Before we parted ways at the airport, my mother handed me an envelope. From its size I knew that it held a greeting card, but its thickness revealed that there was something hidden in between those cardboard words of farewell. She told me to open it. Inside there was money, which I half expected. I knew that she wouldn’t be able to help herself even though I told her that there would be no need to supplement that which I already had. But the money wasn’t the only reason for the bulkiness of the envelope. Nestled beside the money was a carefully curated stack of family photos.
The beginning of something was tucked away in those photographs. A beginning that I didn’t realize had its roots set back so far in the past.
I’m four years old here and made up as a dog for Halloween. I was never a costume person. To this day I continue to be delightfully mediocre at celebrating the holiday. The ears and makeup were elaborate but the clothes were pure Samantha. And if not for the time stamp at the bottom, the acid-washed nature of the denim, my baby face, and my lack of glasses, this could be a picture of me now. I love a striped top. And a striped dress. And a striped purse. I constantly look like I should be on a sailboat. Or about to hop on a sailboat. Or standing next to a sailboat. But I especially like a striped pullover worn over a collared shirt. It’s my standby when I don’t want to think too hard about my clothing but still want to look like I’ve made an effort.
I could assign the construction of this outfit to my mother, but that would be doing a disservice to my little self. I was determined at that age in a way that was lost to me for years. In some ways, it’s still lost. And I was especially determined in my dressing. In the fall of 1987 I had only just begun what would be a six-year stretch at Catholic school. Before long I would chafe against the constraints of my uniform and start to “forget” my last clean jumper about once a month on gym class day. It was with contrition that I would inform my mother of my absent-mindedness, but inside there would be only glee and anticipation. The following morning I would greet my closet, and all of the choices within, like an old friend too long kept from my company.
Getting dressed became a far more serious enterprise as I got older. At the age of ten I was set free of the uniform but as I grew into my teens other constraints appeared. Those constraints lived mostly in my head. I felt both the need to fit in and the need to disappear. Dressing myself would never be quite the same again.
In my late adolescence, I came to my fashion re-education from a scholarly angle. I read all of the magazines. I covered various September issues in Post-It tabs and kept my ear out for news of fashion exhibits that might be visiting local museums. After so many years of school, the academic path seemed the logical way by which to fuel my rediscovery. It was with an analytical mindset that I learned once again how to dress, how to find those things that looked nice on me, and how to mix and match. The re-conditioning was slow.
But maybe in some ways all of that studying and all of that work was a waste of time. Maybe when it came to my personal style, I didn’t need re-conditioning at all. I needed only to pull back the layers and return to my roots, to find the four year-old who had never really left.