changes

My style metamorphosis began on a crisp and cloudy mid-January morning back in 2011. I had a date planned for later that evening with a man I’d been existing in a liminal space with for over ten years, as a friend-then-lover-then-friend; in that moment in our lives we were oscillating once more from the Friend space back to the Lover space. There were still many things about him that frustrated me, but it was his tendency toward last-minute cancelations of our plans that undid me the most. Even though he always had good reasons for doing so and eventually made each incident up to me, it wore my self-esteem down just that bit more each time it happened; it felt as though I could never be good enough for him to unambiguously choose me over all the other incidental things that seemed to keep coming up in his life, no matter how I tried to prove myself worthy of that commitment. As soon as we decided to tentatively try us out again that January, I found myself already dreading the inevitable moment when he would call me to explain the next thing that meant he couldn’t see me that night. I considered, several times over the course of the day, outright canceling the date.

In the end I decided to leave our dinner plans alone. But I also decided, in the moment of that choice, to give myself some of my power back in our dynamic, in a way that seemed trivial at the time: I decided, rather than only getting dressed up in the evening for our date, that I would dress up that morning, for myself, and feel pretty the whole day simply for pretty’s sake. That way, if he bailed on me again, I would still have had a fantastic time feeling like my best self, and wouldn’t have needed him in order to touch that. And if he didn’t back out of our plans, then I would have had the pleasure of feeling brilliant in my clothes twice in one day. So I put on a bright yellow strapless shirt printed with pink flowers and dark wash skinny jeans, and went about my day as usual. That particular happened to be a day I’d earmarked for housework, and so nobody except my sister and a visiting friend got to see me in the outfit that changed my life.

In that moment—looking beautiful while doing chores—the personal movement I now like to call Every Day’s A Cute Day was born. I joke with my friends and coworkers that I should really have that line trademarked, because it so defines how I go out in the world that it feels like a patentable modus operandi. That January day I felt so brilliant being pretty all day that I decided to do it again the next day, and then the day after that; before long it became something I lived, no longer something I was merely experimenting with. I began to play with different clothing styles and looks: shirt-dresses and leggings, shift dresses and Converses, baby doll dresses and Mary Janes. I began clipping flowers into my hair—fake ones, of course, but still—and buying bright, colorful pashminas to complement my dresses and shoes. I gradually traded in my jeans and T-shirts in for dresses and skirts, and expanded out of the five-color palate I adhered assiduously to back in my New York days—black, white, brown, blue, and green—to the wide spectrum of colors I now live inside of in my current life in Philadelphia.

The signature, almost uniform, daily style I currently inhabit is a dress, a scarf or pashmina, and a pair of Converses. I own ten pairs of Converses in a range of colors, some multi-colored—easier for matching with the rest of my look—and my scarves and pashminas live on about seven or eight hangers balanced on my closet door, five to six pashminas per hanger. I don’t wear pants outside of my apartment anymore. The dresses don’t always have to be particularly unique or loud—one of my favorite dresses right now is a basic black shift dress—but the pashminas and Converses always do, in order to either set off or mute the effects of the dress. For winter, I add tights in dark colors—I keep the dress as the main event—and a richly-colored winter jacket, crimson red, royal blue, ripe plum. Though I disliked them before, this year I have finally started to come around to maxi dresses, especially empire-waisted ones that fall loosely away from my tummy and settle comfortably onto my hips. And I no longer wear anything shorter than a third of the way up my thighs; let’s just call that grown ladies doing grown things.

I like dresses with unique front or side details—usually bows, but sometimes a large flower or a spray of buttons, maybe a sewn-on belt buckle. I adore pockets, and have more than once been happily surprised to discover pockets in a dress I didn’t at first know had them. I am partial toward floral patterns and large prints: shoes, bicycles, stars so bright they seem to explode out of the fabric. Rather than put them away in vacuum-sealed packets like many of my friends do, I unabashedly winterize my summer dresses: I have gradually accrued a collection of long-sleeved thermal shirts from Uniqlo in an assortment of colors that either match or fashionably mismatch most of my dresses, and so I can now wear these dresses comfortably whether it’s beach weather or blizzard conditions. I rarely buy striped dresses unless they are navy and white—whether white on navy or navy on white, my closet tells me that this doesn’t seem to matter—and I nearly never wear pencil dresses, as they do not flatter my body type, but if the fabric is firm and there is enough lining inside then a body-hugging dress has occasionally ended up a true and surprising knockout.

