Teen Style Icons

I am 15 and wearing new red lipstick. It’s a fairly recent discovery – taking pride of place in my make-up bag. In my wardrobe there are fifties dresses and vintage mini-skirts, as well as converses and ripped skinny jeans. My walls are decorated with pinboards collaged in photos with friends, train tickets, handwritten notes, and the odd image ripped from a magazine. My school clothes hang over the radiator. I always change into something else at 3.50pm, discarding my uniform the minute I’m off the bus and through the front door. I want to grow up and escape, bored of noisy classrooms and bitching in the corridors.

That was what I felt like six years ago: this strange mix of brittle and confident, on the cusp so much. I was still strangely keen to fit in, to be liked, to not end up too far outside of what my peers considered ‘cool’. But I did have all those fifties dresses. And the lipstick. They gave me an escape route: a way to be (and look like) exactly who I wanted to, away from the social codes of school.

In fact, despite the frustration, one of the big thrills in my teenage years came from discovering just how much I loved fashion. Adored it. Couldn’t get enough. I avidly bought Elle Collections every six months, could pinpoint a designer at fifty paces, would happily talk about the ins and outs of what had last been seen in the catwalks.

Alongside that, I began delving elsewhere: specifically, into the past. I discovered so many worlds: books, films, photography, music, fashion. All were avenues into people and works that lifted me away from the day to day. I kept scrapbooks full of old postcards and images ripped from magazines. I watched The Red Shoes in awe, and relished the twin delights of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe: craving more cocktail dresses and glamorous evenings. Contemporary movies like The Edge of Love sent me into a spiral of cable knit jumpers and slightly baggy floral skirts. The image of Keira Knightley in that green dress in Atonement stayed with me (as it did for pretty much a whole generation of young women).

I listened to David Bowie and Kate Bush too. A disparate pair of musicians who confirmed all the fun of dressing up, of pulling personas on and off at will – switching costumes, switching characters. Kate Bush, especially, left deep imprints. They offered up drama and glitter, intellect and playfulness.

I saved image after image of Twiggy onto my computer – all big eyes and short, short dresses. She made me crave flowery tights and very mini minis. I trawled through Beyond Retro for lime-green tunics and buttercup yellow shifts. I bought those ridiculous sixties shoes that look so pretty and ache like hell. I placed her alongside Jean Shrimpton and numerous other un-named models in shoots by Richard Avedon and David Bailey: all providing some kind of youthful joy.

There was also any number of un-named family members jumbled up together in a box of old photos: snaps of picnics, days at the beach, outings in their motorcar. I loved the details. All those fussy ruffles, knee-high socks, and long, tweedy skirts. The adventures and scenes I could glimpse from afar.

When I was writing my book Notes on Being Teenage, I spent a lot of time thinking about all the things that had shaped me during my adolescence: clothes-wise, creativity-wise, life-wise. What formative moments and figures still shone bright? Which had I forgotten? Did they still matter? Had I clutched onto the sense of possibility that some of these images once represented? Or had their influence dulled with time?

It’s definitely true that a few of these style icons now seem a little well-worn. Everyone loved Audrey, didn’t they? Ditto Marilyn. Maybe Twiggy too. I wasn’t special in liking them. But maybe it’s easy to note that now, when my cultural world has expanded out beyond those boundaries: when my style references stretch far and wide, because I’ve had years to explore, expand and ramble through all the possibilities. They meant a lot at the time. They were fresh to me. Each generation has to discover these figures anew, and experience that first explosive jolt of excitement.

Back then, they suggested all the potential, all the other people I could be, or pretend to be, if I only put on a particular outfit – with the attitude to match. Some of them still offer that now (just give me some wild hair and big seventies gown to whirl around in, Kate Bush style, and I’m content). Perhaps the lesson I learned from each and every one though is that what you wear changes the way you walk through the world. It took a few years beyond adolescence for me to stride with utmost confidence, but these figures helped. There were guides, ideals, signs of possibility. And we all need a few of those to help us along the way.

Rosalind Jana’s book Notes on Being Teenage is out now, you can grab a copy here.

Follow Rosalind Jana on twitter: @RosalindJana

Illustration: Mitucami Mituca