Recently, an acquaintance from high school pinned to Pinterest a picture of a poofy skirt with a top layer of gauzey black fabric. I thought, "That looks a lot like a skirt I used to wear in high school!" and then realized she had pinned it as a Halloween costume idea. That is how I got the idea to write this post.
[Ed. note: I added links and colored text in some places because the reader I asked to critique this post pointed out that some people won't know what fashion terms like "pleat" mean.]
It probably surprises no one who knows me in my adult life that when I was a kid, I was weird. Really, really weird. In high school, my creativity manifested itself in a fashion sense that at some times, got me compliments, and at other times, had me going to school in what looked like a Halloween costume. Because of this, I often have someone check over an outfit before I debut it. HM will tell me if I look like a "kook." If he's not around, I will send a picture message to my mother.
How I got to my everyday's-a-costume-party teen years can be not understood, but somehow illuminated, by tracking some of my early life's fashion trends and highlights.
I'm told that when I was little, I only wanted to wear dresses. Every day wasn't a costume party, but a fancy party. I have hazy, distant memories of trying to sneak to preschool in a velour Christmas-at-grandmere's dress, but somehow my mother noticed before we got to the car!
Throughout my preschool, elementary school, and middle school years, I recall some mostly unremarkable fluctuations between wanting to wear a dress all the time to refusing to wear a dress ever and wanting to wear sneakers all the time.
Then, in third or fourth grade, my best friend--for this post, I'll call her Topaz--informed me that I was NOT popular. She wasn't either, but I was even less popular. Somehow she managed to convince me that popular was a thing I wanted to be, and that it depended on our outfits. It was then that fashion became important to me. Not just clothes, but what other people thought of one's clothes and what clothes were, like certain people, popular. So I started going to Kids 'R' Us and begging my mom to get me the things other girls were wearing, the things that were NOT on the sale rack only. One thing I remember in particular was The Cow Outfit.
I do not know why this was such a cool outfit to the third graders of Sparta Alpine School in 1993, but I do remember that many girls had it, and eventually, so did I. It consisted of cow print legging-tight shorts with a baggy shirt that depicted two cows eating grass. The cows were in people clothes, and this varied from outfit to outfit. (Kids 'R' Us actually made multiple cow outfits.) The cows wore things like colorful headbands and giant hoop earrings. [Ed. note: I searched far and wide on Google for a picture of this outfit, and all I have to show for it is the knowledge that variations of "1993 Kids 'R' Us Cow Outfit" yields an incongruous assortment of images of cow costumes, Babies 'R' Us items, and beef dishes.]
In addition to the Cow Outfit, another one of Topaz's ideas for being fashionably cool was to dress like a different Babysitter every day. For those of you who were not girls or male relatives of girls in the early 1990's, I am referring to Kristy, Claudia, et al., of The Babysitters Club, the series of books by Ann M. Martin about a group of entrepreneurial best friends who maintain a successful small babysitting business which survives their unfortunate mishap with the time warp that forces them to repeat the eighth grade over and over and over again. Topaz's idea was that we would dress like Kristy on Mondays, which meant we'd be casual, in jeans and sneakers. Tuesday was Claudia Day, which meant we dressed WILD and TRENDY. I can't remember the others, because I don't really remember the names of the other Babysitters or how one could possibly dress like them, and honestly...Claudia Day was my favorite. Claudia Day eclipsed all subsequent days. I wished every day could be Claudia Day.
In fourth grade, however, came a dark day. Picture Day. The day of The Unfortunate Bell Bottoms Incident. You see, in the summer of 1993, hippie fashion was IN. At least it was in among all the big kids my other best friend--who will be called "Charity" for this post--and I observed hanging out on the boardwalk, smoking cigarettes and saying bad words. They wore choker necklaces, shirts with flowy sleeves, and bell bottoms. I loved those clothes, and I wanted to dress like the big kids. Unfortunately, stores weren't selling many chokers or bell bottoms for nine-year-olds.
Then, while back-to-school shopping at Ames, I saw it. The outfit was a white shirt with black polka dots, a ruffled V-neck collar, and sleeves that flared at the wrists. The pants--black bell bottoms. My mother bought it for me, and I proudly wore it to Picture Day.
The taunting was ceaseless for the entire day. When I protested that hippie fashion was in, I was told that was only for big kids or that it was only for the summer. And besides, either way, it was not in for a fatso like me. One of the boys, a new kid, won himself some respect from the other fourth-graders by coining for me the unfortunately clever nickname, "Hippie Hippo."
