A note from Shana: A few weeks ago, I received this email from Sarah, a reader:
I’ve been a long-time reader (since 2010? I can’t remember except somewhere around gestating my middle child), enjoying your blogging, and your honesty throughout (cancer, clothes, mom stuff). I have an outfit for your reader submitted outfit stuff, and I also have “shit to say” about clothes and nowhere to say it except my diary. So, you can do whatever with it, but….
Dear Diary Shana:
And so begins one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful essays — about finding your own personal style, and why it matters — I’ve read all year. Get a cup of coffee, settle in, and hand your heart over to Sarah. By the end, you’ll be on your feet, tears in your eyes, cheering her on (I certainly was).
Just the other week, I chose to take my little one to summer camp without shoes. I hadn’t noticed we’d forgotten them until we were halfway there. I believed it to be a small embarrassment but otherwise fine. But when we arrived, I found – yet again – that I had miscalculated the standards.
I arrived, wearing cut-off shorts (accidental cut-offs – they were ripped in a dirt bike/motorcycle accident while visiting my family), and a faded band t-shirt complete with skull. My nails were not done. My hair was not brushed, knotted on my head. In front of the mirror I’d said I didn’t care, but standing there, I cared. My child had no shoes.
The other mothers watched quietly, the leaders tried to be very nice and casual about the fact that he could not attend without shoes.
I simply stood there and blistered under the dawning realization that everyone could see it again—how I was still, after all this time, country shit.
At nineteen, I’d graduated college and gotten a job in law school administration at Georgetown University Law Center. I had the city and the potential of free graduate school at my feet. In the end, it was simply demoralizing.
Professionally, I could be summed up in having just enough awareness to notice that I was pulling the old black-sweats-as-real-pants-with-a-cheap-blazer trick while giving career advice to a woman in an impeccably tailored Chanel suit. I thought I would grow beyond that—with kids, becoming a stay-at-home mom and a fledgling writer—but I’m still struggling.
There’s a great episode of The Wire (the greatest television show ever, fyi) that portrays a former Baltimore city police sergeant working in a city public school, interacting on a personal level with underprivileged kids. He makes them a bet, they win, and so he delivers on the terms by taking them to a fancy restaurant. The kids are excited to get dressed up and go someplace nice, but once they get inside, it slowly dawns on them how their version of fancy doesn’t fit in at all. I have had some version of that experience at least twice a week since moving to the Washington D.C. area eight years ago.
As I turned tail and got back into the car with my sad and shoeless five-year-old, I started thinking. About that moment with the lady in Chanel. About why I had a decent salary but was still wearing the cheapest clothes I could find. About why I cared and why it mattered.
We wore sweatpants and t-shirts. When you wanted to dress up, you put on your jeans. If you went grocery shopping, in jeans and makeup, well you were just way over-dressed. You’d stick out like a sore thumb. That’s how you gained twenty pounds without noticing–you were always in sweatpants.
– My mother, on standards of dress in the rural places I grew up. I had called her borderline-crying.
Deep down in my soul, I still put on jeans to dress up. It’s not as simple as revising my personal style rules to include “jeans are, by-and-large, casual.”
Because to change that deep truth is to change a thousand older truths. It’s to change the place in my soul that watches the gentleman farmers around me harvest their tiny hay fields and remembers back the cut of the twine in my hands, the sweat beading on my spine, and marvels that in this warm, southerly place you can hay at least THREE times. No one else around here ever seems to notice in amazement that you literally never have to worry about running out of hay in winter! That’s the same place in my soul that remembers the sunsweet taste of a wild berry plucked off a thorny bush, and praises God for the today’s blessing of buying raspberries from the store in the middle of winter – my main dream as a child was to one day be rich enough to afford buying whatever fruit I wanted, whenever I wanted it.
I cannot simply ‘remember to bring shoes’ or believe ‘jeans are casual’.
Because to do that, I would have to forget running barefoot through the woods all summer. To forget the saving of each penny that went into boots from the thrift store for winter. I would have to forget how in middle school when someone gave me a pair of cool, flared, low-rise jeans. (I was wearing the tapered, high-waisted jeans my mom had saved from high school in the eighties) I never actually wore them because my life would have positively ruined them, and I had no way to replace them.
There’s a whole person in those memories of growing up poor in the country — once they start, I cannot stop them.
Memories that I slip into sharing, only to realize everyone is staring, and not in a good way. The sound of a coal train at night. Or how a deer hide feels when it comes right off a fresh kill, how the inside is so soft and how it stretches and my hands sting when I rub salt into the hide. It’s the memory of perfecting a blow-out look by coiling my hair just right inside my hard-hat and then working a twelve hour overnight shift at a plastics factory to get myself through another semester of college. It’s the hazy memory of white robes with cut eyes and a raised cross in the grocery store parking lot. Of surviving when men were ill-intentioned and there was no one to stand up for me. Those things that have surely driven me straight into the person I am today. As if on each of those memories hinges the entire course I became destined to walk.
