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In grade six I started attending a private day school. Since navy jumpers were the dress code for the lower school, accessories played a more pronounced role in our restricted wardrobes. For footwear, saddle oxfords were required, but as long as they were black and white, there was a bit of room for interpretation. Most of the girls had shoes from Capezio, Kinney or Buster Brown. I remember one particularly tall and athletic fifth-grader managed to score some Nike versions.

During my first semester my mom and I decided on a pair of the Capezios. There were two options for the black section of the oxford, either plain leather or simulated snake skin. I went with the former, but soon regretted getting the Capezios in the first place. When I started school, I realized that most of the girls bought their shoes from Kinney. They were sharper and cuter. Despite being my size, the Capezio versions looked like I was wearing a pair of yachts on my feet. By the spring semester, I made my way over to Kinney after convincing my mother that the Capezios weren’t working out size-wise.

By this time I was also fully aware of how girls throughout the school placed a special emphasis on bags, shoes, scrunchies, jewelry and colored rubber bands for braces as the sole means of identity construction. Since I’d received some birthday money I decided to use it towards my next accessory purchase: a Liz Claiborne bag with the multiple triangles. Since the brand was a formidable component for the working woman from the 70s through the early 90s, the accessories inevitable trickled down to her daughter.

Fortunately, I had a cousin who worked at the Jordan Marsh in the Palm Beach Mall and he was able to get the bag down to $65 with his discount. The next day I wore my purse so proudly, with its long strap, pink canvas and ecru triangles, my head nearly popped off my neck from an enlarged ego. But I needed to drive home the point further. The bag needed to be distinguished from the others. I’d conspicuously left the hang tags on the bag to showcase its newness. Before I even made it to homeroom, a classmate advised me to remove them because they looked ridiculous.

Although embarrassed, this minor infraction didn’t keep me down for too long. In fact, before class even started I designated myself the counterfeit police. At the time there were several knockoff versions of the ubiquitous bags. Instead of the triangles, the step and repeat pattern was an angled square that looked like a modified diamond. I proceeded to tell my classmates who owned this bag (which was just as popular as the Liz Claiborne version at a quarter of the price) that they were wearing fakes. My BFF Mary dismissively said she didn’t care. I had conveniently forgotten that my official purse for the third grade was a child-size Gucci knockoff littered with the letter “S” as opposed to the letter “G.

In The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel writes that  “often the identities we express with our aesthetic choices are not those we have but those we desire.” In my quest to acclimate, I was gauche (hang tags), rude (sorry Mary!), and hypocritical (Succi anyone?). By the start of grade seven, my pink had succumbed to wear and tear and was looking rather ratchet. I eventually moved on to an Esprit bucket bag the size of John Goodman, then a canvas Esprit tote, then a multi-color pleather backpack, and finally ending my secondary school career with a non-descript black JanSport knapsack that I bought from a street vendor in Washington Heights while visiting family during the summer. In retrospect, I unknowingly purchased a knockoff. Bag karma.

When I was in kindergarten, I had a very specific formula for my school clothes. I’d outgrown Strawberry Shortcake, so pieces that were littered with patterns of either the character or the fruit had to be replaced. I usually wore a plain sweatshirt or button down blouse with Peter Pan collar with a skirt or pair of corduroys and always, always a pair of fake, white Adidas sneakers with four pink stripes. Rainbows, hearts, plaid, velour tops and tube socks were popular styles for kids during the 1983-1984 school year.

Throughout my childhood, back to school shopping consisted of trips to Zayre, Jefferson Ward and on special occasions, the 90 minute drive south to Downtown Miami. There, at the independent mom + pop vendors, my parents purchased clothing that wasn’t sold in West Palm Beach. (My best buy down there was a turquoise t-shirt purchased during the third grade with the silver metallic face of a generic Madonna/Jem hybrid.) But I was most proud of my church clothes. I always wore slick, black patent maryjanes, stockings and a little purse that was just big enough to hold my bible. The aesthetic perfectly countered my weekday wardrobe which was sporty enough to endure monkey bars during recess and sloppy joes during lunch. Over time I grew tired of this and felt the need to inject some femininity into my Monday through Friday look.

