lifelong lessons in style from gwen stefani
Writer Laia Garcia reflects on her years as a pre-teen "Gwennabe."
By the time I heard her I was already in love with her so I don't know if I really stood a chance. For months, my mom and I had been singing along in the car to "Spiderwebs." It would always come up right as she was dropping me off at school and we both agreed it was important to hear the song until the end before I got out of the car.
It was 1995 and I was eleven years old. I wasn't an old eleven, like some of the girls in my class who had somehow already acquired the WOMAN body that would take them through the rest of their life, who spent weekends with boyfriends, who had perfectly blown-out hair every day. I was thin, fully flat-chested, had not yet kissed a boy, and I still favored Gap Kids over any other store (I still managed put together some pretty grunge-y outfits — like the shrunken dusty blue short-sleeve cropped turtleneck sweater I paired with a plaid wrap skirt, over-the-knee socks and flat silver Mary Janes I wore to homecoming).
The point is I was still very much just a girl.
We had just gotten cable TV and as such, I was excited to finally be able to watch Nickelodeon (channel 43) and Cartoon Network (channel 49). Then, one fateful evening as I was switching channels from one to the other, I heard the familiar sounds of the song I had recently become obsessed with, and then I saw her. A bleach-blonde girl with rhinestones under her eyes, a tank top with "GWEN" emblazoned across the chest — that's her name! — bondage pants, ass-kicking boots, a bindi on her forehead (it was a different time) and exposed bra straps that I would later learn she bedazzled herself.
I had just discovered MTV (channel 46), and with it the roots of my lifelong fashion identity.
I forgot about Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network pretty much immediately. I needed to see this video again, I needed to further observe, to fully immerse myself in the study of Gwen Stefani and No Doubt. I had my mom buy me blank VHS tapes and started recording music videos and live performances. Particularly illuminating was a segment of House of Style in which the model Shalom Harlow interviewed Gwen about her style. Gwen, in a shrunken floral cardigan, unpacks her tour suitcase and shows Shalom her wardrobe, including the weird Disney Princess-ish dresses she made and used to wear all the time (thankfully, before she entered my consciousness). I was jealous that towards the end of the interview, Shalom put on one of Gwen's coats — I mean playing dress up with her wardrobe, can you even imagine?
At school, I started drawing a bindi on my forehead with a frosted mint eye pencil, which I would then dab a bit of glitter gel on top of. I also amassed a large collection of barrettes to hold the sides of my hair down.
Outside of school though, I was an all-out "Gwennabe." In the training bra section at JCPenney my mom purchased for me an Arizona Jeans dark blue denim-effect bra, which became the crown jewel of my look until a few months later when we managed to find an acid green bra that dutifully took its place (I owned this bra until I recently Kondo'd my underwear drawer). I wore these bras under a blue fake-Pucci spaghetti strap tank top with a pair of khakis I found in my mom's closet that were definitely four sizes too big for me, but worked fine with one of those canvas loopy belts with the silver pull-through buckle. On my feet a pair of ridiculously cool blue Vans that had some sort of iridescent effect on the sides (I don't remember throwing them out but I think about them every day). I had found myself.
I wore this outfit so much that one time a friend asked me if I had any other clothes.
Yes I had more clothes, but once you find the clothes that perfectly capture the essence of the person you want to be, why would you wear anything else?
Gwen wasn't the only woman whose music I adored, but she was the only one who felt like a safe version of a woman I could grow into. I loved Courtney Love but I was never a wild child, I loved Shirley Manson but I did not have that self-possessed sensuality she did — plus my best friend had already claimed her as a style icon and was always in mini-dresses and boots. Gwen was gawky, she lept around, she did not care to be sexy — though she was — and during live performances, she was just one of the guys, jumping, running around the stage. I was never going to have the bodacious curves that women were supposed to have, but look at Gwen! She didn't either and she didn't seem to need them. Maybe I would be fine too.
As I grew older, the look changed, but it remained a version of whatever lessons I first learned from Gwen. In college, the jeans got skinnier, the shoes pointier, the belts whiter; when I moved to New York after that, my Dr. Martens became Acne combat boots, the shrunken tank tops became oversized Alexander Wang tees with extra long armholes, and now the pink Shrimp coats I am wearing most days can be traced back to the versions I saw Gwen wearing way back in the day. And underneath it all? Always, always, a wildly colorful bra.
Text Laia Garcia
Photography Jeff Kravitz / Getty Images