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Commonly called the first Black supermodel, Pat Cleveland was and remains an inspiring force in the fashion industry — the 68-year-old walked a runway as recently as Spring 2020 New York Fashion Week. Here, she talks about her enduring approach to personal style, as told to Channing Hargrove.
I don't "dress for my age" — I choose to dress according to the occasion. Sometimes, my outfit is an expression of what a particular invite called for. Sometimes, just waking up is an event in and of itself. My advice is to go to sleep in nice pajamas. Wear something around the house that makes you feel pretty. People will have something to say regardless of what you wear. So dress freely and with a sense of wonder and adventure.
When you consider personal style at any age, you have to assess what truly inspires you. I've been inspired by designers who trust me to bring their work to life as a supermodel. They were creating a beautiful garden out of their dreams, and I was able to enter it. And in turn, it changed the way I participated in fashion. It informed my personal sense of style.
I’ve also been inspired by my upbringing. I grew up in the art community because my mother, Lady Bird Cleveland, was a painter. I was introduced to all the wonderful artists that were around my mother, like Willis Metcalf. I grew up with art. I met Salvador Dalí through my friend actor/director Juan Fernández, and became one of his muses. All those experiences had an impact on my personal style, and it was a wonderful way to discover it.
Once you hone in on your personal style, know that it will evolve as you age, and give yourself the freedom to experiment as your sense of style changes. You might wear jeans, or high heels, or maybe even throw on a G-string to express your sexuality. Yes, a G-string is fine at any age. Admittedly, that underwear style hurts me now (it didn’t when I was younger), but wearing it serves a purpose. It’s about self-expression. But you also don’t have to be ashamed if you choose to dress for comfort. I can wear clogs, even Crocs once in a while. You have to have a sense of humor about yourself. You can achieve beauty and comfort at the same time — it’s not mutually exclusive.
There's also the physical impact of aging to consider. If your body is breaking down because you’re aging, how does that affect your style? Should you even participate in fashion anymore? I say yes! We tend to become more aware of our mortality as we get older, but the truth is, everyone dies a little bit each day. You don't have to stop living or embracing those things that bring you joy.
I've had near-death experiences many times in my life. I've seen the light, and I know that I have to go that way. If you're not well, take care of yourself, go to the doctor, learn about different kinds of healing, learn to heal yourself, and keep people around you who love you, as they will help you take care of yourself. And be thankful for fashion as a tool of healing. Because when you dress up, you feel better. It's like you're growing rose petals on your body. You bloom when you put on something beautiful. Don’t let your clothes go to waste. Spark yourself up.
My style philosophy is, at any age, go for what makes you feel good. The key to aging and personal style is to keep your mind in a state of bliss, even through all of your ups and downs. Don’t let the mundane world tear you down — learn how to get into your spiritual garden. Then everything that you do will stem from that blissful consciousness. That energy materializes in how you dress and how you express yourself outwardly.
Never lose that wonder about yourself and the possibility of joyfulness as expressed through fashion. And don't let anyone steal that away from you, no matter how old you are.