I have a secret. It’s time once again for Charleston Fashion Week, and I’m overcome with excitement—and dread. Perched in my office near Marion Square, I adore watching fashionistas flock to the tents each evening. It’s like a live version of my favorite TV shows: Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, and What Not to Wear. I love the mix of truly stylish souls and hapless hopefuls in one big parade.
So, given the hours I spend marinating in all things fashionably fabulous, why the dread? You see, where others accessorize, I merely fantasize. Where some look chic 24/7, I can’t wear a white blouse for 10 minutes without mysteriously springing a stain. When it comes to trendiness, I have plenty of yearning but precious little talent.
While growing up, Montgomery Ward was as haute as my family got, so I’d pour over Seventeen to divine right from wrong. The infamous “Dos and Don’ts” page was of particular interest. As I fixated on the frumps whose faces were barely hidden by black swaths, I imagined them at a slumber party, leafing through the magazine and spying themselves ravaged as “Fashion Don’ts.” I saw them immediately joining a convent, having been outed for an unfortunate pairing of a dirndl skirt, strappy sandals, and tube top. Gasp! That could have been me. Heck, it probably was me.
Maybe that’s why I approach Fashion Week with both excitement and PTSD. I love the clothes but hope nobody will eye mine. I shouldn’t worry: Surrounded by peacocks, a sparrow is the perfect spy—all-seeing yet unseen by all.
Still, I’m tired of being a sparrow in the peacock cage, and Charleston, as it turns out, is a very stylish place. I didn’t know I would need sartorial game when I fled here from New York in the 1990s. Back then, I’d grown weary of my “just friends” relationship with fashion. Then, the shaggy employees of the magazine I worked for shared elevators, offices, and oxygen with the editors of Women’s Wear Daily. Each morning, I would schlump into the building in a fat down parka, soggy boots, and hair that could be only charitably described as “rumpled.”
Meanwhile, those WWD wraiths arrived looking like a species gene-spliced from Audrey Hepburn and Linda Evangelista. Translation: yes, I lived the plotline of The Devil Wears Prada, but unlike Anne Hathaway’s character, I did not metamorphose. I packed up my all-black, off-priced wardrobe and moved to a new venue where I thought I could rock my acid-washed jeans.
Alas, my damaged denim did not work here in the land of well-coiffed women whose outfits evinced forethought. Here, women wore color. Their hair (almost inevitably blond) was newly styled. Charleston couture demanded key artifacts like pedicures and party pants. There were complex rules about stockings, handbags, and pearls. I was thrown, immediately, back into the world of the “Fashion Dos and Don’ts.” Read the tea leaves correctly, and you look fabulous. Misinterpret, and you might as well just stay home and rent pay-per-view.
So, here’s what I’ve come to accept: we fashion enthusiasts fall into three camps. Trendsetters take all the risks and show up with shoes that would have been so wrong last month but look so right, right now. They are the fashion superheroes. Trend followers are their natural bedfellows: folks who analyze Vogue with the focus that geologists bring to Mayan calendars. They are the sidekicks.
And then there are the rest of us: the fans, who simply need a little saving from the heroes and sidekicks. We’re the ones perched on the edge of the action—awestruck by the daring and cleverness—applauding the whole time. And you know what: we’re also holding our breath, hoping this is the year of the strappy sandal and acid-washed dirndl skirt.