Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Time Machine

It's a pretty standard awards show photograph. The stars of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Blake Lively, Amber Tamblyn, America Ferrera, and Alexis Bledel, stand arm in arm at the Nicklelodeon Kids' Choice Awards in the spring of 2005 and smile into the camera. They’re all dressed in some version of one of the dominant fashion items of the time: lowcut, flared jeans. Blake has a pink belt around her hips that ignores the loops at the waist of her cuffed, distressed denim. It's paired with a tank layered under a cropped, sheer, and sequined t-shirt. Amber is the most ornate of the bunch with her gold buttoned, sailor-style jeans, many long necklaces, bejeweled top, bejeweled earrings, and bejeweled belt, which sits high above her waist. America wears a lacy top and a metallic brocade blazer that tries and fails to challenge Amber's look for ornate dominance. Alexis, the most casual of the four, is wearing a floral print halter in a hue that fits in with the pink theme they all seem to have settled on. 

None of these looks would have struck me as anything but normal at the time. Every piece was certainly more expensive than anything living in my closet at that moment but otherwise they were similar in almost every way. In fact, somewhere in my dorm room that same spring was a floral print halter in black, white, and yellow that had returned to campus with me after my semester abroad.

I was on the cusp of 22 that spring and while I vividly remember other awards shows from that era, I was long past the age of caring about or paying attention to this one. The event came and went and rated barely a mention as I prepared for my final handful of weeks as an undergraduate. I would go and see the movie when it premiered in theaters a little over two months later, but this awards show appearance had nothing to do with that decision. I’ve always liked movies about female friendships that endure in the face of life’s trials and tribulations. I figured this latest installment would be worth my time. It didn’t disappoint, leaving me feeling happy and light and a bit teary. So when the sequel arrived three years later, I didn’t hesitate to once again make my way to the theater. While my movie watching habits had changed little in the interim, by 2008 my personal style had moved on in ways both big and small. The floral print halter top that I had only seen fit to wear once was buried and forgotten. In the middle of 2006, I bought my first pair of skinny jeans and was forever lost to anything with a wide leg. I stopped wearing heels. Those were the big, tectonic style shifts. But more important were the changes that were simply an effect of the passage of time. You wear through things. Colors fade. Your wardrobe turns over slowly until one day you look up and almost all of the old is gone.

That awards show picture didn’t reenter my life until the spring of 2015 when I came across it in a retrospective of early and mid-2000s red carpet looks. This time it stuck. Murmurs about the return of trends from that era, like bucket hats and the Juicy Couture track suit, had begun to enter my daily fashion reading and for that reason my brain couldn't shake the picture loose. Because the fashion industry can't help but examine its past and mine it for treasure, in the past decade, we've had the 1980s, 1990s, 1970s, and 1990s (again) all make their way back, in that order, to relevance and sales floors. And so for the past two years I have been unable to stop thinking about when, not if, the clothing and shoes that defined my collegiate life, platform flips flips and handkerchief hems that fell to some no man's land near my mid-calf, would have a true renaissance. When would this photo begin appearing on Tumblr or Pinterest as inspiration for someone’s spring aesthetic? Would I be prepared for that return?

When I entered college in the fall of 2001, I was free for the first time from the types of picture taking moments that define a childhood, first days of school and dances and portraits featuring loose ribbons and laser backgrounds. My response to that freedom was to rarely let others take pictures of me. I've always been mildly awkward in photographs, unsure how to stand or where to put my arms or how much to smile. But suddenly I had the chance to duck out of them, and I savored it. In that in between space before the arrival of the many, mostly unavoidable, ways in which we now capture and share images, there is a something resembling a Samantha-sized blank spot. The pictures that do exist are mostly of the physical sort, stuffed in their original envelopes from CVS and Walgreens instead of tucked safely into albums like those from my childhood. They live somewhere in my mother’s house where I left them when I moved across the country to Los Angeles in the spring of 2014. I assumed that those items, the items full of sentiment and memory instead of utility, would follow once I had settled in. But after nearly three years, I find myself surrounded by the new memories I have made here and few of the old.

When the 1980s and 1990s made their fashion returns, I was either living in my hometown of Boston or not far off in Brooklyn. Photographic evidence of what I wore the first time round either surrounded me, in albums or on walls in my childhood home, or could be easily seen with the purchase of a $15 bus ticket carrying me north. I could look at pictures of denim vests worn over long floral dresses or an old pair of neon platforms from The Wild Pair that inexplicably still took up space in my old bedroom and chuckle. Why was I doing that? would eventually lead to Do you remember when you were 13 and sneakily wore a crop top to camp only to have your ruse discovered by your mother who promptly grounded you for what would be the first and last time? And that was it. Suddenly I would be lost to reverie.

My memory has always been good. It holds on to things that I want it to as well as those I would rather not remember. But as I’ve gotten older, prompts have become more necessary for those trips into the past. Without the photographs, the few I allowed to be taken and the many that I wormed my way out of, I look at this awards show picture with its lack of belts worn either at all or as belts are generally meant to be worn, and remember that I never wore belts with my (almost definitely) bootcut jeans in the early 2000s. I can't do that anymore. Leaving without a belt situated firmly in the loops of my (almost definitely) skinny jeans leaves me unsettled now. But among the abandoned pictures is one of me taken soon after midnight on my 21st birthday on the dance floor of a London club. I am wearing a crisp cotton tube top from Topshop. It was white with diagonal pinstripes in a rainbow array and a side tie detail at the waist. I hadn’t learned how to effectively wear boxy items and was years away from realizing that strapless tops were not my friend and so I looked a little out of proportion. I am smiling and there is tinsel in my hair from a cracker that my roommates had snuck into the place. And my bootcut jeans are worn without a belt and the wide smile and the hand jauntily placed on one hip would make it appear that I could not care less. My only thoughts are about which colorful drink I would have next and where the chocolate confection my roommates had stuck a candle in had gone off to. There was no fear that I might look back one day and find myself ridiculous. There was no knowledge that looking at this past self would lead me down some rabbit hole about time and life and things old and new.

Because accessories and denim and birthdays aren't the only reasons I keep coming back to that image of four young women with questions rushing through my head. It’s the short amount of time that has elapsed between now and then. Trends seem to be returning at a faster rate, the fashion cycle shortening, and that quickening merry-go-round makes time appear to race forward in a flash. But then maybe it's not the clothes' fault, this odd nausea that comes and makes me want to scream "it's too soon!" Maybe I am simply getting older and time is becoming a far more slippery thing. Maybe things are moving at the same rate they always have and I am moving slower.

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