‘It Took Me a While to Learn What’s Appropriate to Wear Around People’

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Photo: Joana Avillez

In Fashion Feelings, we’ll be talking to notable people about how fashion changed their lives. Here, Girls actress and artist Jemima Kirke on what her mother taught her about fashion and style.

I think every kid gets their fashion insight from their mother. My mother [Geminola owner Lorraine Kirke] dressed in a lot of black, tight, off-the-shoulder shirts with chunky jewelry and boots and leather skirts. But, at 8 years old, I liked to wear basically anything that was on Full House. So, leggings and big oversize shirts, which is back.

As a kid, my mother talked me into wearing biker boots to school. Everyone was wearing sneakers and I was wearing old Frye boots. I remember running to school in them and feeling, Ah, what have I done? They’re so weird. No one wears these. Obviously they were awesome, looking back, but I was mortified that I was wearing them. They were so cool, but in fifth grade, I didn’t want to stand out.

In eighth grade, I liked to wear vintage dresses. I would shop at this vintage store, Stella Dallas. I would do those with boots. I loved Gwen Stefani, so I liked to do looks like that, but I also was following what was in Seventeen magazine, so it was like mixing prom with punk. But I wore a lot of sheer stuff, too, for some reason. I was so unaware of my sexuality then — more so than most of the girls in my school — because I developed quite late. I would wear vintage lingerie — silky dresses, silky slips. I’m sure it didn’t look provocative on me, but it was still an eighth-grader in a slip. So I was called to the principal’s office and told, “Do you have any pants you can throw on under that or something?” It took me up until now to learn what’s appropriate to wear around people. My mom was a great mother, but in my house, everything was just appropriate. If you’re wearing a low-cut shirt to a dinner, it doesn’t matter.

In my high school, the look was sort of gross and dirty. Your T-shirt was important. How soft. How old. How cool. She would say: You can’t wear that shirt. It’s going to fall off you because it’s so tattered. It’s too see-through. It was very much mixed messages. She had moments of watching me run around the house, thinking, What am I doing, having her wear that?

In my early 20s, I dressed a little cleaner, but still tough New York: a lot of black jeans, boots, T-shirts, always, but just not fuckin’ gross. I started to dress more like my mom in my 20s. If I was going out, I always loved wearing heels and dresses, summer dresses with buttons and a little belt, maybe. That’s what she always wears, so now I do that a lot. But still always vintage. Also still to this day, I never went to H&M or Target or wherever things are mass produced. I didn’t want that stuff. I want either vintage or to borrow it from someone or get it online from eBay. Just wanted it to look like it was mine.

Don’t always go with labels. She taught me — always mix low-end and high-end. It’s a Chanel philosophy, I think. Always mix fake with real. My mother takes it a step further and says put your old T-shirt under that cashmere coat. She likes sophistication — sort of an old-lady vibe. The scarf around the neck she finds very chic and I do, too. Or pearl earrings. But there’s a way to do it so that you don’t look dated or age yourself. She really appreciates good-quality clothes and sophistication and chicness and elegance. She doesn’t necessarily like the new designer stuff. She’s old-school. She likes a good Saint Laurent. Good Manolos. It’s fun to do that stuff with her, but I think when it comes down to more innovative stuff, she’s not interested. I am.