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Growing up, I was often the odd one out. But, my inability to fit the mold wasn’t intentional or easily explicable. Frankly, I always wanted to fit in with the crowd and did everything I could think of, from tailoring my interests, to cozying up to more popular playmates. My attempts rarely worked, particularly because of one thing: my offbeat sense of fashion.
Let’s start at the beginning, in elementary school. When all the other girls were wearing cute Keds and trendy shortalls, I was sashaying around in leopard-print pullovers and sheer, gold belly shirts. Nothing made me happier than picking out my own clothes — I always dressed to impress. But I didn’t get that my flashy pieces set me apart, and in doing so, squashed my social trajectory.
I would walk around department stores on trips with my mom, only pausing when my fingertips brushed something that felt unusual. Synthetic fabrics were my favorites, and I could never pass up a good mesh shirt, or swishy pair of pants. But, the oddness of my sartorial leanings never seemed to strike me.
Sometime around the second grade, I found the newest object of my affection: a blue vinyl skirt and vest set from the American Girl Doll catalog. I begged and I pleaded with my parents, and finally it was mine.
Its debut came the day after Christmas, at a Boxing Day party. I bustled in with my parents, who always held their tongue and let me dress however I saw fit. I made my way over to the gaggle of kids that had gathered by the roaring hearth, where they were hoarding sweets and all wearing festive sweaters and velvet dresses that could have come from the same page of a mail-order catalog. My outfit, apparently, stuck out.
Tipped off by someone’s father, one of the kids pointed out that my prized plastic playsuit would most certainly melt if I got too close to the fireplace. In this moment, as all the children chortled, I laughed along with everyone else about my “hot” outfit. But I hadn’t followed the joke — because the joke was on me.
The Boxing Day party didn’t end my fascination with plastic clothing. In fact, it only increased from there. The next year, for Christmas, my mother gave me the best present ever — a pair of black pleather pants.
The choral concerts held at Ambrose Elementary School had a designated dress code to ensure a flawless and picturesque tableau of primly-dressed children. Apparently, all of the other mothers knew of an unspoken understanding to outfit their daughters in floral, pastel dresses.
At the time a tiny human, I was assigned a central spot in the front row of our on-stage formation, a place where nothing would obstruct a full view of my glorious ensemble. I took the instruction of, “Look your best!” to mean, “IT’S TIME FOR PLEATHER!”
My next step in embracing pleather fully was a classic one — I found, one day, while following my fingertip fashion sense, a snakeskin-printed pleather jacket. The sleek material slid on my tiny 10-year-old frame, and I’d never felt so complete. My mother, always a peach, purchased me the piece.
At the time, I was spending afternoons at play practice, attempting to lay the groundwork for a fruitful and extensive career as a famous actress. One of the cool, older kids, Nat, took a liking to my jacket. One day, he even put it on, and did a Michael Jackson impression. I assumed the crowd’s hysterical laughter was merely for the impression, and that my tickled peers thought highly of my coat, thankful for its ability to serve alongside such a comic. But again, I wasn’t following their fashion, and I didn’t follow their joke. The “funny” in the moment, I later realized, came from the weird, 10-year-old girl and her snakeskin pleather jacket.
Ignorance is bliss, especially when you’re fully decked out in pint-sized pleather pieces. So, I coasted by — I was starting to sense that I was a little uncool, but still couldn’t put my finger on why.
My parents always told me I was special — and special kids wear special things. So, on the morning of my first day at my new, big middle school, I commemorated the occasion by wearing a tiara.
I will say very honestly that I don’t remember this tiara incident. Because, in case any of you managed to forget the hell of middle school, it’s where kids are actually transformed into horrible, merciless devils. So many mean things must have been said to me that day — the kind of direct, unmasked insults that for once, I had no trouble following — that I blocked the entire episode out of my memory.
It wasn’t until years later, when a friend made a joke about the crown that I discovered this giant hole in my memory.
Due to middle-school meanies, my fearless insistence on following my own fashion sense crumbled, and I began forcing my mother to endure torturous hours at the mall so I could look like everyone else. Unsurprisingly, my pleather collection dwindled and eventually disappeared.
