n my first day of kindergarten, the local paper took photos documenting my school’s hundredth birthday. There we are on the front page, squinting into the September sun to watch the flag go up. The other girls in the photo wear dresses; their hair is up in bows. I wear a white corduroy jumpsuit; my hair is down. At the time I didn’t notice that I stood out, but looking at the picture years later, I see people opening their newspapers and chuckling at the unintended subtext: Which one doesn’t belong?
Twenty-five years after the jumpsuit, I still struggle to fit in. Contemporary America presents us with a relatively new iteration of the Ideal Woman: she excels in an exciting career, has a rich and fulfilling family life, and looks amazing. Competent and sexy are not mutually exclusive. Her appearance reflects an inner put-togetherness. A few years ago I saw a quote by Quentin Bell, an art historian who wrote about clothes. He said, “It is as though the fabric were indeed a natural extension of the body, or even of the soul.”
Unfortunately, that is exactly what I have always been afraid of. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t dread getting dressed. Every morning I stand in front of the closet and wonder how other people manage: how they show up to life in interesting, coordinated outfits. For me, every morning is triage—a process of whittling down the priorities until I find something that will work.
People who know my family will not find this surprising. My parents are both fashion-averse intellectuals, and although I’m sure they didn’t intend for their daughter to feel this way, I grew up thinking that smart, capable people just didn’t go in for fashion. Even as other girls began to experiment with clothes and makeup, I hung back. Clothes were perfunctory. For most of my life, I have wished I could wear a uniform.
A couple of years ago, I wore pants full-time and didn’t have this problem. But then I got allergies, and with the sneezing came sensitivity to fabric touching my skin. Seams became torture devices. I came to dread putting on pants, and one day I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. At the time, I owned maybe two skirts. I went shopping (an activity I have avoided whenever possible) and bought two more. I soon realized I wouldn’t survive the winter bare-legged, so on a friend’s recommendation I bought some thigh-high socks. I tried different combinations in front of the mirror. I looked silly, like an adult trying to fit in at a little girl’s birthday party. But I couldn’t wear pants, and I couldn’t show up to work in a bathrobe, so I put on the skirt and thigh-highs and walked outside. I expected everyone to laugh, or at least to comment on how weirdly girly I had suddenly become. But then I started looking around. Lots of women—and some men—wore skirts. Every day, even. How had I missed this? I didn’t look all that different. It’s almost as if histamine knew about my clothing angst and decided to act on my behalf. “Hey,” histamine said, “You feel like you don’t look good enough, put together enough, to convey the illusion that you are good enough or put together enough. Maybe if I make you itchy and miserable in your current clothes, you’ll have to branch out. It could be good for you.”
I still miss pants—the easy pleasure of jeans, the ability to be comfortable while skiing—but on balance, this forced change has been good for me. One problem, though: the thigh-high socks that got me through the winter succumb to gravity. At first, I thought I just had abnormally shaped legs. Imagine my surprise when I complained to a friend, though, and she said, “You need a garter belt.”
I had only a vague notion of what a garter belt was. It turns out that garter belts come in two basic varieties, as explained by the friendly saleswoman at Nordstrom: the functional kind and “the hanky-panky kind.” The store sells several varieties of the hanky-panky kind, but I would have to keep looking if I wanted to find a garter belt that would actually hold up my socks, because they no longer carry those.
This was frustrating. We create stories about how we look and we stick to them, and I’d always been that girl who couldn’t put together an outfit. I told people about it and laughed about it and it did not affect my life for the worse. I’ve been happy and loved, despite my lack of fashion sense. But even as I laughed about it, I felt shitty about the way I looked. For me, a big part of growing up has been figuring out that I can change the story. I might see myself as the girl who can’t put together an outfit, but I don’t actually have to be her. Though if I really wasn't going to be her, I needed to find a garter belt. A functional garter belt.
I visited a sock store and asked about the garter belt. The proprietor pointed me to something that looked like a cross between hanky-panky and seatbelt. It was close enough—I bought it, took it home, and in the privacy of my bedroom, put it on. Each sock attaches to the belt with three complicated little clip devices, and at first putting it on seemed impossible, requiring contortions and extra eyes. I struggled mightily.
And then I wore it. The straps felt strange next to my legs, but they didn’t bother me. I felt just the tiniest bit more in control: more feminine, more put together, somehow more powerful. For years, when I thought of Quentin Bell’s quote about clothes and the soul, I thought of how thoroughly I had failed. Now I think, I don’t even know if I believe in the soul. And besides, you can change your clothes.
And if I do have a soul? I’m happy to report it is now the kind whose socks stay up all day.
Lisa Ekman has written for The Oregonian, American Forests, and other publications. She keeps her socks up in Portland, Oregon.