Where I bought it, when I bought it, why I bought it— every dress I own has a story. Macy’s, August, wedding; Banana Republic, October, work; Amazon, December, concert. While as a general rule I hate shopping with other people, I will break this rule on occasion for my sister, and for one of my close friends in particular, Lynn, with whom cute dress shopping is one of our favorite bonding activities. Some of my best Philadelphia memories over the years, since properly settling into my life here and ending my habit of commuting back to New York each weekend, are of dressing room conversations at the Macy’s in downtown Philadelphia with my sister and Lynn. Not as many of my scarves and Converses have stories, but when they do have them they are equal to my dresses’ stories in emotional weight. The blue and silver scarf I sheepishly bargained for at a marketplace in Egypt, while with friends from high school the day after one of our other friends got married. The shiny imitation-patent leather Converses I bought at 70 percent off at an outlet mall in California, the day after spending New Year’s weekend with friends from college. The purple and pink Converses my coworkers gave me as a gift at a surprise dinner for my 30th birthday, which was the first time I had ever owned multicolored Converses.

That initial moment, back in January 2011, of giving as much space to myself as I would another person, laid the groundwork for an existence where space for me in the world feels like my right, and not something I have to earn. Today, there is no way to be in the world except completely present, rather than the invisible I endeavored so hard to be for so long. And my world has, in turn, come not only to appreciate me, but to make space for me. A few weeks into my new job a couple of years ago, for example, I unexpectedly crossed paths with one of the department’s higher ups at the Keurig machine while I was still in my Converses; mortified at being caught looking so casual barely a few weeks in, I stammered out after our morning greetings that I had real shoes at my desk that I was about to put on. She replied, however, that the Converses were such a fabulous and obviously deliberate element of my style that she didn’t want for me to ever change into “real” shoes unless a formal event. So I now wear my Converses at work, one of the spaces most universally understood as a space one should never expect to be oneself; it perhaps says a lot about this particular office, that it is the kind of place that protects the self, and among all the things I will be grateful to them for in the grander sum of my life’s things this will be one of the highest.

Consistently knowing that I looked great—because I had put effort into it—meant I gradually began acting that great all the time in my interactions with others. Now, many years later, I am confident and unflinching from the world in all moments, even on the rare occasions on which I am out in the world in what I like to call my Sister Wife dress, which is a badly-fitted navy blue dress whose arms run past my wrists and hem strikes just above my ankles, and which never gets worn outside of the house anymore except for short jaunts to pick up my takeout order from the pizza place around the corner from me. I am now insistent that it is no virtue to ration out the days when one gets to feel amazing in the world; I used to do this, as though there were only so many ‘great’ days in a year and I had to be careful to assign them out across my life evenly. “Every day is a good day to be your best self,” is another line I often use to explain my insistent commitment to my style aesthetic. Every Day’s A Cute Day gave me an omnipresent confidence, but the most important knock-on effect of being my best self in my style aesthetic was to grow what I believe to be the most important thing to being a happy person in a complicated world: an honest, compassionate, and appreciative relationship with myself.

Michelle Chikaonda is a nonfiction writer from Blantyre, Malawi, currently living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has won the Literary Award for Narrative Nonfiction of the Tucson Festival of Books, the Stephen J. Meringoff Award for Nonfiction of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers, and the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship for writers of color from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She is currently published on the Philadelphia-based website, Philly Love Notes, and in the Oracle Fine Arts Review of the University of South Alabama, an essay for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Michelle graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, with a major in International Relations and a minor in Creative Writing; you can learn more about her at her website, www.michellechikaonda.work.

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