What I’ve Learned About Myself—and Society—Through Developing My Personal Style
Fashion isn’t as frivolous as we make it out to be. Instead, it’s how we express our personalities, insecurities and hopes to each other.
“Why do you care so much about your clothes? Fashion is so vain and vapid! There are better things to invest your time and energy on, you should know that—you went to fashion school.”
The number of times I’ve heard this is insane. Yes, I went to fashion school, and yes, the fashion industry as a whole can be incredibly controversial, but at the end of the day, we need it. Fashion and the clothes that aid us in developing a personal style are a basic human need; they allow us to express ourselves and connect to others in a way that spoken language could never let us
Now, most people think I’m crazy when I first say we need fashion to the point of it being a basic human need. Why would we need an industry that’s so widely problematic and known for its pollution and human rights controversies? Sure, a lot of the negative things that are said and written about it are true, but there’s good and bad sides to pretty much everything in life, and the fashion industry is no exception.
At its core, fashion is about self-expression, and we need it because it gives us tools to express ourselves that we would otherwise not have. Our personal style and the way we choose to dress every day are a direct reflection of who we are as individuals. It is connected to our very essence as human beings, and it has been this way since the first humans roamed the Earth. Throughout history, clothes have played a monumental role in the development of societies (why else would there be entire museum exhibitions dedicated to the clothes of ancient China or India or the Maya?). Every culture has had its own codes and interpretations of clothing and the way they’re worn, but the general consensus is that clothes have meaning.
Self-Expression Through Fashion Has Always Been Important to Me
Once I was allowed to pick my own clothes growing up, I knew I wanted to look different than my classmates, something that my parents weren’t entirely fond of. I clearly remember begging my mother to let me wear a long-sleeved, purple, camo top and bell-bottom jeans under a denim miniskirt for school picture day. I also remember her saying no and me sneaking the clothes out in my backpack and wearing them anyway. What can I say? Even as a child I was obstinate and had a bit too much chutzpah. This constant need to express myself through my wardrobe has stuck with me throughout my life; my style choices have evolved and grown with me.
Now, as a woman in her late 20s, I continue to use fashion as a way of self-expression and self-discovery. I’m that fat woman who is not afraid of bold prints and crop tops and being looked at (maybe even envied a little?) for having the guts to wear whatever I feel like without carrying the weight of what others might think is “appropriate” for my body type, gender or age over me.
My love for clothes led me to pursue a career in fashion design. I spent four years of my life falling deeper in love with fashion and learning how to translate my personal feelings and ideas into pieces that would resonate with other people and allow them to see a piece of themselves reflected in that item. I was taught to connect with every collection I designed. Every single piece of clothing I have ever made carries a piece of my soul, made tangible with the help of a little fabric, a lot of thread and a sewing machine. When someone else likes it—and wants to wear it—it means that there is some sort of unspoken understanding between us; we have somehow connected, even if briefly. And while sure, the interpretation of the piece might be different, the connection we made is still there; we both felt the need to express whatever it was we were feeling with this same item. Fashion allows this to happen; it allows us to communicate with others without even having to speak.
After graduation, my life took a series of twists and turns that eventually pushed me away from the design room and into personal styling territory. As a personal stylist, I’ve only confirmed my belief that fashion makes the world go ’round. There is a special link between a stylist and the person who is being styled, whether it’s a client who wants to revamp her whole wardrobe after a significant weight loss or a friend who needs help finding their wedding suit a few weeks before the ceremony. Helping someone refine their wardrobe or pick an outfit for a special occasion allows me to peek inside that person's soul: their insecurities, their opinions of themselves, their hopes, their daily lives. It’s not just “this fabric is itchy” or “this color makes me look washed out”; it’s “this print reminds me of my grandfather’s favorite vacation hat” and “this olive, tweed suit makes me feel like I belong in a vintage photograph and feels a lot more like me than the blue suit did.” Personal style is about thoughts and feelings; it’s not just pretty clothes put together in an aesthetically pleasing way (although yes, there is some of that).
That’s the beauty of clothes and fashion. Whether we care to admit it or not, clothes have meaning—they are more than just artfully put together pieces of fabric. They allow us to find our kindred spirits; they are a language that doesn't need to be spoken because, in one way or another, we all understand it. Our wardrobes are carefully curated physical and visual manifestations of our moods and thoughts. What we choose to wear is an extension of our personalities.
Fashion Helps Us Show Our True Selves to the World
We add emotional value to clothes that are tied to moments or feelings that meant something to us, and wearing them again helps us relive those moments. That’s why so many of us have a favorite piece of clothing that we love and keep coming back to. Maybe it’s a parent’s ring that you wear after they passed, the sweater you wore on your first date with your now-spouse, a vintage baseball jacket with your favorite team’s colors, or a very fancy, silk, emerald green dress with a deep V-neck that you wore when you went out for “casual” drinks on your birthday (yep, that’s mine; I’ve never known how to do “casual”).
There is no such thing as grabbing the first thing we see in our closet and wearing that without a second thought. We subconsciously gravitate toward the clothes, colors, textures, fabrics and prints that make us feel something—or that make us feel part of something. As a student, I dressed exclusively in baggy sweatpants, oversized T-shirts and fuzzy Elmo slippers (ironically, fashion students are the least fashionable people; we don’t have the time or energy to get dressed when our finals week is actually a finals month and a half). After graduation, I felt like I had to live up to this idea that designers are überstylish people who are always put together, so I filled my closet with trendy pieces that I was bored with six months later. Slowly, I started developing my own personal style. Looking back, I realize my closet has been a reflection of my emotional and mental health; there've been times when it’s all black, and there've been times where it’s filled with green and red (both colors that are generally associated with positivity and energy, according to color psychology). Currently, it’s a mix of this and a mix of that. A little color, a little black and a lot of denim.
In one way or another, we all care about what other people think of us and of the clothes we wear. We care how we’re perceived, which is why we ask for opinions when we go shopping, why we follow fashion bloggers on social media or why it’s so common for brides to take their friends and family wedding dress shopping.
Personally, I’m not a fan of shopping with a crowd. I feel like it clouds my judgment, but I have definitely been known to text my best friend or my partner photos of whatever it is I’m buying if I’m on the fence about a specific item. We want to be accepted as members of society while still retaining some sort of individuality. It’s human nature, and the clothes we pick for ourselves are a reflection of that.
Even those who are famous for “not caring” about what they wear or are known to wear the “same thing” every day have meticulously curated a capsule wardrobe for themselves—think of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Hillary Clinton. All of them have carefully selected the clothes they wear to give a message and portray a certain image of themselves. While I personally felt a bit lost when I briefly attempted a minimalist capsule wardrobe, it was thanks to people like Jobs and Clinton that I learned to analyze my outfits more thoroughly. I’ve become more critical of my style choices. Do I really need that tan leather jacket, or am I buying it because it’s trendy? What does it say about me? Through this process, I’ve gotten to know myself better, and I am thankful for it.
The bottom line is, fashion isn’t frivolous or vain. Clothes, and how each individual adapts them to their personal style, have always been and will forever be a reflection of the times we live in. They are a universal language and storyteller. This is why I care about fashion: It’s a silent historian ready to tell us everything we need to know about a person or a specific time in history. Clothes are not just a collection of threads, they tell a story—our story.