So many memories I still cling to, without having anyone who understands.
What it’s like to be alone. What a coyote sounds like in the dark, two steps away from you. I remember the weight of an infant sibling on my hip with the blowing grass and a twisting finger of God reaching down across the low hills. That moment, fleeing from harm, halfway to the safety of a neighbor’s basement — when I stopped. And tipped my head to the swirling green clouds and knew I could open my mouth and swallow those winds whole. I didn’t need to run. I could withstand.
And I did.
Sometimes I sit in the air conditioning and eat my store bought raspberries and re-blog feminist quotes on tumblr and I marvel at my privilege.
I’m poor to 90% of people around me, but they don’t know what I know. I’m rich! I can buy an orange in summer and a berry in winter.
I can pay all my bills and buy a few extras. I can buy luxury textiles to wrap my baby. And real leather boots. But sometimes, late at night, when I’m writing while my kids are asleep, I stop and remember. I remember who I am deep down inside and that if all my security falls to dust and my safety becomes a whirling wind, I will not fear, because that girl still exists, deep down, right alongside “jeans are for dress up”.
Nearing thirty, I want different things now. I want my pediatrician to stop talking to me like I’m an idiot. I want to stop sending emails I regret to my agent (ha!!). I want to have control over who I was and how people view me. I want to sell a book and be ready for any measure of success. This is the last part of surviving, isn’t it? Growing past being a survivor? But I don’t know how, really, without losing that part of me. For every time I forget shoes for my kids, I also remember where I come from.
Clothes become a struggle between the many once-and-future me’s.
Occasionally, I hit on it.
In this picture I’m in Baltimore, at an appointment. I went early and took my oldest (with shoes!) around some places in the Inner Harbor. When we passed a hotel along the water, the doormen and the car service guys nodded and smiled respectfully, moving to open the doors as if I belonged. But if you dropped me beside my sister—that day butchering fresh-caught salmon and canning them for the winter in her trailer in Alaska—I could untuck my shirt and put down my bag and work alongside her. (Well, I might need a sweatshirt). If you put me in my old job, talking to the woman in the Chanel suit, I’d be seen as competent and professional. If you add “best-selling author” to my bio, I’d look like a successful woman.
That’s what made this outfit a win for me. I felt like I was all of me at one time.
And, I felt very Morticia Adams in it. That’s always a win.
P.S. I’ll take suggestions for replicating this into any form.
Sarah Nicole Lemon
Wow. Beautiful writer, beautiful outfit, beautiful soul. Thanks for sharing!
Bravo, Sarah. You seriously stole the words from my heart.
P.S. You are totally rocking this outfit.
Beautiful words! I too come from the country and can relate all too well with the rural standards you speak of. Jeans here are suitable enough to be worn to weddings, funerals, everywhere. I love reading blogs and looking at other women’s outfits, but as a country girl, I know if I were to wear an outfit like that here people would not take me seriously. It’s so funny how with rural areas, the more fancy you look, the less serious you are taken.
So beautiful. Thank you for sharing.
Your story is so relatable. I didn’t grow up knowing anything about when you buy hay, but I can identify with the feeling of being a fraud, being someone who is so obviously trying to fit in and knowing that everyone can tell. Your story is one part being unaware of social norms and one part using clothing as armor. I grew up with a mentally ill mother who couldn’t share womanly wisdom with me. I often didn’t know how to function among the normal. Clothes are an outward message to the world of how put together you are on the inside. I’d love to be the kind of person who doesn’t give a sh*t about what I wear, but, like you, I know that clothing does matter.
I think you look great in your power outfit. The casual tuck is *just so*.
I wanted to comment, but couldn’t find the words. You found them for me. ^ This is how I feel. The feeling of being a fraud…of social norms and armor. There’s so much comfort in knowing I’m not alone. Thank you to you & Sarah.
Sarah, I’m a Baltimore girl too. =) I totally understand the feeling of finally finding your look without giving up your past. You look beautiful.
Love. Love every word. Love Sarah. Love the outfit. LOVE. L-O-V-E.
Luxury textiles to wrap your baby!! Mmm, yes.They make me feel pretty and put together even when it may look like I’m wearing a sheet.
Beautiful words and beautiful outfit.
Love. This. A perfect reflection of my own thoughts on where I’ve been and where I’m headed. Thanks for sharing!
Amazing. I just moved back to my childhood home of rural Montana (from Baltimore!) and am trying to reconcile all of my different selves and fit in after fifteen years of being a “city girl”. Clothes are powerful. Thank you for this lovely reflection. I will be thinking about it for quite some time.
Gorgeous essay! Shana, thank you for sharing this!
Brave and beautiful. Both the writing and the woman. Thank you for sharing.
Wow. I feel like I’ve traveled a few of the same steps in her journey. Felt the same feelings, thought the same thoughts.
