Everybody who has met me knows that I have a very strong, yet unpredictable sense of style.
One day, I will wear a blue high-low dress that floats over the floor as I walk. My eyes are blue and silver, and my legs completely black from the illusion created by leggings and boots. The next, I might step out in hot pink skinny jeans and a Gap kids’ shirt with a starry-eyed cat, paired with black thigh-high boots. Cat wings will grace my eyes, and sometimes, I’ll wear heart-shaped glasses if I feel really psychedelic. In college, I actually received a prize for having the most colorful fashion in the entire school. Frequently, I am the fashion consult of my family and friends. The outlandish, erratic nature of my fashion is, ironically, a signature style.
My freedom to dress so outlandishly was acquired by the alienation that came from my hearing loss and chronic ear infections. Other middle school students frequently called me a “retard”, and harassed me in every class because of my hearing loss.
WASP culture, which I grew up in, is heavily influenced by Calvinism, carrying with it the idea of predestination and being on the lookout for ways that “disgusting” humans may know if they are going to be “saved” by God:
Now, it’s rather natural, if one is a Calvinist, to be constantly looking for any little indications that God does approve of oneself […]. And how might God give any promising little hints? Well, material success is one way. If one has a successful business, God seems to be smiling on one! And as for those poor destitute farmers who just lost everything they owned due to a drought, well, God is all-powerful, and must have decided that they should suffer. And who are we miserable sinners to disagree, and thwart the plans of God?
This idea starts with material success as a sign of God’s blessing, and crosses over into one’s health. Poor health must certainly be a sign of God’s disapproval!
Showing off is condemned by this culture, unlike that of middle school, which demands showing off at every chance. Where they overlap, however, is in their condemnation of illness and disability. Middle school students did not want to be seen befriending, dating, or talking to “retards.” Members of WASP culture stepped back, subtly whispering “I don’t want to get sick” every time I was seen with an ear infection. Even if I followed the trends of middle school or the WASP culture from which I came, I would never truly be one of them. Therefore, I dressed as wildly as I pleased to defy their ignorant standards.
With this new freedom, I drifted through tons of fashions, ranging from spiked chokers and black lace to floor-length skirts and tie-dyed t-shirts. Each fashion reflected what I felt about my hearing loss and chronic ear infections. With my spiked chokers, black lace tops, studded wristbands, and combat boots, I was visually screaming in a sea of pastels and sweat clothes. Against Lilly Pulitzer patterns and Coach purses, I wore clothes that smelled like incense and looked like they came straight from Woodstock. If you had asked me about my original sets of hippie clothes, I would have said it was my break from punk rock, the color black, and giving a visual middle finger to school. In truth, I was still giving a visual middle finger to a culture that rejected people like me, even if it was in whispers.
My first few years of fashion freedom were overtly characterized by rebellion and anger. Covertly, however, my fashion was defined by sobbing in front of my mirror, listening to ‘Reflection’ by Christina Aguilera, with puddles of snot and ear drainage flooding across my face. The chorus poses the questions, “Who is that girl I see staring straight back at me? Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?…When will my reflection show who I am inside?”
On the street, I thought my fashion showed who I was inside because I was trying to say, “I know that I am sick, disabled, and different from the rest of you! Look at me and face it!” At home, I knew my street fashion was no different from being drenched in bodily fluids. Regardless of what I wore, at that point in my life, I was not showing who I really was inside. My freedom to dress as I wished was backfiring, because in my rebellion against closed-off cultures, I inadvertently rebelled against myself.
Piece by piece, I removed the anger from my clothes and replaced it with things I loved. Yes, I still incorporated punk-rock and hippie pieces, but my rationale behind them changed from anger to love. Peace earrings, flowing dresses, and hair flowers stemmed from my love of classic rock and my budding effort as a songwriter. Spiked jewelry, sleek black boots, and tight black skinny jeans came from bonding with my mother and Romanian aunt. The former, a punk rock soul from the time she went to art school. The latter, an avid fan of New York’s all-black aesthetic from the time she immigrated to the States. In between, I have integrated pieces based upon cats, femininity, my favorite bands, novels, drag queens, England, California, and graphic designers—Peter Max and Stefan Sagmeister, I am looking at you!
Today, when I look in the mirror, I see who I am on the inside, regardless of my health. Whether I feel like a hippie Barbie and want to wear a dress, or I’m gravitating towards skinny jeans and spikes, I always have a strong rationale for my fashion. Rebellion has now been replaced by stories, and I am always happy to tell those who want to listen. While teaching in middle school classrooms, I tell the stories of classic rock musicians, and hopefully inspire new minds. At the WASP club, I talk about writing for Open Ears and the countless publications I have had for five years–the result of a writer’s hard work. Fashion has created a visual springboard for my life’s stories. As a result, I have a reconciliation with two groups that originally rejected me.
I cannot say all of my anger streaks have gone away. At times, I feel them when entering a middle school to teach writing and music, or when my family goes to exclusive WASP clubs. To combat any anger, however, I do “fashion fusion”, or a combination of two styles seemingly at odds with each other. I include enough of the other side to fit in, but mix it with enough of my own tastes that I still stand out. For middle school, the “latest trends” are mixed with my 1960’s flair, resulting in a lot of compliments from the students. At the WASP club, I mix Lilly Pulitzer patterns with go-go boots, bolero jackets, and peace signs to evoke the designer’s original message: “Style isn’t just about what you wear, it’s about how you live.” Lilly’s truth resounds in my fashions, whether I carry them with rage or love. Fashion is about how you feel inside and out, and I discovered this truth through chronic ear infections and hearing loss.