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Wearing Our Feelings: How What We Wear Affects Us

Personal Perspective: Learning the balance of fitting in while standing out.

Key points

  • As many of us head back to school or help our children with this transition, consider the impact of fashion.
  • Take a moment to notice the fashion choices around you. Offer a compliment to those who you think "look good."
  • The right outfit can make or break your day. Take the time to look in the mirror. You'll feel better. It does matter.

This morning on Facebook, Alyssa posted a photo of her son starting kindergarten. Julie shared a shot of her son beginning his freshman year of high school. And my daughter-in-law’s sister, Kali, uploaded a photo of her boys dressed and ready for their first official day of kindergarten and first grade.

Those images capture a moment but translate more than a specific point in a family history.

But what of the wearer? How do they feel?

A Feeling of Embarrassment

The year was 1966. My frugal and crafty mother made me and my older sister Mona matching dresses—A-line outfits with elbow-length bell sleeves. She finished the neckline and the sleeves with a bright fuchsia bias tape that contrasted the dark green calico print.

But here's the issue: Either mom forgot to buy two zippers, or something happened to mine, but the zipper she put in the back of my dress didn't match the fabric's color.

I remember sitting in the first-day assembly when I felt something push against my back. "Did your mom make your dress?" someone whispered in my ear.

I turned around to see two older girls snickering.

As I grew, I inherited Mona’s dress with its properly matching zipper. But the feeling of shame and embarrassment remained.

A Feeling of Confidence

When my niece Julia was little, she attended a Waldorf School in Hadley, Massachusetts. That year, I happened to have purchased yards and yards of thick chamois flannel from a discount fabric store. Always a bit of a hoarder of cloth, I knew the price was too good to pass up.

As Christmas approached, and being a newlywed with little money, I embarked on making gifts for the family. I dug into my stash, making L.L. Bean-style flannel shirts for all the guys and even a few women, but I made a jumper for my niece.

There was something about that little sleeveless bodice with the gathered skirt. Julia’s teacher noticed when the tiny second-grader wore that outfit. She stood up taller. She participated more. She appeared more resilient to the inevitable jibes from her Waldorf peers.

And so, still possessing yards and yards more of the heavy chamois, I made Julie three more jumpers—one Wedgwood blue, one dusty rose, and one sage green, to go along with the original mustard yellow.

I’m not going to claim full credit, but Julie is now in her third year of residency on her journey to being a medical doctor. And this at the age of 40—bucking the odds and fulfilling a life-long dream at the same time.

A Feeling of Belonging

I recently attended The River Hawks Scholars Academy's induction ceremony, a program for first-generation college students. Close to 500 students crammed into one of the huge lecture halls at UMass-Lowell. Looking around the room, most students wore shorts. It was close to 90 degrees, after all. The women wore short shorts. And the guys mostly wore knee-length baggy shorts. Some were denim or khaki, some were sports knit. Most of the men wore T-shirts and a few button-down shirts. Most of the women wore tight-fitting tank tops or cropped tops.

I envied their confidence as I remembered how I would have tried to hide inside my clothes at a similar orientation at the sister college UMass-Amherst.

Many students had already donned the light blue T-shirts with the RHSA logo they'd been given as they entered the hall.

But one young man stood out above all the rest I could see. This fellow wore wide, black leather cuffs studded with metal spikes. He wore a baggy black T-shirt with the logo of some metal band and long black pants, also baggy. And his chin-length black hair was tipped with red.

Of all the kids in the room that day, he was the one I wanted to get to know. He was one that I hoped would be in my class. He was already making a statement to the world—a statement louder and stronger than all the others co-eds wearing their tribe costumes.

A Feeling of Poise

My first day of teaching is Friday, September 2. I am not going to lie: I ponder what I'm going to wear, but I'm not going to dwell on it too much.

My students will be anxious, nervous, overwhelmed, and distracted by all they experience on the first days of their college careers. They won’t notice what I’m wearing. They’ll barely hear what I say. They will focus on their own experience, appearance, and attempts to be accepted by their peers as they share these initial moments.

Whatever I end up wearing, I will choose the outfit with comfort in mind. But also with a sense of my style and originality.

I'd bet that my students will not notice my wardrobe. As a veteran professor, I will take note of some of them and probably notice more how they choose to dress like their tribe, sporting the school logos of UMass-Lowell's blue-and-red River Hawk or Fitchburg State's green-and-gold falcon. They've got a lot going on.

The feeling of belonging in a group often stems from wearing the costume of that group.

And, in belonging, we attain a sense of acceptance, calm, and maybe happiness.

Maybe my mom was trying to compensate for our lack of funds, as she often did when she made our clothes. I always knew her sewing intended to make her girls look nice. I never had the heart to tell her I'd rather wear store-bought jeans and a T-shirt. My feelings didn't matter then. Now, I can unpack that trunk of memories and photos of all those first days and recognize that feelings are fleeting, but they matter in the moment.

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