The Nerd in Disguise

In the ’80s, when I was coming of age, MTV was everything–I loved the thrift-store fashions of Cyndi Lauper, the fluffy skirts, zip up boots, and torn stockings. She looked so cool. But I went to a catholic school where we had to follow a dress code: blouses, slacks and/or skirts (not too far above the knee), no stirrup pants, and dress shoes. The most rebellious I could get was popping my collar.

I had grown up as a tomboy, two years younger than my brother, and because we were not rich, my father dressed me in “Tony’s” hand-me-downs. Until I was about five, I believed I was a boy. My father let me walk around the house with no shirt on, Tony and I had fist-fights with kids on the playground, and I only wore pants.

My father remarried when I was six, and my stepmother introduced me to a hairbrush, ruffled panties, dresses, tights, and patent leather shoes. It was not a smooth transition. When she brushed my knotted hair, I wailed and she yelled. And when I hung upside down from a tree limb while wearing a dress, consequently showing my flowered underwear, she told me to get down.

Looking back, I realize my stepmother was a trend follower. She wore T-shirts with sayings on them, high-priced designer jeans, and used top-of-the-line makeup and hair products. She bought school clothes for my brother and me at the very uncool Sears store in the mall and sneakers from a place called Philadelphia Sales. Cheap!

Of course, in high school, I was desperate to fit in and begged my stepmother to buy me Izod polos, designer jeans, and elf boots. She took me to outlet malls where they had “slightly damaged” Izod clothing and I got my polos. I borrowed elf boots from my friend, and was grateful for being a cheerleader who got to look cool in my uniform on game days.

Luckily, my stepgrandmother bought me Forenza sweaters and wide wale corduroys from the Limited, and Gloria Vanderbilt designer jeans. And for my senior prom, my father gave me an unlimited price tag to buy any dress I wanted–a mauve Southern Belle dress and finger-less gloves.


One of the things I liked about 80s fashions were they were influenced by the late 50s and early 60s fashions–saddle shoes, penny loafers, poodle skirts and angora sweaters worn over a blouse with a Peter Pan collar. When the GoGos appeared on MTV with their short hair styles and blouses, my father thought they were a 50s band.

As a woman who will turn 50 this year (yay!) I wear what I like to call “classic” fashions. Collared blouses, slacks, and shoes that don’t go out of style. This is not necessarily to make a statement; I think it’s because growing up poor taught me to be thrifty. I want my clothes and shoes to last. I shop at Goodwill and second-hand stores. I visit Nordstrom Rack, not Nordstrom. And if I think a piece of clothing I buy won’t last at least a decade, I usually put it back on the rack.

Some people always seem to know which trends are coming. The messy bun, big sunglasses, eyelash extensions, yoga pants. If it weren’t for my grown daughters, I might never know what was “in style.” I work in a professional office, so I wear dress clothes, but I feel like a nerd in disguise. I’ll leave the trends to the people who have the time and energy to follow them.

I’m deeply grateful that my father dressed me in boys’ clothes. I know I will never be a princess. Today I’m wearing a pair of Doc Marten saddle shoes I bought at a second-hand store for $35. I love telling people how inexpensive they were. I get many compliments on them. I once got a snide comment, but that woman and I hardly talk anymore.



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