Neurotic Children Make Terrible Stylists

Clothing misadventures from the childhood of Nicole Wornette

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As a child, my body did not enjoy the feeling of clothing. It also hated the feeling of being naked. From an evolutionary standpoint, I probably shouldn’t exist if something so fundamental proved a hardship. Fortunately, I had very permissive parents who, rather than instructing me to suck it up clothes-wise, allowed me to explore some solutions to my discomfort.

And, after the requisite trial and error, I discovered some effective strategies for combating a body that doesn’t like the feeling of anything, is irrationally afraid of outrageous hypotheticals, and is just overall precious.

1. “MAYBE ALL MY CLOTHES WILL FALL OFF!”

One of my main concerns with any and all clothes was that, regardless of how secure they might seem, they could betray you at any moment. As an adult, I think about this belief and try to remember if it came from some traumatic something. I’m completely at a loss, which means to me that it was either an irrational invention or I have repressed some shit.

My favourite way to combat the possibility of suddenly being exposed was to wear only very thorough pants with sturdy elastic waists. It was important to pull these pants up as high as they could go to ensure plenty of notice, should they decide to head south. Ideally they would be pulled so high that I should be physically uncomfortable but this was always offset with the padding provided from wearing three pairs of underwear at one time.

The next step was key. I would take a belt and fasten it as tightly as it would go, using the extra hole I made three inches from where the belt company saw fit to stop making holes. Next I would take the top of the pants and roll them down several times over the belt, forming a secure little fabric tire around my child waist. And, finally, once I was totally strapped in, I felt safe enough to go into the big wide world.

2. “I FEEL EVERYTHING AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO MAKE OF THAT!”

My skin is extremely sensitive. All physical sensation is heightened which generally manifests as extreme and indiscriminate ticklishness but at other times just high sensation, plain and simple. This is all just a delicate way of explaining that I have very sensitive nipples—I always have.

Obviously, now that I’m an adult human woman I’m able to view my intense nipple sensitivity as a positive (…duh) but as a child, I had a very “We’re gonna beat this thing” attitude about the situation.

Summer afternoons spent in my family’s above-ground swimming pool inspired the realization that my physical discomfort was dry-land specific. Rather than embarking on a life as a suburban mermaid, I deduced that it was, in fact, the slick material and fitted silhouette of bathing suits that accounted for this relief, not the water itself. I started wearing my bathing suit every day under my clothes and considered the problem solved.

“The bathing suit situation” actually marks the only time my mother intervened in my experiments. Concerned about the possible health and hygiene repercussions of an entire life spent in swimwear, she took custody of my bathing suit and returned it to me only when I was headed directly to the pool.

In lieu of a swimsuit, I turned to undershirts belonging to my sister. She was three years younger and smaller so they squeezed my body with a promise to totally stay put. I layered them to make myself feel even more secure (see example 1, clothes might fall off) and would wear them year round, convinced that sweating through the summer was preferable to the prison of feeling things so much.

In Grade 3 I was chosen to play a glamorous queen in the class play. My costume was a beautiful red gown that I loved right up until I realized that its stiff fabric was going to be a problem.

I put on the dress for the first time alone in a bathroom stall and when I felt the rough crepe against my chest, I collapsed onto the floor beside the toilet in devastation and cried the self-pitying tears unique to a neurotic eight-year-old. Every time I shifted in the dress, the material would send an unpleasant shudder through my entire body. I felt a panic rise up in me because I knew I couldn’t suffer through that feeling, even for the duration of a short class play.

I was not accustomed to explaining my clothing issues to anyone outside of my immediate family so I knew I’d have to solve this dilemma coyly. I announced to my teacher that my actor instincts told me that my character would wear three toddler’s undershirts underneath her royal robes. She informed me that her director’s instincts told her that was, in fact, not the case. Moments before I was about to go on stage, distracted by the dress rubbing tortuously against my nipples, I was desperate. As a last resort, I grabbed a prop tablecloth and shoved it in the front of the dress, stopping it from shifting around at all. To my mind, I had found my elegant solution; no discomfort and I looked awesome.

I didn’t, by the way.

The nipple thing lasted the longest of any of my other clothing neuroses. I wore really tight sports bras everywhere, even to bed, right up to my second year of university, when I started seeing my first serious boyfriend, letting our adult sleepovers unravel me a little bit. Now I am even known to go braless in public, so if you notice that I’m doing that, you should congratulate me like you would for anyone else in recovery from something.

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3. “ONLY CERTAIN PANTS CAN BE TIGHT!”

Another aspect to the skin sensitivity situation is that denim is completely intolerable to me. The sensation of such an abrasive material directly against my skin is hell and I have never been able to comprehend the fabric’s mass appeal.

Before I was 10, it was all very simple. I hated jeans and so I never wore them. I almost always wore tight stretch cotton leggings in various colours, selected for me by my mother from The Gap. I was utterly content and could anticipate no change in the uniform ever being necessary.

That is, until Class Bully (a current resident of his parents’ garage in our hometown) pointed out insistently that there was something very wrong with my pants and me because of them. He called me “Pinkie Pants,” which emerged from his mouth like a scathing insult but actually seems to mean nothing whatsoever. Despite the perplexity of their meaning, I reacted to the tone of his words, and that night I went home, a woman broken, and tearfully begged my mother for jeans like everybody else. And because my mother was a merciful mother who had never seen her weird little daughter so convinced she was missing something crucial, she took me out and bought me my first pair of jeans.

From that day on, my desire to fit in saw me pulling my legs into my new blue jeans that stubbornly refused to soften, and then remaining inside them for hours. The minute I got home, I would run to my room, rip them off and climb into something more humane. This was my daily routine until last year when I decided I’d suffered quite enough for one lifetime and adopted a wardrobe comprised almost entirely of dresses with opaque black tights or bare legs.

It’s only fair that I mention my brief affair with a pair of high-waisted jeggings two years ago. The whole thing had a very “my only love with my only hate” appeal. Sadly, they stretched out, warped and disintegrated as jeggings are wont to do, and I am sensibly hesitant about buying a second pair.

4. IT DOESN’T MATTER WHAT YOU’RE WEARING AS LONG AS YOU’RE WEARING HIGH HEELS FIVE SIZES TOO BIG

At seven, I decided that the white sneakers I wore to school every day were too flat and unglamorous for the extraordinary person that I was becoming. Resolved, I appropriated the red high heels (adult women’s size nine) from my classroom’s dress-up box and insisted on wearing them every day and to every occasion including gym. I blame my teacher’s indulgence of this gym-time practice for why I am not now a natural athlete.

I loved that I could wear anything and as soon as I was clomping around in those shoes, I was “my best self.” In my mind, the sound of my heels clicking against the marble floor of my primary school broadcasted the kind of feminine authority I was born to project. I would constantly volunteer to take the attendance down to the office in order to hear that sound in an empty hallway. And once there, the office secretaries would fawn all over me, telling me how beautiful I looked, how utterly grown up. Little did they know, they were feeding a beast.

I became known as the girl in the red heels throughout my school to the degree that at the year end assembly, marking my rise to Grade 3, I was officially given ownership of the shoes by the school principal himself. I was touched and delighted by the attention but it was also the first time I ever paused to consider how my shoes looked to other people. I was embarrassed by my ugly, naked desire for attention; that I hadn’t thought to glance around at my peers’ reception of my everyday performance. I regret to say that I never wore those red shoes after that day, returning instead to the white Keds favoured by my classmates and feeling decidedly less grand.

5. HOW TO BE POPULAR

In my childhood diary, one feature repeats itself identically on three separate occasions. On a blank page I would write the heading “HOW TO BE POPULAR” and underneath that, only “1. get a tongue ring” with nothing else to follow. As if the list just stopped there.

I never did get that tongue ring and I never was popular. Go figure.

