A stylist friend once told me that all you have to do to pull something off is put it on. If you’re worried about donning a particularly bold item, she said – gigantic fabric earrings, a complicated Rianna + Nina offering, anything owned by Cher— and carrying it off with confident aplomb, all you have to do is wear it. Once it’s on your body, you are pulling it off.
This is a beautiful sentiment. I support any aphorism that encourages people to experiment with whatever entices them (even if that thing is not technically an item of clothing), but with my friend’s absolutist approach, I have to disagree. It fails to take into account several important factors, one of which is me — more specifically, me at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1998.
I was a high school junior at my first music festival. Not even the sight of grown men chugging whiskey at 10 a.m. could diminish my thrill of standing in line to enter what I believed was an important cultural event. Somewhat less thrilling was the unseasonably humid weather, which was quickly creating a heat vortex on the unshaded parking-lot-cum-concessions-promenade outside Robert F. Kennedy stadium, which, by noon, was hot as a frying pan and teeming with bodies.
As my friends and I pushed through the damp crowd, I caught sight of a row of small tables set up beside racks of crochet tops, sundresses and long flowy skirts. Behind each one sat a girl in her early 20s who looked like she inspired a folk ballad played on acoustic guitar (or shortly would). These were flower-tucked-behind-the-ear girls. Single-streak-of-Kool-Aid-red-hair girls. Vintage-camisoles-with-bra-straps-showing-and-floral-skirts-that-don’t-match-the-top-and-Doc-Martens girls. They were Drew Barrymore in Mad Love or Lisa Bonet in anything — the quintessential ’90s cool girl.
I was smitten. In the formative process of discovering what allegiances I held and what stuff I thought was bullshit, I’d recently pinpointed my target aesthetic as a combination of chic and bohemian. Unfortunately, as a kid in the suburbs in 1998, I had to attempt that vision using what I could find at the mall, which meant I rarely succeeded in looking anything other than “basic plus scarf.” To the Tibetan Freedom Concert, I wore boot-cut jeans, Steve Madden Chelsea-style boots and a black knit J. Crew shell. Yes, the outfit was boring, but the more pressing issue was that it was denim and wool and exceedingly hot.
As I stood in that sweltering stew of humanity, I gazed at the row of grunge muses. Unfazed by the cloying heat, they looked fresh and cool, as if they’d recently been unloaded from a meat locker. They also looked resoundingly themselves in a way I was desperate to emulate. Slowly, an idea floated to the mushy surface of my brain: Maybe all I had to do was to buy one of those long, crinkly floral dresses to become that girl. Maybe all that stood between me and my bohemian chic identity was one simple purchase.
Sweaty and possessed, I pushed past my friends, staggered toward the rack, pressed $20 into the hands of a girl with an inner wrist tattoo and barreled off to find the bathroom, new dress in hand. Alone in a stall, I peeled off my clothes, slipped the dress on and prepared for a transformation. Cool and nonbinding, it felt like wearing an April breeze, but I couldn’t put my finger on what felt so fundamentally wrong — that is, until I swung open the stall door and found myself face-to-face with a full-length mirror.
The eyes, shoulders, teeth and limbs I saw in the mirror all registered as my own, but taken as a whole, I was unrecognizable to myself. I would become acquainted with the concept of imposter syndrome a few years later, but I can confidently say that no needling insecurity has since suffused me with it as deeply as that $20 dress purchased in a sports arena parking lot. I had the sensation that I was wearing an ill-chosen costume, but as my other clothes were now a damp ball in my bag, I had no choice but to stick with the plan. I shuffled out of the bathroom. The dress even made me walk weird.
Back at my seat, my friends took one look at me and their eyebrows shot up into their respective hairlines. “That looks…” Sarah began, barely holding back laughter, before Adrienne interrupted, speaking generously through visible alarm: “It looks really comfortable.” Yes, physically, the dress was comfortable; emotionally, it felt like a hair shirt. You could say I wasn’t pulling it off.
But as I watched the lead singer of Luscious Jackson bounce around the stage with an orange flower behind her ear, a thought occurred to me: Maybe pulling a thing off has less to do with drumming up the confidence to wear it and more to do with feeling like it actually lets you be you in the first place. Maybe items that appeal at first blush don’t always work for the you that you are.
At RFK stadium that day, I learned I was not and probably never would be a freewheeling twentysomething bralessly selling sundresses and hemp backpacks in a parking lot, and no dress I could put on in a stadium bathroom could make that not be so. But if the realization of my non-Bonet-ness was a disappointing one, it also brought with it a ray of hope because it meant I did have a discrete identity, one that I could explore through — among other avenues — the continual trying on and taking off of things. At that moment, a genuine sense of self surged through me.
This is not a call to remain in the comfort zone. In fact, in the 20 years since it occurred to me, I’ve found it to be quite the opposite. Trying out new stuff gives you valuable data. As with sleeping with the wrong person, you can’t know that some clothes aren’t right for you until they’re actually on your body. You may learn that you hate showing your midriff but really love hats. That you think kitten heels are trash. That nothing has ever made you feel more invincible than a wide-leg jean. So whether it impedes your natural movement, makes you sit weird or just makes you feel unlike yourself in a way you can’t quite pinpoint, toss that peplum blouse/PVC trench/Parisian night suit aside in favor of something that actually does. Why bother trying to pull off anything else?
Feature photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage.