Fashion Victim


In the summer of my thirteenth year, in the waning, anxious, chlorinated days between pirate camp and the eighth grade, I had a sleepover with a friend from a different school and we went to see “Dead Poets Society” at a pre-multiplex, twin theatre in a shopping center on the far western edged of my hometown. I loved it. I thought it was the greatest movie I’d ever seen, or at least the greatest movie I’d seen since “Say Anything,”[1]  at the very beginning of the summer.  A friend and I came out of the theatre with a crush on every boy, in spite or maybe because of the way their  square haircuts and over-enunciation and trembly Adam’s Apples were different from the slurring curtain-fringed skateboarders we largely went for in those days. We sat pining, on her parents’ gone-feral tennis court, chucking half-rotten small green apples at the backboard, and feeling what I thought were very grown-up feelings about young Ethan Hawke.

The zingy hormonal muddle of thirteen makes the business of desire extra-complicated, even if you aren’t the sort of girl that spend most of her young life confusing wanting someone for wanting to be like someone. And I think that’s why, when I went back to school shopping with my mother, I wanted blazers and buttoned up blouses, maybe even a tie—was I the kind of girl that could pull off a tie?[2] Mom thought all of this was ridiculous and that I was on a dangerous path toward fashion victim. Hadn’t I spent the previous years in shoulder pads and layered slouch socks with oversized bows in my over-sized, spiral-permed hair? Didn’t I know that I went to a public high school, where the only dress code was basically, shirt and shoes required, but if your shirt says Nazi Punks Fuck Off on it, you will have to turn it inside out? Hadn’t I noticed the popular kids just wore soccer shorts and Grateful Dead shirts every day? Wasn’t I inviting abuse?

Sure. But I managed to convince my grandmother to prep me out at a Benetton in Virginia. I started eighth grade with a wool blazer with a crest on the pocket, which I would instantly regret, as my unairconditioned junior high school exhibited both the metaphorical and physical attributes of actual Hell. I left my jacket in the library when I went  to cry in the bathroom after a popular stink-eye disinvited me to her birthday and the blazer immediately disappeared as completely  much the same way as my new backpack would after it was stolen a couple of days later. I realized that context matters. I could not will myself into being involved with Ethan Hawke any more than I could transcend space and time and gender to be Ethan Hawke. And it would be a while—about eighteen months to be exact—before I worked out that the thing I maybe, actually wanted most of all was residency in some misty, green idyll, where teenagers geeked out about poetry and Shakespeare in attractive duffel coats.

I was not alone, as it turned out. A not-small number of self-identified teenaged non-conformists saw “Dead Poets Society” in the Aquanet twilight of the hair bands and, in some collective delusion and utter misunderstanding of the film, yearned for minimum security, scenic incarceration at institutions full of students with Christian names that sounded like neighborhoods I could never afford to live in. And after a lot of negotiating and drama and process, I managed to matriculate as a day student at the local version, which surprisingly ended up being just behind a furry scrim of pines, across the street from the shopping center twin theatre on the far western side of my hometown where I’d seen the movie that start the whole thing.

The days before classes started, in between field hockey practice and “Sassy” magazine, I studied the student handbook and the particulars of the dress code with mounting alarm. The boys’ dress code was clear—coats and ties, square haircuts– much the same as it had been since time immemorial. The girls’ dress code? A vague, arbitrary work in progress, slapdashed into place when the school went coed and never really codified since.[3]

I was at a loss. It had been a while since I’d considered wearing anything other than some combination of footless tights and  faded black so I could sit at lunch with whatever subculture would have me without necessarily having to declare my allegiance to one in particular. The only blazer I still owned was a red velvet one, purloined from a local theatre’s costume department (sorry), during the week and a half I entertained the notion that I might be a goth.

I dug through the mail for a J Crew catalog and went through dog-earing pages. In theory, I was dressing myself, but in actually I was dressing this impossible version of myself, some thin, lithe, lightly freckled, girl with long strawberry blonde hair and a straight-up Kennedy smile. The sort of girl that might cling to a sailboat rope, skin golden tanned against a navy miniskirt (Midnight, Cotton Twill, $79) and a slim fit button-down Oxford (100% Cotton, $62) in the same unblemished, WASPy white as her perfect teeth. When I presented the pages to my mother, she sort of rolled her eyes, like, you are way over budget, my friend which helpfully distracted me from the fact that J Crew didn’t make flattering, slim- fit, button down Oxford shirts for pudgy, pimply, pre-growth spurt adolescents, with the pumpkin colored remains of a drug store dye job and an unflattering too short haircut self-administered about six weeks previous that Mom’s hairdresser Donella had recently tried to shape into something cute and feminine ala Demi Moore in “Ghost” but it had, due to a preponderance of cowlicks and the innate cruelty of the universe, come out looking somewhat more like  Ethan Hawke  in “Dead Poet’s Society,” had Ethan Hawke been a fifteen old girl inclined toward novelty earrings and black tent dresses.

