Obiele Harper ’17 can’t think of a time when she didn’t care about fashion. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. Now she hopes to enter the fashion marketing world and eventually become a stylist. Harper’s poise and chic style make her stand out on campus, and most people recognize her commitment to fashion. Despite her undeniable aura of effortlessness, Harper actually takes a thoughtful and methodological approach to personal style, and I was honored to be offered a glimpse into her world.
While Harper has always been interested in fashion, she didn’t start cultivating her own personal style until eighth or ninth grade. Around age 12 or 13, she started following fashion bloggers. Despite this, she isn’t a disciple of the ubiquitous fashion bible, Vogue, although she does appreciate it. According to Harper, fashion magazines are a distraction that “make me feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.” Instead, in high school she was inspired by her friends: “They were into the old-time 1940s and ’50s type style, so I got into that, and from there I developed my own style.” Harper is also inspired by the fashions of a variety of international locales. She said, for example, “I love British fashion. I love Ghanaian fashion. I love Parisian fashion, because Parisian fashion stays forever, almost never changes, and it’s always beautiful and classy.” In fact, while she was abroad in Edinburgh, “Scottish people mistook me for a Parisian girl or some other type of foreigner because I didn’t look like what they envisioned Americans to look like.” While abroad, Harper “felt much more like everyone else,” although she recognizes that her style doesn’t exactly fit the general Macalester aesthetic. Harper doesn’t mind standing out when it comes to fashion. She said “I don’t really think about a lot of other people. I think if I did I would be very self-concious, and I don’t have time for that.”
Listening to Harper discuss her unique approach to fashion, it seems inevitable that she would stand out. Harper, a talented violinist, spoke about how her musical aptitude influences her style. She claims, “A lot of my fashion inspiration comes from sounds of music. I play the violin, and so when I play the violin, I remember things and I see them in color. I don’t know how I connect music with fashion, but I just love color and patterns and stuff like that.” Music is one aspect of her life that informs her style; her penchant for strategizing is also an integral part of her approach. Harper said, “I’m a very strategic buyer, and a very strategic person in general when it has to do with clothes.” She doesn’t buy trendy clothing, but invests in classic pieces that “stay over generations. So I can wear this when I’m 50. I can pass these pieces on to a daughter or a son, and it’s going to look the same as it did 50 years ago.” For Harper, it’s crucial that her pieces stand the test of time, both stylistically and in relation to her personal taste. She has adopted the mindset that, “I’m going to buy what I like, that I’ll always want to wear, so that I’ll never go to my closet and say that I have nothing that I want to wear.” This means that she’ll ideally “be happy with each piece for four to seven months.” Harper’s commitment to timeless styles means that her shopping process is quite involved. She said, “To buy one thing will take me a good seven to eight hours. I want to know that I really love what I’m buying. Everything in my closet is something that I took a long time to buy.” This also means that if Harper buys one item, she has to get rid of another, so that she does not feel cluttered. Harper also attempts to wear each article of clothing only once per semester in order to “feel new every day.” But she will repeat items “if it’s cold and I haven’t really been able to enjoy it. Also, there are still some things that I haven’t worn, because I’m not feeling it. It depends on how I feel. Sometimes I’m like ‘I don’t want to feel that exposed today.’” This feeling of exposure is tied to Harper’s awareness of respectability politics. She discussed how, “As a black woman, there’s a way that I do keep myself, but it’s not necessarily tied to the fact that I’ve thought about it.” This mode of presentation is related to the way she was raised. Her mother always had her wear shorts underneath her dresses, and constantly reminded Harper that “there’s a time and place for everything.” There are also some things Harper won’t wear because she knows she will get “certain types of responses.” She points to how, “I have certain curves where like maybe I shouldn’t wear short shorts, but I wear them anyway, depending on where I am.” While Harper is conscious of how institutionalized racism and sexism intersect with fashion and safety, she rejects these limitations and refuses to be held back by them. With a boisterous laugh, Harper defiantly declared, “I’ve been known not to listen to a lot of those things. I have to cast some of those things aside.” To shift gears a bit, let’s take a closer look into the fashionable world of Harper through some of her favorite fashion staples. Harper has a deep love of high heels. According to her, they’re “probably the only thing that make me feel very, very confident. If I’m not wearing them, I feel like a different type of Obiele. When you wear heels, your walk changes. You can strut.” She also shared her new-found affinity for mixed prints with the breezy rhetorical question, “Why not mix stripes with polka dots?” She later moved on to coats, declaring that, “All of my favorite articles of clothing are coats,” especially her favorite 1960s vintage salmon coat. Harper also loves makeup, especially red, purple and pink lip colors. While she enjoys experimenting with make-up of all varieties, “If I have my hair in an afro, or if I tie it up and kind of change my curl pattern, my make-up is much more minimal because I already have something going on.”
Harper is an undeniable Macalester fashion icon, and after hearing about her involved process, I have an even greater appreciation for what she does and what she brings to this campus.