Scrolling through an iPhone camera roll is the 21st century version of flipping through the pages of a metal ring-bound photo album and romanticizing times that felt much simpler. In 2020, a miserable year that feels more and more like a literal epoch, waxing nostalgic about The Before—a period that I can’t help but refer to as “when things were normal”—has become an international pastime, and at this point, looking back at snapshots of life pre-pandemic can feel borderline masochistic. We had places to go inside, lower halves of faces to see, and things to do (and touch) without fear of spreading disease as easily as melted margarine.
I’ve embraced this digitized pursuit of nostalgia, especially when I’m distraught by small but nevertheless frustrating battles that remind me of The Now. For instance, my inability to write this essay from the comfort of my favourite hipster café’s air-conditioned interior, the routine of having another cotton swab stuffed up my nose to confirm I’m COVID-negative, or the challenge of inventing fun things to do on a Friday night that don’t involve getting drunk or stoned for the third weekend in a row. So, in such bursts of avoidant behaviour, I wind up on my bed, thumbing away at years of memories that map a montage of my every self. There’s Academic Syd, the one who graduated college with a journalism degree and a satisfactory B average. Good Time Syd, tipsy and smize-ing, scantily-clad with old friends outside nondescript music venues. And Independent Syd, the one who captured mischievous mirror selfies in her tiny, first studio apartment paid for by her first job out of school.
Throughout my virtual travels through time, I’ve realized that I’m not just wistful about what I was doing in these corona-free moments. I also pine after how I appeared in them: colourful and audacious. I was That Chick a little over a year ago, an undeniable cool girl whose eye-catching outfits, always spiked with provocation and alt-girl attitude, loudly communicated that I knew what was up without my uttering a single word. At the start of quarantine, when I began remembering these past lives, it hit me that I longed for that specific Syd to make a comeback. And only then did I realize (and deeply resent) that my change in wardrobe directly concurred with a significant life transition: starting my first Very Adult Job, from which I was laid off at the start of the pandemic.
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To be fair, this job—an editorial role at a non-profit—wasn’t actually my first real, post-college job. Before this corporate gig, the backbone of my wardrobe was Polly Pocket-sized crop tops, grimy Dr. Martens, and mom jeans that made my butt look as juicy as Janet Jackson’s in Poetic Justice. I loved it that way—and I suppose the universe did, too, as it gifted me a copywriting job in fashion immediately upon graduating college. “Oh, and by the way, we don’t have a dress code here—feel free to wear whatever you want,” my then-boss kindly informed me after I’d aced my in-person interview, as if she knew my 21-year-old spirit belonged in a Joy Division tee, gym socks, and iridescent Air Forces instead of a black turtleneck and Chelsea boots.
I pushed my stuffy interview clothes (you know the ones—stiff blazers with padded shoulders, “sensible” closed-toe heels, and a leather handbag that felt way more adult than my go-to American Apparel cotton tote in all its stained glory) to the back of my closet and embraced my right to dress. Nearly every day for 14 months I reported for duty as either a life-sized Bratz doll or quasi-skater boi, and in a photo studio environment of nearly all millennial creatives, no one thought twice about my carrot-coloured Dickies paired with metallic platform hiking boots or my barbed wire necklaces and enormous bamboo hoop earrings. Half of the time, I was simply revelling in my generous employee discount and rocking the same looks my company sent to hundreds of influencers for free. (R.I.P. to all the I.AM.GIA merch I resold to Buffalo Exchange during a low point of broke girl living—I needed gas money, but such 2018 artifacts will be dearly missed.)
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The fun ended when I decided I needed more from a big-girl job than a chill workplace and cheap designer clothes. Increasingly often, I found myself lamenting my paltry salary, monotonous workload, and the window-less workspace that triggered my seasonal depression. So as my one-year anniversary at the company approached, I began looking for a role elsewhere that paid better and, more importantly, actually utilized my journalism degree. It was during this months-long job search that I decided to start buying “real lady” clothes. All of a sudden I was infatuated with the Instagram feeds of Reformation, Oak + Fort and Everlane. My newfound lust for achieving the look of contemporary woman minimalism via culottes, leather mules, and neutrals was entirely out-of-character, but oddly visceral. To this day, I still shudder at the thought of my purchasing a pair of tiny hoop earrings, knowing full well—and not too deep down—that I still favoured the ostentation of hoops big enough to stick one’s fist through.
In retrospect, I realize that most of this wardrobe metamorphosis was related to the notion that dressing like an “adult” would help me feel more professional and put together—and therefore more deserving of a swankier job with older people, real rules (remind me why I wanted those again?) and the dreamy possibility of career advancement. Much of this belief was rooted in internalized ageism, which convinced me that performing an act of treason against my youth would shuttle me further along as an ambitious early-20-something. Some of it was also due to my awareness of everyday sexism and the fact that as a young woman, it’s far too easy to be perceived as “less serious” based on dress rather than resume or performance. I played into these philosophies, and my aspirations came to fruition when I landed a communications coordinator gig, copyediting theatre programs and writing byline-free PR features all day while wearing neatly cropped wide-leg jeans, thrifted Ann Taylor sweaters, and woven faux leather block heels (that gave off major Madewell vibes, but were actually from Old Navy).
This was my first experience in a truly professional work environment, a normie office where my somewhat unconventional wardrobe of Clueless-inspired co-ords, torn fishnets, oversized faux fur coats, and clout goggles was too weird to subsist without detection. It’s not that folks at this company were un-fun or uptight. In fact, my laidback department’s unofficial uniform was more blue jeans and sneakers than pencil skirts and kitten heels. Still, the office was a business-casual space, and my personal style—a coy amalgamation of Black aesthetics and skate-punk nuances with a liberal dash of trendy, it-girl spice—could be interpreted as inappropriately doing the most.
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But the joke was on me when I was fired after seven months and left awkwardly with nothing but a closet that belonged to someone else. Grown Syd, the one who had a “better” job, a new apartment with a full-sized fridge, and no interest in bright colours, appeared older, but lackluster. And she divulged very little about the person I continued to be on the inside: someone who studied youth culture and was obsessed with music and the history of fashion dolls; someone whose biggest dream was to finally ollie properly on a skateboard; someone who got a thrill from wearing outlandish outfits to the drugstore and getting stared at by chafed baby boomers in line to get their arthritis meds.
Now, without a 9-5, I mourned the death of my former wardrobe, believing that if only I had as much closet space or coin as Hannah Montana, I could have had the best of both worlds. But I wasn’t a pop star with a Malibu mansion—my reality was a studio apartment and unemployment. So as I stood in front of my closet that looked like the clearance rack at a GAP store, I decided to suck it up and appreciate Miss Rona’s silver lining: she was a disaster that allowed me to make room in my closet for myself.
Regression has a bad rap, but self-reflection shouldn’t. For me, the latter guided me to the former, reminding me that my inimitable personal style—which I’ve always considered to be an art practice—shouldn’t be squandered at the hands of a cultural ideology that likens maturity to clothing that makes me yawn. Today, as a full-time freelance writer with no office to report into, or external expectations to meet, my wardrobe has, for the first time in a year, truly harmonized with my spirit. One of my recent purchases? A cropped, bubblegum-pink T-shirt that snarks “It’s not me, it’s you” in the classic Barbie typeface. I bought the shirt because it’s completely on-brand with That Chick Syd, but it’s also a double entendre that covertly claps back at a society quick to denigrate the value of doing you in spaces of professionalism and productivity. I pair the tee with a chain belt, baby pink utility pants, and platform combat boots. I look like me, and it’s exhilarating to be back.