I wear a lot less make up now.
I still have sharp recollections of individual outfits and accessories from my childhood -- the t-shirt with a giraffe applique that sported a mane made of brown yarn, a fuschia and white colorblock dress, gingham headbands in blue and pink, a jacket with killer whales knitted into it by my grandmother, a lime green sweater made by my babysitter with hardy acrylic yarn bought at Longs Drugs, a necklace strung from plastic jewels and silver beads that quickly turned white as the coating rubbed off, a little red vinyl handbag that my grandfather bought for me in a Taipei department store.
In my teens, I started collecting vintage clothing because I could not find the A-line shifts that I had seen pictured on photos of Vanessa Redgrave and Twiggy from the 60s. But as my little closet began to fill with silk shantung evening suits and musty t-strap pumps, vintage clothing began to take on a new meaning for me. As a second-generation American, I knew very little about my family's past, partly because of the Cultural Revolution and partly because of the language barrier that existed between me and the rest of my family (I was the first person in my family born in the United States and the first to be more fluent in English than in Mandarin). Artifacts, like photos, heirlooms and hand-me-downs, were almost as scarce as memories. I treasured the few dresses in my closet that had been tailor-made for my mom and grandmother when they lived in Taiwan, but I quickly outgrew them.
When I slipped on a 50s black velvet and lace cocktail sheath for my junior prom, however, or a camel hair coat I had bought at De Anza College's monthly flea market from a lady who had worn it when she was pregnant with her children in the 50s and 60s (she took two dollars off her asking price of $7 because she said she could sense that I would take good care of it), I stepped into the lives of the people who had once felt the same fabric embracing their skin and borrowed their stories.
I don't derive the same kind of meaning from fashion now as I did then, maybe because I'm more comfortable in my own skin. But I've noticed that the times in my life when I pay the most attention to fashion (not just the clothing on my back but what other people are wearing) correspond to the periods when I was the happiest. I work at home now and though that makes me happy, it also takes part of the joy away from dressing up. I don't dress for other people, but I do consider what I wear as part of a non-verbal dialogue I have with the rest of the world. I was born and raised in northern California, educated in New York, where I also worked as a journalist for a few years, and I now live in Taipei, Taiwan. Wherever I have gone, I have been a minority of some sort, something that has perks and minuses. But even if I can't always have control over what people assume about me at first glance or when they hear my American accented Mandarin, I can always choose how I present myself to the world.
And, as my mom told me when I was younger and bitching about having to put on something respectable for a family gathering, taking care in your appearance, no matter your personal style, is a way of showing respect to yourself and others. Because of that, I always try to keep the lid on my dress up box open.