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All dressed up with nowhere to go

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Mai Chen

A few days ago, my mind decided to hit me with this really terrible, saccharine and literally offensive cliché: my 40s was the cocoon that turned me into a butterfly.

The metaphor is a crime against anyone’s poetic sensibilities, but the idea rings true nonetheless. At the start of the pandemic, with my friends embracing the virtues of wearing the same sweatshirt every day, I decided to take a completely different path. It was my quarantine project. I wasn’t going to scrapbook, learn to knit, or bake banana bread; I was going to take the next few months to transform myself into a better dresser.

Having a good style can sometimes run counter to introverts’ instincts to fly under the radar. As such, for most of my life I have never been a particularly well-dressed person, probably because I have never been particularly confident. I didn’t want people to notice me for what I was wearing, let alone comment on a concern that I would like to think was not completely without reason; after all, I had a friend who for a good part of an entire year, whenever he saw me wearing a leather jacket and high heeled boots, would mention my dominatrix outfit. It goes without saying that such comments inspired neither my sense of style nor my sense of myself.

However, when we entered quarantine, I began to realize that this was the opportunity for an interesting exercise. It was an experience to dress without the eyes of anyone dressing primarily for myself. The concept seemed new to someone who had been accused of being too anxious about the perceptions of others. Could I really separate my own image of myself from the way others saw me? Was there such a thing as finding joy in your appearance that didn’t depend on another person’s approval at all?

(I think I’m making it sound like a noble pursuit too much. These questions are only 25% of the reasons I decided to dress better. The remaining 75% is that in my hours when I have nothing to do except lie in bed and search the web, I found Alexa Chungs’ YouTube channel and thought, wow, why is this woman so cool? )

All of that didn’t necessarily mean much in terms of the decadence or scandal of what I was wearing. I haven’t gone shopping or had my hair cut. But I started rummaging through my closet, trying to revive the old idea I had of myself before (studious in books but apparently not studied) into something more flexible and open. I wore jeans around the house, old cropped tees, experimented with jewelry, and put on all those girly dresses that I had previously avoided by some kind of internalized sexism, that long-standing fear that if I dressed too much like a girl, my classmates wouldn’t respect me. I tried to use my survey as a way to refine my identity. I was a high school student, ready to go to college. I was trying to find what I liked who I wanted to be and how I wanted to present myself.

To a certain extent, I feel frivolous to declare this as something more than a very minor interest, especially at a time when the world is faced with problems of such magnitude. And yet, I think I have learned something from this project over the past few months. The experience of dressing for yourself, I have found, is a liberating experience. The idea that style should be a form of self-expression rather than providing someone else with something to look at gives space for something more joyful and satisfying.

I have also found that this development of style has evolved alongside perhaps even as a product of my own changing sense of myself. I entered quarantine at a pivotal point in my life: in the last six months, I turned 18, graduated high school, and started college, all within the confines of home of my childhood. I hope that when this pandemic is over, whatever growth I have experienced, although it has not manifested itself in any geographic change, can at least reveal itself in a pair of sneakers or a sweater that I have seen. really mean, in a larger sense of myself. confidence and self-recognition. I hate to go back to the cliché, but maybe the metamorphosis metaphor wasn’t that far off after all.

Isabelle Qian | [email protected]



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