Friday, June 19, 2009

Kitsch is a Girl’s Best Friend

My first ever jewelry box was made out of hot-pink plastic and featured a large figurine of Hello Kitty on its lid. A heart-shaped fastener was affixed to the front, providing my stash of jelly bracelets a place for safekeeping.

I probably should have known from that moment on that I would have a kitschy taste in jewelry, but I grew up believing that instead, I was some sort of trailblazer when it came to accessorizing and fashion.

There were other signs, too.

Whenever I went shopping with my best friend at the time, there would be great entertainment derived from the garments I would pause to consider for purchase. It wasn’t unusual to find me fussing with a pair of mesh gloves, T-Shirts emblazoned with Mr. Spock’s face across the torso (well before the show became popular again), over-sized plastic rings, or anything embellished with sequins and fringe. What would have been unusual was to catch me pondering items designed in “earth tones” or styles that were prominently featured on a mannequin. I just wasn’t interested in mainstream. Blame it on my mother, who on my first day of Kindergarten dressed me in an outfit that consisted of a skirt worn over pants (again, well before this was fashionable).

Soon I would tire from the mall altogether and find new ways to ensure that my wardrobe stayed off the beaten path. Ruffled poet’s shirts were cut up with scissors and my mom, a good sport through this period of my life, would sigh as I asked if she could please sew the ruffles to the bottoms of my jeans (which were often hand-painted by yours truly).

Another garment became a unique (and heavy) spin on sequins. While working as a clerk at an auction house, I bid on a carousel of blank keys from a hardware store that was going out of business. You say, “keys” – I say, “long vertical sequins made from metal.” Weeks later, I wandered into school with a jean skirt that I covered with hundreds of these keys sewn into a wild pattern of silver, gold and bronze. Each step I took in that skirt sounded like a team of Salvation Army bell ringers working a Wal-Mart entrance during the holiday season.

My year abroad in Italy was perhaps one of the better years for my sense of style, as the culture shifted my taste into classics, but it didn’t last long. While European fashion toned down some of my kitsch, it brought out even more of my “free spirited” nature. Many of the fashions at the time were made from sheer fabrics that didn’t always lend themselves well to undergarments – so I simply didn’t wear them (the undergarments, that is). For the first semester of my freshman year at college, my roommate assumed the responsibility of beating me until I put on a bra every time we went out. I’d convinced myself that one of the benefits of being small-busted was that the occasional exposure of one’s nipple was actually tasteful, not inappropriate.

College fashion wasn’t just about nudity for me, it was about finding new ways to deviate from the norm. Nothing dramatic came of it, as there wasn’t much one could do short of wearing couture that would be noticed too much on my campus. Looking back through old photos though, I came upon a couple telltale images that reminded me of some attempts. There was the phase of wearing several watches at once on a single wrist, and the mixing and matching of earrings. A dangling silver earring in one ear, a rhinestone stud in the other. Topping off this combination was a fuchsia tank top with Madonna’s face silk-screened in the center that I had ripped at the neck so that my cleavage (such that it is) ran down the middle of her forehead. Put all this together, and it really looked like a time when I may have been exploring my sexuality rather than my closet.

It didn’t stop there.

Finishing off my college years, I went to the Senior Ball dressed in what I considered to be a tribute to Sarah Jessica Parker (aka Carrie Bradshaw). I paired a crocheted black top (and fully visible black bra) with a 60s style hot pink poodle skirt (sans poodle), and a leather cord belt with an oversized black flower positioned off-center at the waist. When my friend’s family saw pictures from the event, she was asked whether or not it was a costume party.

I’d like to say that things improved when I moved to Manhattan that summer, but it just isn’t true. Usually people who live in the city for some time start to lose color in their wardrobe and go all black. I seemed to go in the opposite direction, acquiring a great deal of clothing that was frequently neon or fluorescent. It was as if I’d made a commitment to wear colors only found in the LA Gear color palette from 1989.

Now in my 30s, when I’m apparently supposed to be settling down and more mature, I still find that I have yet to do that in the closet or jewelry box. I’ve acquired some nice pieces of jewelry over the years and have been passing myself off as a grown-up on most days with horrible “business casual” staples and pearls here and there -- but I haven’t forgotten my roots.

I still rock earrings that look like over-sized Life Saver candies, and metallic silver sneakers with Bermuda shorts and leather-sequined (yes – sequins made from leather!) turquoise tank-tops. Recently, I willingly (and enthusiastically) purchased a pair of blindingly pink patent leather stilettos with chrome heels, and continue to wear glass rings the size of punch bowls as if they were rare baubles crafted by Harry Winston.

The classiest, most amazing piece of jewelry I’ve ever worn was probably my engagement ring, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss it – but I guess I miss what it represented more than the ring itself. Wearing something that symbolized the promise of a future was empowering and really wonderful. And let’s be honest, what girl doesn’t feel great with diamonds on her fingers?

But wearing my usual obnoxious cocktail rings is empowering, too. It reminds me of the girl I was all those years ago with her Hello Kitty jewelry box. It reminds me of the girl who wore large purple clip-ons in third grade because her ears weren’t pierced yet, and the girl whose legs ached from wearing 10 pounds of metal to school as a skirt.

The rings I wear today would have gone with any number of outfits I dressed up in through college, Italy and Manhattan. My jewelry today might not be expensive or symbolic of the “milestones” I’ve achieved in my relationships or my career, but it is symbolic of a woman who has always remained true to herself.