I have a steady hand when it comes to makeup. I spent my peppy late-teenage years perfecting the craft of titivating. YouTube makeup gurus, many of them black, steadily emerged and built a cult following among girls my age. My friends and I saved tons of those videos on our devices and would study them closely, pausing them to test new techniques on each other. Those YouTubers taught us how to arch our brows, how to line our lips with the right shade of pencil for a fuller look, how to choose the perfect foundation, how to wear cheap makeup so no one could tell it was cheap. But our school, Abia State University, was located in Uturu, a small, quaint town in Eastern Nigeria, and our options for beauty products, even the fake ones, were limited to what the vendors outside the school gate supplied. We were left with no choice but to improvise.
In April of 2021, an email gladly informed me that I was accepted into grad school. My primary joy was at the opportunity to dedicate time and energy to writing. But to be honest, I couldn’t silence the other joy of the many fashion possibilities America represented. My Nigerian wardrobe was all right, a few people already knew me as fashionable, but I knew I could do more, especially when far from home and possible judgment from puritanical family and church members. I thought of the new self I would invent once I migrated to America. A more fashion-forward self. I downloaded shopping apps like Target and Sephora from my room in Umuahia, and I filled my cart with products I would buy once I arrived. On Pinterest, I curated what my American self would look like: nerdy-chic, a wardrobe heavily inspired by Issa Rae, with a sprinkle of Tracee Ellis Ross and a hint of Julia Sarr-Jamois. I envisioned my American self strutting across campus in a style I called “the serious writer who is not afraid to look in the mirror.” I imagined a makeup bag bursting to the seams, a face beat to perfection, a wardrobe charged and alive with colors.
I have been an ardent follower of global fashion weeks for years and a fan of the street style that comes out to play in those moments. The looks I admired most, had I tried them at home, would draw the wrong kind of stares, especially in Umuahia. When I lived in Lagos, Nigeria’s fashion capital, I had the chance to experiment, but I was too broke to spread my sartorial wings. America, I believed, was the perfect playground for me to run wild.
As part of my resolution to incorporate more color, I ordered a set of brightly colored matte liquid eyeliners. When they finally arrived, I sent selfies of me wearing them to my mother, and she replied, in disapproval, “And what’s that thing in your eye?”
“Fashion,” I texted back.
I come from a lineage of people who took their appearance seriously.
Even though my mother is my earliest fashion influence, a woman who is an aesthete to the letter, we do not see eye to eye when it comes to style. She leans toward the sophisticated and chic: a constant red lipstick, fine jewelry, carefully crafted ankara dresses, and headgears masterfully layered, an Igbo woman total in her pride. My awareness of beauty came from watching her lay another coat of maroon lipstick, an extra puff of Elizabeth Arden’s 5th Avenue behind her ears.During PTA meetings in primary school, I remember her being the only mother who wore bright lipstick, her hands full of gold and silver rings and her heels ever high.
My father was also interested in his looks; he had a tailor who made him clean-cut senators. Before he left the house, he’d make us polish his leather shoes till they shone. In old pictures of my parents, I admired the carefully coiffed Afros, round like halos; the bell-bottom trousers, tight around the crotch and tapering off; the impossibly high platform boots. For my mother, the red lipstick. In an old family album, I see my grandfather in Isi-agu and white trousers, topped off with a wide-brimmed hat and a staff leaning against his legs. He had a reputation as the man with the cleanest bicycle in our village, and my grandmother’s collection of headgears belonged in a museum. I come from a lineage of people who took their appearance seriously.
When we were little, Sundays were our family’s fashion parade. We headed to the Lord’s house and looked the part. White lace-trim socks and kitten heels for the girls, a suit and solid-black boots for the boy. No one could touch the Onwutuebes in fashion, and that was my mother’s aim. I remember her dragging her four children to Ariaria market, all of us in single file, matching from store to store. She would comb through the Babies Line––the section of the market reserved for traders of children’s clothing and wares––looking for eye-catching fits she was sure no other kids in our church would wear.
