By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 12, 2017 at 09:30 AM EDT
Credit: Jordin Althaus/Hulu

Mindy Lahiri saved me — or at least my closet.

I was one of those girls who grew up thinking fashion was stupid and shallow. It was a defense mechanism — a convenient way to reject an industry I couldn’t afford, I didn’t understand, and that didn’t care about girls like me (read: above a size 2). Growing up with a uniform through middle school and lacking an interest in fashion meant ages 14 to 21 were largely marked by tragic ensembles. The worst: an “I’m Beary Lovable” Christmas sweatshirt with red- and green-striped knee socks and brown Vans tennis shoes. My sister still has the photos somewhere for blackmail.

While my outward guise screamed fashion disaster, inwardly I was dreaming about my perfect look: mimicking the styles of my favorite 1940s movie stars like Lauren Bacall and Vivien Leigh. I felt I’d been born in the wrong era, hankering for vintage dresses and the days when an outfit wasn’t complete without a hat. The only times I truly enjoyed my interaction with clothes were when I was being fitted for costumes for the school musical.

Over the years, I started to find my way — discovering boutiques and online stores that specialized in retro looks and tentatively adding them to my closet. But mostly, I felt overwhelmed by terror that my vintage tastes still wouldn’t measure up. Could I pull off a look that went out of style in 1952? More importantly, would caring about what I looked like make me a bad feminist (and not in a cool Roxane Gay way)?

But in 2012, Mindy Lahiri came to television and rocked my sartorial world.

Suddenly, here was this woman on television who was all the things I knew (or at least hoped) I was: funny, pop culture-obsessed, boy-crazy, and damn good at her job. She was a normal-sized human being who wore bright colors, form-fitting dresses, and COUTURE with aplomb. Her clothes reflected her personality — loud, colorful, sparkly, and unapologetically feminine.

Over the seasons, Mindy has become quite the fashion plate with costume designer (and Kaling’s personal stylist) Salvador Perez graduating from perfectly-tailored designer looks to signature, custom-made ensembles. The clothes have become such an integral part of the show that the Paley Center even has an exhibit dedicated to its six seasons of style.

Each season I salivated over Mindy’s wardrobe — from custom-designed magenta tweed coats to a pink polka-dot and plaid 1970s-inspired suit to a yellow dress with a black bow, pearl-edged Peter Pan collar, and matching floral coat. Mindy Lahiri embraces her curves and wears tailored outfits and bright colors that say, “I’m here, I’m fabulous, and I know I look good.”

I found myself awakened and inspired. Mindy Lahiri has consistently and stealthily been one of the most feminist figures on TV — a capable woman and single mother who also loves hot pink and Nora Ephron. She proves on a weekly basis that hyper-femininity and feminism are not mutually exclusive. You can love Kate Spade and Gloria Steinem.

She helped me to reconcile those same parts of myself. Caring about the way I presented myself to the world could be a form of empowerment and a means to bridge what I had come to believe were antithetical personality traits.

I finally felt unfettered to explore my own fashion choices. I leaned into my love of vintage style and outfitted myself with a range of retro-inspired dresses. My closet exploded with color, and for the first time, I wore shades that would have frightened me in the past: burnt oranges, hot pinks, and more. I upped the sparkle quotient of my wardrobe by 200 percent. I may also have added six unnecessary coats to my collection, inspired by Mindy’s always on-point outerwear (yes, I live in Southern California and have an impractical coat obsession. Deal with it).

I don’t have the budget for many of the designer looks Mindy wears, but that isn’t what matters. Rather than stealing her look, Mindy Lahiri inspired me to steal her attitude. Because of her, I embraced the desire and effort to be stylish — on my own terms.

Stars and red carpet mavens will tell you time and again that tailoring is the key to a flattering look, and that’s true, but Mindy Lahiri taught me that tailoring is also a state of mind. The key to stylistic bliss is choosing looks that mentally fit you like a glove, dictates of the fashion industry be damned.

It’s not about what some higher forces say is in or out. Mindy Lahiri is fashionable, yes, but her choices never fail to reflect who she is: a messy, beautiful, nuanced, complicated woman with seemingly boundless amounts of confidence.

Fashion is a feminist act when it says to the world, “This is who I am and I don’t care if you don’t like it,” whether that’s wearing colors that draw attention to yourself, loving your curves, or something else entirely. Mindy shows us all what a confident, capable woman looks like — and her style gave me the courage to care. To tell the world that there are a lot of Mindy Lahiris out there, and we are extraordinary.

Episode Recaps

The Mindy Project - Season 5

The Mindy Project

Mindy Kaling’s rom-com follows the hilarious lives of an OBGYN and her medical practice coworkers.

  • TV Show
  • 4
  • TV-14
  • In Season
  • Hulu
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