Threads of Expression
A few of Island, Ky., junior Chase Bennett's favorite pieces are gifts from family members following trips.

Sometimes all it takes is strutting around a dorm room in a pair of black, ankle-strap heels with a gold lace trim to discover a lifelong passion. This is exactly what happened to Lilliana Welch, a junior fashion merchandising major from Henderson, Kentucky.

Welch said fashion is one of the biggest forms of self-expression that exists.

“You can argue that it’s not, but I think the people who would argue that, maybe they just need to open their mind a little bit and see that no matter what you wear, someone’s going to look at you, and they’re going to think something,” Welch said. “You kinda have control over that.”

While she said she was confident in her style during high school, Welch struggled with adjusting to life on her own at WKU, This also affected how she expressed herself, she said.

“I kinda took some steps back at first,” Welch said. “I gained a lot of weight. I was in a really bad place mentally. And so every day was a giant T-shirt and leggings and Birkenstocks. I was covering my body up in any way I could to not acknowledge it was there.”

Welch said during the summer after her freshman year, she slowly started pulling herself out of her rut. She worked full time at David’s Bridal, hung out with her family and friends more, ate better and lost 60 pounds in the process.

“I literally had a clean slate in every way possible with how I want to treat people, how I want people to treat me, how I see myself, and what I wear, I think, is a huge part of that,” Welch said.

That fall semester, she was taking a sewing class and went shopping one day looking for fabric. Afterward, she went to Payless at the Greenwood Mall to look at shoes. She found a pair of pointed black heels with a clasp around the ankle and a gold lace design across them.

She went home without buying them and had a dream that night that she was walking down the street wearing the shoes when someone complimented her on them. She woke up, and decided to buy those shoes.

“I think I cried at some point,” Welch said. “When I was walking out of the store with them, I’m pretty sure I teared up.”

She wore them for the next week or two just around her dorm room, even in her pajamas, Welch said. She didn’t want to take the shoes off to go do her photojournalism homework, and it made her realize that what she really wanted was a career in fashion.

After digging through his sewing box, Bennett, a fashion merchandising and dance double major, found his needles and thread. He can hand stitch, embroider and sew on a machine.

Welch said this experience has encouraged her to trust her instincts when she sees items in stores that speak to her in the way those shoes did. She attributes a part of her recovery from the dark times she has experienced to fashion.

“I think fashion kind of helped me pull myself out of that, really gave me a direction and just made me feel so much better about myself,” Welch said. “When I’m wearing clothes that I like, then I’m going to feel amazing no matter how bad it has been, honestly.”

Chase Bennett, a junior from Island, Kentucky, has a similar outlook to Welch when it comes to style and expression. He is double majoring in fashion merchandising and dance, two forms of art that he feels have been crucial to his personality.

Bennett is dyslexic and feels that in a traditional educational setting, it is harder for him to express his feelings and thoughts verbally. This allows Bennett to feel more freedom when expressing himself through fashion and dance, as opposed to using reading and writing.

Bennett first found his passion for fashion during a sewing class in high school. He and his sister wanted to take a class geared towards the intricacies of sewing. For a class project, he made a tracksuit while everyone else was making pillowcases, a project that he said the teacher still talks about to this day.

“I had seen this $5,000 jumpsuit online, right, and I showed it to my teacher and I was like ‘I want to make this,’ and she was like ‘Well, it would be a lot cheaper than buying the suit,’ and I was like ‘You know what? You’re right,’ so I ended up making it,” Bennett said.

Carrie Cox, an assistant professor in fashion merchandising at WKU, feels that most people do not realize the significance of fashion. During her classes, she asks her students what they are dressed for, and she often gets a response that they dress to be an individual, she said.

However, Cox said that, at times, she sees a lack of individuality in her students due to the fact that not everyone cares about putting together a good outfit on a daily basis, something that Bennett and Welch take very seriously.

Kimi Bussey, unlike Bennett, can describe her style in one word: vintage. A junior from Louisville majoring in fashion merchandising, she said that a vintage style can look a variety of ways.

She said the decision to dress in more vintage clothing makes her feel more like herself.