Unlike my mother, my own style rebelled against the confines of matured elegance. The daintiness that came with it wasn’t natural to me since I had a penchant toward scatteredness. Growing up, I struggled before I found my aesthetics. I timidly curated a street-style and androgynous wardrobe, but street style can come off as comical if it isn’t handled with a deft and bold touch. When you are young and still teething at style, there will always be mishaps, like color clashes and bulkiness, when you were aiming for insouciance. Several times, my mother did not hesitate to show her displeasure. “Are you going to wear that out of the house?” she would ask. Our fights continued for years afterward, even when I believed I’d found my feet. Her disapproval hurt me because through my clothing choices, I tried to find a route to self-discovery, to stand outside her shadows.
When I packed my bags for Las Vegas, I gave away many clothes, waving goodbye to my former identity. “You will find better things there,” my elder sister said. “You are going to the land of Forever 21, H&M, Zara. You don’t need any of these old items.” I gave away those articles with a bit of nostalgia: my favorite black chiffon shirt with cartoon doodles, a striped two-piece suit, a yellow silk blouse with exaggerated sleeves, a blue mid-length denim dress thrifted at Balogun market. Though I would miss the person I was in those clothes, I was eager to welcome the self my new clothes would make me. I arrived in Vegas with just one suitcase containing essentials.Essentials such as nine pairs of glasses. I knew getting prescribed glasses in America would cost an arm, and my graduate-assistant stipend would not cover the frames I saved on Pinterest. Before my trip, I went to Ariaria Main Market with my mother for one last mother-daughter spree. Ariaria is renowned for its ingenuity—craftsmen could build you a Gucci shoe or a suit that can pass for an Armani if you do not look too closely. We met our supplier of eyewear in his dingy shop, and he assembled pairs of fancy glasses for me. When my mother, out of joy, blurted that I was going to America, he hiked the prices a little. “When she gets there and compare my price with American price,” he said, “she will come back and say ‘thank you’ to me.”
My first months in America were riddled with financial challenges: a delay in the arrival of my SSN card, invariably delaying my stipend. I managed the money my mother had given me as I waited by the mailbox, praying each new piece of mail was from the Social Security office. Weeks went by until all I had left were two fifty-dollar bills. That money, as my people would say, was my “home and abroad,” my last card. Unable to acquire new clothes, I repeated outfits and regretted that I didn’t bring more clothes from Nigeria. I hated how uncharacteristic I looked in the plain T-shirts and jeans I wore, in the simple gowns, hated how I blended in with the Americans who showed up to school in their sweatshirts and joggers. They were home, after all, in their fatherland, and could afford to look like they just rolled out of bed. But I was a visitor and I was raised to show up dapper whenever you left your home. Home was six thousand miles away, and I hated that I didn’t look like my imagined self.
With my one hundred dollars and the strong desire to look better came tough questions: Use my last card to shop and go hungry afterward, or buy food and continue looking unimpressive? I chose the former. I could brave hunger. I knew hunger firsthand from boarding school and in later days of penny-pinching on a low income. But anonymity was something I didn’t want to be touched by. Not in a new country. Belonging wasn’t my aim. Standing out was. For someone who had relied on clothes as her quickest medium of expression, as her conversation starters, those first months were tough for my ego. Clothes are like a whiff of a substance I take to charge up my persona, to summon a higher self. To look anonymous in a no-man’s-land was akin to a complete erasure. I was a few weeks into teaching, and since public speaking was not my forte, I needed to lean into my superpower, fashion, to get through the seventy-five minutes of class. But I wasn’t holding anyone’s gaze. I only had my writing, another avenue where I channel my power to capture the world’s attention, but readers are a unique audience that take longer to court. I wanted to be seen as intriguing even before anyone met me on the page. I wanted my clothes to lead them to my work.
I confided in my roommate, and she pointed me to a thrift store. As I sifted through the racks, looking for items that portrayed style, thinking of ways to combine them and still hide their obvious cheapness, I was taken back to my first foray into thrifting—those days of saving pocket money from boarding school to buy bend-down-select clothes from Umuahia Main Market. I remembered the vendors, bells in hand, calling on customers to pick from the mountain of clothes they sprayed on trampoline bags by the railway. I remembered the haggling, the joyful journey homeward with a polythene bag bursting with a good haul. The clothes in this Vegas thrift store smelled the same as the ones I found in Umuahia, heavy with the perfume of fabric softeners. That first trip produced a white sweater, its wool lush and rich to the touch, that I paired with white palazzo pants. (I had read somewhere that monochrome makes you look expensive.) A purple sweater, with a cut-out choker V-neck. A burnt-orange cropped sweater. A pair of tailored lavender pants and two oxford shirts, purple and pink. The next day, when I walked into class, my presence filled the room. I didn’t hide behind the computer while projecting the slides to my students. I walked around the room, my voice confident and loud. My higher self was summoned, and she taught class that day.
