Hey all you beautiful swatties, I’m your new trend/fashion/culture columnist. Extremely excited and honored as I am to write you guys about fashion, I still feel reluctant to call myself a fashion columnist. I’ve never read a single issue of Vogue, nor have I ever followed any supermodel on Instagram. I might be able to tell you this winter is all about turtle neck and bell sleeves, but essentially I’m just a kid who spends too much time standing in front of the mirror every morning before going to class.
I’ve been like that since kindergarten. Actually, spending too much time choosing my outfit was the reason why my mom spanked me the first and only time in my childhood (and I spanked her back). Growing up in the bustling, flashy and somewhat snobbish city that is Shanghai, I learned to live with the fact that everyone is just an insignificant part of a gigantic machine. The street food stand owner or the taxi driver won’t spend time smiling at me just because I look nice. They have their life to worry about, I have mine. For me, dressing up has never been about impressing others or gaining more respect. It’s about having something interesting attached to me, about sending certain messages to the world. But now that I think about it and write down these words, I’m made to question myself—What is “the world”? Who are “the world”? If you name every single component of the world around me, like my classmates, my family, the cashier of that 7-11 across the street of my high school, the middle-aged woman who used to sell me bubble tea everyday, I’ll tell you that not any one of them cares about the way I look. I guess “the world” is in my head after all. I’ve been presenting myself the way I want the world to think of me the entire time. The only recipient of that “message” I send out has always been myself.
A bonus of growing up in a huge city is that it’s always easy for me to peek into how this big machine called “world” operates. I used to sit in a street corner coffee shop or on the platform of a metro station for hours and watch people walking by. I would pay attention to the way they walk, the way they talk, or the book they’re reading, the game they’re playing on their phone, and of course, their style. Which part of his body does that man want to emphasize? What was that woman thinking when she decided to wear this pair of sneakers with this suit? Is it okay for her to dress like this at work? I look at the world with an assumption that everyone, just like me, has a message to send. As an insignificant piece of the world, I built this sympathetic relationship with all these other pieces, and I felt somehow obligated to grasp the messages they’re trying to send.
I remember walking on the street of Philly with my parents last August before coming to Swat for international orientation. Random people would compliment me for my dress, which my parents thought was too revealing, or my hair, my fizzy, wavy, non-typical-Asian hair which used to get me into trouble in middle school because my teacher thought I made my hair this way just to be special. After I smiled back gratefully to those compliments, my parents would ask me vigilantly, “What does that person want?” To them, because they’ve spent their entire lives in Chinese cities and don’t know any English, a stranger talking to a girl on the street can only mean two things—that person wants money from her, or that person is a pervert and wants to harass her. I answered my parents with this faked nonchalance, “Relax! That person just told me I look nice. I mean, I do look nice, don’t I?” As bizarre as it may sound, that moment when I tossed the question back to my parents, the self-entitled sympathetic relationship I had with strangers for all those years was suddenly approved, and all the silent messages seemed to get validated. I guess people do look “into” me when they look “at” me, just like how I stare into myself when I stand in front of the mirror in the morning, and just like how I try to have a glance of people’s life when I look at them.
I’ve already found my favorite spots for “people watching” after a semester at Swat. If you find me sitting in a couch of Kohlberg coffee bar or on the floor of LPAC first, then yes, I’m watching you. I’ve also found my position in the whole spectrum of Swarthmore style “ethos” (hope I’m quoting Bourdieu correctly). From wearing the perfect makeup, perfect outfit, perfect fragrance everyday to living with oily hair with the smell of dry shampoo and deodorant, I learned how to be comfortable “being watched” by fellow swatties. Swatties are a herd of kids who have probably too much self-awareness. Even when we put on the sweatshirt on the top of the stack of dirty laundry, our brains might still be sending messages as such: I’m a hardcore college student who works hard and would rather be complimented on being smart than being pretty. When I told my friends at NYU and Barnard that I’m writing about fashion at Swarthmore, they all laughed and doubted if there is fashion in this suffocatingly small village. I think I’m not here to write about fashion, but the relationship between us and our outfit, the story we try to tell with our room decor, the statement we try to make with our laptop cases, that “message” we want to send in the way we present ourselves.
Looking ahead, you might read about (if I don’t procrastinate too hard and get myself fired): a girl who learned to love her hip, a girl who always confuses people with her hairdresser, a girl who tailors her own dress, a girl who wears lipstick 24/7, girls who wear their moms’ and grandmas’ clothes, and more beautiful people and their stories!