One recent morning, while I was traveling for work, a text and photo popped up on my phone: Eleanor is wearing a skirt as a shawl today.
It was the kind of text I often send to my celebrity-obsessed girlfriends about the fashion-forward stars we follow with a dedicated loyalty that occasionally bordered on “too much”: Kristen Stewart, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Beyonce. But this time the topic of conversation was not an A-lister, and the texter was not a friend. It was my husband, and our current fashion darling was our 5-year-old daughter, Eleanor.
When my husband and I had kids, we expected them to inherit some of our traits (his ability to complete tasks with laser focus, my ability to pour shredded cheese out of the bag and into my mouth without spilling any on the floor), and discover others that were solely their own. But neither of us predicted that our spawn could possess the fashion sense of Iris Apfel before she could read. I mean, my husband doesn’t even know who Iris Apfel is. (“No clue. But isn’t Iris Apatow a person?”) If my husband were not four inches taller than me, we could swap clothes like college roommates. Our style is essentially interchangeable: straight-leg jeans, button-down shirts, and comfortable, slightly stylish sneakers. I occasionally mix things up a giant, cozy cardigan that I’ve picked up on sale at Nordstrom Rack, but otherwise we do it up like the husband and wife version of those twins in The Shining. On our best fashion days we look like tired parents in a Swiffer commercial.
Eleanor is a serious, reserved kid, who stands back and assesses every room before she makes her move. This is the part of her I understand, that one matches parts of me. But her outfits reveal another side to her that doesn’t quiet mirror her outward personality. Her everyday choices are bold, loud, and brash: One side of her hair in a braid, the other down in her face. A flower crown with clips of neon-colored, fake hair attached to it. A plaid dress that’s two sizes too small and worn as a shirt, with a Hawaiian-print skirt, rainbow leggings, and white patent-leather clogs. It’s almost as if she lets her fashion choices speak for her, revealing who she truly is on the inside.
She was 2 years old the first time I realized that fashion was a thing for her. She started hand-selecting her outfits every morning and sauntered out of her bedroom on her first day of preschool in a striped dress, straw sunhat, cardigan, and an insulated, polka-dot lunch bag as a purse. It wasn’t that the outfit was flashy or over-the-top that signaled something about her was different. It was the way in which she deliberately the items, the pride she took in what she had decided on, and the way she moved in the clothes, like they were an extension of her skin. It wasn’t a game of choice for her - picking her clothes was innate and all instinct. It struck me as completely foreign, because dressing myself had always been a mix of anxiety and a burden, something I had to do but had no idea how to do. And yet here was this tiny kid who had been crawling just a year prior, suddenly with better fashion sense than me.
Her outfits make her feel happy, complete, herself.
I marvel at those Instagram moms who get their children into beautifully coordinated outfits complete with hipster moccasins and a matching fringe vest. The times I’ve attempted to pick out clothes for her to wear in the morning - leggings and a tank top to match, let’s say - she layers it with a sparkling, leaf-print tutu, two headbands, and a pound of Mardi Gras beads. Or she rejects it altogether, passing it over like a person on a diet waving away appetizers at a cocktail party. “It’s not my style!” she screamed as I tried to force her into a simple dress for school pictures when she was 4. As she got older, her fashion sense grew with her. She spent the entire year of pre-K wearing skirts under dresses, and mismatching her shoes on purpose, experimenting with mixing silver and gold. “It’s just what I like,” she said, when I asked why she never wore an actual matching pair.
Lots of children “dress themselves” in adorably mismatched outfits, and I realize that it might seem presumptuous to assume my kid is some sort of prodigious style icon. But with Eleanor, it’s clear her choices are executed with a deliberate eye, chosen because she loves how things look together. She cares. Her outfits make her feel happy, complete, herself. When she puts on something that she feels particularly good in, she will tap my thigh impatiently and ask, “Mom, can you take a picture of this outfit?” Then she poses like a contestant on the first episode of a new America’s Top Model season: wildly confident but with no idea where to put her limbs. But even if her body contortions are awkward, her facial expressions say it all. She’s a living #fierce hashtag.
I am in my mid-30s, and still terrified by the thought of dressing myself. Fashion has never been comfortable for me. The relentless desperation I felt to fit in as a kid still lingers in adulthood, and I’ve always chosen clothes that allow me to blend in rather than stand out. My style is puritanical, plain, with the occasional small, gold necklace to spice things up. Nothing about shopping is enjoyable for me; I frequent the same stores I liked as a teen (J. Crew, Old Navy) and am exhausted and irritated after trying on one shirt. I still can’t quite figure out how to take fashion risks but still feel comfortable in my own skin, so striking a balance between stylish and comfortable leaves me looking like an adolescent teen boy on his way to his first semi-formal dance. I’ve tried three clothing subscription services, but everything I pull out of the box looks like something a sitcom version of me would wear. Real-Life Me attempted to class things up with some viscose Madewell tank tops this summer. Real-Life Me also did not know what viscose was, didn’t think to read the tags, and tossed them in the dryer, shrinking $150 worth of shirts.
There have been days where Eleanor has marched onto the schoolyard in her strange outfits and I’ve been nervous, certain that it would be the day she came home in tears because some kid mocked her look. Her friends sometimes ask, “Why are you wearing that?” But she just shrugs her shoulders, covered in her bright, handmade Guatemalan poncho, and says, “Because I like it.” At first I was baffled that a kid who grew inside my body (while covered head to toe in Target Maternity wear) could have such an intense love of style. Then I realized it wasn’t her outfits that blew me away. It was her confidence, her fearlessness, her unfailing desire to be herself. At 5, she possesses a self-assuredness that I am still chasing down in my weekly therapy sessions.
I don’t know if she will always be this confident, if her love of fashion is a passing phase or a current that will run through her for life. So I try to embrace it now, celebrate and nurture it and hope that her love of style and herself only continues to grow. In the meantime I try to learn from her - pushing myself out of my comfort zone a bit while also embracing what makes me feel good, simply “because I like it.” Just yesterday I ordered a pair of culottes and a giant, knit turtleneck tank top - boring choices for some but a big deal for me. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my daughter, it’s that you’re never too old - or young - to slay.
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