Who Are You Wearing?

By Ariel Barley
January 24, 2024

My clothes have people inside them. Each new day brings a question: who am I wearing today?

There are people in my closet.

They’re kicking their feet on hangers. They curl up in drawers, plastic bins, and a mirror-slash-jewelry box.

A sticky note presses at the inside of my forehead. It reads:
    1) a coffee at nine (quick, just catching up)
    2) midday thrifting
    3) a cute-casual dinner (seven-ish, dress for the cold).

The closet pulls me in, ever-willing to solve my dire outfit-puzzle.

I start with the bottom rack, running mismatched nails (pink, yellow, blue) over mismatched hangers (felt, white plastic, black plastic).

I pause occasionally to check underneath jackets and long sleeves for little silk tops. These tops carry the burden of a handful of nights out, stained with the most potent tastes of my freshman year: blue raspberry Svedka and drunken tears. They sob into my fingers as I prod at them. I figure I don’t need that excess emotion today.

I rise onto tiptoes.

Long sleeves peer down from the top rack. I skim halfway through before I stop on a sweater with smiling Gengar plastered across it; they jump around in their 8-bit fashion, beeping. They sound like my brother and his too-loud computer.

I grab the sweater, tug it on, and wrinkle my nose.

Sweater-time-travel (a not-yet-studied-phenomenon) takes me back to the last time I donned my brother like this: I smile at my mom as she takes a picture with flash (she doesn’t mean to); my brother and I squirm with discomfort. I want to nap, and he wants to game.

I smile, but I realize long sleeves are not the answer for today. A coffee at nine requires a social kindness I cannot muster with my brother’s whiny protests in my ear. A more feminine charm (the vibe for a cute-casual dinner—a starting point) hangs in bulk further down the rack. I move to dresses.

I linger on my slips, but they dissolve into my hands, too tinged with humid summers for a fall day. I stroke down sleeves and heavy skirts. They sound like my prim grandmother, a woman who I only wear in such large doses when I need confidence (midday thrifting and a cute-casual dinner come hand-and-hand with my friends. Confidence is free with them).

I’m rushing now, frustrated. I think about pulling out my easy T-shirts—and then my knuckles bump against a simple dress: blue-and-gray plaid, sleeveless.My aunt’s tinny voice chuckles. Hot chocolate tickles my nose, a wonderful complement for a brisk coffee at nine. I pull out the hanger, and just like that, I’ve found my base.

I throw it on, spinning. It kisses my mid-calf and hangs loose at my waist as I begin the hunt for an outer-layer.To contrast my aunt, I need to wear someone bolder, someone who can still level with her sweeter side. I fuzz up my vision, search for color, and land on Behr.

Behr lives so ardently in blue that he’s started to envelop me in the color. I eye my denims, frilly mermaid skirts, and funky turquoise button-ups — and I find him in the whole of them. I cycle through my denim vest lineup — one with flower embroidery, another with cats, and a third with rips up the sides. I try each Behr next to my aunt, but none are quite right; she doesn’t get his humor, and he can’t deal with her manic habits.

I switch my tune.

My red pieces have tasted autumn. They’re friends to yellow, orange, and brown. Also — perhaps synonymously — they have tasted Cecily. I just gave her one of my autumn dresses.

She borrowed it more often than I wore it, and that's the most precious thing: to give away memories freely, with love, because they suit someone else better. She looks good in my trips to South Congress, my senior Halloween party, and a July birthday picnic. 

Cecily hums about overripe peaches and scrubs at our dishes. She comforts me, and she has the happiest highs of anyone I know. She says “sigh” out loud, and I smile when I slip any version of her on. Today, it’s a red turtleneck and three orange-red-yellowish tops. None of them convince me or my aunt.

I like warm colors most, though I’m funniest in blue. Cecily would suit a coffee at nine, and Behr would suit midday thrifting. A cute casual dinner…

Oh, right.

