Nicola: We were both part of the punk scene in our suburban towns in high school (me in Milwaukee, you in New Jersey). And we both feel like that’s what led us into fashion.
Tiffany: I went to a Catholic school, and I didn’t fit in with most of the girls. We wore uniforms, so on "dress-down days" and on weekends, I wanted to seem different. I think that’s when I started making my own clothes and shopping at vintage stores. And then I found this punk crowd and it all came together.
Nicola: How often were the dress-down days?
Tiffany: I think once a month. They were controversial, because you had to pay a dollar to dress down. I’m pretty sure the dollar went to something like the pro-life club, and some people naturally didn’t want to do that. I dyed my hair a lot as a way to stand out. My friend Ashley said that was the first thing she noticed about me, and she thought I was cool because of it, so it worked. What was your high school like?
For some people, how we were dressing was insane. But to this other group, it was so entry-level.
Nicola: I remember in sixth grade, that Shaggy song "It Wasn’t Me" was all over the pop radio stations, and I hated it so much that I started listening to the alternative, college radio station just to get away from it. I always liked art class and identified as "artsy," so I think the alt music thing fit in with my young perception of self.
This was around the same time pop-punk bands like Avril Lavigne and Good Charlotte were hitting MTV, which I watched at sleepovers ’til the sun came up, ’cause I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV at home until I was 16 or something. I loved Sum 41 especially, and would post on these Sum 41 forums. My username was TriXie24 and I would write what was essentially fan fic about me and the bassist, Jason McCaslin, being together.
I got to middle school the next year, seventh grade, and the grade above me had more "established" punk kids. One of them made fun of me in the hallway for my Hot Topic studded cuff and studded belt, because obviously that’s so sellout.
Tiffany: That was the thing! For some people, how we were dressing was so insane. But then to this other group, it was lame because it was so entry-level. It wasn’t "punk enough." I remember worrying about that.
Nicola: Eventually the older kids invited us to a show, which had a suggested donation of 50 cents to $3. It was right after school on a Friday, it started at 5pm and it was at someone’s parents’ house really close to the school. The shows were in the basement, but we would stand in the backyard between bands and meet all these new people-from other schools, some college-aged. Being 13 and being so uninhibited about talking to people: I wish I could harness that right now, so badly. I made a ton of new friends, very quickly, who weren’t at all like the people I knew from elementary school.
I started going to more shows, at least two every week. The shows were usually at this VFW venue in our suburb or at punk houses in this neighborhood called Riverwest, with bands from around the country (and the world) passing through on DIY tours. I think I saw older girls wearing clothes they had made at those shows. I was just learning about what punk was so I was looking at all these role models, these ’80s punk rockers who had slashed-shoulder shirts or whatever.
I was like, "This is what I want to do: I want to be a fashion designer."
Tiffany: I would cut up band T-shirts, or I would go to the Disney Store and get shirts with Disney princesses on them, cut them on the sides, and painstakingly safety-pin the whole thing up the sides and cut a boat neck. It wasn’t a shirt anymore, it was just fabric with pins. My mom didn’t care, which is weird to reflect on but also pretty awesome. I think my parents liked that in my group of friends, we didn’t go to parties—we just went to shows. They were all at firehouses, and straightedge was a thing so people weren’t really drinking yet. Also, people were actually there for the music and not to get fucked up. And getting dressed for them was a huge thing.
Nicola: So then I started taking sewing classes. Project Runway had just come out, my grandma was a seamstress, and I’m in this DIY community, and I was like, "This is what I want to do: I want to be a fashion designer." Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t think that was so sellout.
Tiffany: It’s funny to even think of the word sellout! I would never use that word now, but I used it all the time back then. That was the fear. To be a 16-year-old sellout.
Nicola: The classes were at a studio called Fashion Ninja, in this cool neighborhood called Bay View. It was run by a girl who was like 22, and she taught classes and she sold her own stuff there. I took all the classes. They were just bootleg fashion design classes, basically: pattern-making, draping, and there were fashion shows every so often. Then, I started selling my own stuff there, and I would order labels that said my name and sew them into the clothes, and had my little line going. I thrifted a ton. I didn’t go to regular stores.
Tiffany: In my high school, there was a 1950s greaser thing happening simultaneously with punk. This was when that song "Zoot Suit Riot" had just come out. There was this band, the World/Inferno Friendship Society, that we would go see all the time, and the guys dressed in suits and the girls wore retro dresses. For me the trend morphed into buying skirts and dresses from vintage shops and pairing them with polka-dot heels and doing a ’50s thing.
