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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Choice of clothing helps us figure out who we truly are

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By Keiko Ohnuma
Advertiser Staff Writer

"You're changing your clothes again?" He shakes his head.

"Why do you need to change your shirt 20 times just to go to to Home Depot?

How can I explain? It matters.

Not out of vanity, exactly. There are plenty of times I am fine with feeling plain.

The clothes I put on tell me who I am, and some days that's hard to decide.

Am I "ripe, flavorful and complex"?

Or "deceptive, because its density and sweetness are matched by high acidity?"

"Ready to drink now?"

It doesn't matter that we're only going to price faucets. If I leave the house wearing the wrong thing, I am going to feel silly all day. The voice in my head will not let it pass – especially if it spies a reflection.

"Girl, what is up with that shirt? You look like Ocean Club on Ladies Night" — even if the shirt was fine yesterday and may be fine tomorrow.

How many times have I been late, tearing through the house grabbing bag and keys in a frenzy, only to stalk back through the door to change my shoes?

Don't laugh, ladies. Some of you have done it, too.

Men roll their eyes and say we dress for each other. As far as most of them are concerned, anything is fine if it's fetching, no matter what else it says.

But I think the person we're really dressing for is that critic in the mirror, the one who never shuts up. Some days, it's him. Or every potential him. Other days, it's the girlfriends, or Mom or (I'll admit it) even me at home alone.

Since the age of 3, "How do I look?" has pretty much dictated how the world responds, starting with "Just look at you!" when my clothing of choice was mud.

It seems like I have fought this compulsion ever since I could dress myself, and just grew resigned to not knowing when I might make it out the door.

But there was a period when I moved to Hawai'i that I didn't give a fig what I wore. Back in San Francisco, the closet meditation had been a vital prelude to every event, because so much of city life there involves decoding the meanings behind the riotous display of style. Not so in Hawai'i. There seemed to be only a dozen ways for women to look, mostly related to sexuality. Tight, short and blatant says one thing, especially if it includes a permanent change of the outfit beneath the clothes.

Later, after marriage, you turn into an auntie and cover up in some form of sack. Or fight it with Victoria's Secret-style sexy. When you get old, of course, you are just supposed to stay clean.

At first, it came as a great relief to dress in a uniform like everyone else. Short shorts. Chunky shoes. Loooong hair. Bag with little doodads dangling off of it.

But it didn't take long for this to become unbearably confining. I don't always want to be an item on the same plate-lunch menu. Surfer girl. Hoochie mama. Tita.

That's what makes returning to the closet a piece of necessary freedom, an escape hatch from social expectations. The wardrobe, like the mail-order catalog, offers a chance to dream — and maybe dream of something better.

Even if I am the only person reading it.

Reach Keiko Ohnuma at kohnuma@honoluluadvertiser.com.