I was obsessed with Punky Brewster in middle school. One of my most treasured stuffed animals was Punky's dog Brandon, and I carried around a picture of her that I'd cut from the box he came in. As a kid from Santa Cruz who had recently moved to the bland suburban city of San Jose, I loved jeans, loose-fitting T-shirts and comfortable shoes, and I made sure my wardrobe always had a pop of color. As I grew up, moved to various states, and tried to find my signature adult style, no protagonist validated my preferred look until the release of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." Finally, being a kid was cool again.
Twenty-nine-year-old Kimmy Schmidt, played by Ellie Kemper, entered adulthood in New York City donned with sneakers and bright-colored jeans and tops. Since Kimmy had spent the past 15 years in an underground cult, she was late to understanding the world at ground level. Throughout the series' three seasons, Kimmy's exuberant style reflects her equally exuberant—and youthful—personality. While I wasn't a hostage in a cult, I spent 10 years as a conservative Christian, beginning at age 14. I went to church up to four times a week, spent summers on mission trips and attended a bible college with a dress code for a year and a half. In that environment, non-sexy clothes were the norm. No one wore high heels except possibly to a wedding, and skin was better un-shown. Instead of "Dirty Dancing," I watched "My Girl." I chose "Boy Meets World" over "Ally McBeal."
My youthful outlook didn't just have to do with my religious environment, however. I chose that environment because I was afraid of the "scary world" and preferred my own imagination. I was 12 by the time I realized I was talking for my Cabbage Patch Kids. Also at age 12, I fell in love with a Christmas episode of "Punky Brewster," in which Punky leaves a necklace on the fireplace for her long-lost mother and finds it gone the next morning. That Christmas Eve, I left an "S" pendant necklace on the mantel for Soleil Moon Frye, the actress who plays Punky. When I found it still there the next day, I finally knew Santa Claus wasn't real. I still held out hope for Punky though.
As I grew up, left the house, and lived in various cities, I tried to adopt the style of each location in an effort to find my adult self. In Portland, I longed for Birkenstocks. In Ashland, Oregon, I found black, lace-up, emo-ish boots to match my friend's from rural Nevada. While living in Seattle, hiking boots and a waterproof jacket became my norm, and I drooled over REI and Land's End catalogs. When I arrived at graduate school on the East Coast, I quickly learned to adopt a sleek yet sloppy look, as New Englanders are supposed to appear put together, but without much effort.
Despite slight changes to my wardrobe, I could never let go of my Santa Cruz surf style or my youthful preferences. An aunt advised me to ditch my wardrobe for something more sophisticated, and when I moved back to San Jose around age 35, a boyfriend criticized my penchant for hoodies and bought me an age-appropriate REI jacket. I wore the jacket twice and sold it for a pretty penny when we broke up.
It wasn't until I moved to Hollywood three years ago, and watched the first season of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" two years ago, that I really came to appreciate my style. Kimmy is known for her outlandish "swears" throughout each season, such as "Gosh darn mommy fudger" and "What the ham sandwich," and I've hardly ever been able to swear myself. Also just like Kimmy, I see the good in just about everyone until facts tell otherwise. I smile incessantly, and strangers' and new friends' mouths remain agape when I tell them I'm 40, not 25. It's partly this access to the fountain of youth—which runs on both sides of my family—that allows me to get away with dressing young for my age. But, even if I looked 40, I can't see myself in a sleek jacket with a fancy purse slung over my shoulder. I will never be Kimmy's frenemy, Jacqueline White, even though there are plenty of Jacquelines in Los Angeles.
Toward the end of Season 1, Kimmy's wardrobe began to shift slightly. In "Kimmy Has a Birthday!" for instance, she trades her normal attire for a tight-fitting red dress and bone-straight hair to celebrate turning 30. I worried a bit that I was about to lose my screen representation, specifically as just before her birthday, she announces, "Tonight is the beginning of my new life. My first year as a grown-up." Fortunately, the writers seem to understand the importance of Kimmy's signature look, and Seasons 2 and 3 had her back to her curly-haired, sneakered self. She even has a few outfits eerily similar to my own, including animal sweaters and an orangeish-red coat.
Kimmy is the too-cool dork and semi social outcast who mirrors my reality. She's a late bloomer in love, relationships and sexuality, and she's happy to live in a closet, even while others around her need something more age-appropriate. Her personality and style shows me that it's OK to hold onto youth, and that I don't need to change my appearance to fit in with everyone else. Just as with my first style icon Punky Brewster, Kimmy reinforces that I can be overly optimistic, annoyingly cheery and still be quirky cool. Hollywood—both on the screen and on the streets—shows that no signature look is off-limits.