When I think back to my high school experience, my mind conjures up a homogenous blur of image-conscious blondes preoccupied with fitting in, wearing the same thing as everyone else, and taking “candid” Instagram photos. In a word, my peers were basic—that special kind of suburb basic with a touch of Kardashian influence.
Of course, not everyone was white, straight, and blond. Not everyone wore Lululemon leggings and cream-colored cardigans over Wildfox sweaters, or full faces of makeup. But the “popular girls” did. These were the people everyone else was supposed to admire and seek approval from.
This is the Wildfox vibe: expensive, minimalist, and feminine.
As you’ve probably already guessed, I wasn’t one of these girls. And I didn’t want to be. I’ve always had deep-seated dedication to individuality and took pride in being weird, probably because I was born a black sheep.
In my family, I’m the odd one out: I don’t have the dark brown hair my parents and sister do, and I’m the only one who’s neither a doctor already nor in school to become one. My sister dresses preppy courtesy of her Connecticut collegiate years. My mom and dad dress to match their office environment; sweater sets and suits, respectively. I was a strange fashionista from the beginning, creating combinations that made my parents laugh (my mom once took a picture of me in jelly sandals with socks because she thought I looked ridiculous).
I knew I was different, and I knew there wasn’t anything wrong with that—despite the way girls in my high school class regarded me in a generally condescending way. In fact, it only gave my penchant for standing out a defiant edge.
When I arrived at Oberlin College, I thought things would be different. My high school counselor had suggested I look into the school because “people have purple hair there.” Not that I have purple hair. I guess she just saw me as “alternative.” On a campus tour, I was excited to see students sporting unshaved legs and secondhand clothes, a style that felt more like my own than the tired monotonous fashion of my hometown.
Round wire-rimmed glasses a la John Lennon that are trending at Oberlin this year.
This foreshadowed an irony that I can only see in hindsight: Oberlin style was an escape from the formula of basic, but it, too, was its own formula. I’d found myself in another flock of similarly-dressed fashionistas, the only difference being that Oberlin’s formula was a hipster one, and that I was no longer a black sheep. I was part of the group.
In some ways, we’re a student body mostly comprised of the black sheep from around the country condensed into one small school. We were weird in high school, and underwhelmingly normal here. I’m one black sheep among many. Despite our nature as the outcasts of home, the hipsters pioneering styles the mainstream will one day adopt, even Oberlin students can fall victim to mimicking each other, copying outfits we see other cool kids wearing and pasting them onto ourselves.
We have a joke here that after a few years at Oberlin, we all become “Oberlinized.” Many of us will leave with septum piercings, nose rings, stick-and-poke tattoos, round wiry eyeglasses, New Balance dad sneakers or beat-up Reeboks, Carhartt beanies, and a plethora of cute-in-an-ugly-but-charming-grandpa-way thrift store sweaters. Instead of seeking to become the popular girls of my high school by imitating their clothes, we try to become the “hipster elite” by wearing black turtlenecks and Goodwill corduroys. There are other microcosms of style, from the “vegan elite” formula of hiking boots, hand-knit hats, and a single dangling earring, preferably a bird bone or a human tooth or some other ridiculous alternative choice. Part of this mimicry is a way to ingratiate one to a certain social circle; by embodying the aesthetic, you’ll be perceived as cool and have a greater likelihood of becoming one of them.
An example of the popular color palette and silhouette of New Balances.
This exact social hierarchy and clusters of aesthetics is almost certainly specific to Oberlin, but it’s natural to be influenced by the environment around; it’s human to want to be part of the group. We can’t help but be aware of whatever is popular in a community we’re a part of.
And there’s something to be said for dressing for the “job” you want, or dressing in a way that makes you feel good and aligns you with the kind of life you want to live. Style can be partly projecting an image and embodying a persona, but I don’t condone mindless conformity.
Taking inspiration from others is one thing. I didn’t know I wanted a wool coat, for instance, until I saw someone else in one. And yes, I bought a Carhartt hat, and I love a good thrifting adventure as much as the next indie kid.
The Carhartt beanie is an Oberlin style staple. This particular color, Port, is having a moment this season.
But I also make a conscious effort to question my choices. Am I wearing this because it seems like a safe bet, and I don’t want to think too hard about getting dressed today? Or am I wearing this oversized sweater because I truly like it, and I can make it my own by pairing it with something unexpected?
Others are free to dress however they want, but formulaic outfits based on replication are not for me. I’m at point in my life where I’m defining my own style, which encompasses a mixture of drawing inspiration from my style icons and fashionable peers and cultivating my own distinct sensibilities and looks.
I’m so partial to Kate Moss’s classic casual-yet-elegant looks. She invents outfits that capture her effortless It Factor, a skill I’m trying to develop for myself.