How The Clothes Of My Youth Came Back To Haunt Me

I came of age in the ’90s. I smoked my first cigarette (cloves to start), drank my first drink (Old English), popped my first pill (the drug formerly known as Ecstasy), and lost my virginity (none of your business). I buzzed my hair, dyed the stubble black, purple, red. I wore JNCO jeans and went to raves. I watched The Craft and rocked an Ankh and listened to Jurassic 5 and Ani DiFranco. I pierced my belly button (and other parts). I got a tramp stamp. I haunted vintage stores and Goodwill and wore baby-doll dresses with Doc Martens and chain wallets. 

And then I grew up. I stopped wearing so much eyeliner, my shirts got longer, and raves became dinner parties. I removed three separate body piercings. I stopped doing drugs and bought a Subaru. People who hear stories of my feral youth don’t believe me. They can’t quite reconcile the wild child with the woman who now so rarely drinks that people worry I’ve fallen off the wagon when I do. I’m the person who always pays her bills on time and spends hours cleaning her house every week, the woman who loves a linen jumpsuit and wears the same earrings every day. At 27, I started a retirement fund. I eat oatmeal with cacao every morning.      

It wasn’t just the awareness that I am no longer ‘young.’ It was the threat of my younger self somehow sneaking back and replacing the stable adult I had become.

And then came the ’90s revival. I looked on with skepticism as ditsy prints reappeared on the runway. Teens were buying the same Docs I wore 20 years ago. Lingerie as outerwear, chokers, platforms, sweatsuits: They’re all back. I did a movie with an 18-year-old who talked about her “vintage finds.” They were carbon copies of everything I had donated to Goodwill when I turned 20. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise; every generation is shocked to realise that it isn’t the youngest, that what was modern is now nostalgia. But this rebirth of the ’90s felt different to me. It wasn’t just the awareness that I am no longer “young.” It was the threat of my younger self somehow sneaking back and replacing the stable adult I had become.

I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I’ve spent my entire adult life running from who I was as a teen. Not that she wasn’t cool. I always joke that she was much cooler than the current me. She’d find me boring and call me a yuppie: the biggest insult of the ’90s before “hipster” came into power and became the deadliest insult of all. But the truth is, I have fought hard to be boring. To contain myself. To keep my inner chaos in check. Because even though I was a lot more fun back then, I have also never been so unhappy. Like almost everyone on the planet, I was a miserable young adult. I felt ugly and awkward and loud at all the wrong moments. I would go home and think about all the stupid things I had said that day. I would pray to a god I didn’t believe in to change how I looked, how I sounded, to make me smarter and more interesting and care less. I lived in a mess with piles of clothes on the floor, my Salvation Army finds forming a mountainous terrain through my bedroom. I subsisted on fast food, smoked, drank, and did whatever drug was on offer. What’s ironic is that I apparently presented as just the opposite of how I felt. I remember running into a classmate after graduating and him saying he was envious of me, that I didn’t give two fucks what anyone thought of me. I remember smiling humbly. That was such a lie. I gave so many fucks. Way too many fucks. Look, I went to an arts high school in San Francisco, and I had plenty of friends; the “weirdos” in other schools were not ostracised where I come from. I just had normal teenage anxiety. But those teen years are when you feel things the most strongly; those first loves and heartbreaks are the highest highs and the lowest lows. Everything feels like life or death. Every social slight becomes confirmation of your own failings. When I think about that time, what I remember is how desperately I wanted out of my own body and mind. 

I’ve spent a lot of my 30s thinking about the reasons I made such a hard left out of my teens. I have very few friends from before I graduated college. Most of my lasting relationships I made from 22 on. I have felt so ashamed of who I was, but why? That girl was so bold. She wore vintage silk pyjamas and a Superman cape and a toothbrush around her neck and sang in the hallways, ate candy for breakfast, and swam in the ocean in the middle of the night. She wrote every day in her journal and fell in love weekly. She shaved her head so people would stop complimenting her hair. But at some point, that girl became a performance. She wore too much makeup because it was the only way she felt pretty without her long hair. She smoked too much weed, and rather than enjoying being high, she pretended not to be. She wore push-up bras and talked about sex all the time. She wrote poetry about dark things that never happened to her, trying to sound “deep.” She tried so hard to define herself against normal, but she could never figure out who she was without being in contrast to something else. She was so filled with shame and self-hatred because she was trying so fucking hard to be someone people liked and thought was interesting that she stopped paying attention to what she liked and thought was interesting. 

And now suddenly all the aesthetics from that period of my youth are in vogue again. My fashion choices, the performance of identity that I chose in my teens, are showing up in magazines and on street corners and on people born after the Y2K scare. It was hard to see these clothes as anything but a giant neon sign flashing, “LOOK AT ME, I FEEL BAD ABOUT MYSELF, BUT I AM PRETENDING TO FEEL GREAT!” Because that’s how I actually felt in them in the ’90s. 

But it’s not all bad. I also see creative expression and playfulness and energy and jubilation in these clothes. They are punk, and hip hop, and grunge. They don’t worry about seeming responsible or chic or serious. They are fucking fun! And as we get older, I’ve found that we can lose that pure sense of delight. As someone who loves dressing up, both onstage and off, I’ve been oddly subdued in my fashion choices. The ’90s are none of that. They say, I can be coy in my silky slip dress, but I can also kick your ass with these boots if I have to. My crop top says, “Check out my abs,” but my flannel warns, “Don’t touch me.”

I pretended she was gone, that I had moved on and become an adult. But becoming an adult is not an upward trajectory; it’s a mess of up and down and side to side.

So, against my better judgment, I’ve been dabbling — dipping my toe in, trying on that girl again. I’ve been listening to Ani and I just rewatched Empire Records. At the moment, half my head is shaved for an acting job. I now own an overpriced fanny pack. I wore a plaid Star Trek-ish puff-sleeved minidress to my last premiere. Very early ’90s. Putting on these clothes as a grown woman, I realise that that little girl never really left. I pretended she was gone, that I had moved on and become an adult. But becoming an adult is not an upward trajectory; it’s a mess of up and down and side to side. I’ve been so quick to disassociate myself from what I see as negative immature traits. Now, though, I may finally be ready to accept my angsty teen self, because in truth, she’s been right here all along. I thought I had divided myself in two, but one doesn’t exist without the other. My entire career has been about accessing the messy, insecure, self-destructive parts of myself. I am not sure how I stayed in denial of her existence. Maybe as I reclaim her now she’ll show me how to have a little more fun, and I can show her that eating vegetables and paying your bills on time don’t make you the dullest person in the room. I never gave up the overalls anyway. So scrunchies… here I come.

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