Last night, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen won their second CFDA award—the Accessories Designer of the Year Award—a major achievement at 27 years old, with a line they started when they were just 20.
We no longer associate the sisters with their work as child-tween-teen stars, but, looking back, the Olsens’ onscreen careers actually do have a connection with fashion history—or at least, the fashion history we’re all in the process of making.
If you consider that many of the young American women who are now The Row customers—and likely voracious fashion customers across the board—grew up under the influence of the twins’ fashion sense, you might say they’re responsible for the fashion consciousness of a generation.
That generation certainly includes me: following them from Full House to straight-to-video movies, TV shows like So Little Time, to their matriculation at NYU (where I also went), the gush of fashion blogs like Olsens Anonymous that chronicled their every look, and then their foray into the fashion industry (where I also work), I have to admit I feel like I grew up under their influence.
Since I was elementary school age, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have been my fashion idols. They’re a year older than me, so I didn’t quite catch Full House on the air, but I was completely in the market for their videos (the first of which was aptly titled Our First Video). Often in these videos they wore the same clothes in different colorways. This was my first look at styling: seeing the same silhouette doubled, but tweaked for individuality, made me think about how clothes spoke to personality.
Plus, the Olsens just reminded me of myself: They were small, blonde, and for all intents and purposes, ordinary. Their look was real-life applicable, even for a fourth grader in Maryland. My small, also blonde neighbor and I dressed up in matching but different color velour overalls from Gap Kids, then begged our moms to take us grocery-shopping so passersby in the aisles would mistake us for twins. We would stand in front of our closets as we talked on the phone—”Do you have a white turtleneck?”—and later try to trick our peers. Dressing as a pair made us feel special. Take a hard look at any two friends on the street in New York, and you can see the same stance in adulthood.
When Mary-Kate and Ashley got to be pre-teens (an age group that barely had a name before Dualstar, their company, started marketing to it), they started to wear cut-down designer clothes in their videos—which grew up from slapstick mystery movies and cheesy parties to formulaic features set in far-flung locations with cute boys. In middle school, I’d wait for their travel movies to hit the shelf at Blockbuster and immediately commit looks to memory: Ashley’s floral headband in Passport to Paris; the two of them in tie-dyed bell-bottoms inWinning London; Mary-Kate’s denim jacket with a peasant skirt in When In Rome.
Imitating with clothes from Kohl’s and Marshall’s was easy to do (I felt I was too old for their Wal-Mart line, and wanted instead to dress like the twins themselves), apart from one despairing flick, in which Ashley donned a made-to-measure pastel Chanel ski suit on the slopes at the Salt Lake City Olympics in Getting There. Well, that look might have to remain purely aspirational for pre-teen me, but soon after, they appeared in a Got Milk? ad wearing hoodies under blazers. Layering was a revelation.
I dug out a tweed blazer that belonged to my grandmother and borrowed my little brother’s gray hoodie. In the burbs, kids I knew had one weatherproof winter coat for when it was cold and wore running sneakers with everything. Mary-Kate and Ashley movies introduced me to trench coats and knits, skirts and dresses you wore during the day, and a multitude of sandal variations beyond the flip-flop. Through fashion, the everyday was an occasion.
But more than actual fashion articles, the way the videos unfolded taught me to dress like a protagonist. In every location and even the most hum-drum plot—like when the sisters were on vacation with their suburban movie family at Atlantis in the Caribbean—the two were by far best dressed. Their friends were outfitted like supporting characters; there was nothing remarkable in their attire. The Olsens, meanwhile, dressed to be observed. I’d never been out of the country, but in these movies it was as if clothes begat life experiences, and I hopefully imitated them.
When Mary-Kate and Ashley matriculated at NYU, their adaptation to cold New York weather started an infamous style movement: boho. I came to the school a year later, when copycat twins were everywhere, pushing up massive sunglasses, burrowing in knitwear and hauling droopy sacks. But even this strange, scarf-laden stage of Olsen fashion was stylistically valuable. To me, it introduced the idea of oversize, which, to a tight-clothed teen, was an entirely new concept.
The Olsens (or, well, pictures of the Olsens) taught me that fit was relative. But more important, the option of hiding in a massive coat or sweater was comforting and particularly important for me at that age. Though the Olsens had millions of real eyes on them, the average young woman feels the pressure of an external gaze, too. Perhaps that’s why over the past few years, oversize has become such a mainstream silhouette.
My final Olsen fashion (or, should I say, psychological) milestone came when they launched The Row as a full collection. The twins had sought freedom from the idea of age-appropriateness when they were twelve and wearing tailored versions of adult clothes (it’s part of the reason they launched their first Wal-Mart line: There was so little available for tweens), and this sentiment carried through into their high fashion designs.
The Row reached outside their own demographic and took cues from older women, pioneering an idea of ageless dressing: D’Orsay flats, reconfigurations of the caftan, silhouettes that, if you were a thrifter like me, you might emulate using secondhand pieces from Chico’s. All of the little assertions the twins made as they discovered fashion in their youth were present in The Row: oversize elegance fit for protagonists. And equally fascinating were paparazzi photos of the two walking from their car to the office each day.
If you don’t think the twins are still relevant, consider this: The first person I saw resurrect the Birkenstock—and this more than two years ago—was Ashley Olsen. They’ve also always looked great in their own clothes, and, as someone who is approximately their same size, it was easy to take inspiration literally. I can’t remember when I stopped looking so intently at pictures of the Olsens (perhaps the reality of cameramen following two women who were working hard just because they were once child stars settled into my mind; perhaps it was when I began writing about fashion for a living, and covered multiple influences), but I no longer emulate them look for look. Still, I credit them with honing my style instincts, and shaping my sense of dressing as a protagonist in my own story. The feeling of The Row, and its trademarks—oversize, elegant, tailored, with an off-setting accessory—represent the tenets of my wardrobe.
–Courtesy of Business Insider