At the start of this year, I travelled from Karachi, Pakistan, to university in London. I’m a first-year student and, at 19, this was my first time travelling without family. Having just begun my journey into adulthood, travelling alone, living alone and taking care of myself alone was all new to me. I was in a new country, a whole continent away from the city I grew up in.
While planning for the trip, I knew at the back of my mind that I would be able to tap into my more experimental style sense while abroad, even if those experiments would only be seen by the grocery store cashier or my university dorm friends. What I didn’t realise, until I reached university, was just how much fashion freedom there would be. Like Karachi, London is a cosmopolitan city; a sensory overload of personalities and identities. However, unlike back home, in London I was a stranger. I was no longer surrounded by the people I grew up with, no longer bogged down by what society deemed appropriate or by rules of how one was expected to dress. There was no one to satisfy, I could truly live for myself. So when I noticed that no one would bat an eyelid at coloured hair, intricate eye makeup or a bunch of piercings, I found myself exploring my style aesthetic like never before.
There is something wonderful about exploring your aesthetic. While at university, I took the 'risk' of dyeing a single section of my hair purple. In retrospect, there was no risk. The dye was a temporary, wash-out kind and the strand could be hidden if styled correctly. But it felt like a risk to me because it was the first time I’d ventured into experimenting with my hair, a feature which, more often than not, I’ve been told not to change. The wonderful, ineffable thing was that when I looked at that strand of deeply pigmented purple hair amid a sea of black, it felt like it fit. As if it was always meant to be there. I learned that I love to wear beanies and silver rings, and flare pants. It feels difficult to explain but discovering accessories of physical expression that make you feel more like you – more comfortable in your skin – is a part of self-discovery that I wasn’t aware I needed.
For many people, parental pressure and expectations can stunt their style self-discovery. Ilma Lodhi, 24, moved out of her parents’ home into her own place in Chicago and felt the shift in her ability to wear what felt more stylish for her. "My fashion sense prior to moving out was always a topic of argument in my home," she says. "Now that I have moved out, I get to dress for myself and think about what will flatter my body instead of, Will this make my parents upset? My fashion sense now is trendy clothes: solid colours and cohesiveness, instead of unorganised layers to cover up. Moving out also distanced me from the Desi community, meaning I felt less seen by its judgement and free from bringing shame to my family. Sometimes the pressure of keeping them happy and well represented does sneak back in. But I have had to work through that guilt to prosper for myself."
As in Ilma’s experience, we often grow up in environments and communities that place boundaries on our self-expression. At other times, we're limited by having to make do with what we have to hand.
Twenty-three-year-old Zulfiqar Mannan from Lahore, Pakistan, moved to New Haven in Connecticut for university, where they discovered more about their fashion sense. "As an onlooker, you could describe my fashion sense as trying to make the best of typical male clothing that always fit only loosely, and overshadowed my body under a tedious, awkward silhouette. Mostly, I was never able to question or experiment with the form of the clothing that I was wearing. When I went away from home for college, I was still initially limited to these style choices by way of gender limitation. I do not think I would have been able to wear any of the gayer clothing I started wearing in my first year of college – like silver sparkly shoes from Zara or a pink hat from my college merch shop."
Zulfiqar explains how gender-bending in clothing was never understood or acknowledged as a legitimate form of self-expression in the community they grew up in. Nor did they know that it could be done in seriousness and have a significant impact on their lifestyle.
"When I moved away," they say, "it took a while before I seriously embraced and embodied the crop top. That was definitely the start. I felt really, really good in a crop top. It felt like a form that was suited to my body type. Then I discovered the halter top. Many of the body-gripping clothes that women are able to wear since they are marketed to them were really life-changing for me. Heels, too!
"By the time I put my first ever halter crop top on, I began to see such a truer version of myself look back at me from the mirror. I really began to sit comfortably in my identity as a trans woman when this style of short hair, super crop nangi (naked) top, pants/shalwar vibes and heels became my own."
Zulfiqar’s story touches on how the way clothing is marketed can stunt your ability to express your style aesthetic.
Sonya Barlow, 28, is originally from Langley in Berkshire and is now situated in London. She explains how the expectation to present a 'professional' image may also limit your style expression. "I would describe my old fashion style as limited and unexpressive. I didn't have an interest in dressing up. My style evolved by me slowly pushing my own limits and embracing my true self. Starting from piercings, wearing a nose ring to dyeing my hair – at university the bottom of my hair was green (blue gone wrong) but it looked cool. Working in corporate technology, there was an 'image' to [uphold] and so I wouldn't experiment much – now, being a business owner and founder, I am enjoying the freedom. Moving to London in the summer meant I could enjoy wearing new outfits and styles, like dresses as a simple example, which I wouldn't have before."
Sonya says that by exploring new areas when she moved, she was able to incorporate different styles from different places into her look and make it her own. "Owning what you wear is liberating – you are in control of the narrative."
Reading about all our different experiences, I wondered why leaving home can be a liberation for so many. I asked psychologist Anna Adamiak to shed some light on this question. She notes: "I do think that moving away from home can be very exciting. You can now find your own way in life, experiment with your own style and get things done in your own way without your parents' involvement.
"At the same time the experience can be bittersweet. We are all affected by our background, our parents and families, and there is no escape from it. We become who we are partly by internalising the characteristics of our primary carers. After the initial excitement, disappointment may come and it is better to be realistic about it and prepared for it. Things may appear more difficult than they seem and we may do things following our old ways as it is difficult to get out of our old habits straightaway. My advice would be to give yourself the time. Enjoy the newly acquired freedom but be prepared to take small steps and do not be afraid of mistakes, don't be too hard on yourself if something does not go the way you expected or planned for it to go. We learn by making mistakes. Have fun with it!"
Self-discovery in any sense can be scary but celebratory. Many of us feel the freedom to explore, experiment and evolve stylistically when we move away from where we grew up because we find ourselves amid a blank canvas, separated from others' preconceptions, from the expectations our communities have of us. In the unknownness of a new place, you can dare to dream beyond what you were told was conventional. It's an opportunity to let go of other people’s opinions of what is right for you and find out what 'right' means to you, for yourself.