I recently attended my 25th college reunion. The journey involved a seemingly endless car trip, during which the rocky ridges of Massachusetts gave way to the green meadows of New York and, finally, the wide, open fields of Ohio. I’ve travelled this route many times, when visiting my parents in my Ohio hometown. It always feels like the car is suspended in air, between different lifetimes, different realities, on a journey that starts in one timeline and ends in another, two days later.
25th reunions strike at an interesting time of life. We have so many options now; our path is no longer predictable or straight. I was amazed at the different life stages represented by my former classmates. Some of us are on our second or third careers. Some have risen to the top of something or other, but most have stopped and started and lateralled and gone into reverse a few times. Many are preparing for their children to leave the nest, but if the toddlers waddling across the quad are any indication, a few only recently started parenting.
My style blog persona didn’t disappear for the reunion, but she went deep underground. The college in question is a small, progressive, liberal arts institution. We were, and probably still are, an idealistic bunch. If I had to listen to the self-righteous proclamations made by my 18-year old self, I would probably never stop rolling my eyes. But there’s a beauty to that, isn’t there? Because if you sell out right at the start, where do you go from there?
I still remember the moment when I decided the only ethical choice was to not buy material things. There was too much exploitation, too much poverty in the world. For at least a couple of weeks, I considered never buying any new clothes. I didn’t want to eat meat, either, because valuable resources were wasted in its production. This phase ended as soon as I realized I didn’t like tofu and needed something to wear.
I probably spent the better part of four years trying on different selves and different clothes. When I arrived on campus in the fall of 1983, I had a closet full of chino-style slacks, jeans, and conservative, button-down blouses with frilly little collars. Within the first week, I looked around and realized I had a problem. Although a few of the freshmen looked like me, much of the student body represented one of 3 styles:
- 60s throwback (tie-dyed shirts, ethnic-print skirts and tunics);
- post-punk hipster (black, black, metallic studs, and more black); or
- anything goes, as long as it’s not considered “normal” (the guy in a skirt; the guy with the dandelion hat, etc.)
I now realize that many of the people there had style. But I didn’t understand the rules of this minimalist, I’m-not-really-trying style. So I spent a large part of my college career in sweat pants and oversized men’s flannel shirts. No, really. When I see photos of myself from that time, I think two things: 1) I was a hopeless mess, and 2) I looked beautiful. And I so didn’t know it. And it’s so unfair. But there it is.
My freshman year roommate helped me out of my style rut, now and then, because she had a few funky items that I could borrow. I recall a blue and silver sweatshirt with bat-wing sleeves – very 80s chic. She also had “the shirt from France.” She now calls it “the ugly shirt” because one of her teenaged daughters won an ugly shirt contest in it many years later. Here it is:
Thanks to my “roomie” and her family for providing the photo!
Yes, with the wisdom of post-80s hindsight, we can all see why it won the contest. But I thought it was amazing.
In fact, at the reunion, I told everyone that this shirt had magical powers because I wore it to a dorm party and, for the first time in my life, actually cut loose and danced in plain sight of other people! (Of course, the faux leather mini skirt may have helped. Not to mention the beer).
I eventually discovered thrift stores, so I played with “style” by combining thrifted items with hand-me-downs from friends and the rare retail purchase. But I always came back to my flannel shirts. And that’s the version of me that my former roommate remembers. Ironically, now she’s the one who jokes that she’ll end up on What Not to Wear someday. She has nothing to worry about; she looks fantastic and always did. But she’ll be the first to say that fashion with a capital F is not her thing. She mentioned my blog during our visit and said, “I just can’t wrap my head around the fashionista thing.” I would never call myself that, not by a longshot, but compared to sweatpants and flannel shirts — well, OK. Point taken.
The next day, as I was putting on makeup in the dormitory bathroom, I thought to myself, “If somebody told me, 25 years ago, that I would be here, doing this, I would have said they were crazy.” I mean, come on. Makeup? Really? Often throughout the weekend, I wondered how many of us were doing things that would make us unrecognizable to our past selves.
As I mingled at various reunion gatherings, I overheard snippets of conversation that revealed, so vividly, all of the different life stages and struggles that we are navigating. Some speakers were clearly interested in discussing, and I think promoting, their professional selves. Some passed cellphones with photos of their children. Others focused more on our shared past. At times, I heard that tone you pick up any time people are “performing” for others through conversation – a mixture of pride, uncertainty, and an eagerness to please. To prove oneself. Yes, I turned out OK. Yes, this is the life I wanted.
But I also heard quieter voices, speaking in more measured tones of more difficult subjects. Illness. Loss. Job setbacks. Ended relationships. From more than one person, I heard some variation of: “It’s been a very difficult year. I am so happy to be here.” These were the most interesting voices to me.
I fell in with a group of close friends who seemed exactly the same to me – except for all the ways they are now different. We picked up right where we left off, as they say. As we were visiting in the dorm lobby one evening, at an hour when many of us would ordinarily be winding down, several people passed us on their way to “80’s night” at the college disco. (“I took a nap,” one of them assured us. “I set an alarm!”) Only one of us joined them. The rest stayed rooted to our comfy chairs, talking and laughing at our laziness and inertia. Somebody described a human interest story he’d read in a newspaper, about an AARP ball at which the seniors had reportedly outlasted members of the band. They just kept dancing, wanting more music, willing the party to go on and on. We decided this burst of energy must come later in life, if we’re lucky. “We’re not quite old enough to be young at heart,” we concluded.
After the reunion, I felt a bit wistful for a couple of days. It’s weird to remember a time when I had no major responsibilities but so much freedom, with endless possibilities stretching out before me. It was just so easy to try on different clothes and pretend to be somebody else, over and over again, whenever I wanted. I truly believed I could become anybody.
Many say that we reinvent ourselves at midlife, or at retirement, or any number of other times in our lives. Wouldn’t it be great if, as adults, we could all go off to a college-style camp to live with interesting new people, learn new things, and try on new selves? Without required reading, exams, or soul-crushing student loans? Is that what Elderhostel is for? Can we create this for ourselves before we need assisted living?
Young-at-Heart University, here we come. Who wants to join me? I’ll bring the beer.