My wardrobe these days mostly includes ModCloth dresses, Hanes men’s T-shirts, Birkenstocks, Doc Martens, Madewell jeans, and probably 20 pairs of black leggings because my dryer is broken and I constantly buy new ones. But balled up in the back of my bottom drawer is a $10 dollar midi-length skirt from Kohl’s circa 2009. It’s dip dyed in purple, pink, and blue, and has an elastic panel in the front. The lining, once white, is now a dingy gray. I don’t think I’ve worn it since 2010—probably with a hot pink V-neck, a Hurley zip-up, and a beret. For shoes, I’d switch off between combat boots, Chuck Taylors, or some ungodly Rocket Dog flip flops; I thought the sandals made me look like a surfer—even though I went to college in North Philadelphia.
This skirt should have embarrassed me when I bought it in 2009, yet I can’t bear to toss it from my closet.
I wore the skirt on my first day of freshman orientation so I could seem “chill and aloof.” I wore it the first time my on-again, off-again college boyfriend kissed me. I wore it the day I walked two miles to Center City barefoot (my sandals were giving me blisters, and you can’t take the girl out of the small town—at least not during her first week of college). I wore it to concerts and when I skipped a million classes. I wore it on my first day back home on summer vacation after freshman year, when my friends excitedly pointed out my new style, weight loss, and penchant for carrying around a Moleskine. I wore it with “smoky eyes” that made me look like I had been punched in the face. I wore it with the H&M motorcycle jacket I bought off of eBay with my first ever paycheck.
I keep the skirt (and all of the residual shame from ever having worn it) for obvious reasons: It reminds me of the girl I once was—a big-eyed girl from a small town in a new city. One who had no idea who to talk to, where to go, or what to do, let alone what to wear.
But that skirt also reminds me of who I wanted to be.
In high school, I took all AP classes, even in subjects I hated like biology. I took a full course load plus a college class. I was editor of the school newspaper and our creative writing magazine. I volunteered for multiple organizations, helped run two clubs, and danced (poorly) in classes once a week. I was involved in every extracurricular possible, yet my most vivid memories from high school are simply of me, at midnight, the last one awake in the house, sitting at a giant desktop computer with a cup of coffee, trying to finish my homework. I wanted to be everything, and it was taking its toll.
My wardrobe then largely consisted of American Eagle polos, light wash jeans, and cardigans. Bland outfits, fitting for a high school student in the mid-2000s whose aesthetic was, “I haven’t slept in a week.”
By the time I got to college, I was burnt out.
I wanted to be the kind of girl that a floppy haired, super smart, guitar playing boy might like. I wanted to seem effortless and intellectual, the kind of girl who didn’t need to try so hard or stay up all night, cramming knowledge into her brain.
“Trying” was for girls in polo shirts who ran themselves ragged, I told myself. I read Anaïs Nin and Jack Kerouac, plotting out a road trip in my mind. I did course projects on Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol. I went to see The Mars Volta live, even though I kind of hated them. I chopped my bangs into a ragged blunt edge in my dorm bathroom, before my roommate tried to grab the kitchen scissors out of my hands. I hid my historical romance novels and my journal under my pillow. I left all of my Hilary Clinton biographies in my bedroom at home. I told myself that Hillary Clinton was an overachiever who tried too hard, after all.
So I bought the wardrobe of the girl who I believed didn’t care about that stuff, never once recognizing that this meant I was clearly trying too hard to be someone I wasn’t. I bought the dip dyed skirt and a lot of black. I got party dresses from Forever 21 and wore a few hemp bracelets until they rotted and fell off my arm. My perpetually tangled hair was almost always in a messy bun, and I traded ballet flats for Chucks and combat boots.
By the time my sophomore year rolled around, that floppy haired boy I liked had a girlfriend—one with blunt, professionally cut bangs and perfect grades. I collapsed on my bathroom floor (in that dip dyed skirt), crying until I threw up, demolishing the carefully curated image I had designed for myself.
I cared too much. I’d done the one thing I had tried to stop myself from doing. I had failed.
I remained on the floor—smokey eyes rubbed off by tears, hair limp and tangled—and I accepted that my plan didn’t work. I had put all of my ambition and effort into pretending that I didn’t care. The irony of this experiment? I realized that I really like to care, and that’s perfectly fine. But I should care about things that genuinely matter to me.
I traded in my newly mediocre grades and transparent affectations for things I truly loved: reading for class, doing well on assignments, devouring romance novels for fun, and listening to Taylor Swift. I stopped fearing my hairbrush. I did keep some things from that time in rotation, though—specifically combat boots, a newfound appreciation for getting enough sleep each night, a love of concerts, and a Moleskine notebook (this time, it had polka dots on the cover).
And I kept that skirt. The first piece of clothing I purchased for college. I shoved it into the back of my closet, where it stays, reminding me of who I tried to become and who I actually am: A girl who cares “too much,” and who celebrates that.