These were words that I had come to know and love when I heard an adjective assigned to my sense of style. Truth be told, though, they were right. I didn’t do things according to the rulebook and the way I put things together was a little strange, but it didn’t bother me. I liked being peculiar. It meant that I was limited edition.

But rewind the tape a little, and you’ll see a shy pre-teen girl on the tiny island of Barbados who hated skirts, dresses and anything girly. Fashion was just another f-word, associated with a part of life that was of no interest to me. I’d rather read a book than shop, and every time I went to the store, I had to be bribed to select something flirty and fluffy. And let’s not talk about hair – I was absolutely lazy. I probably shouldn’t have been so satisfied with my Jheri curl ‘do, but who cared? It was simple and easy and complimented my face.

When I moved to the United States from my Caribbean home, I found myself in a world that was fast-paced and loud. My accent garnered strange stares from my classmates and teachers, and the embracing of individualism was a culture shock. In my Bajan world, we were wore uniforms to school but we were still multidimensional. We accepted that the nerd could also be the party girl, thinking nothing of it. Fashion was simply a function of where one went, not a descriptor of who one was. But in the U.S., there were labels – lots of them. And yet, there was such a feeling of freedom, reminding me of the waves I used to see at the beach in the Caribbean Sea. I felt overwhelmed but I was also excited. It was a brave new world and I was ready to explore.

Image: Baydian Girl
Image: Baydian Girl

Eventually, I began to adapt. Having left all of the clothes I’d amassed for fifteen years in Barbados, I became obsessed with catching up to my colleagues, not to mention preparing for the changes in weather. I don’t know if it was my teenage years or my desire to fit in, but I just wanted to be one of the crowd. I wanted the Apple Bottom bubble jacket, the tight jeans, and the flowy hair. I wanted to embrace this cookie cutter freedom. There were no Janelle Monaes and Afro Punk wasn’t all the rave. It was all about Kelly Rowland and Beyonce and black girls with long hair – looks that migration didn’t allow to me afford or identify with. It was a little frightening. Even now I don’t remember that girl. I leapt from the jeans-and-collared-shirt preteen to the fitted-tee-and-skinny-jeans-with-the-hoops chick. Can you imagine? A nerdy Caribbean girl with a jheri curl and big hoops? It makes me chuckle to this day but I truly do appreciate that stage.

Fast-forward ten years, and I’ve become an unapologetic creative – a woman who knows what she likes, and whose friends call when they need fashion advice.

In Barbados, I learned how to dress appropriately for an event. Something that I quickly recognized was missing from American culture. You see, back home, clothes have a specific purpose. You have clothes for church, clothes for home, clothes for going out, clothes for date night, clothes for school and clothes for hanging out. The list goes on and at times it seems rigid but it helped me (and still helps me) curate my wardrobe. Every item has its place, its position. Even more of a lesson, is the fearless Bajan approach to colors and prints. Despite popular opinion, we don’t embrace colors because the sky is blue, there are beaches close by and palm trees dot the landscape. No. In the Caribbean we wear color because of the energy it creates – because of its aura, its powerful, magical way of uplifting your day. Granted, when I moved to the U.S., I found that these Caribbean philosophies contrasted with American social norms. However, when I juxtaposed Bajan standards of style with the lessons I learned from the American black diaspora, my personal style evolved.

The freedom of the American mind taught me how to let go of the rules I clung to and to embrace innovation. So instead of mixing the expected prints, I felt more comfortable mixing unorthodox ones: instead of keeping my hair black, I experimented with blonde box braids and even now I admire purple and grey hair on black women. There was also the mixing of styles. Pairing the multidimensional aspect of my Caribbean heritage with the pride of the African American diaspora helped me to combine flirty styles with my tomboy leanings  – including my staple combat boots. Fashion became an addicting freedom, one I won’t be letting go of any time soon.

Tamara_Leather Pencil Skirt
Image: Baydian Girl

Like style icon Iris Apfel, I am a rare bird. I am an everyday art piece. I mix colors in my outfits, creating energetic palettes. I combine prints using thrifted skirts, Express tops and hand-painted scarves. Sometimes I wear my go-to combat boots, and at other times I don those show-stopping high heels. Sometimes I’m in a playful mood and my outfit has to spread that fun-seeking adventurer within. At other times, my mood is serious and I want to feel powerful in my skin. Then there are those times when I’m feeling rebellious, and I push the envelope a bit by wearing a leather bustier, going blonde as a black woman or by sporting my fake septum ring. To me, it doesn’t matter what style, color or trend I’m wearing: I define the clothes and that’s what makes it me.

You see, now when I look back at those photos on my Facebook and in my high school yearbook, I smile at how lost I was but also how I fought to find my voice in a new world. Had I not made those style mistakes back then, I would not have the style certainty that I have now.

Today, I mix my nonchalant and lazy side from my preteen years with the sassiness of my immigration transition to create the unconventional and unexpected style that screams “me!” And what’s even better is that it incorporates my Caribbean heritage in the obvious, colorful and small details and I have no shame. Now, thanks to those years as a style caterpillar and the immigration cocoon, I have blossomed and become a radiant butterfly. The best part is that I now own an emerging fashion company and I share my outfits weekly on my fashion blog.

Who would’ve thought? Who would’ve known that some of the most challenging years of my life, would build my style story?

2 Responses

  1. I love this post! As someone who’s forever juggling the influences of two cultures but finding freedom in both, I found Tamara’s story inspiring. Promptly followed her on IG! Thanks for sharing her story, Black Expat!

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