The Secret Password is Elvis Codpiece

Nicole Wornette reviews Rebel Youths, a book about '60s German hooligans and what they wore

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Assuming style is a representation of what you know and think and like on your body, these young, genuine, and would-be hooligans take it to the next level. These boys like Elvis, so they literally wear a picture of his face as a codpiece. Sure, show a gal a subculture and she’ll point out its shared references: items of clothing so coded they amount to the secret password of a clubhouse. But rarely is it ever so literal, overt, or playful as it is with Karl Heinz Weinberger’s boys, who end up being virtually indistinguishable from one another. Their look is one assembled from nods to rebellious Americana: the West, James Dean, and of course Elvis Presley. They love him most of all.

This collection of Weinberger’s photographs of young German toughs in the ’60s is a mood board for referential aggressive style. Through a mixture of studio portraits with more candid images of the gang rough-housing and loitering, as hooligans are wont to do, a few specific details catch and keep the eye.

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First, in flipping through the pages of Rebel Youth, you might think you’ve seen the face of Elvis more than the face of any one of Weinberger’s subjects. And you would be right. Large plates featuring The King’s face decorate pelvises and chests, these two areas reigning supreme as targets for decoration. Should an image seem free of Elvis’s influence, simply looking to the hairstyle of any given hood provides an echo.

But these boys are no copycats. They have managed to create something wholly new and exciting by infusing iconic references with the kind of ingenious DIY spirit and playfulness most associated with the Punk movement. Denim and leather jackets couldn’t possibly come featuring the name of their particular gang or feeling about Elvis or the West or James Dean. So they paint it on. The pelvis of their jeans couldn’t possibly be purchased with the exact kind of aggressiveness they crave. So they leave the fly open, choosing instead to thread chain or string through to hold it closed.

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Another thing is amply clear: this is a boys’ club. Though there is certainly a handful of striking photos of or featuring women, these images are softer, the women in simpler dress. They seem to follow the boys, existing to complement them, as the gentler parts to a photo of some very masculine occasion. One gets the impression that to these boys, dressing up is a kind of battle: something they do for and against one another.

Though it thoroughly documents the style of a subculture long passed into memory, Rebel Youth has timeless appeal. In viewing Weinberger’s boys, with their style and their relationship to style, one is encouraged into a kind of playfulness, to do as these boys do. Ask yourself what you love; what legends stand the tallest in your own mythology? And then wear them swollen with irony and prominently located, so no one could confuse your referential loyalties. Or don’t. But be happy that these boys did it with such toughness, enthusiasm, and humour.

photography // Serah-Marie McMahon

My Ex-Boyfriend is my Style Icon

Nicole Wornette is unapologetically attracted to sartorialists

When I tell people the story of Royal and me, they are usually a little dumbfounded.

“But you’re a smart girl,” they say, incredulous, “How could you put up with that?”

And because this troubles their understanding of how a woman who reads an excess of feminist books conducts herself, they really do want an answer. To put them at ease I say this or that about how I needed a heartbreak in order to grow, about how his aggression appealed to me because I am a “strong woman” and therefore presumably a masochist, or just (hello?) daddy issues. And when I tell them these things they nod appreciatively because it all checks out with their picture of why women like me exhibit poor judgment.

And, of course, it’s all bullshit. What they could never understand and therefore wouldn’t want to hear is that, despite my intelligence and gender/sex reading list, I dated Royal because I love style and he had it more than any person I’d met.

In short, my ex-boyfriend was my style icon.

This statement makes people uncomfortable. It speaks to a kind of sickness; a capacity for high shallowness and hero worship. Perhaps some essential comfort is lost when forced to acknowledge a person who would accept a world of heartache simply because the dealer of it had mastered an effortless eclecticism in their dress?

The first time Royal and I slept together, I felt the loneliness of sex with a selfish man that would become very familiar. This memory was, however, almost totally eclipsed by the sheer joy I experienced in watching him get dressed the next morning. He pulled wide the doors on his closet and moved almost acrobatically through its racks. He talked as he did this, about raw Japanese denim, about rough African cloth, about how every pair of pants involves a collaboration between Royal and his long-time tailor (together they’ve mastered the perfect taper), about pieces that came from family, and pieces that came from some church thrift store in some nowhere town. It seemed to me that everything in his closet was alive; each item reverberating with memories and people and care.

