How Fashion Raised Me

written and photographed by Olivia Bokesch

Picture this: A young Olivia at age 3 flouncing into her preschool classroom, ready to take on the day in her twirly pink tutu.  Then, there she is at age 8 kickin’ it in her new pair of soon-to-be-worn-out navy Converse that matched the navy polka dots on her tank top.  At 9 and 10 she flip-flops back and forth from trying to achieve the current trends in her own fifth grade way and to bumming it in a hideous red hoodie and Nike athletic shorts.  Flash forward to Olivia now: taking confident strides in a whirlwind of patterns and spunky layers, always wearing heeled booties or giant platforms to add more pep to her step, and never failing to live up to her personal identity through style.  

Growing up has as much to do with my current fashion choices as my previous fashion choices have to do with my growing up.  For me, I could never have done one without the other. Once I hit 11, I began to devour any magazine that had even a small semblance of fashion in its pages.  I would sit in my grandmother’s bathroom and flip through the old and new issues of magazines like Time, People, and Southern Living, trying to engrain in my brain every fold of fabric that I came across.  If my family wondered what took me so long in the bathroom, they never asked, leaving me to my newfound love.  

Eventually, my grandmother started giving me old Vogue magazines she found at the Salvation Army and the editorial ads enamored me.  Along with folding down those pages, I began to discover a whole new realm of the fashion world. I came across photos of women from all different backgrounds in all different sizes doing things I never imagined. Some had body hair, some were posing in the nude, and some were simply owning their existence through a powerful gaze. Each woman was as beautiful as the next.  Through those photos and articles that express the power and values of womanhood through clothing choices, I had unknowingly unveiled to myself what I would later consider to be the holy grail: liberation through fashion.

Slowly but surely, I broke out from the shell of only wearing styles that were trendy, and began to venture into stores of clothing that my friends deemed too weird and wild for the “average” person.  I began to believe in styling as an art form and took that belief with me as I chose my outfits for the day. Blue jeans became more than casual play wear as I paired them with mesh shirts and bomber jackets.  Classy skirts turned edgy as I paired them with clunky black boots and knotted tees. Running shoes lost their original purpose as I used them instead to recreate New York Fashion Week streetwear outfits.  

I felt as if I could be the beautiful and unapologetic women in Vogue if I wore what I wanted like they did.  Although I know now that clothing is only a portion of the solution when it comes to being unapologetically you, for middle school me, the flawed thought process of mine worked.  In middle and high school, many have internal battles with who they are and how they see themselves. Even though I still fight the same battles from time to time, my early encounter with the wonders of fashion made me more self-assured and confident in the way my life is going.  

In this way, my coming of age came about because of fashion.  Being able to bend what I wore to my own will and doing so made me feel powerful and independent.  I learned the importance of expressing myself long before I was taught it. Wearing what you want at age 13 taught me a few other lessons as well.  I learned that people love to judge you when you stick out in the crowd and that words can only get meaner as you get older. However, I also learned how to move on and stay above the crude words of my peers and how to surround myself with those who love who I am and how I dress.

Now that I’m older, nothing much has changed in terms of my relationship with fashion.  I still grow my horizons with every fashion photo I scroll past in my social media feed.  I still learn how to express myself and new beliefs like intersectional feminism and human rights through the clothes I wear every day.  Editorial ads and the relationship of clothing to womanhood is still as intriguing and enlightening to me as it was the first time I began flipping through my grandmother’s magazines.  The only difference? I’ve exchanged the twirly pink tutu of my preschool years for a more modern and elegant pink tulle skirt.