For eighteen years of my life, I used the terms “style” and “fashion” interchangeably. Then I met a gal named Meredith and understood the difference. I had arrived in Charlottesville around eleven on a still, humid morning in late August. Those of you who have had the privilege of attending UVA will know what I mean when I say the air was sticky-slurry-thick and stagnant, the torpid scuttling of cicadas and the occasional rumble of a pick-up or SUV down Rugby Road seemingly the only movement across Charlottesville’s verdant, rolling landscape. I turned onto Gordon Street and pulled up in front of 1535, a squat house with peeling paint fenced in by a low brick wall and a green gate that hung askew on its hinges. After parking, I hoisted the first of what would be dozens of loads of belongings over my shoulder and stepped through an overgrown front yard littered with the debris of decades of college students: two white plastic lawn chairs inverted, a silver bucket rusted over, a couple solo cups floating around in the bushes and grass, a large black trash bag overflowing with beer cans. I grimaced, imagining my parents’ reactions; they weren’t far behind. I thought for a second about hastily hiding the beer cans but the humidity got to me and I scampered into the house in search of reprieve. Inside, the house took on a different tenor: though the floors were worn and the fixtures ancient, the house was clearly the dwelling place of women: fresh coats of pastel paint had been applied to every room in the house; a new-looking, far-too-nice-for-college-kids Pottery Barn sofa graced the living room (the obvious donation of a kind and well-to-do parent) alongside a broad wood coffee table dotted with sorority cups, nail polish, and magazines — the telltale paraphernalia of a college-aged girl. The home was cool and tidy. As I prepared to ascend the stairs to my bedroom, the front door swung open.
“God DAMN it’s hot!” A petite brunette with a raspy Southern accent entered, barefoot, wearing a gauze-y white muumuu and an expression of exaggerated frustration. The outsized volume of her dress couldn’t obscure her diminutive femininity and unadorned prettiness: her delicate ankles, her fine facial features, her slender wrists. Her hair had been thrown on the top of her head in a hasty top-knot, and she hadn’t a lick of makeup on. “I’m Meredith.” She walked forward confidently, urgently, and held out her hand by way of introduction, smiling sweetly. We’d met — briefly — during the process of co-signing on this house with nine (yes, nine! Nine! NINE!) other girls, but we’d not formally spoken and I had only the vaguest of impressions of her and her thick Tennessee twang. In that moment, I could tell by the spark of mischief in her eye and her easily-read aura of alertness and percipience that she was what older generations might dub a “spark plug.”
“I’m Jen,” I replied. She nodded.
“Well, Jen–” she pronounced my name like “gin” — “Here’s to a year of living with way too many girls. Am I right?” I nodded, because it was all I could think to do. Her confidence, the way she threw her shoulders back, her scantily veiled derision at the prospect of living with so many other women struck me as mature beyond her years: she had a point of view. Meanwhile, how different — not bizarre, but discordant — her outfit looked in comparison to the UVA uniform those days, all Lilly Pulitzer and polo insignias and madras and pastel. I recalled, suddenly, that she’d asked to have her room painted a deep midnight blue, while the rest of us had skittered towards pale pinks and aquas and lavenders. Everything about her felt original, unfussy, distinctively her, and I remember thinking all at once how pathetically sheep-like I was, standing there in my sorority-issue Rainbow flip-flops and pinstripe sundress. I understood, in a flash, that she had style and I did not—yet.
I’ve never forgotten the way Meredith looked that day, or the unanticipated introspection her brisk appearance in that door jamb incited. Her image is nestled in my mind alongside the haze of an August in Charlottesville, almost always a thought-length — that is to say, a millisecond — away when I think about 1535 Gordon Street, affectionately dubbed “the Gordawn,” that house where I started dating and then broke up with my first serious boyfriend, where Mr. Magpie almost kissed me before we were officially together (the full, cinematic story of our courtship here), where I became best friends with my lifelong best friend B. (she is fiercely private, but can I eventually convince her to be featured as a woman of substance, I wonder? #gauntletthrown), where I climbed out onto the roof with my good friend A. and drank vodka-spiked slurpees and talked about boys and school and our deepest fears and ambitions (an ode to A. here)–in short, where I finally set out to become the woman I am now.
These days, I can see the difference between fashion and style a mile away, and it has far more to do with personality than label-mongering.
That said, I’ve never been able to break up with the image of a feisty, petite brunette casually and un-self-consciously wearing an oversized white dress, bare feet, and a top knot — and I don’t give a damn if it’s inorganic, but I’ll copycat that look until the cows come home.
Below, my favorite ways to get that muumuu look…and I use the term “muumuu” very loosely as a stand-in for any old white, voluminous, rather shapeless dress. (I couldn’t find the exact one the chic pea above is wearing, but I’m pretty confident it’s The Row.)
+Same idea — in mini form. (And under $40!)
+Similar idea — with a little more tailoring. (And from a label I’m OBSESSED with.)
FINALLY: A $29 white sundress that is easy and flattering but a bit more tailored and approachable than the muumuu steez.