I wore the only new outfit I liked. A white blouse with buttons. A rose-colored skirt. I filed into convocation in the mumbling herd of boys in blue blazers and girls in floral prints and seersucker, secretly sure I was the fattest, ugliest, most grotesque creature among them, but at least outwardly confident that my clothes might pass muster. The Dean of Students made eye-contact with me. I smiled, weakly. And she pulled me out of the line, cited for a blouse with a wrinkled collar, and told me I’d have to change clothes before I could go to class.

I didn’t have any close friends on campus yet–I had no friends anywhere that wore my size–so I was quarantined to the silent, empty infirmary to wait for my mother to leave work, drive home and then back across town with something more appropriate to wear.  Mom brought me an old jumper of mine from middle school,  red tartan flannel worn to nubs and three years out of style. It made me look like a sad child.

The next day,  I tried a more conservative blouse. A longer skirt. Again, at convocation, I was pulled from the line by the Dean. She made a fuss, told me my hem was askew, I looked like a slob, awarded me detention, and told me I’d have to change clothes.

I returned to the infirmary. My mother got there about an hour and a half later. I missed almost two class periods. She was annoyed with me and annoyed with the school. She brought me some of her own clothes. In those days Mom was about seven inches taller than I was, so her red dress hung to my ankles, making me look a bit like a sassy Mennonite or a Handmaid with shoulder pads. We have to figure this out. She said,  I can’t do this every day.

 By day three, I wore the closest thing I had to a sack. I passed inspection barely, but was cited for dress code almost every other day of the first week. I was even pulled aside at the Square Dance on Friday night. The Dean looked at my blouse– plaid, oversized, literally the same one worn by six other girls–and said, that shirt looks like a rag. It’s see-thru, unwrinkled. I’m only letting this slide because this is not a classroom dress day. 

I went home angry with the Dean and annoyed with myself for having the unearned audacity to imagine that I might ever belong at the misty green idyll full of clever students with names like fancy neighborhoods. I clearly wasn’t rich enough or attractive enough or smart enough.. I was coming home to a three-bedroom rancher in a middle-class neighborhood and a single mom who could not afford to back to school shop for me out of the J Crew catalog even if they carried my size, which they didn’t so whatever.  I was doomed by my physiology and genetics and social class to appear some trashy, disgraced louche even at my most buttoned-up, which was ironic because I was still mostly flat-chested at fifteen, without even the curves that would make tidy cardigans and button ups a real challenge in roughly six months later. I stared at my bedroom mirror and saw some horrific sexless thing composed entirely of zits and chins. I thought, I should drop out. I thought, maybe I should just go back to public school and just go full goth.

 I called my oldest and closest remaining friend at public school, and listened to her talk about plans for football games and parties with people who didn’t like me. She talked about who was rushing the high school sorority (we had those in my hometown–and yes, it was a nightmare) and what mission trip she was thinking about joining. She asked me how I was, and I wanted to say something like, remember how simple it was when I only felt inferior because I was fat and unpopular? Well now my inferiority complex needs multiple appendices. 

But I didn’t say that.  I told her the new school was awesome and I was awesome. I don’t think she believed me, but she was nice enough to let it go.

I had a new blouse to wear on Monday. I went down to the basement and I ironed it. I tucked it in to a plaid pencil skirt that made me look like a Sunday School Teacher. I wore it with a stiff black blazer that still smelled like fabric sizing and the clearance rack it had come from  at TJ Maxx.

At convocation, a senior announced an opportunity for actors to do Shakespeare for a local fundraiser. Interested parties should meet afterward in the courtyard. It was the kind of thing I would never do in my old life. I turned it over in my head over and over again and suddenly I was thirteen and watching “Dead Poets Society” and like, wasn’t this kind of thing the reason I’d gone to this place to begin with?

I didn’t give myself too long to think about it. I slid out the exit door between students. I passed the dean. She caught my eye and pursed her lips. I could feel it coming. I tried to will away Seriously? Again?  and the sting of embarrassing tears, because how many times? How many fucking times? How could I not fit in? And here was this thing I was actually on my way to go do. I was actually going to go and do a thing. A thing I really wanted to do. I braced myself. I swallowed. I stood up straight.

The dean’s gaze, for once, focused on some other violation, some other girl with a wrinkled collar, some other girl with a ratty hem. She sighed and raised her hand.

She let me go.


[1] 1989 was a great year to be a thirteen-year-old going to the movies, even if  either of those films has entirely held up. I’d be hard-pressed to say which one I like better as an adult (my gut says “Say Anything” because Lili Taylor and The Replacements).

[2] No.

[3] That deliberate vagueness ended up being a real boon, so long as you figured out how to work the angles. My angle ended up being vintage dress with thrift store sweater and black tights, and that would form the basis of my non-summer wardrobe with minimal adjustment up until and including roughly now. But that was really more of a product of senior year, by which time there was a new dean.

The Author

tinycommotions at google dot com