The collared button-down makes my white anglo-saxon protestant (WASP) heritage happy. It is business professional. It is dressed up. I like layering it over a comfy shirt with 3/4 length sleeves. As long as the shirt underneath fits and is a neutral color that pairs with the outfit, it brings that quirkiness that is honest to who I am. I was told by a costumer acquaintance in college that they would never dress a character like that. It was too quirky–a character choice I had made on my own.
I was shocked, because I loved the pairing so much. It seemed so clever. I can wear it with jeans. I can wear it with a high waisted skirt. It is not inherently gendered. It is a basic.
I like basics. I was told about them often as a child, but I didn’t really understand them. Basics, to my WASP mother, were a requirement to all wardrobes. The were the building blocks. I found them unnecessary. I had clothes I liked, and clothes I didn’t. Most fit into the latter category. Basics make more sense to me now, as an adult with obligations to dress differently for various environments and situations. Back then, I had school, home, and special occasions. I dressed the same for school and home. And my mom picked out special occasions outfits for me–you know, weddings and dress recitals and stuff.
My mother wanted me to look nice all the time. Clothes can be armor. They can prep you for battle of a world that is itching to perceive you wrong. However we had two very different ideas of what kind of armor I should wear.
For me, who from childhood to this day may wear something and immediately take it off because it is so itchy, I have opted for comfort in clothing. When every day is exhausting, I do not want to wear clothes that sap my energy every second that I am in them.
For my mother, clothes are a social protection. She was the first person to tell me that they make a social impression. And I will never forget her daily fears that my unbrushed hair, baggy clothes from the boys’ section, and overwhelmed state would lead someone to call Child Protection Services and cause me to one day be taken away from her.
At first, I did not care. But as I slowly grew into adulthood, I began believing that my social armor would protect me more. I began choosing my clothes on what others found suitable as well as comfort. And now I choose my clothes for other people’s expectations.
Nowadays, I find myself looking in the mirror and I do not see myself. I am technically an adult. I can pick my own clothes now. I can select what I want. The realization of that is thrilling. Most of my clothes come from my mother’s closet, a dream for many Depop vintage dreamers my age. My mother who taught me to live for other people’s expectations. Who taught me that safety lay in how other people saw you.
I wish she was wrong. I wish that tension really was all in my head. It’s not.
In college, I noticed how all the women in leadership positions dressed like my mother had taught me to. Not only that, but for some reason they all wore high heels. No particular length. And I realized, if I wanted to be recognized, this is what I needed to do to survive in the institutions I would always be in. Hold myself to an unreasonable standard. Just like my mother had taught me.
But that unreasonable standard is unsustainable. I must give up on myself to achieve it. I cannot be healthy or happy. So I am giving myself permission to reinvent professional in a way that works for my needs.
And right now, that is a sleeved shirt with a sleeveless collared button-down. And who gives a sh*t if I’m the only one who would wear it?