As the years went by, I learned the lesson that “cool” was relative; I learned that anyone who peaked in middle school was no one worth admiring; and I slowly rebuilt faith in following my own feelings — especially in terms of dressing myself.
This story has a happy ending, which is that I now work in fashion, and cater to other girls who seek out the extraordinary.
A few months ago, I proudly emailed my still-supportive mother a bio that was appearing alongside my writing at work. It was a small thing, just a few sentences, but it nicely signified how far I’d come. She emailed me back, saying she personally would have included a line about my “pleather concert debut,” and then added, “One of my proudest moments, actually — just glad it didn’t get completely beaten out of you in the middle school wringer.”
As I look back on these snippets from my childhood, I can’t help but smile. Any pain or sadness caused by bullies or jokes at the time has completely faded, and I’m left with two things: some silly snapshots, and a sense of pride that I stayed true to myself for so long. From my vantage point, one thing is clear: I’m better because of pleather.
A version of this essay was originally performed at Write Club SF, a monthly lit competition in San Francisco. The prompt for this piece was the word “follow,” and the original recording of the bout can be found on Write Club SF’s podcast.
While reading this, I laughed and I cried and I wohoo’ed and I boo’ed. Way to write a knockout piece, Nora!
Great post! I don’t recall much pleather growing up .. but I’m embracing it now .. just did a post on a faux leather jacket 🙂
I loved this! ugh middle school…
x dotti dee
This is so great, Nora!
What a great post! Middle school is the worst. I did a pageant in the 6th grade (which was uncharacteristic of me), and my Grandma made my dress. It was floral and had short sleeves, and I guess I didn’t get the memo that pageants mean prom dresses. Everyone made fun of me!
Luckily since then, most people who have negative opinions of my quirky fashion sense have kept it to themselves.
From one weird girl to another – you rock! Never change. And pass it on to your kids. (My 6 year old son is currently sporting a pair of neon green heart shaped sunglasses of his own choosing).
Fashion is all about self-expression. It’s so sad that some people refuse to break the mold and be true to that idea. Here’s your avant garde beginnings and your continued sartorial success!
Aww, Nora, this is so great! I’m so happy you made it through and realized that you can dress how you want – and have a job that encourages others to do the same!
Oh my gosh, I can so relate. I had completely blocked out my absolute favorite 8th grade outfit: black pleather pants with fold-down knee pockets, a purple mesh top that I usually wore over a black polo shirt, and (because it was the 80’s), black high top Reeboks. On the face: purple eye shadow and thick mascara. In high school, I had a pair of satin lace-print-embroidered pants, ala Sheila E or Appolonia. I wore my friend’s sky blue spandex jeans that her older cousins in Brooklyn had bought her, because she wouldn’t, and I coveted the zebra-print ones at the mall. I tried so hard to be cutting edge and extra-cool, that instead of fitting in, I was completely out of the loop. It didn’t help that I was a complete introvert, so my outward personality didn’t come close to standing up to the clothes. I was the quiet girl, alone in the corner with a book, wearing some kind of pleathery, sparkly, shiny outfit, who no one really knew that well. Thank goodness grunge came along in college, and then I entered the engineering field with a sigh of relief. For years I wore mostly women’s Docker twills and untucked button-up cotton-spandex blend blouses, or travel skirts and t-shirts from the sale rack at my favorite outdoor store, all in predictable color combinations. This year I resolved to dress a little more colorfully and wear prints.
P.S. You have an awesome mom!
So much of this rings true with me. My sense of style growing up was definitely NOT the “norm”.. I also had a few cherished pair of pleather pants (black and red) and a love for animal print shirts and jackets.. Always feeling like the odd one out with friends and school. Middle school was certainly rough patch for our kind. But it’s so nice looking back on those years and not caring a bit. And it’s also nice to read this and know I was definitely not alone out there. Thank you for this post. It was truly a wonderful read.
Hey Tora Bora
So glad to see you still write and still have that amazing sense of humor. It’s hard to imagine you all grown up but I am happy that you are doing well.
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