I felt betrayed when a friend, who I knew have bought the same outfit, wore the top to school several times but with different pants.
I did not outgrow that nickname until I left Sparta. In high school, that same kid still called me Hippie Hippo. I bet if I went to my high school reunion next weekend, someone would still call me that, except I'd like to think it would be in a congenial, nostalgic way.
A few years later, in middle school, plagued by frizzy, unruly hair, a big chubby face, and flab everywhere, I just gave up. I went through a phase where I would only wear baggy T-shirts and pants, my hair pulled back into the tightest ponytail I could manage. I was unaware that this only highlighted what I was trying to hide. My hair escaped from its shackles of scrunchie, forming a halo of frizz around a face made more moon-like by dead-center part. It's unclear if the baggy shirts made my stomach look larger, or merely drew more attention to it because they were tie-dyed. I was never good at blending in.
The following summer, however, I magically lost weight. At least, it seemed like magic to me, although my mother could probably tell you the real reason. And so, in high school, I became a dresser, a person who selects their clothing and accessories and very intentionally combines and coordinates them. A dresser need not, however, be fashionable.
My style in high school was hit or miss, mostly miss, and more than a little alternative. It has been miscategorized as goth or punk, but it was neither one nor both of those. It had elements of both, plus hippie, plus some personal flair that I'm not really sure how to characterize. I shopped at Hot Topic (the website of which I just visited to provide a link, by which I was totally confused because it is not the Hot Topic I remember), but that alone would have been too mainstream for me. Too much like everybody else. I liked to have an outfit include at least one item that was either from a thrift store or homemade.
Sometimes, I got a lot of compliments for some outfits, and not just from other weirdos like myself. Other times, I just looked crazy. Here is a list of some outfits my parents would not let me wear to school:
The Tinlady: This was at least for a literary magazine dressup day, and not a normal schoolday. It involved a shimmery silvery blue skirt, and I decided that my makeup should match, so I mixed some blue and silver eyeshadow for my eyelids. Then somehow, I got the idea to apply this silver eye makeup to my entire face. I wanted to go to school painted silver. When my parents adamantly refused to let me go to school like this, I didn't understand why. I missed homeroom, spending nearly half an hour washing off that silver makeup, the whole time yelling, "This is so unfair, Mom and Dad!"
A Curtain: I was a pretty good seamstress; I made some articles of clothing that I still wear, ten years later, for which I receive compliments. However, sometimes I got lazy. My materials often came from secondhand stores, and included scraps of fabric or unfashionable clothing which I'd "edit," convert into something I liked better. But one lazy weeknight, my starting place was a yellow brocade, white-flowered, pleated curtain. I decided to convert this into a pleated skirt. Here's where the lazy came in-- I just sewed Velcro to two of its sides. The next morning, I wrapped myself in my "pleated Velcro wrap skirt", as I proclaimed the curtain to be. The Velcro wasn't strong enough for the faux-leather and cardboard reinforcing backing I had failed to remove from the fabric. The bottom of the skirt came open a bit, but I proclaimed this to be a fashionable slit.
When my parents adamantly refused to let me go to school wearing a curtain, I argued. They persisted in refusing to acknowledge its new identity as a wrap skirt, or as any form of clothing at all. I was again late to school, shouting, "This is so unfair, Mom and Dad!" as I searched for another outfit.
Here is a list of a few outfits my parents did let me out of the house wearing.
Badass Britney: Potentially conceived before I'd even heard "Baby One More Time." I made an effort to not hear any Britney Spears songs for several months after everyone else had. (It's a talent; I still haven't heard "Call Me Maybe.") Yet I still knew, in that way ninth graders can, that I didn't like her music, and with this outfit, I told it to the world. It was a dark gray sweater over a white collared shirt with a dark gray pleated skirt, heels, and black fishnet stockings. My mother approved, stating that this was a proper use of fishnets.
Breaking the Rules: Whereas now I proclaim, "Black and brown, look like a clown! Black and blue, shame on you!" throughout the streets of black-with-blue-and-brown-shame-on-a-clown Portland, as a tenth grader, I felt differently. I found the "no black and navy blue" rule to be oppressive, like a high school ban on trench coats or DOMA (of which I was aware, as a high schooler, only because I wrote a paper entitled, "Liberty and Justice for Some" on the assigned topic, "Liberty and Justice for All.") So I invented an outfit with that theme in mind. This may have been during the brief time that I had tried to dye my hair blue but since I wouldn't bleach it first, it was just very dark black with a blue tint. In addition to the hair dye, the outfit consisted of black mid-calf lace-up boots (as did most of my outfits in high school), navy blue tights, a black pencil skirt, and a long-sleeved, baggy, tunic-length velour navy blue shirt.
