Can dressing differently revolutionize who I fundamentally am?

Dressed in my garish fuschia t-shirt with AEROPOSTALE emblazoned across the front, white denim shorts fringing at the bottom and Sperry-brand boat shoes, I was armed for my first day of 6th grade. Walking through the halls of middle school, the social uniformity of my outfit made me unroastable ––  stylish, even.

In middle school, popularity was my primary concern. At 13, popularity came through tangible goods: charcoal gray Converse ripped Hollister jeans and an Abercrombie henley. Desperate to fit in, I begged my parents endlessly to dress me in the newest trends.

Despite never discussing what to wear, my friends and I all dressed exactly alike. It was an unspoken truth around school that each of us chose our clothes very consciously.

What would bring me more social capital, a ruffled mini skirt or a sequined one? Jack Rogers sandals or Tory Burch ones? My floral American Eagle cardigan or my studded Charlotte Russe one? The middle school food chain was simple: if I dressed with the appearance of popularity, my peers would like me more. I needed to fake it until I made it (spoiler alert, I never did.)

By dressing like everyone else, I would get the social visibility that I wanted. But by looking like everyone else, I was not standing out. And that was ok –– sacrificing what I actually wanted to dress like was worth the clout.

In middle school, as they do now, people generally liked my clothes (or at least, I think they did.) They liked my Uggs. I had cool shirts. But fashion is looked at differently now that I am 19. Uggs are a symbol of materialism, narcissism and animal cruelty. Where stylistic risks were seen as fun personality quirks when we were younger, now they can come off as self-absorbed.

Of course, the fashion industry isn’t faultless. Magazines undoubtedly portray a narrow, unhealthy vision of beauty. High fashion corporations are often seen as production engines rather than art houses. Television identifies modeling as a self-absorbed, drama-filled profession. Fashion influencers fall prey to the newest trend, brand fever and frankly, capitalism, feeding into the vicious cycle of unattainable peer emulation.

Looking stylish is a social requirement, but it must be done effortlessly. So often, we shrug off a compliment to our clothes as ‘whatever was in our closet,’ as a second thought. Fashion is frivolous, unnecessary, unartistic.

But curating a sense of personal style functions far beyond the connotations of being a ‘fashionista’. Both social and traditional media’s expectations of femininity and masculinity are crushing: a lifetime of subliminal reinforcement of beauty standards has been destructive to my self-image, a quiet reminder every time I look in the mirror.

Fashion, somehow, has allowed me to reshape that. When I slip into my favorite pair of jeans or a new (faux) fur coat, it feels like I am reclaiming a piece of myself. I can’t immediately change my figure or features, but every new garment transforms not only my physical appearance but how I view myself. By dressing fearlessly, I feel more comfortable in my own shoes. Fashion becomes reclamation: reclamation from my own insecurities, of course, but also social standards of dress and beauty.

“Good” fashion, therefore, isn’t defined by an off-the-runway garment that exceeds most budgets, or the latest hyped streetwear drop. By viewing fashion through a reclamatory lens, style is no longer defined by inaccessibility and exclusivity. A designer handbag and thrifted sneakers can equally revolutionize your morale, be equally empowering. “Good” fashion, frankly, is fashion that makes you feel good.

Now when I get dressed in the morning, I take my time. I choose my clothing very consciously.  But now, instead of evaluating the social capital of my outfits, I try to pick something that excites me. Starting my day off with a new favorite outfit is like a filling breakfast: invigorating, energizing.

Of course, dressing differently can’t revolutionize who I fundamentally am. I still have days filled with insecurity. No pair of shoes can resolve that. But the next time you get a chance, try approaching the way you dress a little differently. There’s no harm in reframing fashion as a tool of personal empowerment that transcends pure consumption. Don’t let your clothing determine your value, determine the value of your clothing.

Grace Jin is a student at Yale University. She’s a multi-time national champion in debate and is passionate about intersectional politics from the perspective of Generation Z.

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