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Girls on the Street

Homey Street Fashion
When it comes to fashion Katie Haegele prefers the sidewalk to the catwalk.

I’ve been thinking lately about the disconnect between “the fashion world” and what I mean when I say that I’m interested in fashion. I thought about it yesterday, in fact, after spending a pleasant few hours reading the Sunday Times at a pub with my boyfriend while he watched a few different football games AT THE SAME TIME, on the flat screens that were tilted and angled around the room. Joe didn’t even know how football was played until last year, when his brother invited him to join their fantasy league, and I am often too irritated by the New York Times’ breezy glibness to feel like looking at it, so while I worry that this story sort of misrepresents us as a couple, this is in fact how we spent last Sunday afternoon.

In the Style section I read an article about Hamish Bowles, who is about to take over for the larger-than-life André Leon Talley as the international editor at large and columnist at Vogue. He seems like a pretty lovely guy. He’s handsome, with the same kind of keen-nosed, elder-schoolboy looks that Yves Saint Laurent had in the ‘50s. Google them both: It’s deep side parts and natty eyeglasses all day long. Bowles also has, as this article described, a kind of anachronistic taste for luxury, but we can forgive that, knowing the context. Like Talley, Bowles seems mostly unreal, the kind of fashion-fantasy figure Vogue magazine exists to depict.

Sitting on my tall stool at the pub, I read about Bowles’ lavish 50th birthday party, to which he wore a diamond and emerald Art Deco pin on his pink three-piece suit. I read that “in piles of schlock,” he can find “some Balenciaga frock,” which made me smile. And I read that he owns one of the largest private collections of vintage clothing in THE WORLD, which got me thinking of my own collection of old clothing, which I usually guiltily consider excessive but does actually fit into my one-bedroom apartment, with its modest-sized closets and an armoire or two. (Okay, it’s two, and they both weigh about six tons.) My clothing is more accurately described as secondhand, not vintage, and almost none of it is worth anything to anyone but me. But I find I’ve never been jealous of the access fashion industry people have to over-the-top clothing. I enjoy looking at beautiful photos of these clothes—in Vogue, yes, and in Rookie, and on tumblr, weheartit, and Pinterest—just as I enjoy studying the drawings of costumes through the ages in those books about the history of Western fashion, or whatever. I’m interested in the shapes and silhouettes, the drapes and attitudes of the different designs. But luxury goods and designer labels and high-flying lifestyles? None of that has much to do with fashion, if you ask me.

Before we set up camp at the bar, Joe and I ran some errands that included a stop at Target to return a tent that broke the first time we set it up. I was floored by the fashion sense of the person working the returns desk, a black woman in her late 20s or thereabouts, and tried not to stare. She had her hair done in long, loose braids and the braids at the front were dyed a rich indigo blue and wrapped into a kind of thick rope that hung to one side. Her makeup, which repeated the blue color around the eyes, was elaborate and flawless and had nothing to do with any tired old idea about enhancing “natural” beauty; this was cybergoth-grade eye makeup, like something from outer space. She wore white plastic triangular earrings that were at least six inches in diameter and patterned with cheerful bright shapes. Her nails were done to match the design of the earrings, and were filed to points and looked something like this. I know next to nothing about nail art but these looked like they had resin ornaments attached to them, tiny flowers that looked less like plastic than like sweet-tasting cake decorations made of fondant. She was wearing a plain red top in line with Target’s employee dress code, and I found myself longing to see how she’d dress on a day that she didn’t have to go to work.

As I sucked down ginger ales at the bar, I thought about these two different fashion moments, Hamish Bowles and the woman at Target. I know who I’d rather read about. If I were a fashion reporter, though I wouldn’t mind seeing how Bowles stores his enormous collection, I’d much rather spend the day shadowing that lady. I’d like to find out who does her nails and how, and what it’s like at the salon where she gets her braids done, if they put the TV on or music or what. I bet she could give some really good tips on building a unique wardrobe on a budget. Her look is more inventive and more unusual than Bowles’, and it’s safe to say that she has to be creative in the way that she constructs it, too, since she can’t possibly have as much money as he does. I would like to know what she thinks about the importance of personal style, what it means to her to take the trouble every day to look distinctive and original, even though she’s not much-photographed or famous. There’s something about the secret life of real people, the unknowableness of a stranger on the street, that is so much more appealing than the splayed-open existence of a celebrity. I realize that Hamish Bowles is a real person, but for our purposes he isn’t, he’s a media concoction, and I will take a real person over a fake one any day, thanks very much.

Every day here in Philly I see girls looking stylish in unique ways. The best ideas I’ve gotten for wearing the new skirt lengths, or ankle boots with jeans, I’ve gotten not from stylists or photographers but from girls on the bus. I know the leggings-as-pants controversy has died down now, but when it was still raging I took a cue from the stylish young women I saw wearing leggings—plain black ones, leopard-print ones, wet-looking metallic ones in red, silver, or gold—with only a short sweater or leather jacket on top, no skirt or shorts or anything. Maybe one of those huge scarves at the neck, too. As confident as can be.

At thrift stores and rummage sales, flipping through racks and pulling apart piles, I see my comrades hard at work. Some of them look put-together in sweet cardigans, some have DIY haircuts and new configurations of facial piercings. Prim or punky, this is the only kind of fashion I’ve ever considered real, clothing that looks interesting on the body of a person who is in the same room with me, not on the body of a person in a photograph that’s been altered right out of human possibility. These real girls are the ones the magazines and designers and own-brand retailers like American Apparel are copying when they roll out this season’s vintage-inspired pieces. They’re doing the high-waisted jeans look right because they invented it, in the aisles of the Salvation Army.

Around here, “that’s different” is high praise. “I like your outfit, it’s different,” or “Your haircut is cute, I like something a little different.” It’s an attitude I’ve always appreciated. Older folks, Philadelphians born and bred, keep the city colorful in fly suits and old-school wingtips. The hipster transplants have something to offer too, with their stove-pipe pants and Kids in the Hall glasses. I understand why some people grow up longing to move to New York or Paris or London, to launch themselves into the lives they feel they were made for, and I’m sure plenty of people wish they had the money to throw themselves parties like Hamish Bowles’. But just as many of us don’t. We’re happy where we are, and we enjoy making things interesting for ourselves. Fashion fantasies are alright for some, but if you work at Target then you’d better worry about looking good at Target, ‘cuz that’s where you’re gonna be. As the saying on my mom’s embroidered pillow goes, “Bloom where you’re planted.” This is your real life, after all, and you’re a real person, so much more interesting than a picture in a magazine.

Katie Haegele is the author of White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, & Finding What Was Missing . Read more of her blog posts here .

Photo by Grel A, licensed under Creative Commons.