Excitement bubbles behind my teeth. I step away from the closet, pulling a bin from under my bed. Right at the top: a winter cardigan. It’s risky, picking from the winter sidelines like this.

I lay it out on my bed. It boasts orange pumpkins, checkers, and whorls of sunflowers. Big, puffing sleeves welcome me, a way to dress for the cold. Blue lines the ends of the fabric.

My plaid-patterned aunt agrees. She always does wear cardigans.

Back in the closet, above the upper rack: a shelf lined with curveballs. Shoes answer a question: what do I need a little extra of today?

I reach for my Buffalo Londons — my going-out shoes, my everyday shoes, and the shoes that earn me compliments. Strangers burrow under their laces. They could help with my coffee at nine, but I need something closer to the ground.

I grab my once-white Converse.

They fling me into my dad’s unsure form. He has a collector’s bug like me; he bought his first pair of converse in the last century and has gotten a pair a year ever since. Each step in converse echoes electric guitars, mandolins, and banjos in my mind.

I take minutes to lace them up, leaning against the closet door frame. A sneaker seems an odd choice for this outfit, but My aunt and my friends disagree. They like the sound of the music — and so my shoes are settled.

I walk to the other side of my room, dodging the clothes on the floor. I meet my own eyes in my old red mirror. A noise — ba-dum, ba-dum — emanates soft from it.

I pull the hidden latch on the mirror to reveal my jewelry box. A thousand silver-plated lifelines tinkle at me from necklace hooks.I have more than I know how to wrangle some days, but I find myself picking the same necklace ninety percent of the time, and with what few minutes I have, that choice is easy.

Well, that — but also, my aunt-dress neckline is far too high for baubles. She’s loud enough on her own. I want steady. I pull a necklace from a hook in the middle — silver chain, mother-of-pearl, and carved flowers on the surface of a heart. I call it my almost-everyday necklace.

I can’t say for sure why so many girls I know opt for a heart-shaped
companion. There’s something poignant there — a heart to settle a heart.

A necklace can be a statement, but  moreoften than not, it soothes. It anchors, and mine today feels like my mom’s gardening hands. She says Happy Graduation, and she hands me a square-shaped box, my heart inside.

Another plus to my almost-everyday necklace: it matches my truly everyday rings. A ring at its core is a gift. Right now, I wear fifteen daily. They sit in a row, above my necklaces, ready for a dear morning ritual as I slide them on.

One comes from myself. Two come from a girl I don’t see anymore. Five come from my mom. She wore them while finding God, and I want to find God, like, loosely. Behr gave me one on my birthday. It’s blue.

My last ring — my left pinky finger — doses me with my grandmother. She supports me, in harmony with my entire hand-army. I should start a ring-web — a roster of where they come from and who they go to. When I die, I can only hope that it’ll be with bare fingers.

Now, I check the mirror. Violins hum as I step back.

Good. The outfit is good — flirty enough for a cute-casual dinner, humble enough for coffee at nine, and cool enough for midday thrifting.

And yet, my daily crossroads still approaches: do I wear my Hat for the People?It’s red (maroon, or brown—we can never really settle), and knit, and cost maybe three dollars on an impromptu Savers trip forever ago.  It’s unassuming, you’d think, but…

You have to try on this hat I have. I swear, it’s so weird — but it looks good on everyone.

It has opinions. It likes cold rain and dewy sun. It likes rosy-cheeked laughter in Libra season. It remembers my many Chuy’s birthday parties. It remembers friends that have stayed and those that have gone; they’ve all tried it on.

Do I need it today — do I need them today?

The outfit, as it often does, agrees with my verdict. I garnish myself with my cherry-on-top, and let it cover the tips of my ears.

I let guitars play. I have a coffee at nine to attend. ■

Layout: Cristina Canepa
Photographer: Dylan Haefner
Stylists: Emily Martinez & Bella Muñoz
HMUA: River Perrill & Floriana Hool
Models: Kani Manickavasakam & Jean-Claude Bissou

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