You’ve explained so much that I could never explain/put my finger on about my husband (imagine!). He grew up poor on a dairy farm and has what I think of as an overactive concern about what people think about him based on his appearance. He’s no stranger to filth and muck and the clothes associated, but he’s also a firm believer in you can’t be overdressed. While he knows that he’s going to get ribbing and grief when he attends, say, a family wedding or holiday party, in a suit and hat (really, obsessed with men’s hats, like i’st the 1940s or something around here) he insists on it as a way to prove himself, that he’s not a poor dairy farmer’s kid anymore.
He often comments on our groceries, he does most of the shopping and regularly notes that he knows he can have anything in the store so he just buys it all without looking at the prices. Grapes and tomatoes in winter, fancy bakery bread anytime, proscuitto (god, he loves the cured meats) and expensive cheese. Nothing makes him happier than to cook extravagent meals for us and his friends.
All of that said, he has never viewed jeans as dress up. Jeans are for mucking out cow stalls and baling hay. Any other pants would get destroyed. So he pretty much hates jeans. They remind him of getting poked in the legs over and over again by the ends of the bales.
Thanks for posting Shana and for sharing Sarah. I grew up on a dairy farm in rural WI and moved to a wealthy Chicago suburb at age 13. The wealth and lack of awareness of said wealth was always shocking to me. I still do feel out of place many times but I have learned to always hold my head high and smile at how lost those looking down on me would be on a dairy farm (I can still handle a bale of hay with the best of them). As hard as it can be sometimes, I have been blessed with knowing two different worlds and experiencing the loveliness and struggles of both. Ultimately, there are great and not so great people everywhere and we just have to find wonderfulness wherever we are. Life’s a journey – all the best to you. 🙂
Another shout out from rural Wisconsin (though more lately of suburban San Francisco) Going back there for a family wedding in the fall and can’t wait. But I am struggling with what to wear so that I fit in and yet still feel like myself.
Beautiful writing. That part about swallowing the wind nearly took my breath away.
I can relate to your story on the opposite spectrum. I’m a champaign kinda girl who tried to fake her way in a beer drinking professional world for too many years. I had to learn how to dress “down” in order to be taken seriously. Funny how opposites can be so similar.
I also grew up in the country. I had one dress. I had one “nice” outfit. I would change if I went anywhere and then change back out of it when I came home. You always had to “save” your “good” clothes for when you went out. And, yes, jeans were good clothes. I remember going to college and realizing how different I was. All the other girls had multiple pairs of shoes and closets that were three times the size of mine. My winter boots were more for a farm than a city.
When I shop for clothes I have a hard time not simply buying the clothes that I *think* will make me fit in. That I think will finally make me not feel out of place. Inevitably, it’s not the clothes, but being comfortable in my skin. I never want to lose the identity of “growing up on a farm in Kansas”, even though I’m more than that now.
I feel privileged to have read this today. It makes me remember and also realize that I’m not the only one.
Love your post! I also LOVE the maxi skirt movement that is certainly afoot (bless the Mormons or the LuLaRoe people or whoever kicked it off!) currently. They are great for warm or cold weather (I live in Vegas) and I affectionately call them crotchless yoga pants. I look put together in my pooch/saddlebag hiding skirt and target v-neck, rather than frumpy in a tee and yoga pants.
Beautiful post! Shana, I’ve often come close to writing you about how I seem to get tripped up, when I’m shopping and attempting to get dressed, by all these . . . issues–shame, failure, envy, depression, fear, and anxiety. Not usually the purview of fashion blogs but honestly I think clothes mean so much more when we start unpacking all the stories they tell about who we are. I would love to read more like this!
p.s. I I totally forgot to say that I love the outfit! And would also love some maxi skirt tips. I so want to embrace them but I need to figure out how to make them work with my life (i.e. carrying a toddler, chasing a toddler, climbing on playground equipment, etc.). Tips on finding and styling slightly shorter maxis would be awesome. As well as some pointers on footwear to go with them. Thank you!
Whoa. Thank you, Sarah, for your words. Your story and wonderful writing blew me away. While I didn’t grow up baling hay, I totally get what you mean. When I “dress up” I feel like a faker. I’m self conscious and waiting for someone to stop me and ask me who I think I’m trying to be and don’t feel I belong. I recently went to Forever 21 with a friend of mine who wanted outfits for work. She stepped out of the dressing room in the cutest outfit and looked more put together than I ever could. I stood there in my cutoffs and tank top feeling like a scrub. My 23-year-old friend had her shit more together than I do (I’m 28).
It is for these reasons that I love reading your blog, Shana. You make me feel like I can be me and still look nice. You put together outfits that are realistic and stylish. You inspire me to put together outfits that I would actually wear.
Thank you Shana and Sarah. I love this post so much. Also: You look fantastic in that outfit, Sarah!
This was incredibly poignant. Tender. Hard to read (in the best way). Beautiful. Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your true gift.
I could relate on some levels, too. I grew up on a farm in the very-rural upper Midwest. I too feel something like “which ‘me’ am I?” when I go home to visit. My family still farms.