going against type

Over the weekend my roommate Farron and I went to the Power of the Riff, a heavy metal fest at the Echoplex in L.A.  While we were watching Eyehategod, a friend of a friend turned to me and asked me who Farron and I were there to see.  “Mainly these guys and Pentagram,” I said.  He gave my outfit — black cutoffs, loose gray sweater, leopard wedges, ankle socks, glasses and a tangle of silver necklaces — a once-over and responded, “You don’t look the type.”

“I get that a lot,” I said.

Farron (who was wearing, for the record, a black miniskirt, Blood Is The New Black tank, drapey gray cardigan and Dolce Vita ankle boots) also gets this a lot.  So do a lot of my other friends.  No matter what we’re doing, I guess we don’t quite look the part.  Farron and I talked about it on the drive home, and she said, “If I looked like what I was into, it would be the most ridiculous mix of hip-hop and heavy metal.”  I know what she means — if I dressed like what I was into, it would look like the Electric Chair punk store in Huntington had thrown up on me and then flung a handful of ’80s metal tees and some cute bows on my thrashed carcass.  It’s much more fun — and aesthetically pleasing — to keep people guessing.

I didn’t always feel this way.  When I was in my teens and even my early twenties, I really struggled with my image and how I projected myself and my interests and values to the world.  From goth to hardcore to punk to heavy metal, my style from 14 to 21 ran the gamut as I hunted for the aesthetic that I thought represented me.  I wanted people to look at me and know how cool I was, that I was into cool things, I wanted people to see my clothes and know what I was about and either approach or keep their distance accordingly.  Honestly, though, whatever I put on my body, I always felt like I was posing a little bit, like the clothes I was wearing were more of a costume, an idea of how I wanted to see myself rather than an accurate representation of me.  I would plan my outfits meticulously, trying desperately to get it right, then I’d show up wherever I was going and realize a hundred other girls had pulled it off way better and seemingly with way less effort.

It was a combination of my first “real” office job (the one I just got fired from, incidentally) and general maturing that brought me around.  When I started working in a business casual environment, I thought I had to put my aesthetic values on hold from eight to five.  At the time I had facial piercings and a shock of snow-white K.K. Downing hair, and every morning for the first few months I would take out my piercings, smooth back my ponytail, apply minimal eye makeup, and select one of five specially purchased demure and wholly boring tattoo-concealing dresses from my closet for the workday.

If trying to come to terms with my clothing choices outside the office had at times been a struggle, then this point in my life was probably when I was most unhappy with my personal style.  I felt like I was sacrificing my fundamental values every time I buttoned up another boring shirtdress, and it pained me to run into hip friends on my lunch breaks when I felt less stylish than Maggie Gyllenhaal at the beginning of Secretary.  I wanted to shout, “This isn’t really what I look like!” every time someone glanced at me.

Clearly, I was really insecure with myself, as young women at 20 are wont to be.  I valued myself based on my appearance, but I wasn’t happy with my appearance, and between my “work life” and my “real life,” I couldn’t find that satisfying medium.  Eventually, though, I think I just grew up a little, and started to hold my personality in higher regard than my physical attributes and my wardrobe (though of course I was and am still obsessed with both those things as well).  I made the decision to stop buying “office clothes” and to only purchase items that I would wear outside work as well as inside.  I adjusted my aesthetic and came to the realization that I could play with one style in the office and another off the clock without sacrificing my personal aesthetic in either regard.  I started looking at office dressing as playing dress-up — pulling together retro-feeling secretary looks involving pencil skirts and super-high heels made me feel better about myself, and I felt more efficient and professional, which I really think made me more efficient and professional.

