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 4×4, 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 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 all-black 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.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of ELLE Canada
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