Myfanwy Tristram | Longreads | September 2019 | 14 minutes (3,863 words)
A clatter at the door. A small package plops through our letterbox.
It’s come a long way. I can see that by the sticky labels, foreign postmarks, and scrawled scripts of postal workers around the world.
This was never in the parenting manual.
But back to the housework.
I enter my bedroom to find the area around the mirror overrun with her makeup, her dirty laundry in pools on the floor. That girl leaves a trail of destruction.
Admittedly, this is not a remarkable complaint for any mother of a teen. Where mine differs from the grumbles of parents through the ages is that among the detritus to be picked up and put away are:
In fact, when regarding my wayward, outrageously dressed girl, I find myself experiencing a peculiar combination of pride and envy.
Both may be a sin, but pride in one’s child is an acceptable part of parenthood.
Envy, while recognized in psychology and culture, most certainly isn’t.
Fine: I’m proud of this fierce individual that appears to have inherited my own peacock inclinations. Not so fine: I find myself envious that she has a period of wild experimentation ahead of her — and a figure that means she fits into pretty much every thrift store find.
So, uncomfortable with this disagreeable feeling, and at risk of falling into the parental cliché of “you’re not going out dressed like that!” I realize that there’s just one thing to do. I need to try and understand more about where the crazy looks are coming from. Instead of sighing heavily at the mess and fruitlessly asking, once again, for her to just try and keep it in check, I sit down and ask her to give me a beginner’s guide to her style. She is delighted to assist.
Her influences come from the internet, from fast-spreading pictures on Instagram, from crazy hairstyles on TikTok. Teens’ fashion inspiration is now global, grassroots led, with the commercial interests falling over themselves to catch up.
We scroll through her favorite accounts, and I meet the strangers whose fashion tips and product endorsements indirectly result in those Band-Aids in my bed:
These vloggers and Instagrammers, familiar friendly faces to their subscribers, set the fashion. All of them are from the U.K. or U.S., but they have something in common — they’re all looking to Japan.
I understand the appeal. I myself was responsible for introducing her to Japanese culture in toddlerhood, as we shared our enjoyment of Studio Ghibli and the adorable magic realism of Totoro and Ponyo.
Next came a wider exploration of anime and manga. She and her schoolmates swapped tips and learned from YouTubers who filmed themselves playing games like Doki Doki Literature Club and Danganronpa.
Then it was cosplay, the art of dressing like one’s favorite characters, whether with painstaking DIY costumery, or by buying outfits online, ready-made, from the Chinese kitchen table industries wise enough to surf the wave of this crazy fad as it hit the West — and able to do so thanks to global capitalism and the world wide web.
My daughter’s childhood environmental beliefs, despite my entreaties, were swept away. Her carbon footprint is forgotten in the desire to summon just the right hair clips or wig from the other side of the world.
Because then came the call of Harajuku. And that was just too strong to resist.
Since the 1980s, Japanese teens have flocked to this area of Tokyo to buy, and show off, their extreme fashions. It began with Rockabilly enthusiasts who came to dance, with music, moves, and outfits taken wholesale — ironically — from the West. Back then, fashion influences traveled in the other direction.
And then one day, as Shoichi Aoki, editor of the street photography magazine Fruits notes, something new emerged. Art school students, and girls in particular, were leaving behind the monochrome outfits that had previously been their norm. Now they were displaying a grassroots style that was completely unprecedented: yellow hair, platform shoes, ultra-bright color combos, and exciting, crazy mismatched clothing.
Thirty years on, the area of Harajuku has been taken over by big, multinational high-street stores, and true inventiveness is now to be found in its backstreets, Ura-Harajuku. But that hasn’t remotely dented its popularity abroad — which explains a lot about the state of my bedroom floor.
As with any long-lived subculture, Harajuku fashion has split into different genres, all of which my daughter explains to me with far more passion that she’ll ever apply to her school lessons:
As I learn of these styles, I understand so much more. It’s exciting to see my daughter with all these creative possibilities before her: the opportunity to take what she likes, mix and match, and add a little something to make it her own. And it’s something I recognize very well.
