I was a teenager in the 90s, so I spent most of high school dressing like Angela Chase: baggy jeans, tee-shirts, flannel shirts, oversized sweaters, the occasional baby-doll dress with granny boots. (I recently went through a bunch of photos from those days, and kept yelling at Teen Molly. “What are you wearing? Those clothes don’t even make sense together!” And then I saw this. Oh, right.)
If I shopped, it was at thrift stores, but sometime in ninth grade I’d discovered that my dad and I wore the “same” size jeans (that is, I could wear his jeans; in retrospect, I wouldn’t say they actually FIT me), so much of my wardrobe was cobbled together from jeans and giant sweaters I stole from his closet and leftovers from my mother’s hippie college years I stole from her closet. Strangely, I remember spending SO. MUCH. TIME. choosing my outfits every night. Deciding which pair of baggy pants to wear with which tee-shirt/cardigan combo apparently took a lot of work.
Unlike Paige Sheridan, the protagonist of The Princesses of Iowa, I was NOT a high school princess. I wasn’t a popular girl (in case the description of my wardrobe didn’t already tip you off!). I was a theater nerd and an orchestra nerd and a poetry club nerd and probably just a nerd nerd. But it didn’t matter, because my boyfriend wore too-short jeans that rose well above his sneakers when he sat down and flannel shirts and a thick plastic watch. In other words, we were perfectly matched.
But even though I wasn’t popular, I was creative and perpetually bored, and sometimes I liked to sartorially shake things up (as you do). So one day in ninth or tenth grade, I came to school in an outfit so fabulous I’m still completely in love with it, fifteen years later. I wore a little black dress with white polka dots, black tights, white character shoes, a white beret, and a large ankh necklace on a long silk cord. (No outfit in the nineties was complete without an ankh necklace, am I right?) I would still wear this outfit today, possibly minus the beret and ankh.
I don’t remember if anyone commented on my amazing outfit as I walked the hallways of the school that day, though I imagine they did, because come on. It was amazing. But I do remember that after bio, these two super pretty, super popular girls pulled me aside and complimented me on it. “We want you to know that we think you’re really interesting, and we love your outfit,” they said. “We actually suggested that you be added to our group, but we voted and the other girls think you’re a little too weird. Sorry! We still like your outfit!”
“Uh….. thanks?” I said.
The hilarious thing about this moment is that it was actually the SECOND time it had happened to me — a different group of girls had pulled me aside in eighth grade to tell me that they really liked me, but they put it to a vote and decided I was too weird to join their group. Even at the time, I was like “WHY WOULD YOU TELL ME THIS?”
Luckily, I was sort of shockingly well-adjusted, and had already decided that I prized creativity and originality over popularity, so I didn’t really mind. I might have even been flattered to be deemed weird by the popular kids. I do wonder, though, if these little brushes with popularity and moments of insight into the ways of the popular group (apparently they voted a lot?) didn’t fuel my imagination, years later, when I started to think about The Princesses of Iowa. I wondered about the girls who did prize popularity over anything else, the girls who would have been CRUSHED if informed they were slightly too weird to be popular. I wondered what it might be like to care so much about what everyone else thinks that you forget how to have your own opinion, or listen to your own voice.
And, like a weirdo, I decided to write about it.