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Is it surprising that I was a lonely and sad teenager? I don’t think it is—I don’t think I would be the kind of person I am now without that suburban teenage angst. I was a deeply introspective and emotional kid who listened to Bright Eyes and Elliott Smith in her bedroom, screamed out the lyrics to Brand New songs with her friends as we drove around town, drinking in friend’s basements, dreaming of getting out of New England. Sorry mom, sorry dad—every time you caught me being a little fuck up, you were totally correct in your assumptions.
What I’m saying is that I have a lot in common with Life Is Strange’s Max Caulfield. I even went to a somewhat prestigious arts magnet school program, though I was a writer and not a photographer. Max’s big problem is that she feels so much and knows so little. She has these hopes and desires and no idea of how to achieve them, and she’s distrustful of the people around her to give her advice. She’s sort of right to be. Her photography teacher, the one she moved away from Seattle to learn from, is a pushy creepazoid, and all the other adults around her are too mired in small town politics to help her. I always kind of rocked the boat, my internal sadness becoming external anger, and in my last year of arts high school several of my teachers decided instead that I was an instigator and a bully. It turns out adults know about as much as everyone else, which is to say almost nothing.
Max and I might have liked each other, when I was her age. Or maybe not. I was still recovering from being bullied myself, still not really trusting other girls very much, and I suspect Max has the same hang ups. But at the very least we would have shopped at the same stores, seen each other at the same shows, ended up in the same friend’s basements, listened to the same records. Sometimes I’m surprised that anything similar to the youth culture I experienced ten years ago still exists but some things, I guess, are just eternal.
You might say there’s nothing special about the way Max dresses, but I remember my own collection of t-shirts, and jeans that I wore to shred. I still have this shirt, which I bought after following the Blood Brothers, my then-favorite band, around New England. It’s disgusting—deodorant caked into the underarms—but it’s mine. I shopped mostly in thrift stores then, not really because I had to (I was an unemployed teenager, yes, but I had middle class parents), but because I liked, and still like, having things no one else had. There’s an arrogance to wanting to escape a town you feel is beneath you, and a kind of pessimism it instills in you. You want things that are both more special than what other people have, but also grosser, shittier, older, dirtier, because maybe your hometown is just gonna swallow you whole. Maybe you’ll never get out. I hauled my schoolbooks around in a messenger bag just because everyone else had a backpack, despite one strap being incredibly less comfortable than two straps. I’d get home and just rub my shoulder, hard as a rock from hauling those godawful textbooks all day. If I had to be there, I was just gonna hate it all the way through.
I remember occasionally dragging my mom to the mall to pick up really specific things from Hot Topic—white studded belts, really tight jeans, Chuck Taylors. Hot Topic has always sucked but, at the time, if you wanted skinny jeans you really didn’t have a choice. At this point I could throw a rock and hit a store selling the exact kinds of pants I wanted as a teen. Let’s imagine Max is a little savvier than I was. While I doubt she’d buy anything from American Eagle, maybe she doesn’t feel like such an outsider at H&M as I would have.
Probably the most ubiquitous part of my teen wardrobe was the hoodie. I had one that I used to wear everywhere, signed by the singer of another band I’d loved, Circa Survive. I left it in a coffee shop, and I’m kind of still mourning it, despite not even liking that band anymore. Besides having sentimental value, it was the perfect hoodie. I wore it unzipped in the day, just to hold my phone and my iPod, and zipped up tight at night as we laid out on the hillside overlooking my small town. I’d later learn that it was an American Apparel hoodie—too bad Dov Charney is such a shithead, because they’re really the platonic ideal. I’ve owned this hoodie in so many different colors. A grey one that’s now useless, a huge hole in the sleeve. A purple one, that my old roommate stole from a girl who was trying to hook up with him in college and then gave to me years later. A black one swirling somewhere around my apartment that I thought I’d wear all the time, not knowing how much I’d change. Each piece of clothing from this era is tied to a memory. Each time I wear them I can travel back to that place for just a second. My first (awkward, eyes open) kiss. My first boyfriend. My first basement show. The first time I realized I couldn’t ever be happy in the suburbs. The first time I decided I’d never go back.
People who aren’t interested in fashion or style, who have closets full of nothing but jeans and t-shirts don’t think that’s a “look,” in and of itself. But I can look at Max Caulfield and know exactly who she is. I know how long she spent picking that belt and those pants and that shirt and that hoodie. I know she loves that messenger bag like it’s a close friend, I know she’ll wear her shoes until they fall apart. The things you wear, even without thinking, do say things about you. When you revisit that ratty old t-shirt as an adult, or maybe even just a year from now, you’ll also revisit all those old hopes and fears and dreams that are still wrapped up in you.
One of those bands I’d always wanted to see back when I was a teenager—the Matches—recently had a reunion tour which I wasn’t even aware of. I heard that their bassist, Justin San Souci, now does concept art for some developer or other. They released some videos of their lead singer playing these old songs from their first album, songs that he wrote as a teenager. He’s thirty now, and married, and when he starts playing “More Than Local Boys,” he laughs. The last time he sings the chorus, “We make noise, what else could we choose / We’re gonna be more than local boys / and shake shake shake the dust from these shoes,” his brow is furrowed, he sighs. He looks down at his fingers and I know where he’s traveled back to. I am there too.
Gita Jackson has dedicated her entire adult life to wading through the marginalia of popular culture and finding gold. As much as she’d like to be called a “fashion expert,” she is more likely a niche fashion enthusiast. She would probably love to talk to you on Twitter @xoxogossipgita.