Human Ecology Building for the first time. I frantically called my sister, a recent Cornell alumna, at least four times to ask her how to find the building. This followed two public phone calls to my mom — in tears. I wanted to find my classrooms on the overwhelming campus before the first day. When I finally walked inside, what I found was more staggering than the dread of being a new student as a sophomore.

The empty building would have felt isolating — had it been full of people. I knew no one at Cornell. But at that moment, I found companionship. I found mannequins.

The hallways of the T level of the Human Ecology Building are lined with glass museum display cases. I tripped into The Biggest Little Fashion City: Ithaca and Silent Film Style and was transported into a piece of Ithaca’s past. It was the context I needed in an unknown home, and despite just having left a city school for rural New York, it was the most exciting college display I’d seen. I took a million Snapchats to send back home as though I’d just discovered Times Square, and the Instagram photo on my then-fashion blog still reminds me of what it was like to be me in 2016.

The sunflowers on the terrace outside the building cheered me on as I left. I had found my classrooms, and I had found my home. Had I known at the time that their seeds would be collected to naturally dye clothing in the classroom, I’m sure my head would have exploded.

I also would have been shocked to learn that the curator of that exhibit would be my professor in my first class at Cornell. On that day, I sat in a stadium-style lecture hall in the attached Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, where the professor asked us to write what we were wearing and why we had chosen it on an index card. The outfit was a white, backless, spaghetti-strap sundress with a dusty blue-and-orange flannel — both from Brandy Melville — and my chocolate suede Birkenstocks. I had worn them to be comfortable and trendy. Being a transfer, I was intimidated, but I wanted to look confident and approachable. I hesitated, wondering if I really wanted to share that last part, but I nervously slid it over to my TA, anyways.

My oversharing was inevitable — it’s kind of my trademark when I’m stressed out — but I worried about other students seeing what I’d written down. I hadn’t recognized the power in oversharing, which would earn me several of my closest friends. Over the next three years, it took on many forms: over-worrying to my TA when I got a high C on my first visual art assignment, over-commiserating with other students about the fibers, fabrics and finishes exam, and over-indulging in Japanese takeout during late nights studying with my friend Caroline at the library.

Oversharing with my peers in the hallways solidified my friendships and cemented the foundation of my college career. I confessed my on-campus involvements to anyone nearby or ask them for guidance about my intended profession. Over-worrying with my TA at her office hours turned into asking for her input about a pair of Nikes during our work hours in the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection, which I would come to find was the organization that put on the fashion displays.

Despite connecting with others and committing myself to my academics and extracurriculars, I couldn’t relinquish the feeling of my own newness for some time. I was wowed by Cornell, but I wasn’t a part of it, not really. I was still the transfer, and I couldn’t take ownership of a school that wasn’t mine. Enjoying a lecture about Chanel, a meeting with my faculty advisor or a night out at Hideaway were circumstantial in my mind — entirely disconnected from my sense of university pride.

At the same time, it was easy to pin the negatives to Cornell. Feeling isolated brought out the angsty teenage phase I’d overlooked in high school. My difficulties in calculus and econ were a result of the requirement to take them, my awkward sense of self a result of the long-standing tradition of Greek life. It’s clear I couldn’t take ownership of these spaces, either. My white dress and Birkenstocks held no power here.

It wasn’t until late this semester, sitting at my former TA’s house in the Commons, that I realized I’d found myself over these years. I’d seen glimpses of my sense of belonging in a thank-you card last semester to my professor, the same one who’d curated The Biggest Little Fashion City before my first day. I’d gone from her student to her TA to her student advisee, ultimately developing my own exhibit under her instruction for the display cases that impacted me so profoundly. In my note, I acknowledged myself feeling more and more at home in the department each semester — perhaps an odd thing to claim only as a senior because it was something I could have claimed all along.

Everything has been a goodbye lately: my last introduction before an a cappella performance, my final e-board meeting for a club and the last time my friend Ally drove me to our 9:05 a.m. class. I wave at each moment silently, not quite recognizing them as they pass me by. At my TA’s house, however, sitting alongside classmates-turned-coworkers to a backdrop of the Met Gala on a projector screen, I felt nostalgic for each passing moment.

The same nostalgia washed over me at my own exhibit opening in the Human Ecology Building, where The Biggest Little Fashion City gave way to Revolution and Restraint. I nervously laughed over a microphone as I shared everything I’d learned and expressed my gratitude for the opportunity — for every opportunity — which fostered my sense of school pride. In a green dress, a white jean jacket and black heels, I was confident and approachable. Outside, the sunflowers cheered.

Victoria Pietsch is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at vpietsch@cornellsun.com. Fancy Pants runs every other Monday this semester.