When I was a kid, my mom wanted my older sister to break into the child modeling business. She took the two of us over to an agency, and a photographer began to snap away as my sister posed dutifully with skateboards and guitars, her long blonde hair blowing behind her, her tan skin glowing under the photographer’s flash.
I stood by and tugged on my mom’s sleeve to ask her if I could be a model too. The photographer overheard us, and he told me that the modeling agency wasn’t looking for any girls like me. I was 8 years old, and I thought he just had something against brunettes.
The photographer had chosen his words carefully to spare me, but he had really only delayed an inevitable realization. I’m not sure when I first figured out that hair color wasn’t the only thing that separated me from the girls I saw in magazines. It didn’t take long for me to notice that the world was hell-bent on regulating what I was supposed to look like.
The older I got, the more rules there were about what I could and couldn’t wear. Crop tops, shorts, leggings and strapless dresses were all meant for somebody thinner, taller and tanner. I had to cover up to convince the world that there was less of me than there was. I resented my own body, and I desperately wanted a way to forget that I was stuck with it.
When I was old enough to really start picking out my own clothes, I gravitated to the “off-limits” styles out of spite for the whole system. Breaking the rules was deliciously empowering. I was a pioneering insurgent, a crop top anarchist. The world would burn in the chaos of my exposed shoulders. To wear leggings as pants — I didn’t know of a sweeter adrenaline rush until the first time I snuck into an R-rated movie.
The result: my early teen years were an era of gloriously bold fashion choices. Many of these I’m certain to regret (I wore knee-high gym socks with my ballet flats), but some of which I’ll sorely miss (I’m definitely bringing back neckties as belts and you won’t be able to stop me.)
I could wear a dainty floral skirt, tight black pants, a chic statement necklace or a preppy button-down depending on what impression I was aiming to convey. Trying on different looks became a personal experiment in identity. I was getting to play dress-up as the people I wanted to be, and it felt fabulous.
I quickly learned something about fashion: if you played your cards right, you could persuade the world that you were anyone — that your body was any size, that you had a certain personality, that you were somebody you weren’t. I could change from the darling girl-next-door to the punky troublemaker to the sharp go-getter at the literal drop of a hat. My body was no longer something to resent; it was the canvas on which I could paint whatever picture I wanted.
That’s how developing a sense of personal style began for me — as an expedition in identity. I was able to develop my internal sense of self by experimenting with the external. The first step had been rejecting the rules of what I was expected to wear, and the next was writing my own.
Our clothes are a deeply personal reflection of our individuality. You can figure out exactly who I want to be just by looking at what I’m wearing.
On an average day, I wear an oversized denim jacket, combat boots, skinny jeans and a fun top. The jacket was my mother’s from the 1980s; I like it because it makes me feel like a modern-day Patrick Swayze — effortlessly cool and charismatic. When I walk around in combat boots, I’m tough, edgy and spirited. The girl wearing skinny jeans and a fun top is approachable, spontaneous and good-natured.
I can be all these things at once, or I can put on a different pair of pants and suddenly be the modern romantic you might see at a coffee shop in Paris. I can switch into strappy sandals and become the free-spirited wanderer who gets lost in the woods for the adventure of it. I am a chameleon — I can transform into different versions of myself depending on my environment.
If you took away all my clothes, you might still find the 8-year-old girl who was told she couldn’t be a model. But give that girl a fedora and a red blazer and watch her walk down the runway anyway. She can be anyone she wants to be, and along the way she’s finding out more about herself. Crop tops were the key to her coming-of-age.
And there’s one thing she can wear that’s always in style: her heart on her sleeve.
Shannon O’Hara writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on growing up through entertainment. Contact her at [email protected].