In the summer of 1998, when I was a child desperate to be a teen…
I read this in a magazine: “Clothes are easy, but style is hard.” The person I went shopping with as a kid was my grandmother. It was our favorite activity, strolling through malls and department stores any given Saturday. Combing the sale racks with eager hands and sharp eyes. My mother didn’t have much disposable income, so one of the ways my grandmother helped her was by buying most of my clothes. Nobody had a closet like my grandmother’s. It overflowed with pantsuits, cardigans and furs. Almost every dress had a matching handbag and/or pair of shoes, and there was no shying away from animal print. My grandmother’s style was all her own, and if it was hard, she made it look easy.
She always hoped I would mimic her more, but I didn’t. Even then, I knew her look wasn’t my look. When I told her, she responded, “So, what is your look then?” Devoid of a clear answer, I said, “I’ll figure it out.” When I asked my grandmother how she’d found hers, she said, “I didn’t find a style really. I just wear what I like.” I thought must be nice, and changed the subject.
In high school, I wanted clothes from particular stores, no matter how well the clothing actually fit me. And unfortunately, no matter how much I wanted to look like a teenager on TV, my Midwestern hips actively revolted against the seams of their low-rise jeans. My junior year of college, I gave up on pants completely. My entire wardrobe became a series of dresses picked up on sale at Target, J.C. Penny or The Gap Outlet. I didn’t know how to dress a larger body. Besides, there didn’t seem to be many things to choose from in bigger sizes. I languished in oversized sweaters and sweatshirts, didn’t wear makeup, and just waited to be cute (and thin) again. I’d weighed around 200 pounds for several months before I began to feel heavy. I withdrew from my life. I saw friends less and less often. Who wants to go out when you know you won’t feel good when you get to wherever it is you’re going?
It’s strange how much clarity we can gain from a person’s words after they’re gone. When my grandmother died in January of 2015, I was heartbroken. I flew back to Indiana, drove to her house, and plucked a simple black sweater from her closet to wear to the funeral. I wanted to smell like her when I said goodbye. I also went into her bathroom and found a brighter shade of lipstick, the kind she always asked me to wear. Despite the sadness of the day, my mother, aunts and cousins all mentioned that I looked fantastic. I smiled and thanked them through tears. The odd thing was, I believed them. In that moment, I liked the way I looked more than I ever had before. In a striped grey dress, a black cardigan, and the brightest lipstick my mouth had ever worn, and on the saddest day of my life, I felt beautiful. I was devastated, but so very happy to be alive.
When I came back to New York, after the funeral, I kept thinking of my grandmother’s words — I just wear what I like — and suddenly, nothing had ever made more sense. I cleaned out my closet. There were many things I wore all the time, but didn’t actually like. I didn’t have much money to buy new clothes, so I went back to what I knew, combing sales racks with a sharp eye. I walked into stores with an open mind, tried on things in a variety of sizes, but still often left empty-handed. So, I tried something new. I finally went shopping online.
For years, I’d avoided events that would require me to dress up. To be honest, the phrases ‘Cocktail Attire’ or ‘Black Tie’ still make me quake in my boots. (I literally spent years thinking, ‘I hope nothing fancy happens.’) But Eloquii and Torrid offered me gold gowns that shimmered in the streetlights, floral sundresses, and all the fun celebratory clothing I couldn’t find in my size at most stores. ModCloth and ASOS Curve gave me fun quirky pieces that spoke to the more whimsical parts of my personality, like royal blue cropped sweaters and dresses bearing the faces of my favorite comic book characters. Universal Standard took all the simple and sleek designs I thought didn’t work for a body like mine, like shirt dresses, and showed me I still had so much to learn about what a quality well-built garment could really do for a bigger body.
Slowly, but surely, I built a wardrobe that for better or worse felt like me. I waited for sales, or saved my money and invested in pieces I stalked for months. I modeled my new clothes for my fiancé, and watched his face light up not just because I looked good, but because I looked happy. When I glanced in the mirror, my face brightened as well. Happy looked great on me.
Now I make sure I like everything in my closet. If not, it goes back on the rack, gets returned, or is promptly donated. When I find clothes that fit well, I feel more comfortable and confident and, it turns out, I feel better about the body I already have. I go out more, I smile more, and when someone looks at me now, I know they’re seeing the version of me I chose. Not the only version I had access to.
My grandmother gave me so much while she was alive, and most of it had nothing to do with clothes. Still, whenever I put on a bright lipstick, or a black cardigan, I think of her and how much she loved me. It reminds me to love myself, just as I am, and to dress as if that’s the case. I spent years of my life believing my best looks were behind me, but now I’m in the midst of a body revolution. My personal style will grow as I do. That magazine in 1998 lied. Clothes aren’t always easy. But style doesn’t always have to be hard.
(Photos courtesy of Ashley Ford.)