ESSAY — How I Went From Wearing My Brother’s Jeans to Writing About Fashion

If you think getting dressed is hard now, try finding new ways to wear soccer shorts. 

Standouts in the making.

Standouts in the making.

It was my first day of American public school in five years. I was wearing bright green shorts, an orange tank top and white, laceless sneakers. In other words, I was feeling good. I walked into Mr. Miller’s fifth grade classroom five minutes late –– I couldn’t find the classroom because the building was terrifyingly big –– and everyone stared at me. What was the new kid wearing? I suddenly felt embarrassed and totally out of my league.

I grew up in Papua New Guinea (PNG) –– the big island above Australia –– and my family and I were back in the States for six months to visit. PNG is a third-world country, so there weren’t any clothes retailers or malls while I was growing up. Anytime we needed new underwear, socks or whatever, we had to either bring them back with us from the States or have someone send us a package.

As a whole, Papua New Guinea is bright. In the highlands, where I grew up, locals celebrate big events by painting their faces bright yellows and reds, decorating themselves with big feathers and dancing. If you’ve ever seen a photo like this, then you’ve seen photos of where I grew up.

But PNG isn’t about appearances, either; it’s a very slow and family-oriented culture. They don’t care about what’s current; they care about what they like and what’s comfortable. So that laid-back attitude rubbed off fashion-wise on all of the expatriates who lived there, too. The place where I lived, Ukarumpa, was a missionary town, so there were a lot of different nationalities who lived there and went to school with me. Papua New Guinean girls wore a lot of baggy jeans, hoodies and big t-shirts. In their culture, women’s thighs are considered the most immodest part of the body, so we weren’t allowed to wear anything that was more than an inch above our knees. So that influenced our dress a lot, too.

***

When I started primary school (or elementary school), I didn’t wear shoes because going barefoot was the cool thing to do. I wore a lot of hot pink but also a lot of my brother’s old jeans and other hand-me-downs. About halfway through primary school, we had to start wearing these massive floppy hats with our school crest on them. The picture at the beginning of this piece is of my cousin, Julie, and I wearing our sweet school hats and embracing. (Note the bare feet, if you will.)

When I became a middle schooler, I moved to a different campus where we, sadly, had to wear shoes. I was pretty chubby at this point in my life, so I wore a lot of big T-shirts with ironic slogans, baggy jeans and hoodies. I was also convinced that I was Avril Lavigne, so black eyeliner and red plaid also made its way into my look. And I had this thing for baseball caps, thinking they made me look like Hillary Duff in “A Cinderella Story,” so I wore a Chicago Cubs hat for months on end. I also thought that wearing as many necklaces at one time was super cool, so I had on at least five necklaces simultaneously.

The funny thing about coming to America is that you never realize how bad your clothes are until you back see that everyone is wearing skinny jeans, Uggs, Hollister shirts and Northface jackets. And there you are wearing ill-fitting jeans and a too-big T-shirt.

With high school came the beginning of my semi-athletic stage, so I started wearing soccer shorts, like, an abnormal amount. I wore them to bed, to school and to practice. It was a problem. My wardrobe also included a lot of flared jeans (the bigger the flare, the cooler the girl), hoodies and the occasional babydoll shirt. And since PNG was a tropical country, flip-flops were always a must.

For fun, my friends would go second-hand shopping in a nearby town, since there weren’t any thrift stores on our center. That’s how we got the majority of our clothes, which forced us to be creative with our looks. Oh, we can’t wear this miniskirt by itself? Let’s throw it over our jeans and start something cool! We would also get a lot of items from each other: exchanging them, donating them and buying them from garage sales. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to see your old shirt or dress on a random Papua New Guinean kid walking down the street because you’d given it away to a friend a few years before.

Then, in 11th grade, I went to North Carolina for a year. The funny thing about coming to America is that you never realize how bad your clothes are until you back see that everyone is wearing skinny jeans, Uggs, Hollister shirts and Northface jackets. And there you are wearing ill-fitting jeans and a too-big T-shirt. And I hated it. I hated how everyone wore the same exact thing as everyone else, and I hated how much money it cost to look that similar. I held off from the skinny jeans trend as long as I could, convinced that it made my butt look big, but I finally succumbed by the time I went back to PNG for my senior year of high school.

***

Fast forward a bit to after high school graduation: I moved back to America for college, which allowed me the chance to explore who I was fashion-wise. I started buying a lot of chunky sweaters from Goodwill (the thrifter in me endured), I stopped wearing Converse and exchanged them for Toms, and I chopped my hair off to an inverted bob and eventually a pixie.

And now I live in New York City with my husband. It’s crazy and loud, and I’m assaulted with trends every day. And since I write for a fashion website, I am painfully aware of how much everything is and how much people spend on their appearances when I know there are so many families back in PNG that have never worn new clothes before.

Growing up overseas gave me a perspective that I never would have been able to have otherwise. I still shy away from name brands somewhat just because I’m convinced that you don’t have to buy a $500 purse to feel good or garner respect. I shop frequently at Target, H&M and Forever 21. Maybe if I’m feeling crazy and want to splurge I’ll go to Topshop or Zara. I drool over Rag & Bone, Anthropologie and Acne Studios but know that I can’t afford it nor do I need it.

Yet I love the feeling of building a wardrobe, piece by piece. I love seeing all the latest trends and deciding which ones work for me and which don’t flatter my body type (the shift dress will always make me look like a pregnant hippo, as much as I hate to admit it.) And maybe one day I’ll change my mind, but right now, I’m content with where I am, who I am and who I wear.

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There are 4 comments

  1. Bonnie

    Growing up overseas also give one the chance to see how other nationalities dress, and incorporate those styles into one’s wardrobe. Ms Patton is right…you don’t have to shell out the big ones to look nice or feel trendy. One can do it on a slim budget and have the end result be more satisfying because it calls upon one’s imagination and creativity!

  2. Rose

    Very insightful article. I also grew up as an “American” in a 3rd world culture. It is and was an awesome way to grow up. Never lose your connection with your formative years because it is what defines you and gives you a balanced perspective.

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