Instead of trying to camouflage yourself by hiding your body, you were accessorizing it with things that you actually liked. You were wearing your personality.
Nicola: I definitely had that too. I wore lime-green fishnets to the only dance that I went to, which was homecoming, and a vintage dress with my mom’s shoes.
Tiffany: Right? That was so huge. But it was strange, because it went so quickly from sneakers and jeans to this faux pinup thing. This was also when I discovered people like Bettie Page. There’s this town in Pennsylvania called New Hope that had the best vintage store called Love Saves the Day. I bought a dress there and wore it to shows-I was super dressed up, but that was totally cool. This is also when I started smoking cigarettes. I thought it completed the look.
Nicola: My vintage store was a straight-up thrift store called Value Village, which was in this really bad part of town. On Sunday they had half off everything—as if everything wasn’t already $3—so we would just go and stock up.
I was also always heavier, so having a distinct look was a way to insulate myself, I think. I didn’t really shop at malls so I didn’t know what size I was, and I never had size shame. No one gave me a hard time about my appearance, but I was aware that I was heavier and sometimes if a boy didn’t like me, I thought that might be the reason. So punk was a way to make up points for my appearance, like, "I’m just going to go far down this one spectrum that I’ll find guys who like this one aesthetic." I think manipulating my appearance in a way that I could do all day, every day, was easier than figuring out longer-term weight issues.
Tiffany: But instead of trying to camouflage yourself by hiding your body, you were accessorizing it with things that you actually liked. You were wearing your personality. That’s so awesome.
Nicola: I also was around a lot of positive body stuff because the punk community was very accepting. It was more about who you are on the inside than who you are on the outside, even though we were all decorating ourselves on the outside.
Tiffany: That is one thing that I remember really liking about that community. I always felt self-conscious around a lot of other girls because I didn’t have any boobs and I was awkwardly skinny until my twenties. I didn’t look like what everyone else looked like. They were sort of turning into women and I was left behind. In a way punk was all about your appearance; you wanted to "out-punk" other people. But in my group of friends, there wasn’t any competition about things you couldn’t change.
Clothes to me are still 100% an identity thing.
Nicola: It was about your ideals: if you were an artist, or you did music, or you did clothes or whatever it was. You and I are both pretty conventional girls now. What was your segue path?
Tiffany: It’s funny because I remember still dressing pretty weirdly until freshman year of college, but it wasn’t in this punk way. It was in this thrifted vintage way, very hodgepodgey.
Nicola: By the end of high school, I stopped dying my hair funny colors. At 16, I did baby pink one last time and was like, "This is it." At 17 or 18, I loved looking at those girls on the Cobrasnake and stuff. Skinny jeans were impossible to find, so I had to buy regular jeans and sew them all skinny from the calf down. I had the 10″ mark on my tape measure ticked off ’cause that was my preferred jean-opening size at the ankle. Literally JUST enough room to get my heel through. I wore this with vintage blouses and big glasses.
Tiffany: Yes! It was definitely always about being different. I probably fully segued out of my look in my mid-twenties when I first moved to New York and got really into fashion. But it was the same concept. I still want to show my personality more than I want to show my body. Clothes to me are still 100% an identity thing. They’re just more mature—I think.
Nicola: I had really similar path. I went to college in Chicago for one semester, it was art school, and I just looked like all the other art school hipsters who were 18.
Tiffany: That’s what replaced it, actually. We kind of all just started dressing like hipsters.
Nicola: Maybe a year ago, one of my friends said, "It’s so funny how you became the girly one." Compared with the girls I grew up with and the friends I have, I am definitely the one who has changed the most. I’m the one who knows about skincare and nail polish and weird juice trends and all of that. I feel like I am making up for a lot of lost girl time, figuring out self-tanner or how to wear more than just eyeliner and lipstick. Understanding the difference between looking like a weird, fake pinup girl and wearing no makeup, and the spaces in between. I’m just figuring it out now, which is super fun.
Tiffany: I think in the moment we’re in right now, girls our age are doing punk in a more refined way. You’re wearing a septum ring right now, but you’re not wearing a lot of makeup. You’re wearing normal hair and a plain sweater. If you were doing this ten years ago, you would have 20 other things going on.
It’s funny, because the music that I’m into right now couldn’t be more different from what I was into back then. But all of that stuff feels very much a part of my personality.
Nicola: Now we live in New York, and New York is a safe haven for looking and dressing however you want. But growing up, I felt like I was surrounded by normalcy and desperate to find anything different. Being 13 and finding entire other world that exists and getting to be a part of it: That’s so powerful.