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A case for tasteful thieving

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JULY 14, 2022

I spun back and forth in a pink corduroy jacket surrounded by the colorful shells of other outfits, fiddling with one of the buttons in the mirror.

“What do you think?” I said to my younger sister, pushing past the curtain. “Too much?”

“You look like you’re about to break into song,” she giggled. “You should get it.”

It was junior year of high school, and I was desperately trying to scrape together something that resembled a fashion sense. I knew people who I thought dressed well, but I always considered reproducing their style a sort of artistic crime, plagiarism that would not go unpunished.

It all happened so quickly. I thought back to my khaki shorts and navy polo school uniform I used to wear to junior high every day, missing when the only thing I had to decide was what socks to wear. Every few Fridays, we’d have a free dress day, and I would march into school looking like a Disney Channel character, complete with clashing patterns and too many layers.

Then high school hit and every day became free dress. We went from knee-length skorts and hand-me-down slacks to all-out warfare — chaos from our boundless closets. Even the one kid with fewer outfits than a cartoon character started cycling through tacky graphic tees.

I found myself playing catch-up. I looked around the lunch table one day and realized with horror that everyone had started cuffing things, and not just romantically. It started with the bottom of our jeans and then climbed up our shirt sleeves until we could have been mistaken for the cast of “Grease.”

And then thrifting took hold. Suddenly, if it wasn’t an oversized, faded t-shirt from a music festival you’ve never been to, it wasn’t stylish. I turned up my nose at my mom’s suggestion we go try Nordstrom Rack or Tilly’s, insisting we go to Goodwill and spend hours sifting through unorganized racks.

Underneath all the outward fads, as the skirts shortened and the shirts tightened, the hormones started to storm. I’d sit there during lunch, scrolling through Pinterest with the words “cool fits” in the search bar, trying to decide if I liked the look or the model’s jawline.

All that self-conscious soul-searching seemed to point to the same answer for why the shirt never looked the same on me as it did on the website. I decided the only culprit could be my ever-changing body.

Suddenly, my salmon pullover didn’t fit quite right. I stopped wearing white v-necks because I didn’t like the way they fell across my chest. Long sleeves stopped reaching my wrists; my proportions felt foreign. I’d look at my lunch plate and fixate on how much my stomach would hang over my belt buckle.

The only thing I could think of, day in and day out, was how much space I took up and what I looked like doing it.

Trying to craft an aesthetic while your body is squeezing and stretching in the most dramatic ways you’ve ever seen is like trying to solve a Rubix cube shoved into a condom. It’s sticky and complicated and near impossible to do alone.

When whispers of college started flying around, standing out became the new fitting in. Our pursuit of individuality had new stakes. I’d go to school overcome with the insecurity that my style was solely a patchwork of people I admired, anxious that I might be found out.

When my classmates realized my Dickies were like the ones Andrew wore for his Spanish presentation or that my new Nikes matched the senior point guard’s, I’d be expelled from the ranks of the fashionable and strung up in the quad by my shoelaces.

And as I hung there, upside down, I’d think, who among us can claim originality? Aren’t we all just a huddled mass of copycats, anxious that the identities we’ve cobbled together will one day burst at the seams?

The crises of personhood that ruled my high school closet will continue throughout college and into life. My style is inevitably going to have parts of people I admire, and I see that as a natural and respectful practice, like a painter trying to piece together a portrait.

All of us — whether you’re putting half your inheritance toward a new summer wardrobe or just like wearing green — have just as much of a right to self-expression as anyone front row at Paris Fashion Week.

Picasso (or Hemingway, one of the big ones) said, good artists borrow, great artists steal. While I can’t recommend actual stealing — unless it’s a massive corporation, then I didn’t see anything — I can recommend some tasteful thieving.

By no means am I advocating you jump the next well-dressed stranger that wanders across your path. But that spark of envy or awe is telling you something about how you want to present yourself.

So go out. Take notes. Ask people where they got things. Find your way over the initial self-consciousness and give compliments freely and truthfully. Stop fiddling with buttons, trust your own taste and try picking a few pockets.

Luke Stiles writes the Thursday column on unqualified advice and unpopular opinions. Contact him at [email protected] or on Instagram at

JULY 21, 2022