Royal’s style was effective synthesis; all classic pieces and proportions made his own with others from his travels and diverse family history. Often he’d build his outfits from his references; usually from cinema. I loved coming out of my house and spotting him across the street, leaning on the chain link fence, and guessing as I walked towards him, which great film was providing the inspiration for today’s outfit. I had never known someone to play unabashed adult dress-up and pull it off so completely. He was always proud of how he looked; always willing to share a story about how it came together, and I found myself embarrassed by how interested I was in this. I would actually be disappointed when the talk moved on from what he was wearing or had recently acquired to other more substantial subjects.

There remain certain unsoured, almost incandescent moments from my time with Royal, each with a corresponding mental snapshot of an outfit. I have difficulty distinguishing whether these memories are significant because of the clothes they feature or if it’s the other way around. There’s the custom suit he was wearing when we drank all the Hennessy left over from a funeral, my disbelief when he wore a porkpie hat inside a restaurant coupled with my disbelief that it actually looked good, the blue cashmere sweater that made him difficult to argue with because it looked so damn reasonable, every day a different, neatly ironed pocket square. And then there’s the one I return to most:

Facing Lake Ontario, I hear him call my name. When I turn, I see that he’s dressed simply, not unlike anybody else. But close up I catch a glimpse of a small American flag that he’s tied tightly around his wrist and almost completely concealed with the sleeve of his denim jacket. He doesn’t need anybody else to see it.

When I think of this particular memory, I remember that coming to meet me was the first time he’d left his house that day. I was the only person he’d see at all. And we were just going for a walk on an empty beach. He could never dress simply; just like anyone else. I like to imagine he’d almost left the house but went back for the flag, tied it around his wrist and felt assured by it.

You see, I wanted to dress like Royal. But what quickly became clear is that he wanted me to dress like something else.

The first time Royal and I sat across from one another and had drinks, I was wearing a pair of mens boxer shorts, pink with hounds on them, with an oversized grey jersey tank top and a black blazer, the sleeves rolled to the elbows. The outfit had been conceived in a flash because it was hot and I didn’t expect to be having romantic drinks that night. Having said that, it was also probably my favourite of any outfit I wore that summer. But of course, I apologized for it all through drinks and never wore it again because he had accepted my apology like it had been necessary.

His ideas about how women should look and dress were as specific as those he had for himself. He favoured—insisted on, actually—a visual display of perfect femininity. In his mind, women belonged in form-fitting dresses and high heeled shoes. Their hair should be smooth, fall long and they should smell like flowers. That’s it. That’s all. He wasn’t interested in a woman’s style exhibiting as much thought or complexity as his own. The outfits I was celebrated for were few and far between and always, to my mind, boring.

Still, like many women, I possess a kind of genius for anticipating and accommodating the desires of particular men. I dressed, in those first months, with Royal in mind. Running things by an imaginary him and silently apologizing for my missteps even before I was standing in front of him. At that time my “missteps” could all be blamed on the fact that I was poor. I wore the wrong shoes because I didn’t have the right ones. Dressing for Royal became a bit like Tetris: what could I put together that he would like me in, that I would like me in, that I had, that was clean, that he hadn’t already seen or banished.

One night in a restaurant, close to the end of us, he told me that the way I looked that night deserved to be smooched. I looked down at myself in a tight black dress. That night I had straightened my wild hair into something far easier to digest. I thought for the first time that I didn’t want to earn my smooches and certainly not this way. Boring was too high a price. I sighed and thought of the time he’d yelled at me in a Chinese restaurant to throw away a vintage wool bolero that I was mad about. That he’d stopped speaking to me once when his eyes had landed on my filthy white Chucks, worn sockless. That he’d taken to saying, “Get your life together, baby,” nearly every time I was satisfied with what I was doing, style-wise.

