Thursday, January 20, 2011

An autobiography told in clothes and pictures

"Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."
— Mark Twain 

I was engulfed by men in uniform when I was growing up. For seven years, we lived in Nichols (now Villamor) Air Base in the Philippines, where Dad was a colonel. Every morning we were trundled off to school in a weapons carrier with an olive green canvas roof that leaked when it rained—which was six months of the year. The drivers were enlisted men of various rank. We called all of them "Sarge." I never did learn to distinguish the stripes on their sleeves.

I've lived 15 years in uniform, all while in school. In mid-life, it would become the itch I needed to scratch, the ditch I clambered to escape.

I went to three different elementary schools and wore three uniforms. I found a picture of myself with my two best friends in the first grade.

You are not having a pre-migraine aura. I tinkered with the picture to protect the identities of my chums. And anyway I've forgotten their identities so I can't very well ask them for permission.

My brother and I were in the choir during our nerdy childhood. I tried disguising his face with more digital tweaking, but his head looked like a giant peppermint lollipop when I was done. So I cropped him out except for his sleeve. I may have forgotten to put on pants that Sunday.

Two high schools, two more uniforms. Add to those the army fatigues required every Friday during compulsory military training my last two years of high school. We all cropped our hair to show the nape. This was in the '70s. No Farrah Fawcett hair for us. May she R.I.P.

All through high school, we wore boys' leather shoes with white socks. I see I've done a lousy job of cropping these photos to where you can't see them. We polished those puppies to a mirror shine, trust me.

Plus there was the Girl Scout uniform. I wore it for a day so I could go on a scouts-only field trip to the lake. Not my idea! Someone lent me her extra uniform. It's the only time I ever pretended to be someone I wasn't. That is, someone who knew how to swim. I didn't learn until I was 17.

Then a uniform through four years of college: That makes a total of nine.

My uniforms were either green, blue and white, or red and white gingham. To this day I will never buy anything with red and white gingham. The term, "back to school" induces nightmares. I dream I'm wandering the halls unable to find my classroom, unprepared for final exam, or unable to get home after dark. Why have I never mentioned this to my therapist?

Fashion was a remote concept to me then. What would've been the point? When would I have worn anything other than a uniform or a house dress and flip-flops? My parents would never have allowed me to go to parties. It never occurred to me to ask. I don't remember ever being asked to one, anyhow, so the situation never presented itself.

It dawns on me now how simple my life was. All those years spent with my nose between a book. I might've been a wallflower, but since I never partied only to sit dances out, who could tell? Who knew I'd end up a dance teacher in mid-life?

I made a few concessions to fashion, if you can call them that. In college, I took to matching my purse to my shoes with such precision you'd think I owned a Pantone color chart. I wore a different brooch each day, usually plastic fruit-shaped pins that also matched the purse and shoes. It was just another chore to me, being my own stylist.

It was a challenge keeping a white top clean in the tropics where everything was dusty and you sweated  constantly. You leaned against the seatback of the jeepney (a staple of public transportation) and came away with the outline of your bra strap etched for all to see. In an era and culture that would've never tolerated thongs peeking above jeans or bra straps falling out of tank tops, this was akin to wearing the scarlet letter "A."

We were so modest the cheerleader outfit during my freshman year in high school looked like something you could wear to Mass. I was 13. I think as stick-figured as I was, the get-up was designed more to protect onlookers from dismay at the sight of my bellybutton or my absent cleavage.

Chucking the uniform

Somewhere between then and now I developed a raging aversion to uniforms and uniformity. Not to dress codes, mind you, but to trends, to mindless conformity motivated by the desire to blend in and be accepted. When designer label jeans were deemed the only kind to wear, I didn't wear jeans for years.

If you can embrace the fact that you don't fit in, likely never will, and really don't care, it can be liberating. You can make that your personal badge, even. There's mystery in the outer fringe. Given a choice between mystery and conformity, I'd choose mystery every time.

I might've ended up in the "classic clothing" category (translation: drab) for women of a certain age if it hadn't been for two things:

  • In 2000, I was befriended by a no-apologies fashionista at the office who forcibly influenced me, if there is such a way, to care about what I wore. She and I spent so much time together at work and after work that by osmosis I learned a few things about fashion and its place in society. I was at a crossroads in life, and very impressionable. And while I vowed never to become as hypercritical about other people's appearances as she was, I did take on her flair for putting yourself together with the intent to achieve something. Even if only to make yourself feel better on days when you don't feel well.
  • I trained intensely and was hired as a ballroom and Latin dance teacher in 2006 (while retaining my state-worker-by-day identity). That changed the way I related to my own body. I could see getting older yet staying fit. It upended my blinders-on approach to getting dressed. The biggest difference it made was to make me see clothes as character builders—as costumes, essentially.
Performing a dance is a lot about assuming an identity other than the one you have before you walk onto the dance floor. Actors know instinctively to fend off self-consciousness by releasing themselves to the character. A character wears clothes different from what you'd choose in real life. Dance costumes are flashier, more attention-getting. You give yourself permission to wear certain things and behave certain ways for the duration of the performance. You expect the audience, and yourself, to suspend judgment.

Some people meditate, others do yoga or run. I dance. I design clothes to dance in that will belong to women who are not me, yet who carry in themselves the uninhibited parts of me. I design for women who are ready to shred the uniform, but not quite insane enough to walk around naked.

So you see, this is an autobiography, not just of me, but of Swoosh by Scrollwork—my clothing line on And now I must be off to list items for sale. An empty shop might force women to go without. Clothes, that is. 

What do you like to wear when you have complete say over it?


"The big splash might feel good, but it's clearly not necessary." — Seth Godin, on launching in obscurity the way Google, Facebook, eBay, Amazon, PayPal and Twitter did.


  1. I've seen the clothes you dance in, but can't see myself in them. Even when I went ballroom dancing regularly, I found myself treading the fine line between dressing to impress while still remaining in the shadows. I don't think I can handle being stared at. Perhaps, my reaction to years in school uniforms is opposite to yours. I had gotten so used to blending in with the crowd, to this day I feel uncomfortable when I stand out.

    (For the sake of your clothing line, I hope mine is a vanishing breed.)

  2. A valid perspective, Locke. I think the difference might be between going ballroom dancing for pleasure and performing a ballroom dance professionally for a showcase. If the latter, being stared at/watched is pretty much the point. My years as a teacher have also gotten me used to having crowds look at me in one- to three-hour class increments.

    The planet can sustain both my breed and yours. But my line will depend on my being able to reach the ones that speak the language my clothes speak.

  3. I love whimsical clothes - it reminds me that we're never too old to play dress up :)

  4. What a wonderful insight. Led me to think how we have been defined by our clothes. Indeed, our early years, we were marked by sameness and conformity. As our awareness of our identities developed, we slowly moved away from this message and carved our identities. Great post.

  5. Sam, exactly! Which is the only thing I love about Halloween. Not the candy, I swear.

    Wendy B, one of the best things about growing up is the power to define ourselves rather than let ourselves be defined. Thanks for stopping by and letting me know what you think!

  6. I love your style ~*~ Great little etsy shop!

  7. Thanks for the etsy love, Lisa! Your bags inspire me!