Am I the only one who writes Mrs. Dalloway in her mind when she gets dressed?
I started that Monday morning with a purloined waffle-knit cardigan: a thin, light gray, cotton/silk blend, edged with ivory lace, no buttons. It might have been from Abercrombie, or from Brandy Melville, that temple of monochromatic adolescent-wear, whose stores I wander through with my teenage daughters secretly coveting some skimpy camisole or a sublimely soft cropped sweatshirt with BROOKLYN spelled across the front. But I don’t buy much weekend wear anymore (even of the age-appropriate variety). I save my money for more dramatic pieces, like the formfitting black dress with cutout shoulders that I recently found for fall. Not to mention that if I were to indulge in Melville attire, I’d lose my maternal moral authority. I couldn’t sigh and say to 16-year-old Edie, or 13-year-old Tess, “You’re gonna buy another one of those?” The psychology is a bit twisted, I concede.
Hence, my lust for the cardigan. I’d spotted it lying on the couch after Tess’s birthday party, and it was still there on Monday when the girls left for school. “Hey, ask around and see if anyone’s missing that sweater,” I casually told Tess as she was walking out the door.
“Okay, but no one’s mentioned it. Bye.”
I snatched the cardigan from the sofa with the glee of artist Robert Rauschenberg strolling the streets of lower Manhattan in the 1960s and happening upon the perfect rusty wheel to incorporate into one of his “Combine” pieces. For me, getting dressed is a creative act but a relatively low-stakes one, which keeps it fun, and the closest I’ll ever come to being a visual person. It’s a process of mixing this texture with that color, throwing one element to the floor, combing through my closet to find a replacement, regarding the new mash-up critically, and repeating the whole operation again. I’m an action painter! It’s a routine rich with associations from my past as well as hopes for my future—even if that future is only eight hours away and involves meeting my boyfriend, J., for a drink.
Bargains add a bad-girl frisson to the enterprise, like I’m getting away with something.
In fact, in the case of the (temporarily) purloined cardigan, I was meeting my boyfriend later, but for lunch in Central Park. An important caveat: I don’t put this much thought into getting dressed every single day, which allows me to revel in the experience when I do. When I’m exhausted after a bad night’s sleep, or preoccupied with work, I give myself what I call “punt days.” This is a fringe benefit of having a job that sometimes requires only that I huddle in my office and fiddle with ideas. I don’t always have to be “on,” to “represent” to the outside world. So when I’m punting, I’ll just put on a comfortable dress, like the blue-and-brown plaid poly-knit, ’70s-esque jumper I bought seven years ago from Target for $17 (ha! Bargains add a bad-girl frisson to the enterprise, like I’m getting away with something). I still get compliments on that thing. Same with the short-sleeved teal corduroy dress, buttoned down the front and belted, that I bought for even less—five dollars—a decade ago at the Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena. I was visiting my sister. We were free of family obligations for a few hours, the sun was hot, and I love my sister beyond measure—that’s the dress to me. On some punt days, I obviously still appreciate the backstory and the aesthetics of my chosen garb, but on my puntiest punt days, not so much. I’ll wear jeans and some old black shirt. And while I take satisfaction from the internal/external synchronicity of wearing black when I’m feeling down—from literally wearing my heart on my sleeve—I truly don’t care at these times what message my clothes are transmitting. I’m just doing, not appearing. A palate cleanser, you might say, or a necessary break from being a girl.
Being a girl, however, can be a great pleasure, which brings me back to the cardigan. I wanted to look soft and sexy that day, in anticipation of lunch with my boyfriend. Although my feminism was formed 30-plus years ago, when wanting to look pliable and pretty for a man could be considered suspect, I never worried about hewing to a PC dress code. Is that be- cause I’d absorbed the values of the patriarchy? Because I thought I was a “good enough” feminist in other ways that I could dress how I wanted? Because I knew that expecting my sexual desires and my politics to line up neatly was a fool’s game? A little bit of all three, I think.
The day of the lunch, there was a nip in the air, after a steamy summer. That meant I could wear jeans—my favorites are by Lucky and make my butt look good, but they’re not so insanely tight that they interfere with, say, lolling around on a picnic blanket. Then there was the challenge of what to wear under the cardigan. I tried a white, short-sleeved T-shirt that my ex-mother-in-law had given me (my closet is full of hand-alongs from her, my sister, my best friend—it’s a party in there), but it was too loose, the proportions too similar to the flowy cardigan. I needed a tank top–like fit. I found a gray one (again, formerly my ex-mother-in-law’s, though I don’t think she gave it to me; I borrowed it from her summer house one year and never returned it), but it muddied the gray cardigan. (Grays are hard to mix.) I ran to Edie’s room to check out her offerings, and considered a long-sleeved, off-white lace shirt, but too much lace with the cardigan—too high-necked, not right. Undeterred, I returned to my own drawers to dig around anew, finally landing on an ivory cotton camisole, with a touch of lace—I’d forgotten I even owned it.
From there, the pace quickened. I opted for a wide, woven brown leather belt (Gap, 2000?), with the only step remaining the shoes. I’d been fantasizing about the masculine edge Edie’s burgundy Converse high-tops might add to my ensemble, but when I tried them on…eh, they looked more juvenile than anything. The answer came in the form of my well-worn mauve leather thong sandals, with a few crystals left along the strap. If they’d been new, it might have been too much, but they looked lovingly scuffed up, the Velveteen Rabbit of footwear, and went nicely with my chipped pale-pink toenail polish.
Revealing the mental loop-de-loops involved in covering my nakedness, I feel naked before you. Am I the only one who writes Mrs. Dalloway in her mind when she gets dressed? Then, too, I wonder how what I’ve said might be perceived by the next-wave feminists I’ve lately read and listened to online discussing clothes and the objectification of women (check out, for one, the YouTube star Laci Green—so smart and sane). One solution to the predicament they offer is that women and girls dress for themselves. But what does that mean? I dress for a man; I dress for my mostly female colleagues (many of whom are professional-grade curators of style); I dress for fashiony after-hours work events; I dress with the knowledge that I’ll be sitting at Tess’s volleyball game later in the day, and she loves what she calls the “Brooklyn mommy” look: chunky black boots, cool jeans. She’ll spot me watching her from the stands and smile.
All this said, I always feel like I’m dressing for myself—and I don’t think I’m just a victim of false consciousness. I’m a fan of something called relational psychoanalysis, the theory of which, according to one of its founders, Stephen A. Mitchell, is that “human activity and human mind are not things that reside in the individual, but rather are generated in interactions among individuals; personalities…are not understandable unless that complex, interactive honing process is taken into account.” From this perspective, the ritual of dressing is so creative because, well, I contain multitudes. Specifically, multitudes determined by my relationships. There is no me without you…and you and you and you.
So tonight, J., I’m going to wear a black Calvin Klein halterdress that I procured for an ELLE party in Hollywood a few years back. It hugs my (admittedly modest) curves. I think we’ll both like it.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of ELLE.