Wearing Prints Brought Me Closer To My Mother & The Real Me

illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
I grew up in the South — North Carolina to be exact – but I never exactly fit the stereotype of a Southern Belle. From an early age, I owned too much black for that. But I did own my fair share of clothing that could be described as the "southern look": think floral tops, cowboy boots, belts, flannel shirts, and jean shorts. But, primarily, think above-the-knee printed dresses paired with my previously mentioned cowboy boots to football games and class, with pumps to church and brunch, and with strappy sandals or heels for hanging out with friends. Growing up, I was taught a printed dress was the most versatile and essential piece of clothing, and with the right accessories, it could take you from a tailgate to the theatre.
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Slowly, those print dresses were replaced with more structured, solid pieces of clothing, primarily in black. It wasn't an overnight change. My dorm room closet was filled with print dresses freshman year of college, but by graduation, many of them had been discarded. There was a direct correlation between the number of days left until I moved to New York and the decreasing number of prints in my wardrobe. I still had a few trusty pieces when I moved to my first apartment in Chinatown, but over the last six years and moves to apartments further and further uptown, they were replaced by solid color dresses in black, grey, navy, pink, red, and burgundy.
There were a few reasons for this: I felt like I needed to look "adult," and somewhere along the way decided that meant leaving prints behind. I think I wanted to stop associating myself with where I was from. I was also buying into the lie that curvy women are told, that wearing prints will make them look larger. (Plus-size women, to reiterate, this is a LIE. Everyone looks good in prints, and they come in so many different iterations.)
By my mid-20s, getting dressed wasn't fun anymore. I didn't feel like myself every morning — until I remembered the potential power of the right pieces of clothing. I wasn't taking risks, and my closet didn't really reflect me. This is when I started embracing being plus-size and finding clothing that really worked for me instead of wearing whatever I could fit in from regular stores. I integrated colors and different cuts back into my repertoire and started to find my fashion identity again. I still didn't buy any prints.
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Why? Back then, I had a rigid idea of what an adult that had it all figured out looked like— and I never saw myself wearing prints in that fantasy future. Yet, I was surrounded by "adults" (honestly, the older I get, the less sure I am what that word means) who not only wore prints but dominated in them daily. In fact, most of the stylish and very accomplished women in my life wear prints regularly. Refinery29's Global-Editor-in-Chief and co-founder, Christene Barberich, has a collection of beautiful printed dresses that I covet. Our Senior Feature Writer, Connie Wang, has one of the most eccentric and cool collections of prints I've ever seen. She is the antithesis to prints being paired with pearls and cowboy boots to football games. And, then there’s my mom, one of the most stylish and creative people I know, who has a distinct look full of abstract prints in teals and purples. Any piece of her clothing could be framed and hung on a beach house wall – ironic, since she’s not a beach person.
My mom desperately wanted me to wear prints. Every joint shopping trip, she would pick out some printed tops and tell me how great they’d look on me. She would send me texts with printed skirts and ask me if I liked them. In person, I looked at her like she was crazy and shook my head. I ignored her texts altogether. I love my mom. She’s one of my favorite people on the planet, and undoubtedly my biggest cheerleader, but I didn’t understand her obsession with dressing me in prints.
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My late 20s have been both wonderful and horrible. I grew up more between the ages of 26 and 28 then I did all of my early 20s. Somewhere between the death of two close friends, the 2016 election, making my first big purchases without parental help, and climbing the corporate ladder, I experienced the moment that arguably makes you an adult: the realization that there is no such thing as an adult who has it all figured out. Every adult guesses and hopes it works. Every adult goes to sleep at night knowing they didn't complete half of their to-do list. Every adult wakes up in the morning and just tries to do their best.
That realization is lonely. It made me appreciate the adults in my life more — especially my mom. It's impressive, truly, that parents are able to convince their kids they know what's going on all the time. Or ever, really. It was after this moment of recognition that, I finally reached for a print again. I was home with my mom shopping, having just returned from a funeral, and she picked out a floral to show me. It wasn't a floral that you would imagine on grandma's sofa, but a big, demanding floral on a black background. This time, finally, I said yes.
At the time, I thought I said yes because I wanted to make my mom happy. Because it felt like home and security. In mourning, I needed nostalgia. But, soon thereafter, I bought more. I bought printed tops, skirts, and dresses. They weren't the same prints of my childhood — think less Lilly Pulitzer and more stripes, polka dots, grids, and florals on black or dark backgrounds. Prints that I paired with pencil skirts, skinny jeans, and knee-high boots.
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Recently, I had a big presentation at work and I wasn't sure what to wear. After rejecting three or four outfits and running out of time before I needed to start my commute, I heard a voice — my overly confident 16-year-old self, to be honest — saying "wear a printed dress, it works for any occasion." It worked.
No, I'm not the fantasy adult I once envisioned. I will always be a combination of where I came from (florals, included), I will always be my mother’s daughter, and I will probably always be working toward the idea of "adult" I have in my head. Honestly, adulthood is messier than I thought it would be, but I wake up in the morning determined to do the best I can. In prints.
Welcome to MyIdentity. The road to owning your identity is rarely easy. In this yearlong program, we will celebrate that journey and explore how the choices we make on the outside reflect what we’re feeling on the insideand the important role fashion and beauty play in helping people find and express who they are.
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