The first conversation I remember having about fashion was with my mother. I was 2 years old, and we were discussing my Halloween costume. I wanted to be a pumpkin but not just any pumpkin: I wanted to be a pumpkin with wings.
This early satirical choice says a lot about me as a toddler. I was precious, ambitious and had the imagination to dream up what I thought was the most original costume ever.
Since then, I’ve had a lot of conversations about clothes. Growing up, my mom and I would go thrifting constantly. Part of it was to save money. But most of it was about spending time together while we bonded over textiles, colors and patterns.
In high school, I worked retail and part of my job was to talk to people about what clothes they were looking for. Now in college, I help run Dressed Up Ducks, the University of Oregon’s style blog.
You might have noticed me on campus: I am the girl lugging around a nice camera with a disproportionately big lens. At this point, I can’t count how many students I’ve asked to photograph. Surprisingly, no one has said no, even if it made them late to class.
I think there are two reasons that students are open to allowing a total stranger take pictures of them. For one, it’s flattering to have someone like your outfit so much they want to put pictures of you on the Internet.
But more importantly, talking about fashion is an easy way to approach someone. You’re not asking them about the next election or their opinion on the latest administrative scandal. You’re just talking about clothes, right?
And to an extent, this is true. For many, fashion is just the clothes that we put on our bodies.
But clothes matter. Whether intentional or not, what we wear is a projection of ourselves onto the world. In one of her last articles as the fashion editor for the Financial Times, Vanessa Friedman wrote “Everyone thinks about clothes; about how they want others to see them.”
However, I would argue that what matters most is not what people imagine others will think when looking at their clothing but what a person’s clothing means to them. Of everything that we own, our clothes are some of the few things that we take out into our daily lives. They get dirty, grimy, stinky. But more than anything, our clothes have stories.
Because of this, I’m often surprised with how open people will be about their lives when I’m just asking about what they’re wearing.
During one interview, a female student disclosed to me that she feels confident in the clothes that she wears because she inherited her mother’s closet after she passed away the previous year.
In that instant I was stunned. I had pulled her aside because she had funky palazzo pants on. I didn’t know how to respond, but I was grateful that she felt comfortable talking about something so personal to a total stranger.
But that’s the thing about clothes. They help us heal. As New York Times street photographer Bill Cunningham famously said, “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.”
And from this armor, you can find comfort.
People often say that they like to dress “comfortable,” which, in a university setting, means leggings or sweats. As someone who rocks high heels on a daily basis, I don’t understand the comfy trend. But as I’ve talked to more and more people about their clothing choices, I better understand where they are coming from.
The world is an uncomfortable place. The perfect chunky sweater can make an all-nighter less painful, and a particularly stressful midterm becomes more bearable when paired with your favorite jeans.
And still, we consistently dismiss fashion, calling it frivolous.
But I would argue that this is also the power of fashion: It’s a vehicle to discuss issues that are otherwise too controversial to bring up in casual conversation.
What I love about interviewing people for Dressed Up Ducks is that I never know where the conversation will lead. I’ve discussed the economics of ballin’ on a budget, how fashion can help you combat mental illness and the problem with idolizing vintage clothes and the eras they came from.
But at the same time, what I’ve really learned about are the people, not the clothes. Fashion is a choice. Sure, it’s self-expression, but in a chaotic world, it can be someone’s only sense of control.
I think we should talk more about fashion and the clothes we wear. I might be biased because talking to people about style is kind of my job, but as the old adage goes, “you can’t know a person until you walk a mile in their shoes,” and in the literal sense, I believe this is true.