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How Howard U Helped Me Personalize Familiar Fashions From Mass Retailers

It was one of those days.

I was mentally drained as we put the finishing touches on a complicated, months-long project and I wanted a decent lunch. I wanted to take an actual full lunch hour away from my desk, where I could eat and digest my food uninterrupted, walk the streets of DC on a non-stifling hot day, and even, gasp, browse a large H&M nearby.

Well, I made the executive decision to take that hour of self-care, and managed to slide into H&M while a great sale was taking place. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to any of the other floors. (I eventually had to go back to work. Tick, tick. Sniff, sniff.)

There was plenty of wonderful merchandise that caught my eye including shorts with beautiful African-inspired prints, (I’m a sucker for that, and I’m heading to the African-American Festival in Baltimore this weekend, so I simultaneously honor the ancestors and slay.) breezy, flowy dresses, cute tops and lightweight summer jackets I rationalized that I’ll need in freezing offices and on airplanes.

Like myself, I saw other women, with a leisurely, yet purposeful stroll through the racks, eyeing and pawing at the clothing. We’d each hold up items we were interested in, giving it a quick assessment and making yes, no decisions in a matter of seconds, well, cuz, we had to go back to work. Even while making these decisions, there was a general sense of calm.

We were all in our happy place. Shopping. Surrounded by sales.

But while we were all different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages, etc., I noticed something while standing in the swiftly moving line (Shout out to the store at 17th and K).

We were all buying the same things.

The same, exact items.

This is the nature of shopping at fast fashion spots like H&M or Zara, or even Target (especially when they do those collaborations with major fashion designers). Someone you know, or don’t know, like the cute girl standing at the end of the train platform who seems familiar, is. Not because you may know her, or she’s a friend of a friend you met once, it’s simply because you both bought the same clothes.

As a Howard grad, I can recall this happening on a regular basis as the Howard girls flocked to all of the same stores in Georgetown and Pentagon City (my crew purposely made treks out to other shopping malls in Virginia or Maryland to avoid this problem), or even around the corner on Georgia Ave with the quick, cheap club gear at Susan Fashion. If you had a bit more disposable income, you could hit Up Against the Wall, for the hottest, more expensive brand names in early 2000s Hip-Hop fashion.

Because of this inevitability, most Howard girls didn’t sweat it. It was no secret we all liked shopping at the same places. However, rather than having a meltdown and trying to exit unnoticed, or trying to accidentally ruin someone’s outfit, we chose a more civilized and creative solution. A solution that would actually serve us well throughout life and emphasize individuality and confidence.

We tailored the outfit to our personality and developing style. We all didn’t have the money to keep buying more clothes, or more exclusive clothes, so we were forced to work with what we had and gained some insight into our own style to stand out in a sea of other beautiful women.

Thinking back, it was a who wore it best before that became an actual thing. But, to me, the wide variety of interpretations was more inspiring than competitive.

It wasn’t unusual to see a tomboy from a big city rock the same top as a southern, small-town debutante. Maybe the tomboy would cut it up a little and wear it with sports bra, sweatpants and Jordans, while the debutante rocked it with a skirt, blazer and pearls.The bohemian soul sista would rock hip-hugging jeans, and a headscarf, with beautiful wooden earrings hanging from her ears. Maybe she’d tie her shirt to show off her bellyring. SAME SHIRT THO!

So as I scanned the other fashionable DC worker bees checking out, or standing in line with some of the same items I held in my hands, I issued myself a challenge. I reminded myself of my good ol college days where it was expected that you’d spot several girls on your dorm floor, at the game, in your classes and on the yard rocking the same fits from Express, Forever 21, Gap, Aeropostale. And you simply had to do you and be confident in doing so.

I also hope that the women who bought the same items that I did today and the gazillions of other H & M stores worldwide and online, rock them with confidence and that it reflects their personal style. I know I will. I’m excited.

Instead of running for the hills, when I see another woman wearing the same outfit, if she’s within arm’s reach, I like to compliment her and admire her twist on it. Usually, it turns out well, and we compliment each other.

And in this spirit, I share with you the tricks I honed from my Howard sisters that have helped me stand out today.

ACCESSORIES: For me, I strategize around accessories. Accessories always elevate my outfit, and tend to earn me compliments. Simply putting on a belt to cinch that waist, will change the game. Throw on a scarf, and folks will swear you are Clair Huxtable and Kate Middleton rolled up into one. And it’s pretty easy to throw on a great necklace or a couple of bracelets, and look pulled together. From the fashionistas rocking the Chanel jewelry and the Louis Vuitton handbags, to the around the way girls who copped their accessories bargaining at a flea market, to the chicks who make their own, accessories do make an outfit sing even if they are all wearing an H&M jumpsuit.

BOLD LIP: Folks tend to notice me more when I rock a red, or a pink lip. I usually like browns, beiges and deep plum colors.

SHOE GAME PROPER: Got a great summer dress from H&M? Are you rocking cowboy boots or some old school chucks? Attention will be paid for you thinking beyond heels or sandals. Do you have shoes that have a cool print, or a bold, solid color?

MIX N’ MATCH: Michelle Obama has taught us long ago the art of mixing high-end clothing with more affordable brands to present an effortless and always-on-point ensemble. I’ve been thinking about how great my solid color tees, or bodysuits would look with my print heavy shorts, or how the lightweight African print jacket I bought would work nicely with one of my long, solid sundresses, sunglasses and a great statement necklace. The options are really endless!

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