In the ’80s, while Harajuku style was in its infancy, over here in the U.K. I was a teen myself, entirely oblivious of Japanese culture.
In the West, our pop scene was setting the high-street fashion:
If the mainstream figures are already dressing in quite extreme fashions, those who want to show that they are different have to find another way to dress, different music to listen to, new ways to scandalize the elderly neighbors.
And here in the West, the various movements of the ’70s evolved, in the ’80s, into their own divided, intertwined subcultures. New romantic grew from glam rock, was shaped by the rise of the synth, and its forerunners paraded their outré looks at London’s Blitz and Wag nightclubs. This was the look that the high-street shops decided to mass-produce, and it was quite the norm to see big kitten bows, taffeta silks, and pearl necklaces on even the squarest kids. This was the default look by the time I was developing an interest in clothes.
Not far behind, goth was evolving from ’70s punk and post-punk, and also discovered the possibilities of electronic music machines. Its devotees favored the seminal Batcave club.
Now this was more like it. Far from the big city, in rural Devon in southwest England, my only option was to read of this from afar — in The Face, i-D, and Smash Hits magazines. Yet the minute I saw the goth bands, I knew that I had found my own look. It would help me express that I was different. Special. That I rejected the dull blandness of everyday life.
That spark in my daughter’s eye when she sees a new Harajuku look? This was the same impulse.
But for me, there was no internet, of course. No handy websites to allow me to piece together a goth look and pay for it in one go at checkout. Our looks were far more thrown together, with a mixture of ingenuity and serendipity.
Time passes. And now: Here I am at 50, my daughter 14.
At her age, it is fairly straightforward to dress differently, always assuming you can dodge the wrath of your school; but that’s far in the past for me.
Growing up and taking new roles, new responsibilities, means making decisions about how you present yourself. It boils down to this: Do you want to be the goth at the school gate? The outsider at that job interview?
My body has changed, too. Sagging flesh and a growing waistline have made me less inclined to let my clothes shout “look at me!” lest folk shout back, “We’ve looked, and we find you displeasing.”
I work from home: There’s little need and less time to spend hours on my hair or makeup. At the same time, I find it hard to give up the idea of dressing to display a sense of self.
Should I have stayed faithful to my gothic roots? It’s not unknown: You do see the occasional goth family with a pushchair and a kid in a Bauhaus onesie.
Fair play to them: Dealing with an infant and getting your look together each day — that can’t be easy. Myself? As a woman who came to motherhood relatively late in life, I had already set aside my more outrageous costumery as I navigated the first steps of a career in conservative office workplaces.
I graduated from the backcombed hair. I even spend good money at salons these days. My trousers have no rips. I’ve conformed — and find myself looking for other ways to express myself.
Meanwhile, age plays a part. As you enter the second half of life, it’s easy to feel that you’re not supposed to stand out. Just as you’re not supposed to show too much leg, or cleavage, it’s all part of the process of desexualization that the older woman is generally expected, in our society at least, to go through.
Because I had my daughter later in life — at age 36 — her blooming into a gorgeous, expressive experimental teenager has hit right at the same time as I’m staring into the barrel of menopause, and the attendant signs of aging that have traditionally been seen as unattractive. Let us not digress too far into the patriarchal belief that aging men become more attractive, while women must fight against white hair, wrinkles, and bingo wings.
After all, men face their challenges too. Aging male goths might have to contend with the loss of their teen pride and joy, the mane of hair — its decline hopefully not exacerbated by the crimpers and hairspray — and, like music journalist Simon Price, find more creative ways of still keeping the look alive.
Things just aren’t as clear as they were when I could take a sample from the goth rulebook, and anything went so long as it was black.
These days, one has to try and express individuality with style, maybe a soupçon of quirkiness. But not too much — that can be unbecoming for women of a certain age.
