Michelle Hill's college roommates used to made fun of the way she dressed.
"At one point," the El Paso, Texas, native says, "Someone described my style as 'The Mayor's Wife.' At 19 years old, hearing that was biting, but now I see that is was also true and okay."
Now 30, Hill has been living in Phoenix for three years and is both teaching at Arizona State University and earning her Ph.D. in two concentrations: Theater and Performance of the Americas and Theater for Young Audiences.
Hill says that Phoenix's conservative political climate makes it a great -- and necessary -- place to explore different forms of theater.
"I'm committed to making theater and performance opportunities that are different from traditional theater. I love traditional theater and seeing traditional plays, but not everybody does. That's sometimes very expensive or not possible to do."
One of the ways Hill bridges that gap is by producing a monthly variety show, The Encyclopedia Show Arizona, at the Empty Space Theater at Rural and University. Hill and several other producers invite local community members, performers, artists, and musicians to come and perform on subtopics of a given theme.
Editor's note: Andie Flores previously has participated in The Encyclopedia Show.
"This upcoming month is 'Punctuation,' so some examples of the theme could be ''the comma' or 'missed periods,' things like that. We just did 'Brains,' and in it I performed a piece about nightmares."
Many years before she began creating opportunities for others to shine, she participated in competitive collegiate speech, where part of her style revolution began. "For tournaments, we competed in suits, and I would always wear plain black, navy blue, or brown ones," Hill says. "One day I was shopping with a friend who asked me what my favorite color was, and I told him it was orange. He looked at me and said, 'Okay, well we need to find you an orange suit.' I told him no, that's not allowed, we're not doing that.
"While that suit doesn't fit me anymore, I will never give it away. It marked a change because I wanted to be wearing it. When people told me I looked good, I knew I was never going back."
Hill knows now that you have to figure out what you like, what you're comfortable in, and curate that look in an interesting way. Step one of that process, she says, is asking people you trust and who are brutally honest. "They might tell you you look like the mayor's wife, but the push is necessary."
Hill's most significant influences include Mad Men, Anthropologie's structured feminine dresses, designer Kate Spade, J.Crew, and her grandmother, who, Hill boasts, "has amazing style."
These days, her own fashion advice is simple: You don't like wearing dresses? Don't wear 'em. Don't like jeans? Cool. Who cares?
"Every day that you get dressed, you are costuming yourself, and that is part of the performance of your life," Hill says. "There are plenty of days when I'm wearing yoga pants and hoping nobody sees me, but I feel so much better about myself on the days when I put effort into how I dress, because it is an extension of me. I feel most like myself when I wear dresses, tights, and have costumed myself."
Hill costumes herself classically and boldly. "There was a line in Tad Mosel's 1961 play All The Way Home that I really like. It goes, 'If a woman has a usual life, one black dress will see her through it.' I read that play in October 2010, and that line still sticks with me."
What are you wearing? Since dresses are my go-to, I'm wearing a dress from Gap. I'm also wearing some bright statement tights -- which are my jam, some boots I've had for six years, and a necklace I just got from Nordstrom Rack.
What was the last thing you bought? This necklace.
Where do you usually shop? My wardrobe is heavily influenced by the fact that I worked at Ann Taylor for a year. I have a lot of business casual. I think that store does a great job of making clothes that last a long time. I'm a bargain hunter so I love Marshalls and Nordstrom Rack, and some dresses from Anthropologie add really feminine touches.
Name five items every woman should have in her closet. 1) A brightly colored coat 2) A black dress 3) Great pair of jeans 4) Fun jacket 5) A really fancy, fun, and impractical party outfit
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What's one fashion trend you can't stand? I just can't get behind see-through shirts and bras. I'm sure there's a lot of this happening in Phoenix because it's so hot, but I don't like it.
Give us a childhood memory of you and clothes. When I was very young, every day I would get home from school and immediately change into a blue shirt and red shorts. There was a phone in the back of our house, and whenever the phone would ring, I would run to the phone and answer, "Southwest Airlines, may I help you?" The Southwest flight attendants would always wear red shorts and blue shirts and I wanted to be one of them. ...Most people would hang up.
What is your one piece of fashion advice for Phoenix? I think people are doing some really exciting things in Phoenix, especially people in my age demographic. The city is great because I think people are laid back and accepting of what people are wearing. Make your own path. Look at what other people are doing. Go to events like First Friday, and see what you like and see what you don't like. Having that awareness is awesome.