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In the pilot episode of Black-ish spinoff Grown-ish, Zoey Johnson (Yara Shahidi) stands in front of a floor-length mirror in jeans and a Michael Jackson tee. Faced with the daunting task of choosing an outfit for her first college class, she tries on a couple of ’70s-inspired coats and a silk bomber jacket before settling on a canary hoodie bearing the name of the fictional Cal U.
Other than Zoey’s oversized hoop earrings and bucket bag, a male student could have worn the same ensemble without making waves. And it’s not the only such outfit that Zoey wears. During the first four episodes of the new sitcom, she mostly clothes herself in garments that are gender-neutral, modest, or both. She sports track pants, blazers, and floor-length skirts. For a date in an underground club, she wears a two-toned sweater, a midi metallic skirt, and boots to match. It’s an outfit a woman triple her age could wear without looking like she’s trying too hard. Still, Zoey manages to be the cool girl — at least when people aren’t calling her “the cup bitch.” All the while, her hair goes from braided to curly to sleek, and each transition feels seamless.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Zoey’s fashion choices is that the show doesn’t comment on them. The college freshman doesn’t deliver any Ayesha Curry-style put-downs of women who are “barely wearing clothes these days.” Likewise, her classmates don’t mock her for staying buttoned up on a college campus set in Southern California, a region that never quite shook the stereotype that its women prance around all day in booty shorts and Uggs. In fact, the first student on the show to get knocked for his style is Luca Hall (Luka Sabbat). His dreads lead his rival, Aaron (Trevor Jackson), to roast him as a “Willow Smith” lookalike. In turn, Luca drags Aaron for having a ducktail: “How you wanna be a redneck and black at the same time?” But neither insult each other for skirting the expectation that cisgender men must always embrace hypermasculine dress — Aaron wears pink, Luca wears cropped shirts.
And Luca doesn’t just skirt the rule, but wears skirts, much to Zoey’s praise. She admits that he’s “the only freshman fly enough to rock the same skirt as me and make me think about changing.” When they emerge in an identical get-up — a sweater, baggy skirt, jeans, and sneakers — he beats her in a “who wore it better” poll.
But Zoey is as nonchalant about Luca’s androgynous style as she is about her own. If she feels any pressure to show more skin in an era where girls her age and younger are hypersexualized, she doesn’t show it. Her style doesn’t waver even when she’s trying to get romantic with a guy. The conservative cuts of her clothes don’t signal that she’s got it all together or is morally superior to her classmates. The slightly boy-crazy teen enjoys fooling around, gets hooked on Adderall after using it to study through the night, and isn’t above underage drinking. “I like a nice buzz, but I don’t get white-girl wasted,” she explains.
The fallibility of her character separates her from another known for her unconventional style, Denise Huxtable. When that character headed off to Hillman College on The Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, she came off as annoyingly straight-laced, despite her art school wardrobe of layers, high-waisted trousers, and the kinds of tropical shirts often spotted on elderly men. In contrast, Zoey makes some cringeworthy missteps, from the serious — Adderall dependency — to the minor, manically texting a crush who’s gone radio silent. While saintly Denise was so dull she made the first season of A Different World fall flat, Zoey plays a flawed, and thus relatable, teen.
Fans of Grown-ish covet Zoey’s looks, with few, if any, commenting on their relative modesty compared to, say, the characters of Riverdale. Grown-ish viewers want to know how she looks so put-together as a college student, or about the show’s stylist. (Michelle Cole is the head costume designer.) After all, not everyone can pull off an argyle sweater vest, braided scarf, and red athletic pants — and color-coordinate them.
The inspiration for Zoey’s look is likely Yara Shahidi herself. In 2015, she told InStyle that her go-to wardrobe is hardly typical. “I frequently wear things that are far too conservative for a teenager,” she said. “I’ll roll up with saddle pants and blazers and button-down shirts and oxfords.”
Grown-ish could’ve outfitted her character very differently. Instead, it has allowed Yara to inhabit Zoey in a way that feels comfortable for her. Discussing her fashion sense to InStyle, she recalled the actress Kerry Washington telling her, “as a young actress, not to change you who are or your values or morals for a role, because what’s really authentic is when someone is true to who they are.” By embracing who she is on and off her TV show, Shahidi has cultivated a distinct style that bucks the norms for young women and has her fans looking on with envy and pride.