Barring one glorious, lonely two-year stint, I have lived with roommates since I was 14, a side effect of which has been an anthropological study of other women’s style. Most roommates use dollops of your peanut butter or pinch your Advil, and most of them also take bite-size pieces of your look – and you theirs. It’s virtually impossible to live with someone and not appropriate something of her fashion sense, a sartorial influence that lasts long after your lease is up.
My fashion education began in Grade 9 at boarding school on Vancouver Island. Boarding school is like an aquarium: Everything is on display. This meant that nothing belonged just to me – not my knee socks, not my class notes and not my style. Before I started there, the outer limits of my wardrobe were an embroidered camisole and frayed Bootlegger jeans. The girls in my hallway quickly ushered me into an adolescence soaked in sickly sweet bath products and Victoria’s Secret vanilla body spray and rife with TNA leggings and Tiffany necklaces, all set to the sounds of Flo Rida, which wafted from every room. During the day, we had to dress exactly alike, and it felt natural to carry this uniformity into the rest of our lives. And for someone who never quite fit in, it felt good to finally be part of a herd. The safety I felt as part of a gaggle of nearly indistinguishable girlfriends was new, and I didn’t want to give it up.
Still, I waffled between looks, trying to find what suited me best – I wore false eyelashes to class one minute and slouched around the cafeteria in slippers the next – but I never went for anything I didn’t see modelled on one of my dorm mates first. I yearned to look as casually beautiful as my roommate with her perfectly straightened hair, matte skin and wrinkled Ralph Lauren sweatshirt. (Is there a more perfect combination of preppiness and apathy than unlaundered Ralph Lauren?) She carried a Longchamp bag littered with loose tobacco, so I bought one too. I borrowed another friend’s perfectly distressed, angelically soft Rolling Stones tee but failed to pull off her tomboyish appeal. I made my older sister drive half an hour to drop off a diaphanous peasant blouse I decided I needed after seeing a 12th grader wearing one in the art room. I was hoping it would make me look as unstudied and feminine as she did. In the end, I learned more about what looks didn’t work for me, but the process of trying and failing was as valuable as any style lesson I can name.
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In 12th grade, I changed boarding schools and moved to rural Italy, where I lived in a crumbling dormitory with three other girls. We shared a vast tiled room with Juliet balconies and faulty wiring. I was living a Disney Channel teen dream, and my sense of style was similarly unimaginative: It was all about labels that I couldn’t afford but my roommates had in abundance. In a place where knock-offs were plentiful, I became obsessed with the real thing. I was so young and uncertain; I didn’t know who I was, exactly, but I knew how I wanted to look, and designer brands are always a convenient shorthand for style. When the four of us took the bus to Venice, I spent all my money on a pair of Burberry rain boots. Short-sighted, I know, but today I still value the idea of imbuing utilitarian objects with a bit of luxury. My trio of roommates had a head start on the look – as well as the life – I’m still chasing, in which every object exudes quality. We were 17, so our notion of what was appealing missed the mark (think bedazzled hair straighteners), but the idea that everything could, and should, scream loveliness crystallized for me in that room.
By college, I was ready for a different aesthetic – something to put the hysterical girlishness of high school to bed. My roommate’s wardrobe had all the wackiness and insouciance that was missing from mine: She wore white patent nurse shoes and long monastic overcoats. She has the special honour of being the first person I saw in really outré Karen Walker sunglasses. She made me spring rolls after late nights of too much tequila and overhauled my basic look. It was with her, crammed into an incandescent department-store change room, that I chose my first good set of lingerie: a navy and white Elle Macpherson ensemble. Because of her, I realized that confidence can be as unseen and powerful as great underwear. I emulated the brazenness of her wardrobe, hoping her confidence would flower in other parts of my life too.
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I kept living with new girls, and I kept learning new things. One summer, I slept on the couch of an ex-ballerina who mixed vintage with designer pieces. Another time, I shared a cabin with a spry vegan who managed to bike everywhere in sundresses and Birkenstocks. And I’m still in awe of one former roommate, a strawberry blonde who inspires me with her contrary dressing – she wears girlish miniskirts at grungy parties and expensive dresses to her barista job. She gets dressed not for the weather, not for the venue, but to make herself happy. From her I learned a more studied approach to shopping and dressing, and I finally put my frenzied acquisitiveness to rest.
Recently, I packed everything I needed into a single suitcase and moved to London, England, where I live alone (for now). My new city is a sensory overload; well-dressed girls clog the subway cars and brighten up dreary pubs. There is inspiration everywhere, but these days I’m not looking so closely. The years of living with stylish roommates have taught me that everyone is figuring out their look. No matter how covetable a woman’s style, I guarantee it is in flux. Today, I’m comfortable with the idea that I’m still gathering what I need. I follow my instincts – that way, no matter who I’m taking pointers from, I always look like myself.