THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

AE2

Images: Pilfered from my friends’ very fun Instagram account, Reveiller.

I remember the day very well.

It all started with breakfast in my family’s teeny tiny dining room, tucked into our teeny tiny apartment. My mom, God bless her, would get up each morning to cook something for me, and while I was eating, steal into my bedroom to lay my clothes out for me, then dash around and dress herself. But this morning was different; this morning, we were in a hurry. Mom was late, she said, and could I be a big girl and dress myself?

I considered my options.

I was seven years old at the time, just on the cusp of understanding clothing status. For example: I knew that Guess was cool. Anytime you saw a girl wearing jean shorts with that upside-down triangle on the back pocket? Very cool. Gap Kids? Also cool. Reebok Pump shoes were cool, but only if you were a boy; for girls, it was Cole Haan loafers, which weren’t the most practical choice for running around on a jungle gym, but still: Very on-trend. Very now.

I didn’t wear any of these things, because we couldn’t afford them. But I was still too young to care, and didn’t have any older siblings to bemoan the injustice of her absent Gap wardrobe, so it was fine that I wore hand-me-down’s and things that my mom made. Though on this particular morning, without any garment guidance at all, it seemed I had two choices: I could either stamp my feet in protest, or approach my own dresser, and attempt to make sense of its contents.

“Five minutes!” Mom called from the kitchen. “We’ve got five minutes before we have to go.”

My dad constantly carried a red bandana in his back pocket, a remnant from all the years he spent on ranches, squinting into the sun and wiping his brow. I adored them, fascinated by their intricate paisley pattern and the fact that I had once seen Janet Jackson wear one in a magazine. So with only moments to spare, I plucked one from my drawer, and decided this would be the basis of my look. I would be a cowgirl today. And it would be very cool.

Next, I moved onto shirt. What would a cowgirl wear to school? Obviously a puff painted shirt that said “I <3 JOEY” on it, right? A shirt with pieces of ribbon glued to it, no less, and a My Little Pony iron-on. This was an extremely fancy shirt, one I would wear to my inevitable wedding to Joey McIntyre.

Bottoms were next, and here, I floundered. Did cowgirls wear shorts? Yeah. Probably. I didn’t know. How about bike shorts? Were cowgirls a bike shorts-wearing people? Only one way to find out, so I put them on, and analyzed my current look in the mirror: bandana, puff paint Joey t-shirt, spandex. This outfit was really coming together!

I found a denim skirt to put on top of said bike shorts, proto-layering if you will, and decided that my ensemble was nearly complete. I snatched a bluebonnet barrette off the floor to put in my hair (Texas, y’all), my sneakers, and Mom and I were on our way.

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My outfit garnered no more than sideways glances from my polished, well turned-out classmates. These were children wearing Gap Kids practically since birth, but it would be a few years until we noticed that kind of thing. Our PE teacher, however, was a different story.

“What in the HECK are you wearing, Moseley?”

Coach Montanio was a rotund man with the swagger of an Italian mobster, an interesting choice for an elementary school PE teacher. I remember mostly loving him, except for the time he told me he could run a lap faster sliding on his belly than I could on my own two feet. A challenge, looking back, that I should have accepted.

“You’ve got clothes on top of other clothes. And who is JOEY? What did you glue to this thing?”

He was full of questions, assessing my outfit. But that was alright. I knew I looked sharp.

You have to understand that during this time, my dad’s favorite shirt was some long-sleeved purple business, with a picture of the pope playing electric guitar on the front. These were paired with what can only be described as Hammer pants. Also, my mom painted black and white cow spots on our kitchen cabinets, so as a family, our collective style compass pointed in a different direction than the rest of our neighborhood. Which as a kid I didn’t mind, as a preteen I was horribly embarrassed by, and as an adult I’m back to thinking it was cool.

I thought about that little seven year-old weirdo yesterday while interviewing Wynn Myers and Levi Dugat for an upcoming TRIBEZA story, and we got to talking about style and what that term means, exactly. Over the years I’d beg my mom to take me to Gap Kids, layering on more and more conformity as I got older. I desperately wanted to fit in, and became an astute watcher in the process, studying how my classmates dressed, walked, talked. The first time I overheard one discussing Vail and how she tried a double black diamond, I thought she was talking about a type of food (specifically, a classier version of Double Stuffed Oreos).

But despite the odds I caught onto the rules of my preppy neighborhood anyway, and I was nice, and I was smart. So I slummed it with my fellow non-rich smart kid friends, until greater social acceptance was possible.

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As a creative person, Wynn, Levi and I decided, you’re always absorbing different people’s art and adoring it, but also always having to step back and make sure it’s not influencing you too much. This happens to me all the time with writing: I read Nick Hornby, and I start writing like Nick Hornby. (Not a bad problem to have.) Wynn is a photographer, and she talked about how the visual style of Alexandra Valenti (a photographer we both admire) caught on in a huge way, but that she, Wynn, wouldn’t know where to begin to replicate something like that. I’m thinking Wynn probably has all the tools and technical knowledge to put together an Alexandra Valenti-esque shoot…but I believe she meant that on a personal, spiritual level. You always want to be authentic, she said, and to attempt something like Alexandra’s work just wouldn’t be authentic for her. It has to come from a real place.

Whenever I visit Alamo Heights, the moneyed small town inside San Antonio where I grew up, I am amazed by how charming it is. Everything’s so pretty and well cared-for, from the front lawns to the churches. A lot of my classmates grew up and moved back to Alamo Heights because it was that real place for them, the place where they felt authentic and happy.

But I think I spent all of college and most of my 20s trying to uncover the bandana/I HEART JOEY/bluebonnet barrette kid, through little fault of Alamo Heights really, and mostly because I got so deep in the habit of watching other people and becoming a really good mimic, whether it be my past day jobs, my writing, or my other creative ventures.

This was all in my head after my talk with Wynn and Levi, while I was walking around Half-Price Books trolling for inspiration, when my friend from college Mary Brown showed up. After hugs and how-are-you’s? and a little mutual fawning over each other – she had on this fantastic rainbow healer necklace pendant that I couldn’t stop looking at – Mary told me she was living in Portland now, just back in Austin for a visit. Back home, she was doing bodywork and studying under amazing teachers, and just generally loving life.

“It’s like I’ve been removing layers,” she said of her past few years, smiling as she said it. “You know?”

I knew. I knew exactly what she meant.