For the past two weeks of quarantine, I have been doing the unthinkable: wearing jeans every single day.
In my defense, I am not a masochist nor am I on a passive-aggressive mission to assert my dominance over my family; instead, I realized that donning quarantine chic — an attire that exclusively consists of pajamas and free T-shirts from Caltopia — was the reason I was getting out of bed at 3 p.m. every day, in danger of failing out of “Zoom University” and spending countless hours mindlessly scrolling through TikTok.
My sense of self is often directly tied to how I dress, with the quarantine life proving to be no exception. The simple act of getting ready in the morning completely changed how I now live through quarantine, illustrating the transformative nature of fashion.
This may seem dramatic, at best, and frivolously materialistic, at worst, to assign this amount of value to clothing, yet to dismiss fashion would be to dismiss one of the most democratic art forms of our culture. How we dress is a way for us to visually communicate with the subway commuters we’re sitting next to, the shoppers waiting next to us in the checkout line or the fellow drinkers we’re with at the bar. It is our way of distinguishing ourselves among the masses and expressing who we are without words.
But what happens when the style we have conspicuously crafted no longer fits and we can’t find a way to express ourselves?
Coming to college, I was so excited to see student style on display; sexist school dress codes no longer applied and there were no overbearing parents ready to bundle you up with a jacket. For every trendsetting, boundary-blurring dresser I spotted on Sproul Plaza, I had to sort through a sea of Berkelium T-shirts, flip-flops, pajama pants and consulting club-branded Patagonia quarter-zips to find them.
Therein lies the catch-22 of UC Berkeley fashion. Unlike the private prep high school I’d come from, where every day was either an advertisement for Lululemon’s newest line or a label lover’s paradise, UC Berkeley’s campus-style holds no rules, and you never know what to expect. Anything from crisp Haas suits to frayed overalls is fair game, making the campus a huge petri dish for individual expression.
Anything from crisp Haas suits to frayed overalls is fair game, making the campus a huge petri dish for individual expression.
Finally free of rules, my style was suddenly burdened by too many choices. Did I want to continue dressing like a mom from the Hamptons, apply to Haas and eventually sell my soul to corporate capitalism? Would using my old, stained public library tote bag to hold my books seal my inevitable fate as an English major? Did deciding to wear Birkenstocks year-round mean I had become crunchy?
Shifting your style can be a scary thing; it means leaving a part of yourself behind and growing into someone new.
I realized clothing didn’t just reflect a persona I tried to project. It had a fundamental role in establishing how I saw myself. That I consciously consumed brands I supported; styled stained, thrifted pants with designer tops; and regularly sported an anklet felt as vital to my personality as my favorite ice cream flavor.
Just as our identities can often feel fluid and dependent on our surroundings, so can our style.
I spent the first few months of this year studying in Italy — as someone who loves shopping and works for a fashion blog, I was ecstatic to be in the home of major fashion houses and surrounded by the seemingly effortless European street style.
Unlike Berkeley, there are rules in Italy.
Dressing up is not just an occasion for going out to dinner with your parents, it is done on the daily. It was fun to embrace this new side of a culture — getting ready, even for classes with other American students, was an event. To simply take out the trash, my host mother would apply a fresh coat of lipstick.
I quickly realized how much of the clothing I’d come to see as synonymous with my identity did not go over well in Italy.
The spaghetti straps and mini skirts I viewed as liberating, and practical for crowded, sweaty nightclubs, attracted unwanted attention wherever I went. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t experienced car honks and hungry, lingering stares back home, but Italian men, as is well-known, took it to the extreme. Simply hopping on a bus in the early morning, wearing leggings and a turtleneck, was enough to attract verbal taunts and propositions.
The tight jeans and flesh-baring crop tops amid a sea of long, loose hemlines soon became quick tell-tale signs to spot me as an American woman. I felt conflicted over my decision to quickly adopt a new style of dressing: longer coats, oversized sweaters and thicker scarves. I purposely covered my body. In a sense, it felt like I was also covering up who I am.
Coming from an extended family that valued modest dressing, showing my flesh in college had been an act of resistance and the clothes I wore served as a way to assert my power over my body.
Coming from an extended family that valued modest dressing, showing my flesh in college had been an act of resistance and the clothes I wore served as a way to assert my power over my body. But I no longer wanted that body to make me feel like the odd one out or a walking target.
Adopting a different style while traveling was not a new ordeal for me, whenever I visited more culturally conservative countries, I’d adopt longer, flowing pants and loose blouses as a sign of respect. But in Italy, a country that is known for its sexually liberating and artistically free culture, I felt like the choice had been made for me. My style of dress was beyond my control.
Undergoing an internal identity crisis can cause a huge shift in personal style, but as I discovered in Italy, the reverse rings just as true. I began to understand fashion as performance and relied on my clothes as an exterior armor to explain myself in place of words.
In Italy I was scouring fashion boutiques, searching for the perfect piece that would make me feel sophisticated; in Berkeley I was on a mission to shed my prep schoolgirl past. Now, with no watchful eyes or need to distinguish myself from the crowd, I’m cycling through a rotation of jeans and sweaters. This simple uniform, a blend of all the styles I once co-opted as my own, helps me feel more like myself in an uncertain time, showing how fashion has the power to transform us from the outside in.
Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].