As a kid, I had a pretty fraught relationship with clothing. My family generally viewed clothes as purely utilitarian items to be bought on discount always and with regard for fashion never.
One of my earliest memories was getting sent to preschool in dancing bear pajamas; even at age 3, my peers knew there was something fishy about my outfit. In Grade 5, while other girls were showing off the latest bell bottoms and jelly bracelets, I was wearing painfully uncool denim overalls and daisy-print plimsolls.
The problem was, I loved fashion and fixated on pretty wild items of clothing. I fondly remember my fluorescent, 80s-style color block windbreaker – the kind that sells like hotcakes on Etsy nowadays. At age 9 or so, it was a pair of shiny stirrup leggings with a geometric pattern that didn’t ride up when I climbed trees. At 16, I bought a pair of towering black platform boots covered in glitter and felt like an Amazon wherever I went.
I went through a phase of wanting to become a fashion designer, churning out sketch after sketch of fur-draped ball gowns and showgirl costumes with diamond-studded peacock fantails. (Yes, my 10-year-old self had an inner drag queen.)
Clothes were also the secret language of girls. During sleepovers, my best friend Rebecca and I would pore over the latest Delia’s catalogue while doing each other’s nails. We discussed the merits of puffy vests versus shiny track jackets, and sighed over the chevron maxi skirts our moms wouldn’t let us buy. We swapped flavored Bonne Bell lip balms and shared packages of butterfly mini-clips, cementing our friendship with matching “BFF” heart necklaces.
In middle school, my friend Sunny and I eschewed all color and started listening to punk and nu metal. Like many teenage girls, I fought daily battles with my body and gazed longingly at the fine-boned figures in fashion spreads.
Sunny, however, unapologetically wore a hijab with black eyeliner, band t-shirts, spiked bracelets, and skate shoes. Underneath the veil, she had short, choppy bleached blonde hair. Though she never described herself as such, Sunny was the first feminist I ever met. Though I wasn’t as brazen with my own fashion choices, I was proud to be her friend and tried to absorb some of her self-assurance.
As I got older, I started to embrace pastel colors, bold patterns, and girly dresses again. My biggest influence during this style phase was France, whom I met in my first year of university. She was one of those rare friends you make in adulthood, social strictures be damned. In her spare time, France sang 19th-century German lieders with her opera collective in bars. She had a unique, vintage style with many pieces culled from her grandmother’s extensive wardrobe. She also made her own clothes and ran an Etsy store.
I discovered the allure of custom-made clothing when France made me a wool jumper dress with a lined bell skirt for the winter. I chose the buttons: two shiny green circles with a bird motif. I felt like a million bucks whenever I wore it and referred people to her Etsy store when they asked where I bought it. I liked it so much France named it the “Sisi Jumper” and added it to her shop. (I modeled it, of course.)
During my second year in China, she sent me a care package with a simple, mint green box top made of cotton. I wore it obsessively and had it copied in six different patterns.
Some people say that clothes don’t mean anything, but to me they mean everything: friendship, creativity, confidence, and rebellion. Every time I wear France’s box top, I’m reminded of her care; when I see my old stirrup leggings childhood photos, I’m reminded of how invincible they used to make me feel. That’s why style will never be out of fashion.
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here. To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.