How we look, for better and worse, plays a pretty big role in our lives. We all make judgments based on impressions that begin before a word is ever spoken. We all experience being treated certain ways based on our gender, ethnicity, body type, and style. How the world perceives us through our identities and appearances can both uplift and deeply hurt. It can go so far as to limit opportunities, harm, and even end in death.
When considering the concept of clothes and, in my case, makeup, it's easy to think it's all style over substance. After all, it's just fabric and color. And while to some it can be nothing more than a few thoughts in the morning - and that's fine, I challenge that idea with another: style is substance. Style can be power, and it can be magic.
Bear in mind, I'm not talking capital "S" Style™ that gets announced every year during fashion week. I'm referring to something much more personal and, dare I say, intimate.
Style (noun) is defined as: "a distinctive manner or custom of behaving or conducting oneself" "a particular mode of living" according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Yes, it is in the choices of what we put on our bodies every day, as every choice we make reflects something about ourselves. It is much broader, though. It is the way we choose to live.
My Style Story
As a biracial Korean American, I spent my entire life not fitting in anywhere. Being constantly stared at with the familiar, 'What are you?' and watching from the fringes of two identities, too much of either to truly belong. I can remember once at a new Korean church when a friend shared that another group of teenagers were saying of me, "Why is she trying to look Asian?"
This kind of stuff sticks with you.
I was fascinated by makeup, costume, style, and looks from an young age...
- that's right, get an eye-full of this sophisticated fashionista.
In those early days, along with laying a foundation for photos as statement art, I fell in love with costuming. I built such Halloween hits as Noob Saibot from Mortal Kombat. And when Episode I: The Phantom Menace premiered, you guessed it, I showed up as a jedi complete with toilet paper roll and kitchen foil constructed light saber handle. Yes, these were days of wonder and optimism in so many let-downable ways...
As costumes gave way to more intricate cosplay, I passed though several fashion eras - including goth, punk, ecclectic boho, chic, back to punk, and so on. I began to incorporate bolder, more colorful and eccentric designs into my looks, combining bits and pieces from each aesthetic every time I passed through.
There was something interesting, something powerful about being able to step in and out of outfits and looks that spoke to different aspects of my personality and experiences. The process could be transformative, yes, but each different style and choice allowed me to explore a different part of myself.
During the process I discovered that there is a magic to taking control over how we present ourselves when honoring what brings us joy. There is something special about the radical demonstration of self in a world that encourages uniformity but desperately hungers for authenticity. Crossing lines, exploring, and honestly just playing.
Philosophy of a Look
Appearance is hard to get a handle on, because there are so many fundamental elements we can't control. Ethnicity, biases based on gender, body type, socioeconomic background, and so much more. We don't all share the same style desires (stylesires?), and let's be honest it's not entirely possible to ignore the world around us, as awesome as it would be to block out the shitty parts.
That said, my philosophy on how I approach my aesthetic and style is what I have found works for me. It makes me feel empowered and connected to my identity, and, if anything, I want to offer my experiences as a helpful guide should you find it resonates with or even inspires you.
When I begun to first start introducing more artistic and symbolic elements into my makeup, it was from a place of defiance. If people are going to look, why not give them something to look at?
Appearance, makeup, and style as a form of protest and defiance is not only a powerful personal tool, it has a long and compelling history.
In the early 1900's when red lipstick was seen as taboo and only worn by sex workers, the Women's Social and Political Union (suffragettes) deliberately chose to don the color as a mark of their subversiveness and a promise to wreak political havoc.
In the mid 1960's afros among the black community became a statement of not only embracing but empowering identity. When Africans were first brought to America as slaves, the practice of forcing these individuals to straighten their hair to mimic a more Eurocentric texture became commonplace. Sadly even today the guise of 'professionalism' is used to control how a black person might want to keep their hair. In the 60's, though, this style became a symbol of community, political activism, and a statement against a long and brutal history of oppression.
In 2018, a movement in South Korea began called #escapethecorset. It's no secret that Korea has a thing for beauty. From beauty standards that can affect hire-ability to the most cosmetic surgery on a per capita basis, according to International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. Women, who had enough of the near unreachable standards, formed this movement that centers around natural, makeup-less faces and short hair.
My philosophy surrounding style around has evolved beyond defiance, but still is very much activism for me - from painting 'black lives matter' and 'stop Asian hate' across my face to simply disrupting the status quo. It also holds a place of expression for me in the way nothing else can.
As an artist who went to school for illustration, I'm no stranger to creating imagery to convey a message. There is something profound when that message is on your body. How does that change the reception? How does that change the meaning it holds to you? For me, it becomes so much more personal. I not only become a part of my own art, I am the art.
It is a celebration of self whether I choose to create an extensive look that makes me feel like a dark goddess or whether I honor myself my relaxing in jammies all day. They are both me, and I embrace them in total.
In my own journey, it took some time during which I continued to play with my looks in tandem with my exploration of identity, road along mental wellness, and soul searching before I really began to manifest my looks as an outer expression of self. I truly believe there is something special about the radical demonstration of self in a world that encourages uniformity but desperately hungers for authenticity.
I've found that the more I've continued to play and push my boundaries of comfort with appearance and style, the more I've found colors within myself that I didn't realize were there. Strengths, fiercenesses, sorrows, fears, lines and images that needed the space to be heard. Art through the guise of something seemingly more 'superficial' at surface level that could allow a depth to come bubbling up in unexpected and surprising ways.
It is still a path that I am discovering, but one in which my ambition is to encourage others to push their boundaries in the exploration of what it means to celebrate self. To bring back the joy of dressing up, to play, and to find out what that means to you.