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When I was accepted to a liberal arts college in America in 1996, wardrobe was the last thing on my mind. Like most upper-middle class teens in India, I grew up wearing “western” clothes. And although I’d never been to the States, given my addiction to Sweet Valley High and Archie comics, I was pretty sure I was 90 percent American already. I got this! I thought.
Of course I had no way of knowing that, pre-internet, Indian ideas of western fashion were hopelessly behind the times. The only store that had found its way to New Delhi was United Colors of Benetton.
When I first arrived at Bryn Mawr, I was put in the smoking dorm. “Smoking” turned out to be a euphemism for anything you could snort, smoke, or swallow. This group, I quickly discovered, was the rebels — or the misfits, depending on who you spoke to.
Laura, the tall skinny raver in impossibly wide-leg pants and a tight T-shirt (no bra) with a tongue ring and a bracelet made of candy, seemed like an alien from another planet. Susan, with long black hair, tearfully parted with boyfriend Alex on Day 1; by Day 2, she had a crew cut and a girlfriend. Stevie from Decatur, Illinois replied to anything I said with “that’s awesommme” so many times I was convinced she was “special” until someone said “Oh, she’s just Midwestern” — a reference that was lost on me.
Shiori’s parents sent her boxes from Neiman Marcus, and she’d unwrap the tissue and pull out a paisley patterned silk robe to the collective coos of the girls around her. The expensive cut of her clothes made my own, stitched by a tailor in New Delhi whose cut of choice was “boxy,” feel horribly provincial.
There wasn’t much that didn’t shock me that first year at Bryn Mawr, but style proved an enduring nemesis. I couldn’t seem to pin down a coherent “American” look. The New Yorkers were deathly chic in red pleated skirts, crisp white shirts, and tasseled crochet shawls. They strode across the starkly gothic campus like a flock of white swans — or actors on a movie set, with their own lighting crew. My neighbor in French class dressed in Victorian corsets and flouncy skirts — and a fauxhawk. The smokers had eyebrow rings, nipple rings, septum rings. Goths moped with spiky dog collars around their necks and painted black tears running down their cheeks. And then there was me, all 5’3” of bushy hair that had never known a straight iron, in seersucker shirts and classic Reeboks.
Having come from a place where I fit in, to have my clothes considered passé was a blow to the ego. Especially because my mother, back in India, was known for her style. Her sari was always exquisite, her Nina Ricci perfume wafted into a room before she did, and she never left home without lipstick. Even when she went to study in Paris in the ‘60s — revolutionary at the time for an Indian woman — she dashed about the boulevards in fire engine red Chloe pants, giant Balenciaga sunglasses, and stilettos, breaking hearts all over the city. The fact that my mom was cooler than me definitely stung.
Luckily, the girls in my dorm were too busy procuring tanks of nitrous oxide and getting high, or drag racing the college’s golf carts late at night, to really care what I looked like. In hindsight, it was my critical gaze, rather than their judgment, that set me apart.
My second year in college I fell in with a Euro crowd and dug myself further into a fashion black hole, acquiring a pair of virulent orange boots from the Gap. Note to self: Never take fashion advice from a European unless her name is Donatella or Miuccia.
Later, I befriended a diverse crew of girls with a car, a social game changer. We outlined our lips with black eye pencil, filled them in with frosted lipstick, jumped in my Persian-Texan friend’s gas-guzzling Bronco and, with Buju Banton blasting from the speakers, gate-crashed the frat parties at UPenn. I stared, mesmerized, as grown men with identical inverted U-shaped brands on their arms stomped around in a circle hooting — until someone pulled a gun and the crowd flattened like wheat in the wind. We found ourselves hiding underneath chairs in the back and then, later, peeing in an alley on the wrong side of town, steam rising from our bums in the crisp Philly winter.
My twenties in New York marked a further descent into fashion purgatory. My wardrobe was a mashup of a rebellious anti-establishment streak and a feminine hippy side. Studded belts and skinny jeans jostled for position among flowy dresses and lacy blouses.
By then I’d realized that Americans used clothing to express their individuality. “Be yourself” was the mantra du jour. The problem was that I still didn’t know who I was in this country. In some ways, my clothes did mirror my twenties — one long identity crisis. My look was disjointed and fractured, and the harder I tried, the worse it got.
But in my thirties, the storm clouds of fashion disaster magically parted. As I finally started feeling more at home in my adoptive country and carving out an identity here, dressing well became less of an enigma. I bought fewer clothes, and combining them stylishly became more intuitive. I cut the cord with some ill-advised friends in my closet and outside of it. I started a regular meditation practice and started to get to know myself better.
What I learned about myself in those moments of cultivated awareness spilled over into my choice of clothes. I recognized that I loved buying high heels but never, ever wore them. Or that I hated sucking in my belly, so those skinny tops were just a waste of space. I had an extremely stressful job as a reality television producer, so the cut of my clothes needed to be simple, unfussy, and easy to maintain.
Today, my wardrobe is smaller than it was in my twenties and doesn’t look like a schizophrenic episode. Well-cut jeans and linen pants pair with plain tees or shirts. Simple dresses without fussy zips or buttons can be flung over my head, and everything gets tossed into the same cycle in the washing machine. My clothes now make me feel calm and chic, and decisions about what to wear take about 30 seconds. I call this look “Eileen Fisher lite.”
All my “trying too hard” dresses have gone to Goodwill. I can admire a complex dress on someone — a model in the Meatpacking District in stilettos — without any desire to take on the buffing, waxing, painting, plucking, curling, nipping, and tucking that her look requires. To “be myself” in this country, I had to take the journey to find myself, but now, after two decades in the fashion trenches, the clothes finally fit the person.