In the summer months before freshman year, all I thought about was “college” (in scare quotes because, to me, college was basically a scare-y quote). I was incredibly stressed and I channeled that stress by focusing on the only things I knew how to deal with — material college preparations: the possessions and the clothes I should bring, the perfect profile picture I should post before I friended my roomates. All these things would supposedly contribute to making an infinite series of perfect first impressions. I remember bursting into tears in the living room when my mother said she didn’t think I needed to buy new twin XL sheets – I could just tuck in the sides of a full sheet. She took pity on my very real distress and immediately ordered me a bright pink flannel sheet.
My ferocious need to prepare everything perfectly culminated in planning my move-in day outfit — an updated version of what had been a yearly first-day outfit debacle. I’ve asked several other sophomore Swatties about their move-in day outfit, and almost all of them remember it — even the reasoning behind it. A common concern seems to have been balancing approachability and coolness, for both people who are normally cool and people who are normally approachable — and everyone in between. In the end, I just made my brother (my most trusted fashion advisor) choose the outfit for me.
You can exercise a genuine measure of control over the first impressions you make through something like a move-in day outfit, but everyone who agonized over theirs looked back on it woefully, if affectionately. One friend wore leggings and a flowy top – nothing special, she thinks now. It was something she would wear on any regular day, and yet she spent so much time running back and forth from the hotel room mirror! Another friend wore a jean dress with black sandals. Again, this is something she would wear on a normal fall day — and yet, it required so much more effort and thought and indecision than a normal Tuesday look.
The day after move-in day, and the day after that, we all continued to make our first impressions, and we ended up wearing the things we always wore: the things we liked and were comfortable in. Our worry was perhaps unavoidable, but also almost certainly useless. After all, how much attention did anyone pay to those outfits, wrapped up as they were in their own and the sensory overload that overwhelmed those first days and weeks of freshman year?
This second time around, I’ve learned my lesson about first day outfits. But I’m still just a sophomore — a wise fool. The lesson about first day outfits doesn’t mean I’ve learned my lesson about preparing all my other material and emotional racks of stuff for a new year. This year, it is more fun than fraught, and I get to share the planning with the roommates and friends I know and love. There is less shopping involved, and more sorting through piles of bad-decision items from last year and every other year of back to school shopping before that.
In anticipation of packing and leaving my bedroom to fill up with my mother’s storage again, I relentlessly sorted through my wardrobe with the aim of purging it of those things that stopped looking good after 9th grade or never looked good; of those gifts I had to keep for at least a few years; and of those dumb things I bought for some inexplicable or deplorable reason. But in the process, I rediscovered some fun items that I haven’t worn in years. Boxing things up for school became harder than ever. What did I want to wear into my new school year — who did I want to be?
This year I would plan, but have fun with my planning. For me, planning a look, whether a single outfit or a collection, is most fun — and successful — when it starts with a concept of how I want to behave and feel. This year, my concept was this: I am returning from a bohemian summer filled with carefree sunshine, and although I’m ready to embrace the fall and the seriousness of academic work, I will carry that summer energy with me into the new season. By focusing on something broad and therefore more forgiving than that single first day outfit, I gave myself more to work with, more to play with, and, of course, more leeway. And so I avoided that dreadful threat of imperfection.
I ultimately learned that, my vague concept of “that girl” who I wanted to be this fall does not really reveal itself in a wardrobe. As I looked at both my well-worn old favorites and considered forgotten treasures, each item either played a role in my narrative or not. “That girl” that is a mix of fantasy and reality, planning and dreaming, doesn’t wear a white tennis tank top. But she does wear a pink bomber jacket, and she does wear a soft draped Grecian blue dress to Sunday brunch.
Envisioning “that girl” I will be in the new semester is easier as a sophomore, knowing something about daily Swat life and having already formed some of my Swarthmore habits. But it was also really fun to look forward to the new year with a more imaginative and playful attitude. Last year’s neurosis may have been unavoidable, but even in the midst of that neurosis, I think I could have looked at things in a less absolute, more flexible way: there is, and was, no “perfect” involved with first impressions, or first year wardrobes, or first day outfits. So, my advice to everyone looking forward to a new year of new fashion and new friends: have some fun, take some risks, and don’t try to “get it right.” This is Swat – we’re all just a bunch of weirdos anyway.