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In My Closet: Michelle Pemberton

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‘In My Closet’ is a monthly Sky Blue Window feature, taking readers inside the wardrobes of some of the city’s most fashionable men and women. Clothing budgets, big and small, are included. But the owners of the closets you’ll read about have at least one thing in common: wearable art.

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Often, when Michelle Pemberton looks through her closet, she thinks more about temperature than beauty.

That's because, as a member of The Indianapolis Star's photography staff, she has to be ready for all circumstances when she heads to work -- everything from standing outside for hours at a fire scene when temperatures are below freezing or snapping a quick shot of an unwilling subject outside a courthouse to shooting party pictures at a black-tie affair.

"So much of my stuff has to be stuff I can work in or do things in," she says. "I'm not just sitting around looking pretty."

So, when asked about her personal style, Pemberton gives it some thought. Eventually she says it's "vintage utilitarian" or "tomboy chic."

Whatever you call it, the look is something she's been developing all her life. Pemberton can't remember when clothes and design didn't feel important.

"To me, all clothing is a costume. All clothing is art," she says.

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Clothes collecting for Pemberton began not long after she learned to walk and about the same time she started liking postmodern furniture. She has a vivid memory of shopping for a new bedroom set with her parents when she was 3 or 4. She recalls bursting into tears when her mother chose a style she didn't like.

"My mom picked this French-inspired country thing, which I hated. I cried immediately. I was like, 'I hate it. It's stupid,'" she remembers, laughing. "What I really wanted was my dad's mid-century modern bedroom suite and chairs. I still have the bedroom suite."

So Pemberton grew up collecting. Yard sales and antiques stores were some of her favorite places to shop. They still are.

At one point, a faded Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt became a prized possession; not because Pemberton loved the rock star, but because she loved the design of the top.

"It looked all rock and roll," she remembers. "I wore the [stuff] out of it until it disintegrated and I started sewing it back together onto another T-shirt."

Pemberton's penchant for the offbeat worried her mother, Jeanne, who thought her daughter might get picked on at school because of her unusual dress. Going shopping with her creative daughter was a nightmare, she says. "I was so conservative. I was just concerned. But she turned out fine."

Along the way, Pemberton collected some of Jeanne's pieces, too. Hanging in Pemberton's closet is the feather-trimmed top to one of Jeanne's circa 1970s pantsuits.

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"Clothing that was made in that era, it's got a structure to it. It structures your body to give you curves or accentuate things in a lot of ways," she says. "Where today's clothing is like 'here's a sack for you. Put a belt on it.' I'm not a fan of that."

She's a fan of a good deal, though.

The photojournalist's budget is pretty humble. So her clothes-buying hobby requires an eye for a bargain. She's more likely to dig through a trunk at a vintage store than surf the racks at the Fashion Mall. But she'll do that, too.

"If I'm going to take a shopping day, it's going to be a real shopping day," she says. "This doesn't happen very often, these days, but I'll be like 'okay I'm going to go through this entire mall by myself.' And I don't dillydally. Even stores I don't like, I'll still go in them. Everybody has a gem once in a while."

Pemberton has a lot of them.

Her collection includes a variety of looks from different eras, each arranged neatly into her two small side-by-side closets inside the carriage house where she lives in the Old Northside Historic District. The space is compact, but Pemberton has a place for everything: sunglasses, dresses, denim and big collections of hats, boots and a mishmash of pants and tops from various decades.

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It takes 15 or 20 minutes to put an outfit together for work, she says. But don't think fashion is left behind just because she heads out the door in boots and overalls (she has a well-used pair that were given to her by a coworker). Often, on workdays, Pemberton will add bright lipstick to the mix for a pop of color.

And when she's not on the job, she brings out circa 1950s dresses, hippie outfits or, occasionally, turns herself into a steampunk-style temptress.

To Pemberton a good look includes four elements, she says:  "a little bit of classic, a lot of functional, a hint of vintage and some sexy."

And they're all at her fingertips, inside her closet.

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