The first time I found myself hunched over a secondhand denim jacket, pulling a needle and thread through what felt like an impossibly thick patch with my teeth, I didn't think it was about reclaiming my relationship with fashion. I didn't think it was about anything, really; I was probably too busy congratulating myself on the discovery that a toothpaste cap makes an admirable stand-in for a thimble. When you're moving across the country with nothing but what you can carry, small MacGyver-isms like this seem worth noting.
And on the move I was. The denim jacket was purchased just a month prior to me leaving my college town, and I started sewing patches on it shortly thereafter to mark the stops along the meandering path that eventually led me to New York. There was a patch for camping in the Grand Tetons on a road trip west, and one for those delicious biscuits shared with a friend in Portland. There was a patch for a mini-pilgrimage based on a Sufjan lyric, and a patch for my first time wandering the desert at Burning Man.
Then, finally, there was a patch for New York, purchased during my first month in the city at a reception for an alternative art gallery in Bushwick. The crowd of young, hip Brooklynites bumming cigarettes off one another simultaneously intimidated and mildly repulsed me. Intimidated, because everything from their asymmetrical haircuts to their bondage-inspired accessories screamed I'M COOL, something I wasn't sure my look could ever do. And repulsed, because I wasn't sure I actually wanted it to. Still, I bought a patch from the gallery — a memento that was just the right size to associate myself with all of that coolness without feeling like it owned me.
It was a balancing act I had to get used to over the next few months in the city. Perhaps because I was living in a recognized fashion capital for the first time, my brain suddenly assumed that anyone who'd been living in New York longer than me knew more about fashion than I did. At the same time, the degree to which I saw clothing used as a means of displaying wealth or status grossed me out — even though the results were often chic.
If fashion was a game, I didn't want to lose, but I wasn't sure I liked the motives that led people to win, either. Soon, this ambivalence crept into my own process of getting dressed in the morning. What had long been a joy suddenly seemed like a test I was sure I was failing.
In spite of all this, one garment never fell prey to my wardrobe malaise: the denim jacket. The patches on it served as graphic signposts reminding me of my favorite memories since the beginning my circuitous journey to New York, creating a positive association too strong to be shaken by my sartorial insecurities. They also gave me a way to beat the system that told me I constantly needed new stuff to feel good about what I was wearing. Every time I added another patch, I got that little thrill that comes from flaunting a new purchase. But since I was actually just building on an old one, my version of "new" was better for my closet space, my wallet and my carbon footprint.
The time investment it required somehow added significance, too. I wanted patches tied to lived experiences rather than ones that just looked cool, which meant it took months to patiently accrue a small collection culled from souvenir shops, vintage stores and art fairs.
And then came the sewing. While many of the patches I bought were supposedly iron-ons, they usually required stitching to keep the thick edges from peeling — which is how I found myself with a toothpaste cap on my finger and a needle between my teeth, wrestling thickly embroidered fabric that seemed hell-bent on impenetrability. It was during one of those long stitching sessions that I realized how the jacket embodies the elements that made me fall in love with fashion in the first place.
I can't wrap myself in a painting or slip on a beloved song, but with a garment, I can literally climb inside my favorite designs and wear them on my skin. Clothing lets me communicate with other people, often before we've spoken a word about my likes, my values and my history. It becomes a part of my most important memories and later helps me retain them.
As with any fashion, my love for the jacket doesn't exist in a vacuum untouched by the culture around me. My affection for it certainly isn't hurt by the fact that everyone from Petra Collins to Eva Chen is into maximalist, personalized-looking clothing right now, and that designers like Alessandro Michele and Miuccia Prada's recent collections were inspired by magpies and world travelers. And yes, I'm sure those associations contribute to the feelings of self-assurance I get when wearing the jacket on the streets of New York.
But the thing that my DIY jacket is that an off-the-rack Gucci isn't is simple: it's mine. Not mine in the sense that I had the money to buy it or the good taste to choose it, but really mine; mine because I crafted it and cared for it and lived in it. And in a city where people so often act like the clothes make the woman, I'm glad to be a woman who actively participates in making the clothes.