I’ll start with this: I’m not the kind of girl to write for a fashion magazine.
Don’t get me wrong, I love fashion and creativity. I so admire my friends who can make anything look good or pull off really bold looks. I just never thought that would be me – and I was fine with it!
I wasn’t used to thinking creatively about the clothes I wear every day. My elementary and middle school made everyone wear uniforms, so I almost never thought about fashion when I was younger. At school you had to fit in – and if you didn’t, you might be sent home. In high school, girls were wearing a new kind of uniform – leggings and Uggs – and breaking that new uniform came with its own kinds of consequences. At Hopkins, I have my one easy-to-put-together-before-9am look: sweater and leggings with the same pair of black boots that I wear everywhere. Sometimes a scarf.
That said, fashion was still really important in my life – I just never wanted to think about it. As much as I wanted to dress well, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by being bold or creative or trying anything different. I was afraid to make a mistake or break some unspoken fashion rule I wasn’t even aware of. “Fashion just isn’t a huge deal for me,” I would think until I was 30 minutes late to a friend’s party because I couldn’t decide what to wear and was afraid that I’d look out of place no matter what I wore. To me, fashion was just trying not to embarrass myself.
This article is supposed to be about how my semester in Italy changed my perspective on fashion and self-expression, and this would be a much shorter article if I boarded the airplane and discovered fine Italian leather and became enlightened to all the style rules I didn’t know about before. Instead, my first few weeks of study abroad were isolating compared to my life at Hopkins – and fashion was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t know anyone, it was hard to make friends, and I felt judged by a lot of the people I first met. I felt anxious rather than adventurous, and I felt terrible because this was not how I planned for my semester abroad to go.
But even if it wasn’t what I expected, being on my own was what I needed to grow. Without my best friends and family to rely on, I had to choose: was I going to try to fit in with everyone else, or was I going to be unapologetically myself? There’s something about being in a new place that invites you to break your old habits, and what seemed like the worst part of being abroad – being alone – turned into the best part of being abroad – learning my independence.
And contrary to what people often say, independence doesn’t just mean doing your laundry, waking up on time, and studying before exams. Independence for me became knowing who I am without needing validation from strangers – or even from friends. I couldn’t stop myself from considering what people might think of me, but I decided that the only opinion that mattered was my own. To be independent meant to practice knowing myself and trusting myself every day.
Fashion became my daily practice in self-acceptance. One day I ducked inside a cramped little thrift shop and found racks and racks of what I would describe as “grandma clothes.” The clothes there were well-worn but with character, eccentric but interesting. And most importantly, almost everything was under 5 euros. I hit the racks.
None of the clothes there fit into my usual comfort zone, so I started trying on anything I thought was funky or unique. And then I found it – the grandma skirt. The grandma skirt is made of brown corduroy with a waistline that buttons above my hips and a hem that stretches down below my knees. I call it the grandma skirt because it reminds me of some bygone era before I was born, since these days nobody wears skirts quite like this one. I tried it on over my jeans and twirled around in the middle of the store – inexplicably, I loved this skirt, but would I be too embarrassed to actually wear it? I took pictures in the mirror and sent them to my usual list of fashionable friends for a second opinion. But then the little shop revealed its next surprise: absolutely no cellphone service. Like so much of my time abroad, I was on my own, only this time, I had the grandma skirt. And I realized that if I knew I loved something, I didn’t need outside approval – now or ever.
By wearing my clothes rather than hiding behind them, I practiced self-acceptance that extended to other parts of my life. It’s almost a paradox to say that fashion is what helped me be true to myself. From the outside looking in, one person’s fashion seems like a show put on for other people. But done right, fashion isn’t about other people – choosing the styles you love is a practice in self-expression and knowing who you are no matter what anyone else thinks. Being on my own for my semester abroad, I used fearless fashion choices and my favorite grandma skirt to build my independence – one outfit at a time.