From the time I was little and well into my teens I always felt pathetically uncomfortable wearing brand new clothing. It was not the fit that made me feel that way. It was not the newness as such that bothered me. It was the fear of the curiosity and attention that the new clothing was sure to elicit from those who saw me.
New clothing makes you look different. So, in new clothing, I knew that I looked different, and I surely felt different. Out of my accustomed outfit, I was not quite myself; I was literally beside myself. I was so utterly self-conscious. Walking through the school gate, I felt all eyes on me, those of the classmates as well as of my teachers as though my new outfit was emitting an eerie glow that even a blind could see. Most likely it was no more than a few classmates who cast a glance at me, that is, at what I was wearing; but that was enough to make me nervous. If anyone approached me to ask a harmless question like, "Is that a new coat?", I cringed. A compliment, well intended, made me speechless; then, I feared, too late, that my frozen countenance totally inappropriately stated arrogance or even anger.
It was a fear of being noticed. Standing out in the crowd mortified me; even a slimmest anticipation of standing out made me perspire. Children are perhaps generally conservative; they resist changes, in diet, in daily routine, in clothing. As customary clothing, worn daily, shapes itself to the body, so, conversely, the child also conforms to the clothing; the clothing becomes the extension of the body. Thus, the accustomed outfit comes to mark the person of the child. I always found it difficult to shed off the well-worn clothing even when I began to outgrow it.
But, on the other hand, there were always plenty of performers at school who wallowed in being the focus of attention. A boy with a new haircut shows it off and is proud to be the center of attention. A girl with a new bright dress surrounded by her classmates who gather all around her and compliment her; she is an instant celebrity and loves the newly earned stardom. I thought those children were so vulgar. In truth I was more likely envious of them doing so easily what I could not.
All this changed in my later life. I love new clothes now. I change my clothes everyday so that I feel as though I am putting on a new dress all the time. I came to love bright colors and daring styles. I cherish the double takes and shocked glances; they flatter me. I am receptive to compliments. The change happened rather suddenly. It happened soon after I came abroad to the U.S. to study, all alone at the age of nineteen. Leaving home is a rite of passage for a young person; and many teens experience the same sense of liberation when they enter college and live away from home. In my case, the distance from home intensified that feel of freedom; and the new language and the new culture I had to cope with prompted an effort to remake myself. I started to experiment with my looks and soon began to enjoy the eyes turning on me. I discovered the pleasure of vanity and, and with it, the power of theatrics. This was fortunate. The discovery came with the discovery of teaching, which is, to a great extent, a matter of performance.
Costume is what we put on to indicate the role we play; it is a put-on. But costume is also a cognate of custom; it is that which we wear customarily. Habit, too, can mean both what is worn for identification, like a nun's habit, and that which has become our habitual behavior, like the clothing we wear habitually. So, there is in the costume one chooses to wear a function, on the one hand, of showing oneself off and, on the other, that of the habitual comfort as it exists in the accustomed clothing.
So, even today, when I go shopping for clothes, despite my cultivated taste for the novel and daring I am naturally drawn to the true and tried in the choice of cut and color. It is with some endeavor that I manage to convince myself to try on a novel dress I can hardly imagine myself feeling natural wearing; and, in the end, it happens almost invariably that I reject most of them and come home with clothes similar to what I already own. My public identity is thus guarded.
But if I was attracted to something deliciously outré, an item definitely in the style far outside my by-now-considerably-wide range of taste, and successfully came home with it, I have to muster up a good deal of courage to wear it outside -- perhaps only after some trying out at home.
There are generally two kinds of people, it seems. There are those who like to be noticed and then those who don't. There may be those who go both ways. I don't believe I am one of them. Teaching taught me to perform. But unless I am performing I am deep inside still as shy as I was as a child in Japan.
T. Kaori Kitao, 07.01.00