suiting up and growing older
On my fifth birthday, I announced to my parents that I was a princess. I told them I was expecting my real parents, the king and queen of some far-off land who wore clothes straight out of the 15th century, to reclaim me and bring me back to their castle. I predicted that, within the year, I’d be wearing yellow ball gowns and taking riding lessons on my white pony. Although I didn’t actually want a pony, I thought that a white pony was a prerequisite to becoming a princess. And since I fully intended to embrace my true identity as a princess, I would need as many white ponies as possible.
I’m not sure how my parents tell this story now without cringing. While they see it as an adorable stage I went through, I see it as something to be concerned about and as a precursor for what was to come. See, I didn’t simply want to be a princess; I was convinced I was one. I wore dresses to school every day because princesses didn’t wear anything less. When it rained and my mom insisted I wear warm pants and rain boots, I wore a dress over the pants so my friends wouldn’t question my princess status. I had dreams in which my real royal parents whisked me away from the imposters I currently lived with. I memorized the lines to classic Disney movies so that, when I finally arrived at my castle, I would know the correct way to talk to my servants and courtiers. And even though I turned six and then seven with no sign from my real parents, I still bought dresses in bigger sizes, secure in the knowledge that I really was a princess.
In fourth grade, sweatpants and sweatshirts abruptly replaced my dresses. Gone were the yellow sundresses and pink party dresses. Instead, my closet became a monotonous display of grays and blues. Pink was no longer allowed fewer than 10 inches from my body, and I almost threw a fit when I had to wear a skirt on Easter. I wore my hair in a messy ponytail every day, and sneakers were my footwear of choice. Princesses, I had decided, were nowhere near as cool as professional soccer players. Or marathon runners. Or even baseball players. True, I was no Mia Hamm, but I wore her jersey weekly and had her autograph hanging in a gold frame in my room. While I couldn’t run a marathon, catch a ball to save my life, or score many goals, I figured that dressing the part was the first step towards athletic success.
My closet full of jerseys and sweat suits soon morphed into a horrific collection of pastel polos and miniskirts from the teenager sections of department stores. Generally, this is a time I like to pretend never existed. Soon after this came my business casual phase. I’m not talking pantsuits and collared shirts, but I was used to people asking me if I had an interview after school. Yes, I liked blazers and pencil-type skirts, and no, I did not have an interview. I was even told to dress down at my internship at the local newspaper because I made everyone else look underdressed. Although this was probably their way of saying that it looked like I was trying too hard, I took it as a compliment. When school spirit week came around and people dressed in sweat suits in our school colors, I opted to switch up my accessories in order to coordinate with the blue and gold-clad students.
It wasn’t that I was anti-school spirit or anti-sweat pants. I just didn’t want anyone to think that I was someone other than the person I was desperately trying to be. I tried to be a princess, an athlete, and a star student who looked like she had everything together. Although I was never any of those things, I hoped that, by looking the part, I could fool everyone else into thinking that I was.
During one of my first 9 a.m. lectures my freshman year at Brown, a kid wearing an oversized sweatshirt and pajama pants sat next to my dress-clad figure. His messy hair along with his hunched position over his steaming coffee cup indicated that he had just rolled out of bed. While I had, of course, heard stories of people who did this, who came to class dressed in loungewear looking half-asleep, I didn’t realize it actually happened. To someone like myself, who woke up an hour and a half before class so that I would have time to take a shower, get ready, and eat a sit-down breakfast, this type of behavior was hard to understand. Wasn’t the guy embarrassed? Didn’t he feel like a slob? And yet, as I looked around my lecture class, no one appeared to look twice at the guy who was still in his pajamas. In fact, I was the one getting more attention because I was very much overdressed for the dreaded morning class. True, overdressing was not a new thing for me, but I realized how different I looked compared to the guy next to me. He was self-confident enough to wear pajamas to class while I was too insecure to wear anything except my best.
These days, my closet isn’t as one-dimensional as it used to be, and I’m beginning to realize that’s a good thing. I wore a skirt with sneakers the other day, and today I wore a plain t-shirt with jeans, skipping the accessories altogether. It felt weird to be underdressed, but it also felt good. I was less concerned with what I was wearing and more concerned with what I was doing throughout the day. One could argue that my current eclectic closet has more personalities than ever, but I would disagree. I think that by mixing up my style and combining a dress with sneakers and a blazer, I’m creating a singular personality that makes more sense than any of my previous ones ever did.