On any given day, a college classroom can feature a rainbow of outfits ranging from the very casual, like pajamas, to Nike shorts, t-shirts and jeans or even business suits. But while you may take the time during your morning routine to really dress up for class, chances are you don’t paint a yellow submarine on your face or wear a wig.
Erica Heath does. Heath wears outfits that draw the eye, often including interesting or offbeat pieces you won’t find in your typical Target—giant skull earrings that hearken to Dia De Los Muertos or an oversized sequin sweater. The result is colorful; you’ll notice her easily in a crowd.
Heath, a junior University Scholars major from South Pasadena, Calif., doesn’t always trouble herself to pick out something particularly outlandish — but even on days she doesn’t exert herself, she still sticks out.
“The thing about my wardrobe is I don’t really have your typical wardrobe staples—I’ve only got one pair of blue jeans, so that’s not something I can really default to,” Heath said.
The difference is this: some may throw on a T-shirt and jeans for an easy outfit, but Heath throws on fishnets and a petticoat — staples for her, she said. The stunning results take Heath anywhere from five minutes to two hours to complete. Heath doesn’t stop with eye-catching clothes, though. She often wears elaborate hairstyles or makeup alongside them.
“What does take a long time is if I do makeup other than just lipstick, or if I decide to do my hair. I have so much hair; it takes so long. Hair can add an hour to an outfit, more if I curl it all,” she said.
Heath said she didn’t start dressing up until her sophomore year of high school, when she received a pair of white vinyl go-go boots for Christmas. Heath received the shoes and some patterned tights, which she took to wearing in place of her typical attire: jeans and a t-shirt. Her wardrobe escalated from there.
Heath isn’t the only member of her family who has been noticed for her unusual style. Her father and fashion forebear James Heath, a Baylor alum from the class of ’84, former NoZe brother and current Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, has also been the subject of discussion for his offbeat dress code. A post featuring Heath’s father appeared on the blog The Dayside and mentioned his casual attire (a Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sandals) despite the freezing weather in Portland, Ore., the city hosting the physics conference at which he was presenting. But while her father, however, was compared to other “sartorially insouciant” physicists, Heath herself is anything but. Like her father, though, she does enjoy wearing Hawaiian shirts.
“They’re really freeing,” she said.
What else does she like to wear? Corsets.
“I love wearing corsets. Historically this isn’t the case, but personally they really make me feel very powerful in a very pleasant way. They feel good, and they really flatter my figure. I mean, that’s their job,” she said.
She also owns ties, jackets, a pair of Victorian walking boots and several petticoats, not to mention a treasure trove of jewelry and accessories. Heath, who described her figure as “Victorian,” said she feels fortunate to enjoy the fashions of that era, as well as others such as the 40s and 50s in which “hips were a thing to be cherished.”
There is no single unifying element to Heath’s style. Instead, she is inspired by a variety of different things: holidays, colors, individual pieces or combinations of items she sees while looking in her closet.
“Sometimes it’s just that two things will catch my eye, or sometimes there’s just one piece that I want to wear, so I build an outfit around that,” Heath said. “Sometimes I do makeup first, and the makeup inspires what I wear. Sometimes what I wear inspires the makeup.”
With tastes so diverse and wide-ranging, it’s no surprise that Heath chose the University Scholars program, which offers her the chance to pursue a course of study that includes classes of her choosing that may lie outside the typical degree requirements. Instead of required classes, University Scholars majors must take a three-course sequence in the Great Texts program, write a thesis and create an independent reading list. One subject Heath has chosen to focus on is Japanese, and she’s writing her thesis on the influence of the arts of Japan on those of the West.
It’s appropriate: In Japan, there’s a proverb: “deru kui wa utareru.” It means “The standing nail is driven.”
The saying expresses the tension between the individual and society as a whole. Heath explained that it’s not about the individual being prone to unhappiness because he or she is different, but instead an individual could be driven to become less of an individual to better fit the group.
It’s easy to see why. Japan is a fairly homogenous society: over 98 percent of the population is ethnic Japanese. Baylor isn’t quite so homogenous, but there is a definite and clear majority. According to statistics from Baylor Institutional Research and Testing, students are mostly white and Christian, although Baylor has significant Hispanic, Asian and African-American student populations. There is no category for “students who paint submarines on their faces and wear wigs,” but Heath is probably the only one. She is a standing nail in Baylor’s society.
Dr. Sara Dolan, an assistant professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience and a practicing clinical psychologist, has been practicing psychology since she was licensed in 2006. Dolan said in the course of her practice, she has noticed that not fitting in is an issue that arises, in some form or another, again and again.
“I would say that a majority of people I see feel isolated from a community in one sense or the other. One of their core problems is they don’t feel connected,” Dolan said.
And that lack of connection is precisely what has the potential to make you feel alone. Communities, she explained, occur on all levels – among peers, at work, in the home – and each community may have a different set of norms that reveal what qualities help you fit in. However, it isn’t conformity that makes you happy, Dolan believes. It’s connections.
