An homage to les vetements noirs.
The most memorable entry in my junior high yearbook isn’t a “have a great summer” from my crush, or a long, flowery note from one of my BFF(F)s. It’s a note from an acquaintance who played in the school band with me.
In my mind, said clarinet player had not taken part in the petty cruelties that colored my seventh- and eighth-grade years, though maybe his parting remark has changed the way I remember him. It’s a short message, just a sentence, and it says: “Hi Kat. You look much prettier without black clothes.”
To make sense of this, you’d have to know that I stopped wearing color almost completely in the fall of seventh grade. I was in the middle of one of those radical reinventions that are the privilege and folly of teenagers, and I was remaking myself as…if not exactly a goth, an “alternative” person. Gone were the screen-printed tees with cheeky sayings, the jeans and A&F cargo pants I favored in the beginning of junior high. In were black vinyl pants, provocative band t-shirts with a vaguely Satanic feel, and the fishnets I’d have dozens of fights with my mother about. It was all black, all the time, like I had cast myself as an extra in “The Craft.”
I don’t remember dressing that way because it felt good. On the contrary, I felt lousy at that point in my life — misunderstood, helpless in the face of my own urges, trapped by the small, gossipy town where I grew up. These are typical teenage laments, but I didn’t understand that at the time, and I felt isolated and miserable. Black eyeliner and black miniskirts made sense to me. My closet, which became a cavern of black t-shirts, velvet and synthetic fabrics, was a silent objection to life as I knew it. It was a way to say no, everything was not fine: to put the turmoil and darkness inside, outside.
The conventional read on black clothes is that they’re way of drawing attention to one’s vulnerability and pain. But when I think back on that deliberate ugliness, the unmissable statement of those clothes (this was post-goth, but pre-emo: they probably wouldn’t look so unusual now), I can’t help but also think of them as a defense. Yes, I was wearing my inner tumult out on my black lace sleeve — but the clothes were also a hedge against accusations of (gasp!) unprettiness, a personal statement, a suit of armor. And armor isn’t designed to be comfortable.
Time passed. Eventually I started gravitating toward colors when I was shopping, buying a pair of purple tights or a yellow peasant blouse. Gradually I transitioned away from the creature-from-the-black-lagoon palette, and though I was still sort of an artsy dresser, I was wearing enough color for the transition to be noted by the clarinet player in my yearbook. (True to teenage deceptions and hypocrisies, it was too hard to tell my friends about my dwindling interest in black. When they asked about my old clothes, I lied and said my mom burned them.)
Like everyone else, eventually I became a grown-up. My affection for fishnets, pleather and corsets didn’t last, but I still think of black as my power color, my sartorial mood-lifter and home base. But I don’t wear it every day. Rather, it’s a personal talisman for important occasions: I’m almost always in head-to-toe black at job interviews, and I reach for my black skinny jeans for dates. Earlier this year, I gave a reading at a comedy night, and I must have tried on ten different outfits before deciding on a black tank top and a skirt that was a heavy part of my eighth-grade rotation. I feel strong in black, sharp, knowing and alert, like I know how to use the head on my shoulders.
Just the person I wanted to grow up to be, in fact.