My Wardrobe is Malfunctioning
Style at every age, with no accounting for taste
A few weeks ago, I found myself standing barefoot in a dressing room at a very posh branch of Cos on the Kensington High Street, somehow both swimming in and being strangled by a sea of bright coral cotton. Cos- the Swedish high street brand favored by a certain sort of urban woman is known for having some very “creatively” cut pieces. Sometimes those angles and asymmetric hems really work. Sometimes they really don’t.
Looking into the three-way mirror I was perplexed. Who is this person? Whose body is this? What even is this construction of fabric?
I've never read Nora Ephron's I Feel Bad About My Neck, but I get the gist. While for the moment my neck is holding up just fine (it’s only a matter of time, isn’t it), it’s everything else I’m concerned about. Not so much a gaining of weight as a shifting of it, I realize suddenly- like waking up with a start- that my body has changed, is changing. Of course I’m more than willing to hoist some of the blame for this on the impenetrable enigma that is women’s sizing logic, its apparent arbitrariness vacillating wildly from country to country, brand to brand, and honestly, from item to item. Ladies, amirite?
Nevertheless it’s time to reset my vision and my desire for what looks good and what feels good. What do I wear? What should I NOT wear? Where are Stacey and Clinton when you need them? Despite the fact that they’d obviously developed a formula (tailored blazers! statement jewelry!), I still dream that one day they might magically construct the perfect look for me. Because ugh, I really just want to outsource this whole operation.
I’ve never felt like I had a signature style. And while I admire those women who have a uniform, it’s entirely possible that 17 years of Catholic school uniform-wearing has perhaps put me off adopting one for myself– “I’m a million different people from one day to the next.” What I do have going for me is a sense- however subjective- of taste. I’m an aesthetically-driven Libra with a long career in design. I’ve got an eye for clever details and can always pull off a funky shoe. Still, what this basically amounts to is a wardrobe comprising more whimsy than strategy, despite all my best efforts at Pinterest-ing myself some guidelines.
Realizing the general lack of photographic evidence of my teens and twenties, I sometimes feel a kind of SOMO– a sadness of missing out on capturing my personal phases of fashion.
This is probably more blessing than curse, I’m sure, and there are a few good surviving snaps (that whole vintage prom dress phase, for example). But I want more proof of those killer outfits- the ones that made me feel cool and sexy and beautiful and self-possessed.
There was the long, black, and kind of flowy tank dress with spaghetti straps from Urban Outfitters that I HAD to have to get my groove back after a bad break-up- but it was an unthinkable $50! Of course my Espresso Royale barista salary could not stretch to those lengths. My girlfriends agreed that THIS DRESS would be the antidote to all ills, and gratefully pooled their own meager resources to deliver me this life-changing gift. Mojo restored, I rocked that dress at an all-night film festival down at the Revolving Museum in Fort Point, chatting up Charlie, a kind of reincarnation of Chet Baker, over hours and hours of Beat films, waiting for the dawn showing of Kerouac's “Pull My Daisy.” Finally, after a good and greasy breakfast at the South Street Diner, (and with Charlie’s number in hand) my girlfriends and I all headed back home to Allston in the early morning light. That dress.
And then there was the red glitter tuxedo jacket scored from Trash and Vaudeville on St Mark’s during a day trip into the city with my friend Margo. We spent the whole afternoon creeping around the East Village, buying records and checking out the rude boys at the Moon Ska store, seeing an all-ages show at Coney Island High, and mostly chain smoking and people watching in Washington Square Park. We squealed with joy when a legit, liberty-spiked punk snarled and flipped us off on Second Ave. I remember wearing that jacket and not much else for a night out at ManRay.
I still keep safe in a box my first pair of kitten heels- deep forest green, the softest Italian leather, pointy-toed and sling-backed. At the très, très branché boutique off of the rue Montorgueil, nothing could have been more sophisticated than being doted on by the salesgirl who brought me outfit after outfit to try. How could I say je refuse to a pair of amazing wide-legged celadon green velvet trousers and the sexiest open-backed and necktied silk chiffon blouse by Paul and Joe. I totally spent beyond my means, but I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so fabulous and powerful. I felt Parisian.
Sigh. I could go on. The knee-high black platform boots. The liquid mercury silver pants. The hot pink tiger fur miniskirt. The faux-snakeskin pants that earned me the nickname “lea-zher Eh-zher” which sticks to this day with my buddy Fred. My block-printed circle skirt, perfect for twirling and billowing gracefully, even when flopping out of a taxi. Clothes may or may not make the man, but they can certainly make the memories.
Today my choices tend somewhat more toward the austere. The Coco Chanel quote that resonates with me is not the one about removing one accessory; rather it’s about wearing black until they make something darker. I haven’t quite gone full capsule wardrobe and I’ll never be a minimalist, but I mostly stick to some basics, which means I’m often stuck in a rut. Still, I can’t resist spending an afternoon aimlessly roaming the endless floors of Harrods, Selfridges, Liberty, Le Printemps, Galleries Lafayette, Barneys, Saks, Dover Street Market- all of the greats. These are my museums- temples of commerce, yes, but also of beauty, of art, of craftsmanship, of luxury, of fantasies. Buying my wedding dress from the Valentino boutique on Bond Street was both the most ridiculous and the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done, like entering into a marvelous parallel universe. Having seen the other side, how could I ever want to come back?
Realistically, though, it’s more about finding those solid, reliable, practical pieces for our workdays and workaday lives. We begin each shopping trip with a cautious optimism that somehow we’ll find something, anything that will manage to hold in delicate balance a reduction of our decision fatigue and an increase, or at least maintenance of our self esteem. I know I’m not the only one suffering through micro-crises of despair and frustration most times I step into a dressing room. Walking out of shop after shop, tail between legs and empty-handed, vowing to shop only online from now on, buying three colors of the one pair jeans that actually fit. But once in awhile we nail it. Once in awhile, we’ll be strolling to the subway and a stranger will say, “You look great today!,” and we’ll say, “Dammit, you’re right! I do!” We’ll walk a little taller, smile a little more, and hopefully pass on the compliment, because we all need it sometimes.
And if all else fails, there’s always tailored blazers and statement jewelry.