With nobody around to compare myself to, I finally had the space to start dressing how I’d always wanted.
When I was 14 years old, I went to a school disco. It was the early noughties and so, of course, I wore a denim skirt, slouchy tan boots, a bright yellow tank top and matching plastic earrings. I remember what I was wearing so specifically because I also remember how I felt about it: I looked shit hot. The new skirt, the boots, the way the loud yellows matched perfectly – it was like I’d stepped straight out of the style pages of Sneak magazine and I felt amazing. This was not an everyday occurance for 14-year-old me, so it was kind of a big deal.
As my mum pulled up outside school and I reached for my (probably fringed) handbag, I glanced out of the window. Another girl in my year was just arriving. It didn’t really matter who she was or what she was wearing – as soon as I saw her and everyone else walking up, I knew I couldn’t go in. The moment my new-found confidence met anyone to compare itself to, it evaporated. My mum, being a good mum, persuaded me to go to the disco anyway and I had a good time, dancing to Shaggy and drinking blue Panda Pops but all night I felt ashamed that I – that awkward, tall, nerdy girl – had thought I could pull off such a fashion-forward look.
In the decade and a half since, that feeling has never quite gone away. While I have always wanted to look ‘nice’, my clothing choices have tended to land close to the middle of the road. Plain, slightly ill-fitting jeans, t-shirts, cardigans, so many cardigans. Not noticeably uncool, not actively bad, just perfectly calibrated to leave no impression on the viewer at all.
As a taller-than-average girl and woman (hence the ever ill-fitting jeans), I grew up attracting unwanted attention every day: “What’s the weather like up there?”, “Gosh, you’re tall aren’t you?”, “Did you get taller?!” As struggles go it’s hardly the most traumatic but for a shy kid who never wanted anybody looking at me, it was a struggle nonetheless. I quickly learned that I was already more visible than most of my friends – try being taller than your male teacher in the Year 6 class photo (and having him point it out to everyone!) – and the last thing I wanted to do was make that worse.
* * *
When I ‘temporarily’ left my flat in March this year to move in with my family outside London I packed in a hurry, bringing my laundry basket (“this will be everything I’ve worn recently!”) and a handful of other bits and pieces from around the scattered room. I had no idea how long I would be away, but suspected it might be longer than the “two weeks, tops!” I was breezily telling my flatmates. As the weeks dragged on, my capsule wardrobe turned out to be lacking in certain areas, specifically the lower half. I had brought one comfy pair of M&S jeans, two far-too-tight pairs of skinny jeans from my early twenties and a couple of pairs of old running leggings, which were doing an admirable job so far but were screaming for reinforcements. In the era of enforced working from home and one walk per day, airless skinny jeans were not going to cut it.
A while after I’d left, I was scrolling through Instagram and my eyes fell on the most wonderful pair of trousers. Ultra high-waisted jeans, with long, full-bodied, pantaloony legs and covered in thousands of tiny neon cartoon flowers – just the kind of thing I’d normally lust after for a bit and then scroll right past, making excuses about how they’re “not for me” and “where would I even wear them anyway?”. Certainly not the kind of trousers to leave zero impression. I’m not sure what power seized me that day but after a quick consultation with my sister, I held my breath, closed my eyes and bought them.
The day the magic trousers arrived, I pulled them from the packaging in awe. The colours were so bright and beautiful. But these were properly high-waisted, and although I love to think I’ve got the body positivity and body acceptance thing all worked out, I hadn’t worn anything tucked in for well over a decade. Scrambling through my drawers, I found a black top I thought might work. Using school uniform muscle memory, I tucked the top into the spacious waistband area and edged towards the mirror.
Twisting and turning, taking myself in from all angles, I was 14 again: getting ready for the disco and feeling shit hot.
I bought a few more bits and pieces, leaning into my lifelong instinct towards colour and bold patterns. As lockdown went on I felt freer than ever to choose my outfits to look like my loud, proud self, neon trousers and all. With just my supportive family for company, no longer did I have to consider what anyone else thought of my clothes, what they might tell people about me or what they might make people think.
But, unlike when I was 14, that feeling didn’t have to go anywhere.
* * *
I do know, deep down, that nobody is thinking about me as much as I’m thinking about me (and, indeed, that there are many people for whom clothing choice can be a much more serious matter, including trans and non-binary people) but it’s hard to remember that on a grey Tuesday morning as you’re contemplating the busy streets of London.
Like so many of us, on some level my fashion choices have always been tempered by a constant hum of but what will they think? Spending months inside the house with no plans, nobody to meet, seeing almost no-one outside my family has made manifest the truth that has been there all along: there is no ‘they’ and there never was. We are free to wear whatever the hell we want, and doing exactly that day after day, week after week, is intoxicating.
Part of me is worried what will happen when ‘life returns to normal’. Can I be sure that all the old insecurities won’t come creeping back? Of course not! But for the first time, I have had the space to try things out. In the Before Times, you’d put an outfit on and you’d go outside, see your flatmates, take a bus somewhere, go to work. Even if I wasn’t sure about a look, it had to be able to withstand immediate ‘judgement’. Clothing was, by definition, visible to the world. Now, and for the last few months, I have had the luxury of wearing clothes exclusively for myself and those I feel most myself around. I have had the opportunity to ‘wear things in’, to get comfortable feeling comfortable in them. Yes, you can really see my stomach in these jeans, but you could see my stomach anyway in the boring jeans and actually my stomach is cute as fuck. Sure, these mustard dungarees with big abstract faces on them are pretty loud, but so am I and that’s perfectly okay.
For so many years, the clothes I picked were what was left after I’d ruled out everything else – ruling out clothes I was ‘too big’ for, ‘too tall’, clothes that were ‘too femme’, ‘too queer’, ‘too edgy’, too much for me. Now, finally, I can wear any clothes I want, I can be whoever I want. Not because anybody has given me permission, but because lockdown helped me realise that I was the only person who was ever holding me back.
Or, to put it another way, as Alexis Rose of Schitts Creek would say – “nobody cares!”