For some women, fashion is an empowering form of self care and self expression: it can make you feel comfortable, sexy, liberated, feminine. But the only thing it makes me feel is anxious.
I hate shopping for new outfits. Maybe that’s rare for a girl in her early 20s who grew up in Australia’s fashion capital of Melbourne, but shopping just reminds me I’m an outsider. Certainly not the girl on the billboards.
I grew up in a Vietnamese family of big shoppers. We weren’t just ordinary shoppers but luxury brand shoppers — despite being middle class and on Centrelink. My dad was an electrical engineer and Mum was a travel agent in St. Albans. Yet everything my mum wore was labelled.
My mum had a closet full of $800 Manning Cartel dresses, $900 Scanlan and Theadore suits. She even had Dior or Gucci sweaters worth thousands of dollars.
Luxury brands made her feel worthy. But for me? These clothes felt tacky and loud. A reminder of how much of an outsider I was.
As a teenager, I associated “normal” Australian families with having outdoor barbecues or taking dogs for walks at the beach in casual jeans and active wear. Fashion was subtle, cool, relaxed — not the gaudy designer clothes my mum wore. Those felt like a stereotype.
“You never wear anything nice,” Mum would complain when I refused to buy the $950 navy Dion Lee dress she held up to me, the fabric thick and reaching down to my knees.
I was 15 and liked the effortlessly cool fitted and cropped clothes you see at Kookai — what other Aussie girls were wearing. Mum, in contrast, was wearing her Louis Vuitton sweater with a big teddy bear on the front stamped with a brown “LV”. She embarrassed me.
“Normal mums just wear Lululemon leggings and Nike runners, you always over do it,” I told her at the time.
“Your friends’ mums look cheap,” she responded.
“Did not even dress good. We Asian, we different. We must look good and elegant and rich.”
I remember thinking: “But we’re not even rich!”
When I reflect on my relationship with fashion, I can see how much of it was impacted by my own internalised racism.
I refused to wear luxury brands after I left home. I moved to Sydney and my fashion-sense changed; beach-ready, summery, and — most importantly — second hand and inexpensive.
I didn’t want to wear anything designer because I was terrified of being classified as an Asian “FOB” and marginalised as a stereotype, a foreigner. The overtly-wealthy clothes looked like an overcompensation.
For my mum, fashion was always about belonging.
Australia and its white spaces had told her that she couldn’t fit in. Designer wear was her way of telling the world that she was worthy, that she deserved her place here.
Now, when I go out with my friends, I stand out: while they line up at bars in the trendy Glassons crop top and leather pants — the perfect balance of sexy but not slutty — I wear sneakers, flowy floral pants I found while travelling in Nepal and a black singlet. Understated and off trend, because the thought of constantly shopping to keep up with the latest fads filled me with anxiety.
My shift to low-key, bohemian-inspired clothes was to protect myself. It was my way of convincing the world that I was Australian, a woman who spent a lot of time at beach, even though I spent most of my childhood indoors and was a nervous swimmer.
Fashion, for me, used to be about duplicating trends and impressing people — be it my mum or friends. Then it demanded more, a self expression I didn’t yet know how to articulate in my own style. I felt an unspoken tension: did I want to represent my mum or friends? Vietnam or Australia? What will make me feel like I belong?
I’m not sure if my opinion on shopping will change, or if I’ll ever wear some of my mum’s designer taste. Maybe one day I’ll fall in love with shopping and enjoy it as a form of self expression. Maybe I’ll find a style that expresses me authentically.
But for now, I’m going to keep wearing my $3 flowy pants until they rip.