It's 6:30 a.m. on a frigid winter day. I hear that stereotypical iPhone alarm tone blast, meaning it's time for me to pull myself out of bed and prepare for another day of high school. Not to my surprise, amid my rushed morning routine, I struggle to choose what to wear for the day. Attempting to balance my desire to wear clothing that I like with my insecurities, I settle on a warm flannel, jeans, and my favorite beat–up Nike Air Force 1s.
That was a typical anxiety–filled school morning for me back home in Halifax, Pennsylvania. Growing up in a town so small, with a population of around 2000 people, I felt trapped inside a cage of conformity. There was an unspoken pressure that occupied each space in my high school, telling you to dress a certain way, think a certain way, and act a certain way. With very little diversity of identity, race, culture, and thought, my hometown isn't exactly a place to stray from the norm. In an environment where derogatory rumors spread through school because someone dares to wear an outfit they love, being yourself is suddenly a risky endeavor.
Ultimately, I found myself continuously juggling my desire to maintain a level of social comfort and the nagging ache inside of me telling me to stay true to myself, even on the simplest of levels. One of the most frustrating outcomes was my very incomplete sense of style.
My outfits could range from a pair of khaki shorts and a plain tee one day to an incohesive attempt at borderline streetwear the next. I owned some chic, 'artsy,' and even voguish pieces from select brands I really loved. But because I was inexperienced with exploring my own style, and also didn't have much of a disposable income, what I wore often felt fragmented. Many days, by the time I got home, I hated what I was wearing. I'd throw on my idea of loungewear—a green flannel and sweatshorts—and crawl back into my bed, ready to try again the next day.
This was all temporary—or at least I thought it was. I got into Penn, something I could've never dreamed of doing, coming from my little town. I had such big hopes and aspirations for the future, moving from my house in the dense Pennsylvania forests to the city of Philadelphia. It was something I knew I wanted—maybe even needed. I was so ready to arrive at Penn and learn things about myself, like my style, that I never fully realized back home.
Upon arriving at Penn, I abruptly learned that finding my style wasn't going to be that straightforward. I was no stranger to the city—I've visited many across the country. But Penn isn't what I expected college in an urban setting to look like. Students at Penn are, to put it frankly, predominantly wealthy. This shows up in everything from food, to clothes, to how people spend their weekends. As a first–generation student without generational wealth and a large savings account to fall back on, navigating Penn's posh culture while exploring my own style was going to be incredibly trying.
At first, ignorance was bliss. I felt comfortable enough to wear my favorite outfits around campus. I visited local shops and slowly began the process of exploring what my style would become. As time progressed, my naïveté faded. On the daily, I'd walk down Locust as an impressionable first year, only to observe person after person wearing exclusive brands from head to toe—a realization that provoked the old insecurities I thought coming to Penn would heal. I specifically remember searching for Golden Goose sneakers on my phone after seeing seemingly everyone wearing them, only to find that they go for $500 a pair. And then autumn and winter came, and I learned that luxury encompassed almost every aspect of the average Penn student's life. Seeing my peers wearing their $2,100 Moncler puffer jackets in our Spanish seminar was discouraging. It was an unnecessary reminder of the financial polarity on Penn's campus.
My problem wasn't that I was jealous of the wealth, or that I wished I had those fancy pieces to wear around campus. The problem was the disappointment that came with my expectation for coming to Penn—living in a place where I could explore my style—failing to materialize. Yet again, I was in a place where insecurity occupies most spaces, this time because of the unexpected magnitude of wealth that surrounds me.
My solution? Surprisingly, I have returned to some of my old habits—flannels, sweatshorts, khaki shorts, old sneakers that don't come pre–distressed—out of comfort. It sounds ironic, but I have slowly found solace in relying on the 'forest dweller turned artsy wannabe' style I unintentionally developed back home. I've unknowingly navigated my relationship with personal style as well as I could have at Penn. I look at my closet in the morning and no longer feel unwavering anxiety. I am comfortable with who I am, what I wear, and how others see me.
So, as I write about my style journey, with my favorite flannel on my back, keeping me warm on this frigid winter night, I'm reminded of growth, and the beauty of strengthening your self–confidence in ways you didn't expect. I know my style definitely doesn't fit the conventional Penn mold, but I don't mind. Though two years ago I'd be afraid to admit this, I see no fun in wearing the same coat as half of the student body.