Paige Willey is a beacon of confident and competent self-presentation. Watching from a distance, I was intrigued and intimidated by the crispness of her collared shirts and the perfect fit of her occasional blazer. Sitting in the lobby of McCabe wearing a pair of sunglasses, she looked eminently poised, and confident and humorous enough to do whatever she wanted. It is easy to categorize her style as “preppy,” but unfair. She has a little too much edge, and a little too much fun, in her wardrobe.
I asked Willey if there was a genre or category in which she would chose to categorize her aesthetic, since I couldn’t quite name it. She rejected my question. For her, labeling aesthetic is “ludicrous.” Manufacturing the kind of consistency that merits a strict label forces you to “hold yourself to that, and other people hold you to that.” One prescribed visual identity “limits you.” We reveal ourselves not through consistency, but through contradiction. Willey paraphrased a sci-fi quote to illustrate this idea: “The more identities a man has, the more they reveal about him.” If she wanted to wear a blazer, she would. If she wanted to pull pieces from a thrift shop, that was an equally valid personal decision, and as centrally revealing of her broader aesthetic.
Understanding this philosophy of eclecticism that drives Willey’s style lends its own cohesion to the unexpected combination of collared shirts, playful “almost-ugly” sweaters and practical leggings that compose her wardrobe. The accumulation of these items is “not impulse buying.” It is spontaneous and driven by immediate love of individual pieces. Willey’s immediate love translates into committed, long-term affection. Dealing with the resulting hodge-podge on a daily dressing basis is more complicated than the accumulation.
Putting together disparate items into individual outfits results for Willey in “huge piles of maybes and yeses” spread across her bed. But the temptation to abandon the more difficult pieces to a life of aesthetically pleasing closet decoration doesn’t work for Willey. She explained that “it actually depresses me when I see things that I really like [in my closet] and don’t have much occasion to wear them.” She has to make “more conscious efforts sometimes when [she] hasn’t been wearing something that really inspired [her].”
Ultimately, Willey’s daily clothing choices result from a dialogue between her emotions and a desire to positively affect those emotions. She explained that she knows there are rules about how different clothing colors are meant to elicit others’ reactions, but what is more important to her is the way her choices influence the way she feels. “Red makes me feel really capable,” she says, so she would “wear red to an interview,” regardless of whether or not red is popularly considered a “capable” color. She might dress up for an exam, or “wear a big comfy sweater my grandma knit twenty years ago” because the weather is bad and she wants to feel cozy.
Principally, for Willey clothing choice, as itemized purchasing and as daily dressing decision, is intensely personal, related to her desire and need. But she understands those desires and needs as influenced by and sometimes dependent on her environment. At home, a silly sweatshirt “covered in berries” elicited her conservatively-dressing father’s comment that “he hoped [she] got it for free.” There is incentive, then, to “dress more conservatively at home.” At Swarthmore, where clothing standards are low, it is easy to dress down and be lazy. But Willey didn’t seem very perturbed by her fathers comment. When friends have adverse reactions to her dabbling in stranger fashion choices – a fur vest covered in buckles uncovered at a thrift store, for example – she is simply annoyed. The way she presents herself is rooted in what she wants and needs. She adapts her style because she must, because environment affects these wants and needs, but she remains deeply aware of a need for self-satisfaction, rather than just social satisfaction, with her self-presentation.
For Willey, clothing is about personal expression and interaction with circumstance. What she observed from a summer of watching clothing choices in New York while visiting her sister, watching movies, and getting involved with different genres of music influences changed her perspective on aesthetic. But the way those changes manifest in what she actually wears is based on the way she internalizes them and puts them into dialogue with her emotions on a given morning, with the emotional and practical self she is most comfortable projecting on that morning and during the activities of that day. Clothing is inextricably involved in one’s interaction with the world, but for Willey, the way in which we make our aesthetic choices must not be dictated by other people’s expectations of those interactions. We get to make those choices ourselves, and they give us the extraordinary privilege of doing whatever feels, to us, right.