Chelsea Peng for Marie Claire wearing Christian Siriano at a convenience store
This morning I read two articles that popped across my newsfeed – perfectly contrasted, but talking about the same thing. In one article, a woman takes the social experiment-meets-journalistic challenge (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days vibe on strong) to wear a drapey, full-trained red carpet gown for one week of her real life. Dressed in a high end labeled gown, a heavy and textured Pantone emerald that prompts many people to call her ‘mermaid’, the author goes through her daily motions of convenience stores, project meetings and subway rides. She writes that the dress sets her apart, makes her otherworldly to the people around her. Like the girls in perfume ads, they assume she is off to better things and bigger parties. She’s ghosting through the real world is a strange combination of dream like appreciation and gawking. Sometimes she’s complimented; sometimes she’s crazy, snapchatted by twittering tweens.
On the flip side, the other author abandons the trapping of New York hipsturbia street fashion to go backpacking through the wilds of South America. She gives up designer sandals and rose gold knuckle rings and Urban Outfitter concoctions of macrame lace. Sitting at the airport next to a woman with a silk scarf and Hermes bag, she feels practically naked in her unadornment. The drabness feels tangible, as if she has left behind parts of her own body. But quickly she learns she doesn’t need these things that had felt like phantom limbs. She would rather ditch the pretty for the practical, fashion that enables her to walk further and climb higher. Her clothes are less about what they look like and more about what they can do for her. The made-up selfies in false lash and blow dried hair feel like another person to her.
To some extent, fashion, and tied irrevocably with it, gender, is performance. While we like to think we were the clothes, it often feels like the clothes are wearing us. To me, I see this stark contrast in my own life on a constant fashion seesaw. There is Makeup-Free Me, who will probably get ignored at the drugstore; there is Glossy First Date Me, who strangers will compliment on the street; there is Lolita Me, a fairy princess come to visit the Earthlings, both equally marveled and scoffed over. They are all Me, but in different pieces and parts, and how I want to interact with the world based on my appearance and the results I want.
Winter selfie #1 in cute Liz Lisa and summer selfie #2 in “conventional” style – Yes of course I have selfies for both dates, for posterity. Wearing Liz Lisa in Selfie #1 and Kohl’s Lauren Conrad Cinderella collection in Selfie #2
Recently, I had a funny experience. I went on a first date several months ago. It was winter, and my modus operandi was a combination of a million thinly disguised Japanese heat performance layers and teeny fluttery chiffon Liz Lisa dresses. Usually I combined these with some kind of fluffy scarf or thick white fur; the look was very fresh-faced and blushing, Snow White in Tokyo. I thought I looked pretty cute. Apparently my date didn’t agree. Upon meeting, he immediately noted how ‘uh, different…’ I looked from everyone else, and it was clear my standing out made him uncomfortable, as he kept bringing it up in a hedging sort of way. Even louder was his body language; he walked ahead of me, barely talking, not waiting for me to catch up as he speed-walked through the museum he’d picked. Halfway through the date, he decided he had to split – naturally, he got called into work at the financial office on a Sunday afternoon. I bought my own fast-food dinner and went home with nothing but blisters to show for my troubles.
Fast-forward several months and several dozen degrees on the thermometer. My summer style is a little more conventional – while I’m still rooting for chiffons and florals, the look is much more resort and beachy when I can finally let my skin out into the open air. After a date, I post a selfie, feeling pretty proud of my makeup and hair work. Who should pop out of the woodwork after complete radio silence for months but Mr. Sunday Afternoon at the Office, gushing to tell me how I had suddenly ‘got hot’ and if he could take me out. Eyebrows raised past the troposphere, I replied rather dryly that I was pretty sure I had always been ‘hot’. Apparently a little thicker eyeliner and a touch more skin is all it took to turn me from the kind of girl you dump halfway through a date without dinner to the sexy fantasy of your dreams you want to buy a million cocktails for. When I called him on it, the back pedaling was blatant. It’s reasons like this they’ve invented the unfriend button.
So, what do all these things have in common? Fashion is always considered the highest art because you live your life in it. Fashion changes who you are. Whether you are cringing at your seventh grade year book picture (brocade… Cat… Vests… Anyone? Or was that just my unfortunate childhood?) or running your fingers over the ten foot train of your wedding gown, our life is lived in moments defined by fashion. That dress you wore constantly the summer before college. The old sweater your boyfriend gave you. The shoes that pinched in church as a child. Clothes define a time, a place, a moment. They can become part of you, the way a wedding ring of forty years does. You can even let them eat you alive.
Sometimes it seems like lolita is one of those that will envelope you. The voice of lolita is a loud personality, it is Charlotte Lebeouf raring to get back into the fray. Wearing lolita is a little like wearing the red carpet gown on the subway. It invokes a princess part of yourself and to the people around you, that’s what you become. Stripping out of the petticoats and washing off the heavy glue and glitter at the end of the day begins to feel like absolution. I start to feel like I’m leading a double life when I wake up the next day, barefaced and hair ratty from being pressed under my wig. Like the backpacker, I wonder what it would feel like to amputate it all away. Even my body modifications speak to who I costume myself to be – the bottle blonde with roots, the nails glued with a thick crust of rhinestones. (Yes, I’ve tried it – just not for consecutive months of my life). I have days where I wear yoga pants and t-shirts. I do own frumpy shorts and an often misplaced pair of hiking-ish boots. The clothes are not who I am. But in wearing them, I choose who I want to look like I am to the world.
Lately the news is also abuzz with gender and race debate. In a short video, Ruby Rose strips off every shred of femininity to transform into what is effectively a dashing young man. We’ve seen men become women, women become men, and some people who decide they don’t have to ‘pick a side’ if they don’t want to. Little by little the old rules are fading away as we ask ourselves what and why and who we want to be. Diversity in fashion is also diversity in representation. What the heck does gender mean anyway, or how much of race to someone biracial is presentation rather than guts and genes?
As usual, I really don’t have the answers. Every single street snap is someone searching to figure out this mysterious question with us, how it makes us who we are. As for me, I’ll be riding the subway in my Japanese rose patterned miniature ballgown. I promise, even though we look like we’re from different planets, I’m appreciating that boho fringe top you’re rocking too. Try not to creeper snap me too hard, okay?