I glanced down at his hands folded on the table. I had always particularly liked his hands, or rather, the way he decorated them. To me they seemed a pleasing Royal’s style vignette. Surrounding an antique gold watch with a brown leather strap (his mother’s) were several very different bracelets and on his left hand, he wore two rings. The simple silver ring on his pinkie had been mine. He’d taken it and was so insistent that he should be allowed to keep it. I’d co-opted a green pashmina he’d bought in Africa and pronounced us square. Later, he revealed that every last piece of jewelry he wore was from a woman he’d loved and I suddenly felt trophy-like. My silver ring, the style equivalent to a head stuffed and mounted on a wall. Though still, some sick part of me was pleased to have contributed to his impressive eclecticism.

I looked up from his hands to the face that had just pronounced me deserving of smooches, and decided I was very tired. I could finally do without the mornings of watching him get dressed. I had added quite enough to my memory bank of Royal looks. That with his green scarf and the months of his example, we were in fact utterly square.

I have now passed more months out of that relationship than I’d spent in it. I have found new style icons. The world vibrates with them and the variety makes it all so democratic. I saw Royal for the first time in months a week ago on Queen Street. It had been brief because one of my friends wanted to hit him or one of his friends for one of the usual reasons. I had jumped in without a thought about what I was wearing (tight polyester black slip, madras wrap shirt, oversized trench coat, brown leather sandals and backpack), put an end to the stand off and pushed my friend on his way. As I followed, I glanced back at Royal and he smiled, saying, “You look good, baby.”

I laugh when I think about this. I am laughing for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that I was then (and god, maybe always will be) a little flattered.

photography // Martina Bellisario

Nicole Wornette

Our new editorial intern traces her style history over a decade of shopping lists

As a child I was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, Scarlett O’Hara, and JonBenet Ramsey. All I wanted to be when I grew up was one of these uncomfortable glamorous feminine figures. It’s no surprise that, instead, I grew up weird and with a dark sense of humour, fashion obsessed, and ultimately a writer.

My lifelong fashion love has been well documented in shopping lists I’ve made compulsively since the age of nine. I still write them regularly, and to this day they are the only reliable way I’ve found to quiet my mind at its most anxious. Looking over them, though, I watch my personal style evolve. The first two years feature exclusively clothing I saw my friends wear first. This inclination to blend in repeats again at the beginning of high school and university but dissipates shortly thereafter. When Legally Blonde comes out, everything is pink, and blue contact lenses have three exclamation points after them. There’s the full calendar year that I don’t bother listing stores because absolutely everything is from American Eagle. The appearance of a “Jesus is my Homeboy” t-shirt on a list from 2005 marks the first of many rebellions against my Born Again Christian teenhood. On my most recent list, nearly all the clothes are black (my style has been described as “plucky widow”), the only thing crossed off is a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, and beauty products outnumber clothing three to one.

I aspire to be a damn great writer and a bona-fide New Yorker.

CURRENT INSPIRATION

Into The Gloss
I check this blog every day, several times a day. I love the aesthetic, the fresh approach to the topic of beauty, and I have a major girl/professional/style crush on its founder, Emily Weiss.

Tales of Endearment
This is the vintage-focused and very pretty blog of Natalie Joo. She takes photos of herself and sundry other amazing familiar girls in their best vintage looks. The styling and images are just too inspiring.

Une Fille Comme Les Autres (Jalouse Magazine)
I really like any place where fashion and comedy intersect gracefully. This video is one of my favourite examples. Also, I’ve written “be like Jalouse video girl” in my journal more times than I would care to admit, so….

The Tumblr of Sarah Nicole Prickett
I honestly hesitated before listing this, because this girl’s a fellow wornette and, is that weird? Regardless, I really like Sarah Nicole Prickett’s writing; have for years. And now that she’s writing from New York (my big city crush), I can’t get enough.

Bestie by Bestie
I am obsessed with Gabe Liedman and Jenny Slate. Their chemistry is the stuff that dreams are made of. I could listen to them talk for the rest of my days, I think.

photography // Martina Bellisario