In college, I didn’t have many clothes. I snuggled into UE hoodies and high school jeans and old tennis shoes. Everyone else in the classroom equally looked they’d just rolled out of bed. So it was fine, until the weekend when everyone transformed into glamorous movie stars. I borrowed a dress that didn’t fit me to attend a semi-formal. And because I had smaller feet than all my friends, I wore my own clunky size fives that didn’t match the dress. I looked like a contestant on “What Not to Wear.” I always looked out-of-place at the fraternity house parties or when friends convinced me to go out. I looked out-of-place because I wasn’t the kind of girl who went out, and therefore, I did not have that short skirt, strappy heel wardrobe. I just couldn’t play the part—especially not on Halloween weekend surrounded by naughty nurses and sexy firefighters and Playboy bunnies and Hooters waitresses.
Not playing that part was okay with me, though. I wanted to be like my writing professor who wore a lot of basic black and perfect lipstick and chic red reading glasses. She was a professor, a writer, a traveler, and a speaker. I wanted to be her. In fact, I desperately wanted a pair of red reading glasses although my vision was perfectly fine.
When I go crazy, I usually do something drastic. Or change my hair. When I moved seven hours away from my home and my teaching job, I went back blonde. Then I chopped it all off. Then I got rid of all my teaching clothes. See, I was the best dressed teacher. I wore my title proudly. I accessorized. I enjoyed the click, click of my heels on the hard floor. I was a professional working woman. I was a fashionista. I finally had the money to buy the clothes to play the part.
“Your closet must be so big!”
“Mrs. Knackmuhs, I love your dress.”
“You always look so cute.”
“How do you always manage to look so put together?”
I liked the attention from students. And I hoped, in a private school where students noticed fresh manicures and new highlights and the subtle glow from a tanning session, that having a fresh manicure and highlights and a subtle glow might get them to listen to me about Shakespeare and kindness and life and how not to be superficial and stuff. Meanwhile, shopping was my hobby. I went several times a week.
When I no longer taught, I no longer had an identity. I no longer had a part to play. In a wild fury, I flung the pencil skirts and the dress pants and the blouses and the blazers and the cardigans and the heels out of my closet. I took all of the beautiful professional clothing to the consignment shop. “You do not get to be the woman you used to be,” I told myself. “Stop pretending nothing’s changed. Everything has changed.” I stopped shopping. I wore UE hoodies and jeans from high school. I wore leggings and yoga pants. I looked out-of-place. I stopped looking into mirrors. Yes, I was voted most likely to look in the mirror in high school, but I went back to being an eligible candidate for “What Not to Wear.”
When my mom came to visit me recently, she thought shopping would cheer me up (ha!). We went into Maurices (an old favorite store of mine), and she immediately found an outfit that would be perfect for her job at a law firm. She looked pretty and professional and powerful and confident. I started to tear up because I had no reason to shop in the professional clothing department. I had no reason to look pretty, professional, powerful, and confident. I locked myself in the dressing room and stared at myself in the mirror. Who am I? And what do I wear?
I’ve started going into stores by myself again. It’s a step. But I always talk myself out of buying. I think, “Where would I wear that? It doesn’t quite fit right. If I don’t buy this shirt, I could buy more groceries. I don’t earn enough to buy new clothes. This material doesn’t feel warm enough. 100% cotton? Hand wash only? Is this outfit really me? This shirt feels too ‘special’ for me, for my life.” I walk out of stores empty-handed. I walk out of stores knowing that my identity is not inside a shopping mall. I start my car, I put on my red sunglasses, and I go home to change into yoga pants and brew some peppermint tea and write. And I dream of someday needing a wardrobe fit for a traveler-speaker-professor-writer.