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  • “If you wore it then, you are not allowed to wear it now.” My friend Robin,

    scholar activist & fashionologist (fashionista is too commercial and silly a term to describe her relationship to style), stated this to me, quite definitively, as we walked through a clothing store on a rainy day in New Haven. I’m used to Robin’s assertions, especially when it comes to clothes, and I take her knowledge seriously. She is as attentive to a neckline or a belt as she is to this history of black radical politics, the subject of the book she’s writing. As likely to have a photograph of Donyale Luna on her wall as she is to have of Frantz Fanon. There have been a number of times that I’ve texted her pictures from the inside of a dressing room. When Robin speaks, I listen.

    I've been the beneficiary of many of Robin's rules of fashion order: Big busted women (like myself) should opt for plunging v’s and avoid turtlenecks and all other high necklines at all cost. Investing in a good bra is a must. Laundry day is no excuse for sloppy dress. But this rule about return and repetition really stumped me. It was like some weird version of Sankofa. It was a zen koan for the 21st century.

    And then I saw these boots on a woman in a café the other day. I had these exact boots in high school. I totally loved these tall Pocahontas moccasins (before I understood that wiping out a people and then making a simulacrum of their culture is not very nice). But these boots were one of my first bold fashion choices. It was 1989 & in my search for a unique self, one that was neither afrocentric nor proto-yuppie, I gravitated towards them. I thought they were whimsical, quirky, and maybe exotic. For a girl who pegged her jeans and wore nothing but Reeboks and Gap sweaters, I thought they announced me as a little bit fearless. These boots, like the person I was trying to be, were unpredictable and very very present. And because they were a choice, my choice, I wore them with pride and comfort.

    Despite my mother's protests I wore them to my college interview for Columbia. My mother thought I should wear something more corporate but at 17 I knew I wasn't corporate. (At 39 this is a confirmed fact). My interviewer and I talked for well over an hour. I felt like I was vibrating into place. I was accepted into Columbia though I’m sure now I must have looked a hot hippie mess, with my flowy skirt, multi-patterned Guatemalan sweater (I know) and my giant tortoise-shell glasses. But after a few months of running around the city in those boots, I had the confidence to cut the relaxer out of my hair, lose my virginity, and turn Columbia down because I decided it was time to leave New York. So when I saw those moccasins standing in that Berkeley café, I sighed longingly and thought, “Maybe I should get a pair.”

    But then I remembered Robin’s riddle and it finally began to make sense. “If you wore it then, you are not allowed to wear it now.” I think she meant that there's a fine but very sharp line between sartorial sampling on one hand and foolish repetition and blank parody on the other. Or maybe she meant that we’ve grown up and it’s time to put away childish things and teenage crushes. Or maybe she just meant that even though something comes back in style, it doesn’t change the fact that they are still really fucking ugly.

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