Bennett pins various designs onto a mannequin in his room. “I picked this one without knowing exactly what to do with it," Bennett said. "Maybe I’ll turn it into a long dress."
In high school, Bennett’s friends paid him to get their clothes customized. “I would patch up holes and embroider designs,” Bennett said.

“I kind of wanted to take my own route and follow my own trends, and I didn’t do all of the trends everybody else was doing,” she said. “Whenever I found a style that made me most comfortable with who I am, that’s the one I went for, which was the older look, the vintage style. It makes me just feel very comfortable with who I am.”

She draws most of her inspiration from pop culture in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘90s.

Bussey wants to be a fashion designer and curate a high-end clothing line inspired by classic vintage clothes one day. For now, she is working as an actress and a model to build her platform. She said she looks at herself as a brand and sees vintage as a huge part of her.

“Fashion is an extension of who I am basically,” Bussey said. “It is an expression of my identity, my outlet.”

Similar to Welch, Bennett said he feels like people can tell a lot about someone based on what they wear. He said that if someone tries to be fashionable, it is a reflection of their work ethic.

He said it’s easy to throw on a black pair of sweatpants and a white shirt, but it takes much more effort to compose a perfect outfit. He believes that people don’t need to have high-end garments to have a quality outfit.

“I just feel like a lot of people need to realize that how you present yourself might be how the world sees you,” Bennett said. “I don’t want it to be that way, but it is that way. You need to put your best foot forward.”

Cox said a theory called “the mirrored self,” or “the looking glass self,” is starkly apparent in younger age groups. This ideology is where people tend to look to others’ social decisions so that they can know how to fit in properly.

“You don’t want to be that weirdo. You want to fit in,” Cox said. “Nobody would put hot rollers in their hair today like I did in the ‘80s; nobody’s wearing white stockings and a skirt and black pumps like I did and everyone else did in the ‘80s.”

“I love to have material in my hand,” said Lilliana Welch, a junior fashion merchandising major from Henderson, Ky. “I love adding a stitch, fixing a hem or cutting a strap to give a piece a second chance.”

She said she thinks her students might look cute when they go out, but when they come to class, they all look alike despite claims of individuality. Cox said she believes people are living in a “cult of comfort.”

Along the pages of early editions of Vogue, Welch finds inspiration from fashion brands such as Gucci and Alexander McQueen.

Despite this, some are still embracing different forms of style. Bennett said fashion is all about the story for him. He said he doesn’t think he has one specific style that he is obligated to, and thus having more freedom to be expressive about where he is in his life.

The outfits he puts on each day are meant to be a reflection of how he wants to be seen or the story that he wants to tell that day, Bennett said. For example, he said if he is feeling happy, he will wear something that expresses he’s having a good day, but if he’s having a bad day, he will wear dark clothes instead.

Cox said fashion is a cycle and is constantly changing, and it’s a reflection of the times.

“You speak volumes without saying a word,” Cox said. “Any nonverbal we’re giving, whether it’s crossing our arms or rolling our eyes or giving the middle finger, clothing is our backdrop. And it’s the first thing anyone sees about us. So it tells a story.”

For Bussey, fashion is a way to communicate a message nonverbally, positive or negative. She said she is an advocate for self-love, confidence and people being themselves through fashion.

“When you’re choosing to let fashion express who you are, you choose based on how you feel because I feel like don’t ever dress how anybody else tells you to dress, you dress how you want to dress, that’s just my motto,” Bussey said.

Welch said that she wishes more people would realize they don’t need to be scared of fashion.

“Anybody can have fashion, no matter what you wear,” she said. “One person’s definition of what looks good is completely different from somebody else’s, and that’s totally OK. That’s what’s great about fashion. It’s always changing, it’s always going to mean something different, and I love that so much.”

In her clothing and human behavior class, Cox compares clothing to someone’s senses. They smell it, hear it, taste it, see it — all the senses are engaged with clothing.

“There’s something that is impactful when we have the right things on, that we know look presentable, and it gives us power,” Cox said.

Welch holds one of her self-customized pairs of pants. She is striving towards a career in product development and design, a field where she’ll be taking designers' ideas and turning them into a feasible product.