Which reminds me. In high school--just like now--I would sometimes try to tone it down. When I would try to wear something normal, I would still fail. Once, I wore that same navy blue shirt with jeans. I was trying to have a mellow day. Yet throughout the day, I was complimented on my outfit, not because I was finally going to school in something other than a Halloween costume, but because people found the outfit to be unique and interesting. Because even when I wore normal clothes, I would forget to tone down the accessories. The ensemble included something like wacky earrings, or a really big necklace, or I had my hair pulled back in a really severe bun and was also wearing heavy eyeliner and dark lipstick. I couldn't win.
Instead of taking a lesson from this experience, to tone it down and just pair ONE wacky element with otherwise normal clothes, I continued with themed outfits. The following is one I only wore once, because pretty much from the moment I left the house, I knew I looked ridiculous, but I still remember it.
The Black and White Outfit or Even My Dog Could Tell I Looked Ridiculous: You know how sometimes you'll plan an entire outfit around an accessory, such as a necklace you really want to wear? That's how this happened. The accessory was those black-and-white striped tights that Hot Topic sold. I never understood why these were popular, yet somehow I ended up with a pair. It was probably part of a multi-pack of zany and colored tights. Instead of just wearing them with a black dress or something, I designed a "black and white" outfit. I would like to save the so-bad-it's-good best for last, but I don't even know where to begin with this one. All of its parts were equally bad.
The "shirt" was actually a child's dress that fit me like a very flattering tunic. It was long, black, and velour (are you picking up on a theme, here?)
The skirt was my mother's from the 70's, three layers of white, lightweight, flowy fabric.
Then there were the tights. Black and white horizontal stripes.
And then, the black-and-white icing on the cake of fashion horror, the shoes. Black and white saddle shoes.
I could keep going. Did you know I had a pair of tie-dyed jeans? I made them myself. They were the almost bell-bottom-style called Super Flares. I do NOT regret those. They were a work of art, and if I could still fit into them, I would wear them to my job at the law office. If I had the time and inclination, I would tye-dye another pair of jeans to wear now, as an almost-thirty adult. The only lesson to gain from this sartorial story is don't make your most amazing articles of clothing before you're old enough to have hips. Also, don't wear your tie-dyed jeans with a bright orange shirt. Even if there are orange streaks in the pants. (That's probably how Hippie Hippo resurfaced in high school.)
Speaking of I-Made-Them-Myself, I also had a pair of Poetry Tights. That's right. It was a pair of white tights, which debuted at the literary magazine's Open Mic Night/Rock Concert which I hosted. The "dress" I wore was actually an antique slip. Again, my parents argued with me over the identity of this piece of fabric. Those old fuddy duddies insisted it was underwear; I declared its new life was as outerwear. My father relented when I put a heavy coat over it; he seemed satisfied that I would wear that coat all night. (I did not.)
Back to the tights. They were white. With black marker, I wrote on them. I wrote poems. Some were my own, and some were Margaret Atwood's. Some were Sylvia Plath's. The fabric kept moving around when I tried to write on it, so I had to find something solid that fit into the leg of a pair of tights. I used a CD case. Think of the time and dedication this required.
That's not all. The tights had some runs. They were in the knees, and to me they looked cool, like ripped jeans! I used glue to secure them in place, to keep them from running further and messing with my poetry. And then, to draw further attention to the holes (or myself), I dipped the gluey holes in lavender and silver glitter.
One day, the dog, apparently a fashion critic, chewed the feet off of my poetry tights. He chewed one almost to the glittery knee. No matter! I continued to wear them with knee-high lace-up boots!
The One That Got Away:There is one outfit the loss of which I regret. It was definitely not cool in the early 2000's, but a mere five years later, as the 1980's got ironically cool, the outfit and its component parts would have been cool. I regret my decision to donate to charity the knee-length pencil skirt of stonewashed denim (to which I added a border of some folk-arty black and kelly green and red and gold embroidered ribbon) and kelly green blazer with ever-so-subtle shoulder pads. I fondly remember wearing this outfit to the Willowbrook Mall and getting kicked out of Abercrombie and Fitch. Now I would wear the outfit, or maybe its pieces separately, to the law office.
I wish I had pictures to illustrate this post. I hope to do a revision of this post someday with photographic evidence. For now, unfortunately, my pictures from the pre-digital era are all a continent's distance away in a plastic storage container, waiting to be sorted and scanned and posted right here.
I still wish every day was Claudia Day.