My relationship with fashion has never been one of pure invention. As a shy child, then a shy teenager, then a shy adult, I approached dressing myself as a process of costuming, pulling on one layer and then another that would bring me closer to feeling comfortable not in my own skin, but in another’s skin. It felt safe to cocoon myself in an outfit. As soon as I had the agency and forethought to dress myself in the morning, my sartorial choices were influenced by a desire to be someone else.
Between the ages of five and nine, I switched schools three times as my parents moved us from town to town, searching for a house they could afford in the best public school systems in Westchester County, a suburb of New York City. My brother adapted happily to each new school, making friends and racking up playdates, but by the time I started at my final new elementary school, three months into the school year, I was angry and I couldn't explain why. I felt like an outsider, sitting with classmates who did not understand me at a long table in the school cafeteria. Both of my parents worked, so during unsupervised afternoons I stuffed myself full of reruns of Saved By the Bell and Boy Meets World. I struggled to assimilate these shiny images of exuberant teens facing the challenges of everyday adolescence with a wink and a smile, with charm and pizzazz that I didn't possess.
The divide became clearer when I moved on to middle school. I wanted in my heart of hearts to fit in — or even better, to be recognized. But, the closest I came was to be invisible. I listened, unnoticed, at the bus stop as Betsy, the cool seventh grader from down the street, instructed Bri, a fellow sixth grader who sometimes sat and talked to me on the bus ride. She showed Bri how to put her hair in a high ponytail, the right shade of frosted, shiny pastel lip gloss. She told her to come over after school, and the next morning Bri was at the bus stop with platform sneakers and bellbottoms, which had recently come back into fashion in my middle school. Betsy showed her how to arrange the leg so that the hem would sit at its maximum width, making her slim thighs look even slimmer in comparison. Soon, Bri was brushing past me to the back of the bus, tilting her head and giggling next to Betsy at the antics of the 7th grade boys.
At home, I would dog ear pages in Moxie Girl and Delia*s catalogs and copy out spindly sketches of girls in “cool outfits” low riding jeans, baby tees. I begged my mom relentlessly for a pair of my own Paris Blues bellbottoms. I returned from the mall one evening, triumphant with my shopping bag on my lap. The next morning I woke up early, admiring my silhouette in the mirror, adjusting the hem just so to fall over my sneakers. I arrived at the bus stop before anyone else and waited expectantly as Bri and Betsy arrived, sporting identical ponytails and platform sneakers. Their eyes skipped right over me as they continued their conversation about this past weekend’s party. I was just as invisible as before. Imitation even when successful, didn’t make me fit in. I slunk through the hallways, shoulders shrugged underneath the weight of my backpack, and tried not to trip over my extra wide 26” flares.
The hallways of high school were no easier to navigate. That anxiety wouldn’t fully dissipate there — that would take nearly another decade— but I began working to project something different. I was enamored of classic Hollywood starlets— particularly Audrey Hepburn, Grace
Kelly — pinnacles of feminine grace and poise. I wanted to feel delicate, feminine, ladylike. So, I slowly stopped trying to imitate the cool girls, who had by then moved on to Seven Jeans and Juicy Couture sweatsuits. I began to costume myself. I “borrowed” my mom’s heels, girlish skirts. I wore velvet, silk and lace to disguise my own social ineptitudes, and perhaps a lack of understanding of how girls were supposed to be and act. When people began to smile at me in the hallways and slip me small compliments “I like your shoes!” “Where did you get that skirt?” I felt noticed, important. I still had to psych myself up to raise my hand in class, but I didn’t feel quite as invisible.
At 24, when I realized I no longer wanted to pursue a career as an independent film producer, a whole new world opened up to me. But in this new world, I no longer understood what I was working towards. As a second generation immigrant, I had always defined myself by my goals and ability to achieve them. Without an understanding of how I was measuring progress and success, and without free time to fill up with creative projects, dressing myself every morning became my primary creative outlet. I stopped collecting girlish dresses by the likes of Jane Mayle and Phillip Lim and took to wearing long black vintage nightgowns, layers of pieces scavenged from IF Boutique’s basement sales, clomping around in eBayed Ann Demeulemeester boots and as much leather as I could get my hands on. I felt as close to powerful as I could, glowering in my red lipstick and all black regalia.
Later on, when I scored a job in a more traditional office environment, I imagined my new life in powersuits. Fueled by a paparazzi photo of Bianca Jagger in one of her iconic white suits, I started collecting suits of my own— two piece pant and skirt suits, an allwhite vintage Gucci set, a prized Stella McCartney tuxedo jumpsuit. I soon found that I stood out like a sore thumb — although it was my first job in a proper office environment, it was a creative studio and everyone else dressed very, very casually. Still, I was enamored of the “power suit”, the masculine, classic garment that stood for status and authority in society. I wore tees and trousers to work and slipped on the suits in my off hours.
It was around this time that I became enamored of menswear, lurking daily in the archives of various online forums where men discussed custom tailoring and closets full of beautiful, bespoke pieces. I was fascinated with this world, of the history and craftsmanship behind the evolution of menswear, and of the instant status that a finely cut suit and lovely cloth could communicate to others who spoke that language. I thought about how while I had not consciously sought to duplicate the garb of the trends or the traditionally powerful classes as I had attempted to copy the popular girls in middle school, I had still been costuming myself to emulate the qualities I wanted to achieve. Though I did not have a clear cut long term plan for my career trajectory, it seems I was still working to the qualities of the person I wanted to become: strong, visible, expressive, refined.
Inspired by the likes of Joan Didion and Steve Jobs, I decided to simplify my lifestyle and adopt a daily uniform consisting of a simple white shirts and trousers. I turned my attention on the details. I wanted simplicity, consistency, utility. But I still wanted beauty, to be able to luxuriate in the details of
my garb. I wanted to feel invested in each item I chose to bring into my life, but I couldn’t afford to pay a fortune. I started to learn about garment production and markups, and decided to bring my brand UNIFORME to life. To create pieces that were utilitarian but refined, made from the finest quality materials. This was an opportunity to become invested in every tiny decision the fiber, the mill, the pattern, the fit, each seam finish and stitch length. To mould each feature, to create each piece from scratch for not only myself but for others to wear, feels like an empowering role reversal.
Fashion will always play an important role for me in expressing and exploring identity. Now, as an entrepreneur and designer I am working on examining what I want to wear, and why, and what that tells me about myself. And, I’m also thinking about who other women are and how they want to look and why. Perhaps I’m still projecting my desires, but for the first time, I’m shaping myself in my own form. Looking back, fas hion has given me a lens to view the person I wanted to be, and way to look back at my personal history, to remember who I was and who I wanted to be. And now that I've adopted a more uniform style of dress, it's inspired me to think about details, construction, ethics, gender, class, and societal norms performed through "typical" dress.
written by Alice Wang