I wanted a black leather jacket for a long time. I wanted to be like the rock stars whose performances I obsessively watched in grainy YouTube "LIVE at Whiskey a Go Go in 1969" videos. Like everyone else, I wanted to be different. I wanted to be rebellious. So I outfitted myself in black leather.
I found my extra-extra-extra small men's leather jacket in a thrift store when I was sixteen. Its leather had the muted shine of graceful old age. To this day, I have no idea who made it—the only tag in its lining says "VERA PELLE," which means "real leather" in Italian. I paid 60 Euro for it, which was all my savings at the time, but you can't put a price on cool.
If my jacket could talk, it would spew coming of age stories. It would tell you about the time I sat at a table full of dudes I had just met in a bar in Atlanta who I had told I was a 22-year-old exchange student from the University of Paris. Or the first night I spent on a college campus, becoming somebody new and mysterious, full of stories that my new friends couldn't know were my greatest hits instead of a random sampling. Or maybe the many cold nights I walked around long and slowly by myself, huddled up because, despite my bravado, the jacket was just thin leather lined with thin fabric, not substantial enough to be truly warm. Or high school parties where I tried to shake off the nerd I had been by name-dropping the right music and aping the long, wild hair and all-black outfits of icons. I tried to live up to my leather jacket, to become the kind of person who would own something like it. As it accumulated memories like a well-worn shiny patina, it took on the character of the person I was when I wore it—someone whose awkward silences are just aloofness, someone who won't put up with your bullshit, someone who doesn't give a fuck.
You assign coolness to certain clothes, but without any real control over how you register to other people. You can only hope that somehow you'll wind up pulling it off.
My jacket puts up a wall around my vulnerabilities. Or rather, it enables me to put up a wall around them. After all, it's just leather lined with fabric, closed by a zipper. It doesn't have a personality, nor does it hold any memories. It is only a mnemonic device that reminds me of who I am when I wear it, namely someone who can be whoever I want to be: James Dean, Joey Ramone, Debbie Harry. I wonder who they were trying to be when they first tried out their signature looks, and whether they ever managed to be 100% themselves. I wonder if James Dean had growing pains trying to pull off what became the James Dean look. Not being able to pull off the look you're going for is shameful because you tried to be someone you're not and you've failed, and now you have to walk around all day wearing your transparent attempt to assert an inauthentic identity. That's why you have to be able to trust your clothes not to betray your inadequacies. You assign coolness to certain clothes, but without any real control over how you register to other people. You can only hope that somehow you'll wind up pulling it off. Eventually, you might even gain enough confidence that you'll no longer need to hide your insecurities behind black leather or whatever gives you that artificial boldness and courage.
When you buy a piece of clothing, you're buying an identity. And that identity is shrink-to-fit. Or maybe something to grow into. After a while, not only do you physically own that pair of jeans or that Comme des Fuckdown T-shirt, but you "make it your own," however unoriginal it is. You imprint on it, and it imprints on you, whether it's because you become more comfortable in it or because you adjust to the subtle difference that this stylistic change makes in how people perceive you. Clothing is both a crutch to help you embody the identity you want to embody and a true, valuable means of self-expression, which is just two different ways of saying the same thing: It creates your identity. This means that as consumers, we're easy to manipulate. We can be sold the identity of a brand's ideal consumer—the Marlboro Man, the Levi's boho pioneer, Saint Laurent's entrancing and waif-like Frenchman. But it also means that the unlimited number of ways you can choose to dress gives you unlimited options for how you want to present yourself and who you want to be, which is a pretty exciting implication of considering fashion as art.
It also means that if some style is really cool, you shouldn't worry about pulling it off or not. Fake it and eventually you'll probably make it.
Emily Lever is a French-American writer who wishes she led a life of adventure. You can follow her on Twitter here.