Girls on the Street

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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. 

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