When my payment finally came, I switched to Ross, a department store, and great were my finds. Every month, I added one or two new items to my wardrobe. I bought makeup and skin-care products from Ulta: Revlon ColorStay foundation in Cappuccino, MAC Studio Fix Powder (NW50), LA Girl concealer in Chestnut. Gold earrings and necklaces from Forever 21. I wore niacinamide by day, retinol by night. I found my mother’s Elizabeth Arden’s 5th Avenue on sale at half the price and smelled like her for months. I carried the scent of my mother with me, and the homesickness abated. I knew she would approve of this aspect of my grooming, and the thought of it pleased me.
On days when I am not reading or writing or grading papers, you’ll find me scrolling through Pinterest and saving pictures from Paris, Milan, Tokyo, Lagos, or London fashion weeks. I study; I make notes. You can also find me staring meditatively at Tyler, the Creator, his funny hats, his colorful sweater vests, his liberty to run wild in style in a way I have never seen on any Black man. I mourned the untimely death of Virgil Abloh for what he represented for me: a Black man cracking the hard shells of fashion innovation, walking corridors previously inaccessible to him. Find me too on the Instagram page of Candice Brathwaite, a woman who has encouraged my pursuit of being seen, a woman who looks like me, wearing lipstick, displaying her collection of shoes and designer apparel, donning coats in blindly bright colors that no one else but her can pull off.
I take Chaédria LaBouvier’s advice seriously, a mantra I mutter to myself when I feel lazy: “There is tremendous confidence in facing the hostile world with a good outfit.” I refuse to look like my bank account. I will wake up every day and don well-thought-out attire. I will take pictures and send them home to my mother. I will spin the color wheel and land on the brightest hue. I will not be annihilated. I will be seen. I love being looked at, and I have made peace with that. I love being photographed, and I am fine with that too. I choose to curate my life on social media, and never would it be said of me, “Here comes the poor immigrant in her worn clothes.” Mba. It is a sin against myself to be anonymous.
I want to look in the mirror and say, You tried. You tried to clothe this Black body with care and love.
Not that fashion would answer the question of respectability. Some people, despite how well-dressed I am, how tasteful, would see me as nothing but a Black body who has come to America to pillage opportunities. But it is important for me to pour my dignity into good clothes. I want to look in the mirror and say, You tried. You tried to clothe this Black body with care and love. I want to dress my own esteem, to clothe my pride. I am of course more than another immigrant whom they may strain to hear. I am a writer, with a talent for assembling and remixing her wardrobe. Though the new clothes won’t erase the accent, won’t erase the fact that I’m new here and trying to find my feet, fashion makes me a confident stranger. It covers my quivering frame, makes my steps surer. Through my clothes, I have created for myself a protective armor that will shield me from whatever harm this new place may present.
I remember an elderly woman who I bought smoked fish from under the Ketu bridge when I lived in Lagos. Every day she displayed her wares on a trampoline bag on the ground, beside other chatty traders. Daily she’d wear old trinkets, her arms bearing the shadow of tattoos she’d gotten years before. Whenever I went to her, she’d smile and call me “My daughter,” showing her gums where teeth used to be. I loved buying from her. I marveled at her effort to look good, to wear her colorful ankara blouse and wrapper, her bangles and earrings dangling as she swatted flies. I think of her as I clasp my bracelet this morning. If she saw me now, she would cheer me on.
Ucheoma Onwutuebe is a Nigerian writer. She is the recipient of the 2022 Waasnode Fiction Prize and has received residencies from Yaddo, Art Omi, and the Anderson Center. Her works have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Off Assignment, Bakwa Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently an MFA student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.