Stella Ehrhart, 9, awakens with no particular plan about what she’ll wear today to school in Omaha, Neb.
She eats breakfast, peeks in her mother’s closet, and spies a beaded turquoise dress—a style of clothing that reminds the youngster of one of her many civic-minded heroines, Guatemalan native rights activist Rigoberta Menchú. Tossing the dress over her white shirt and khaki pants, Stella reins in the excess fabric with a belt and sets off for Dundee Elementary School.
“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision,” says the third-grader about dressing up one day last spring to portray Menchú, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner. “It gets too complicated when you try to plan ahead. You’ve gotta have inspiration.”
Every school day for two years, Stella has been inspired to arrive at class dressed as a different person she admires—from flag-maker Betsy Ross to primatologist Jane Goodall to Pam Ehrhart, her aunt who worked in crime prevention.
The fashion parade began in 2011 on her second day as a second-grader. Preparing for school, Stella was thinking about “Little House on the Prairie” author Laura Ingalls Wilder and wondering, “If she looked in my closet, what would she pick to wear?” With her mother’s permission, Stella donned a long-sleeve white blouse under a sleeveless dress and added an apron.
When teacher Shannon Roeder learned the story behind Stella’s fashion statement, she encouraged her student to let her know when she was dressing in character. Stella obliged. During second grade, she portrayed more than 160 admired and iconic people—primarily women—repeating nary a one. In third grade, she added another 50 individuals to her repertoire.
Her costumes are simple and created with existing items from home. To portray poet Emily Dickinson, for instance, Stella added a pendant to her own basic black dress. To conjure jazz singer Billie Holiday, she wore the same dress and tucked a red paper flower behind her ear. Her depiction of actress Grace Kelly required more effort. Stella pinned up her hair, overlaid a pink satin dress with her grandmother’s lace, and added her mother’s pearls.
For ideas, Stella reads biographies about current and historical figures and pores over the 1998 book “100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century,” a gift from a family friend. She also gets suggestions from her parents, Stephanie Anderson, 46, and Kevin Ehrhart, 51, who have theatrical backgrounds.
“Her wheels are just spinning all the time,” says Anderson, about her daughter’s creative mind.
At times, she has tried to curb Stella’s costume routine. Once, she convinced Stella to try planning outfits a week in advance. That didn’t last; it was the “inspiration” issue, Stella explains. For third grade, her mother insisted Stella allow herself to repeat characters. And in January, she got her daughter to wear school uniforms for a while. However, Stella’s classmates missed her costumes, Stella missed her creative outlet, and her teacher missed the impromptu class discussions that Stella’s outfits inspired about people in history and current events.
“Stella brings a lot of learning to the classroom,” says teacher Shari Smith, 41. “Everybody’s always curious about who she is. It brings to light things we wouldn’t ordinarily talk about.”
Women who stand up to social injustices hold a special place in Stella’s heart.
Joan Baez: “She used music to help change the world,” Stella explains.
Harriet Tubman: “She was freed as a slave and went back to free others.”
Anne Frank: “Her diary was actually an autograph book.”
Helen Keller: “She learned Braille so well.”
Rosa Parks: “She wouldn’t give up her seat and got arrested.”
Her classmates have their own favorites. Elena Conyers-Gaines, 9, loved when Stella surprised everyone by coming to school dressed like Virginia Holtzclaw, Stella’s classmate and best friend. “It shows that she thinks friendship is important,” Elena says.
Stella doesn’t try to “become” her characters or let her outfits become a classroom distraction. “If you tried to be like them, it would interfere with class,” she explains respectfully.
As a fourth-grader, Stella plans to continue dressing up daily if her teachers allow. Either way, she’ll keep learning about interesting people in history and the world.
“I love to read,” she says.