“I think for a majority of people, connection is a very crucial factor in their happiness. You can be connected without conforming,” she said. It’s up to the individual; Dolan said she finds that for extremely confident people, fitting into the group doesn’t matter so much. But for those who are insecure, or value conformity, it could be difficult. Fitting in, or the level of comfort an individual has with the acceptance the peer group offers, varies by individual.
“Speaking from a psychological perspective … it would be more important for an individual to feel comfortable from the acceptance that they’re getting,” Dolan said.
Heath freely admits that she’s never tried to fit in. In fact, she actively tries to stand out. Heath said she “loves people’s reactions” to her outfits and considers it a source of motivation.
“I love making other people happy, helping them reach into their inner child and just enjoy a bright color or a new idea. I love that. People notice when I go a few days without dressing up and they tell me, and I start to feel guilty for disappointing people, so I dress up again,” she said.
Heath said she’s often asked if she’s in a play by those who are confused by her appearance. It doesn’t make her uncomfortable, though—she said it’s been a while since she’s gotten a rude look. But while Heath’s attire is a very visible sign that Heath marches to the beat of a different sartorial drummer —albeit, a colorful one—Heath’s differences with the mainstream Baylor community don’t begin and end with her wardrobe. Among a majority Christian student population, Heath practices Wicca, a modern pagan natural religion. She also identifies as pansexual and polyamorous.
Having differences from the community could be negative if the community shuns or isolates an individual for not conforming to the community’s norms, Dolan explained. However, it could also be positive, “if the peer group values individuality.” Being of a different sexual orientation could definitely affect how an individual fit into the Baylor community, she said.
“Like everywhere else, there are pockets of communities here that have certain norms. Some pockets would be affirming and some would not. I think there are enough communities around here that a person could be part of and feel comfortable,” she said.
For Heath, one such pocket is SIF, or the Sexual Identity forum, a group that meets to discuss issues of gender and sexuality. Heath co-founded SIF in the fall of 2010 with a group of other students. Although it’s not an officially chartered Baylor group, the members meet to share their experiences within the LGBT community.
“We are for education and discussion, but nothing past that,” she said. The group welcomes all members of the community who wish to attend. To date, SIF has made several attempts to secure a charter, but all have been denied.
Unlike her wardrobe, Heath’s unorthodox beliefs might not be so readily apparent. Heath doesn’t hide them, but she doesn’t push them on people either. She defines herself as an activist.
“As an activist you don’t want to be shoving yourself down people’s throats. You don’t want to be a tonic. You want to be likable, develop relationships with people, and then just happen to be different in some way,” she said.
Tom Hanks first met Heath when she began attending a regular discussion group with him that met on Friday afternoons. Since then, he has had ample time to get to know her; Hanks, a professor and master teacher in the English Department, also teaches a 9:30 a.m. Sunday School class at Lake Shore Baptist Church which Heath regularly attends. It’s not his first time to have Heath as a student, though. In the spring of 2012, Heath accompanied Hanks and other students to Europe for the Baylor in Maastricht program, where she took two classes from him.
Regarding her opinions, “she is not pushy in the conversation, but she always has something to say,” Hanks said. Hanks said she often presented a novel perspective, and that Heath “had really intelligent things to say about the topics we go into.”
“I am what I am, and the people here don’t care that much and that’s perfect for me. But I don’t exactly go around waving my beliefs on a banner. If I did it might be harder, but that would also be pretty pointless and stupid,” she said.
Instead, if she wants to change someone’s opinions, she gets to know them first.
“What doesn’t irritate people is being their friend, listening, being there for people, and then saying “by the way you’d really like my girlfriend she’s pretty great,” and they get to decide for themselves whether or not loving someone makes you a terrible person,” Heath said.
It’s the same with her religion.
“I don’t complain about how persecuted we are, because that makes me a complainer, and nobody likes a complainer. I just talk to people, and when people get to know me, they decide they don’t care what name I call god, because it’s all the same thing.”
After college, Heath said she plans to live wherever she can get a job. She doesn’t have plans. Heath said while she can be happy anywhere, she likes to move around.
Despite her obvious differences with the mainstream Baylor community, Heath said she doesn’t feel compelled to be anything other than what she is.
“I didn’t come to Baylor and decide to be different so that I could be a martyr. For one thing, I’m not a martyr; I’m flourishing here. For another, that would be stupid,” she said.
“I like to move. I like places. They’re like people, they have personalities. The difference is that places are far more giving than people, and far more forgiving. I like places a lot,” Heath said.
And her unique sense of style? Heath said she knows she might have to start dressing more conventionally to blend into the workplace eventually. And that’s okay — as long as she doesn’t have to sacrifice what really makes her Erica.
“I don’t particularly like that idea, and I especially don’t want to have to grow my eyebrow back or dye my hair a solid, natural color, but while there are things I won’t sacrifice for a job—my political and religious beliefs, my morals, etc.—my style is something I would be willing to put on the back burner 40 hours a week.”
Heath documents her past outfits and thoughts by blogging. Her blog, Lovely Wednesday, can be found at http://iwantlovely.blogspot.com/. In it, she discusses her clothes, offers her thoughts on her outfits and reveals where she found certain pieces.