I remember begging my mother for weeks to allow me to wear my favorite church stockings with my regular school clothes. They were thick and white with pink hearts sprinkled all over them. She resisted and tried, unsuccessfully, to convince me that it wasn’t a look that worked. I planned on wearing my Miss Piggy t-shirt that I’d received for my 6th birthday. It was a white shirt with her dressed in a too tight tank top, short shorts and roller skates. The American flag was used as a motif somewhere on the design. I intended to pair it with a denim skirt to show off my pretty Sunday School tights and, of course, my default pair of fake Adidas sneakers.

After a long period of my nagging her, my mother relented and permitted me to wear what I believed to be my sartorial magnum opus at the time. When she dropped me off at school I was elated and couldn’t wait to start collecting the compliments. I don’t think I even made it to Mrs. Weeks’ classroom before I got my first ribbing. If the shorthand “WTF?” existed back then, it would best explain the look on my classmates’ faces. Within minutes, I was embarrassed and felt that perhaps my mother had set me up. In Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies,  Yuniya Kawamura stresses that “Image is a picture that one wishes to project to win approval, respect or prestige by appearing stylish, sophisticated or chic, and its functions within an interpersonal network system.” My six-year-old mind wasn’t sophisticated enough to articulate how I felt to that point, but I do remember dreading her saying that she had told me so. 

In retrospect, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have dressed how I wanted to as well as for the ribbing. In Jamaican patois there’s a term called “poppy show”. In essence, it’s a person who looks ridiculous or absurd, like a damn fool. That long day back in 1984 I was a poppy show for juxtaposing my Sunday School stockings with my Miss Piggy on wheels shirt and fake Adidas sneakers. I’m certain I have the occasional poppy show misstep in my adulthood, but I’m far more prepared for the “WTF?” looks.


Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory

In Fashion Under Fascism: Beyond the Black Shirt, Eugenia Paulicelli writes: “In the events that clothes embody, the details of the moment’s elusiveness are concealed. And this opens up the spaces to the physical presence of a material object, color and touch and thus to the personal experience of fashion and clothes that can transform the transience of the object in a durable entity: memory.”

More potent than sound or a smell, a memory realized through clothing is tactile. In fact, an article of dress may co-opt the attributes of sound and smell through the rustling of silk taffeta or the scent of wet cashmere. Whether the memory is pleasant or otherwise, the material culture of clothing acts as a powerful conduit for recollection.

I was at a vintage store in the early 2000s and the front of the shop was a pair of hot pink perforated slingbacks with a tarty bow at the front of the peep toe. This immediately transported me back to walking through the Cross County Mall in West Palm Beach, Florida with my dad sometime in 1984 or 1985 and begging him to buy an almost identical facsimile of those pumps for my mother because fuchsia was my favorite color. Or the site of a loud leisure shirt at Screaming Mimi’s reminds me of mowing the lawn because my father repurposed his dress shirts from the 70s as garments of labor in the 80s. Now he cuts the yard in Polo-style shirts from the 90s.

Often the flashback isn’t as literal. Big hair or multiple, colorful bangles on the wrist remind me of visiting my older British or Jamaican cousins who lived in Miami during the Miami Vice era. The color navy worn in tandem with light blue reminds me of the color palette for my school uniform. The sound of nylon rubbing against itself triggers my memory of a yellow, multi-tiered dress my mother bought on Flatbush in 1989 for me to wear to her friend’s wedding.

When I perform a Closet Detox with my clients where I purge all of the pieces that are no longer relevant or suitable, they frequently contend that the item has great sentimental value and they couldn’t bear to part with it. We work out agreement, such as archiving the item or placing it in storage because it’s a distraction to the pieces that are in the current rotation. I’m sympathetic to their argument because of my own awareness of the importance dress has not only as a memory bank, but also as a tangible biography.