Outside work I was applying this philosophy to my style as well.  I stopped dressing for other people and just started wearing the things that made me smile — a stupid sweater with a sheep knitted on it, a hot pink wool pencil skirt, silver patent platform Mary Janes.  I started developing an aesthetic based on my personality, rather than just my musical taste.  It was the birth of my “cartoon style” concept, which I’ve stuck to to this day (and which you can see has expanded into Cartoon Heart).  The way I dress now is a representation of who I am as a human being: quirky, edgy, funny, kinda geeky, a little girly but also a little rough-and-tumble.  I’ve learned to incorporate everything that inspires me, from punk rock and heavy metal to my childhood in Northern Arizona and my favorite Michael Chabon novel, into the way I put my outfits together, and now more than ever I feel confident and satisfied with my aesthetic.  It may not tell everyone everything I’m into, but it says something about me.

When I was younger, it stung when people told me I “didn’t look punk” or “didn’t look metal” or what have you.  These days when people tell me I don’t look the way they think I ought to, I take it as a compliment.  I don’t look like those things because I’m not any of those things, but I know I’m also all of those things at once, and a lot more, too.

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9 responses to “going against type

  1. Perfect post. I keep struggling with wanting to wear band tshirts to make likeminded music friends, then getting annoyed with each person who comments on my shirt. I am more than a tshirt and need to stop worrying about projecting!!!
    You have this all way more sussed than me

  2. I’m your age, but I’m just now tackling the phase you were in when you started your job. I just finished grad school and got away with wearing whatever I wanted & whatever struck my fancy for so long (from my punk rock teenage years to my artsy rocknroll boho college years), and while I never dressed any certain way to feel “cool,” now I don’t ever feel happy with the way I dress. I am ambivalent about so much of what I own, and it’s super frustrating. Anyway–this post gives me hope! I’ve gotta start buying what makes me happy again.

    Love the idea about only buying things that fit your personal esthetic both in & out of the office. It’ll make my whole wardrobe a lot more versatile.

  3. Great post, thank you so much for writing this! I am at that age right now (23) where I am still figuring out my personal style. Just a few weeks ago I was seriously stressing out about it, and trying to turn in into some kind of mathematical formula. I’m starting to realize that getting dressed should be fun, and it definitely shouldn’t feel like a chore! I think maybe it works out better if you just let it evolve organically instead of trying to force it? I’m not where I want to be yet, in terms of personal style or self-image, but I think I’m getting there. It really helps to hear about someone else who has gone through it already and really honed their style into something cool! 🙂

  4. This was a seriously beautiful post!

  5. I have FINALLY come to terms with my style that has been dormant for years! Thank you for the wonderful post :)…I’m 40 years old! It’s about time I let my hair down for me and only me!

  6. Yes!!! SO glad you wrote this. I’ve had so many obnoxious ‘oh, I wouldn’t think you like ____’ comments that at this point I think I almost TRY to dress as far off as possible to either a.) piss people with that attitude off even more or b.) just confuse the hell out of people. I have the black flag bars tattooed on the top of my foot, and I love wearing these beautiful bright green Italian leather loafers, which seem like such a stark contrast. I’ve had so many sneers of ‘uhhh, yeah right’ when people see the tattoo– and the worst part– it is usually from girls. I feel like I have such a difficult time meeting other women because if they are into the same things as I am they tend to think I don’t “look the part” and wont give me the time of day… arghhh.

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  8. I love this post! I totally hear you. Trying to fit into some stereotype and at the same time feeling like I’m just posing has haunted me for years.
    Love the solution you’ve found 🙂

  9. Yes! I really loved this post and I kept nodding and agreeing and thinking “exactly! that’s exactly it!”. I’ve been thinking of this same kind of thing lately, too, and how it used to be incredibly important to me as well that people would, like, “get me” and know how awesome I was/thought I was, just by looking at me. I mean I still dress according to my persona but it’s definitely more of a personality thing now than a music thing, like it used to be. It’s not as extreme and narrow, I guess. Dressing all according to a certain genre is SUCH a typical teenage thing to do! I remember that strong need to label oneself and thus, finally “belonging” somewhere all too well. At the time I, of course, didn’t see what a huge cliché I was, buuuut I guess that’s just another typical teenage thing, haha…!

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