LIFE

How Kathryn Green­wood found her fash­ion tribe.

ELLE (Canada) - - Storyboard - ByKathrynGreen­wood

How one woman stopped play­ing Bar­bie with her style.

EV­ERY SUM­MER when I was a kid, my fam­ily would drive for 12 hours to visit our rel­a­tives in Wis­con­sin. As soon as we’d turn into their drive­way, my cousin Nancy would leap off the porch to meet our car, and my usual shy­ness would give way to a surge of ex­cite­ment for what was to come. To­gether, we’d grab my trunk of Bar­bies and waltz it into her bed­room. Within min­utes, we were lost among ter­race apart­ments and pink campers, where Bar­bie was dressed, un­dressed and dressed again for two solid weeks. And when Mom and Aun­tie Sue could put down their mar­ti­nis long enough, we would go to Treasure Is­land.

Plunked in the mid­dle of 1960s sub­ur­ban Mil­wau­kee, Treasure Is­land was my utopia—a dis­count de­part­ment store that sold toys, choco­late bars and, most im­por­tantly, Bar­bie out­fits I couldn’t get in Canada. Nancy and I were al­ways al­lowed to choose one thing. It was a de­ci­sion that de­manded much thought and imag­i­na­tion, and we were given all the time we needed. I savoured the author­ity that came with se­lect­ing that one glit­tery ball gown or tiny tweed suit.

Then one sum­mer, as I burst out of the sta­tion wagon, ea­ger to un­pack my new Bar­bie 4x4, Nancy came to the door wear­ing a push-up bra and a boyfriend. The earth’s axis

shifted. I grabbed the porch rail­ing to steady my­self and held in a scream. Every­thing had changed: We were grow­ing up, and I hadn’t got­ten the memo. I dragged my sorry trunk back to the car.

That sum­mer, we went shop­ping for our own clothes at Treasure Is­land. My once-sa­cred store felt like a flu­o­res­cent-lit waste­land now that we were the Bar­bies. Well, Nancy was Bar­bie. Beau­ti­ful olive-skinned Nancy with her long, thick dream hair. Every­thing looked good on her. I was Midge. Skinny, pale and, well, there are no words to de­scribe my hair be­cause “ro­denty” isn’t a word. Noth­ing looked good on me. Sales girls promised “This one will work!” and then rolled their eyes at each other when I stepped out of the dress­ing room. Shop­ping wasn’t fun any­more. Un­til Aun­tie Sue stepped in.

I was reach­ing be­hind Nancy’s stupid hair for a beige pon­cho when Aun­tie Sue said, “You al­ways choose neu­trals, Kathy, but your skin tone is too pale for them; you need colour.” She threw a bright-pink poplin shirt be­tween me and the mir­ror. And sud­denly there I was—still skinny, still pale, but present. The sales girls could see me too. “Look at you!” they beamed. And peo­ple did be­gin to look at me. They even fussed over me. Treasure Is­land came to life again in a blur of kelly green, royal blue, co­ral pink—ev­ery showy colour I could get my translu­cent hands on. They all com­ple­mented my skin tone. “I need colour” be­came my new mantra. Any lin­ger­ing doubts I had went in the trunk with the Bar­bies.

From then on, terms like “sat­u­rated hues” and “jewel tones” pep­pered my con­ver­sa­tions about fash­ion. As I got older, I wore them ex­clu­sively, and I got no­ticed. At mid­dle-school dances, au­di­tions as a fledg­ling ac­tor

BEFOREBEFORE and awards-show galas, peo­ple paid at­ten­tion to me—whether I liked it or not. Those loud colours wouldn’t shut up. They broad­cast my pres­ence to ev­ery­one in sight and promised I’d be as fun as my neon leg warm­ers. I found my­self be­ing in­vited to events and re­treats and par­ties where I’d end up ei­ther tak­ing a nap in the bath­room or get­ting a mi­graine from the dreaded small talk. It was just too much for my in­tro­verted per­son­al­ity. Af­ter years of wear­ing colours that made me feel like some­one else, I was drained and ex­hausted. I longed for respite with soft grey, pale blue and prac­ti­cal black.

One day, in the midst of this fash­ion burnout, I was flip­ping through a mag­a­zine and paused at a photo of Stella McCart­ney. On the next page, her mod­els flounced in sunny dresses, but my at­ten­tion was on how serene Stella looked in a black tu­nic. It oc­curred to me that I was drawn to what de­sign­ers wore in­stead of their ac­tual de­signs—I ad­mired Stella’s tu­nic, Maria Grazia Chi­uri’s sig­na­ture black blazer, Mary Ka­trant­zou’s un­fussy all­black out­fits. These women clearly loved colour and pat­tern but wanted oth­ers to shine in them, choos­ing clas­sics and neu­trals for them­selves. Their sim­ple at­tire al­lowed them to move, ma­nip­u­late and cre­ate with­out dis­trac­tion. This time, it wasn’t a mantra I lis­tened to—it was my own sigh of re­lief. I was done play­ing Bar­bie. I didn’t want to wear clothes that just made me look good—I wanted to wear clothes that made me feel good.

Nancy and I visit each other through so­cial me­dia now. We still look com­pletely dif­fer­ent, but it doesn’t bother me any­more. She smiles on my com­puter screen, ra­di­ant in her turquoise top and white jeans, her hair as long and beau­ti­ful as it was when we were teens. I’m al­most in­vis­i­ble in my soft- grey sweat­shirt. It feels like no­body in the café I work from even knows I’m there. Per­fect. I can write and watch the world go by. My own lit­tle Treasure Is­land. n

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