What to wear to fit in and how to fit in what you wear

Now and Again

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When I was in the third grade I started wearing my brother’s clothes. I would sneak them out of the laundry room before they made it upstairs and zip out the door before he could see me in them. My favorites were the jeans and the Hawaiian shirts that swallowed my figure and washed away any inkling of femininity an 8-year-old could carry.

I idolized my older brother growing up. My sister was six years older than me and hardly gave me the time of day but my brother was my best friend. Maybe not my best friend, but definitely my muse. I endured hours of televised sports just so I could sit next to him. I wandered over to the park next to our house when I knew he would be playing football with his friends and sat on the sidelines and watched. Once he mocked me for playing with Barbies so I watched as he took a bat to them in our backyard, scattering their plastic arms and legs all around the bushes and trees — a blonde head that had endured one too many haircuts among the honeydew, a naked torso in the ivy.

But my brother was always small and skinny and even though he was four years older than me, as I aged and grew hips and breasts the clothes started fitting me less well. I was suddenly out of luck. When I was younger my mom would always be dragging me to thrift stores and at the time this felt like my ultimate shame. I slunk around them quietly filling up my mom’s cart, in fear that someone from school would see me, point a finger and scream out in horror. I filled the cart with oversized sweatshirts, ill-fitting jeans with no pockets and those plaid Bermudas 2009 was rife with.

In those Goodwill trips I found five years worth of clothes to cover up. Each day I wore a pair of jeans with knockoff Converse and a T-shirt from a soccer tournament. I remember when I wanted to look my best I would wear a teal shirt my mom gave me from a science fair because I felt it was an especially radiant color on me.

I grew up in a family that didn’t really do femininity in any of the traditional ways. I never shopped in retail stores, I didn’t get my nails done until my senior prom, I never talked to my mom about my period or getting a bra or shaving and felt myself stumbling through those things for the most part on my own. My mom stuck to basic clothes she bought from Goodwill and my older sister mostly stuck to her room with the doors closed. As I tried to step carefully in the footsteps of all my family members I found myself overextending.

As I moved into high school, the character of my closet began to evolve. I was soon the only kid left living alone with my parents and without any hand-me-downs or shared closet space. I found through my clothes a space to find a new type of identity. My closet soon filled with big patterned sweaters and patchwork jackets, floral vests and graphic tees promoting Ricky Martin or the Rainforest Cafe. And while the diversity of my clothes continued to grow, one thing did not — their location, deep inside my drawers. But the thing about thrift stores is that they left space for this. I could spend $6 on a patchwork jacket from Salvation Army and not feel bad if I let it sit in my closet until I was brave enough to pull it out. At Goodwill, I started pulling from the racks bright things, tight things and oh-so-much menswear.

But I still don’t have it figured out. I have days I leave the house feeling great before catching a glimpse of my reflection in a coffee shop window and regretting all the choices I have made that led me to that moment. Some days I still think I would look best in my teal science fair tee. Some days I need to whack a Barbie with a baseball bat, pick up the plastic pieces and rebuild something that looks more like me. What I hope the clothes I wear say to those who see them is not that I am put together or mature or even fashionable, but that I am someone who is OK with being seen.

Kate Tinney writes the arts & entertainment column on shifting artistic contexts and perspectives. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.