I used to be a total clothes horse. Throughout high school, if a day came when I had nothing new to wear, I’d throw something together, or staple something together, or safety pin it. Upholstery fabric was easy to wrap into a sari. Retro polo shirts became skirts. Anything – a boy scout uniform, a nurse’s smock – could become a mini dress. My favorite creation was held together with packing tape: a long swath of bubble wrap that would pop when I’d sit down.
Some of the things I wore fit well and looked amazing, but most didn’t. They couldn’t. They were made in haste with zero regard for craftsmanship. I didn’t care; I was only in it for the effect. I loved the stares, the attention. It meant I’d created something truly unique, something worth noticing. I kept a huge pile of scrap fabrics in the back of my closet and would rummage in there blind, knowing that whatever I pulled out I would be able to pull off.
Every now and again, though, I wouldn’t. Some nights I’d get carried away and invent a garment so extravagant that in the cold light of day I wouldn’t have the balls to wear it. I’d stand in front of the mirror in this bizarre creation – something huge with taffeta, maybe, or too many clashing patterns – and shake my head. On those days I would go to school dressed like a normal girl, shamed into a begrudging boringness. But I’d eventually trot those freakish chimeras out and rework them back into wearable objets d’art.
Of course, if I wore any of that shit now I’d feel like a trussed up show pony. These days I am no frills – straight laced without the lace. I’ve gone through a few eras from then till now, from flouncy dresses to dressing like a man, always trying to articulate some new aspect of my personality as it emerged. For the last five years, I’ve worn nothing but downmarket yoga pants, and just now upgraded to a pair of secondhand black jeans. To think of myself in taffeta, a handmade smock frock, or wrapped in plastic like parcel post now? It’s ridiculous.
It’s a damn shame because I still have a ton of weird-ass clothes I love. Some years ago I decided I could tone it down and just allow myself a couple accessories – an ornate skirt of Turkish ribbons, an intricate felted collar. I adore these adornments. But the last time I wore one of these things, I felt like it was wearing me. Embroidered Mary Janes? Too cutesy – I feel like a doll. Rainbow striped knit sweater? Too teacher-y. All my whimsical and dreamy dresses? I’d have to be whimsical and dreamy to wear them. I’m not sure I ever really was, but I’m certainly not now.
Clothes aren’t going to buy us admiration, or earn us prestige, or anything else that we half-expect clothes to magically do for us. I used to wear inventive clothing because I wanted spectacle, but no matter how great the clothes were, they didn’t didn’t make me spectacular. But they did allow me to play at being spectacular, which was close enough. We know the clothes don’t make the man, but they did help me experiment with being one. That’s all clothes can do. At their best they work symbiotically with you.
There is a word for this: dressage. In the world of professional horse riding, dressage is a competitive sport which demonstrates the synchronicity between horse and rider. The horse cannot carry the rider gracefully if the rider doesn’t know what she’s doing. You can’t clutch on to the horse for dear life; you have to get the balance right. In much the same way, your clothing will never perform better than when you’re in sync with it. My early creations were wild horses and I was along for the ride; I didn’t care if I got bucked off. My clothes pranced and showed off when I couldn’t, they exuded a power and a boldness I didn’t have. But nowadays my clothes are tame because the power has been reversed. I still love attention, spectacle; I love to be something worth noticing. But it has to come from me, not what I dress myself in.