There’s no one more finely attuned to this than a teen regarding a parent: My husband was recently told, in no uncertain terms, that his striped rainbow T-shirt — colorful but well within the bounds of respectability to my eyes — was too embarrassing for my daughter to be seen beside.
She herself was dressed, that day, in full Harajuku style.
In 1945 psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch, a colleague of Sigmund Freud, painted a very gloomy picture of menopause as a “gradual loss of femininity,” claiming that:
At the time, she was 61 years old herself.
She had my attention: After all, the “organic decline” is just around the corner for me. Phrased like that, it sounds like a barrel of laughs.
So on I read … and found something that struck rather an unwelcome chord. Psychologist Terri Apter interprets Deutsch’s theories like this: “Women observe a daughter’s adolescent bloom as a sign of their own decline. In middle age, a woman is pushed out of the sexual limelight, and as she sees her daughter achieve the first blush of maturity, she grows envious.”
Whew — that was a bit too close to home.
But is this inevitable? Deutsch was writing in far more patriarchal times, when a woman was far more likely to be seen primarily as a wife and mother, and to have lost all purpose when those functions were no longer needed.
Let’s turn to today’s sociologists. I was delighted to come across the words of Julia Twigg, who studies embodiment and age, pointing out that our judgment of the aging woman is something decided by society itself:
That academics are pointing out the negative attitudes we have toward aging, and especially in women, is one sign of change. It also means that we can push against it if we don’t like it.
But older women also have another source of hope. Just as the internet is inspiring our children, it also lays out an alternative path for aging a little less gracefully.
A remarkable roster of role models has arisen, showing that there is no need for the older woman to succumb to societal pressure to fade into the background. In fact, these ladies do quite the opposite. Ari Seth Cohen’s photographs collected in the book and associated blog Advanced Style celebrate their exuberance. Some have risen to fame. Some were famous already for achievements in their field, and have declined to retire gracefully.
Deutsch might have dismissed these women thus:
But they refer to themselves quite differently:
So … there’s another option. A whole new subculture to explore. The subculture of the older, expressive, break-all-the-rules women.
Shall I try to out-outrageous my daughter?
For all I say I’m envious of my daughter’s freedoms, perhaps the older woman has more leeway, more agency.
My daughter still has to navigate the competing demands of her parents entreating her not to wear outfits that will show her knickers when she bends over, while learning, and assessing the legitimacy, of the anti slut-shaming movement.
At this moment in time she’s pulled between school’s rules on how she’s allowed to present herself, and her desire to be like the extreme dressers she sees on Instagram.
Then there’s a tension between the endless bounty to be found in thrift shops, and the limitations of restricted storage space and the frustrations that explode from me when she brings “just one more top” into the house.
I’m glad I’ve poked and prodded at this ugly feeling of jealousy and come to understand exactly where it’s come from — and that there are options other than sinking into a societally approved sea of beige.
Gaining a deeper understanding of the styles and influences that set my daughter alight has made me far more understanding about those stray fake eyelashes I keep finding around the house.
I won’t forget my own forays into extreme fashion. They may even make me, temporarily, a more favored parent: I can pass tips on about hair crimping and experimenting with scissors, stencils, and sewing machines.
While recognizing that squicking out people my age is part of the point, I’ll try to curb any harmful excesses on her part, like tattoos and tongue splitting, at least until she reaches adulthood.
And meanwhile, I’ll continue to tread my own line, expressing myself without embarrassing her during this sensitive teenage period. Since we’re in and out of charity shops so much, who knows what I’ll find in the larger sizes while she flits through the tiny ones?
For all my struggles with expressing myself, it feels like I’ll never be ready to give it up.
And the real answer is — of course — to find the joy in it all, both as a mum, and as a woman.
To my daughter, for sharing her fashion knowledge.
To Professor Janet Sayers, for helping track down Helen Deutsch quotes.
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Myfanwy Tristram is an illustrator with a special interest in graphic memoir. She lives in Brighton on the south coast of England, and has been recording her life through the medium of comic strips since the Eighties.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Art Director: Katie Kosma