Wearing the first of many Forever 21 shirts and sporting a practical low pony.

Glossy Magazines and Brand-name Dreams

Everything I know about fashion, I learned from Abercrombie & Fitch.

Less than a month into sixth grade, I realized the brand operated somewhat of a monopoly over middle school fashion. I was about as fashionable as the average preteen should be, regularly sporting low ponytails and lace-y Limited Too camisoles, and the only valid reason I could come up with for my lack of popularity was my clothing choices.

I didn’t own anything worthy of popularity, so when Christmas rolled around that year I asked for clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch. This, of course, meant that my mom would have to walk through the store’s dim cologne cloud to buy me something that three of my classmates would also have. But it didn’t matter because come Christmas morning, a rectangular cardboard box labeled A&F had been placed under the tree.

When I saw the box, or more accurately, smelled it, I knew it held the answer to instant popularity and acceptance into the teen elite. It might as well have been Pandora’s Box. What lay beneath its thin cardboard protection was mauve hoodie with a drawstring waist and the iconic Abercrombie & Fitch logo. I delicately pulled it out of the fragrant tissue paper and held it against my chest before noticing the price tag marked with a red 50 percent off sticker.

A wave a guilt hit me. I immediately placed the sweater back into the box and thanked my mom profusely.

Neither of my brothers had made anything close to a fuss about where their clothes came from. I felt embarrassed because I knew— even as a 12 year old— the financial stress my parents were under to provide for me and my brothers. At the time, the majority of my wardrobe came from Target and Old Navy — a result of living in a middle-class family where my two brothers and I grew out of our clothes at a rapid rate. My desire to dress exclusively in name brands didn’t mesh with my situation at home.

I stopped asking for Abercrombie & Fitch clothing but my interest in fashion grew over the coming years. I found solace in the magazine section of Barnes & Noble. Most Friday nights, if I was lucky, my family would stop in the bookstore so my dad could buy the latest Stephen King novel or my mom could read Southern Home. This tradition started before I entered middle school and continued long after.

I devoured every actress profile and loved the ones where the actress was asked to describe her personal style. They almost never mentioned Abercrombie & Fitch.

While my mom leafed through articles titled “How-to style your St. Patrick’s Day wreath” or “The Deviled Egg: What you need to know about your cholesterol’s enemy — the egg,” I slipped away and discovered Teen Vogue and Seventeen Magazine. Their glossy pages showed beautiful yet wildly young models posing in what seemed like exotic locales. It was hard not to fall in love.

I devoured every actress profile and loved the ones where the actress was asked to describe her personal style. They almost never mentioned Abercrombie & Fitch. I started cutting and pasting photos from editorial shoots I liked onto a worn cork board that hung above my bed. Magazines meant I could consume fashion without spending more than $4.99 a month.

Over the course of my middle school years, I began to dress well, even better than some of the popular girls I had previously admired. And with my newfound, albeit bargain-bin fashion sense, I gained a new type of confidence that wasn’t there before. I couldn’t wait for my friend to compliment my floral skirt or the dress I so cleverly cinched at the waist so I could tell them where I bought it and how much I saved.

No longer could I put on my Old Navy Bermuda shorts without considering the implication of my sartorial choice. Would Hayden Panettiere — who frequented the cover of both Seventeen and Teen Vogue at the time — wear bermuda shorts in her upcoming movie in which she stars opposite a talking horse? Absolutely not.

Something told me the actresses and models in Teen Vogue weren’t concerned with fitting in, either.

Style, I learned, is just a byproduct of a wearer’s willingness to compromise personal identity to conform to a mold that increases one’s chances of fitting in with the “popular crowd.” Because shopping at Hollister was out of the question, I became less interested in the brand and more interested in style. Something told me the actresses and models I saw month after month on the exotic pages of Teen Vogue weren’t concerned with fitting in, either. After all, none of them were wearing Delia’s.

Three years passed and my friends didn’t change. But by the time I graduated middle school, my style had completely evolved from pre-teen tomboy to loafer-wearing, Tavi Gevinson fangirl. I still struggle with the implications of the brands I wear and how trends affect my self-confidence, but now I’ve been awarded perspective. Oh, and Vogue Magazine.