Fashion has always been an exclusionary sport of consumption, one where the winners are given tremendous advantages, and where the rules shift without warning. It’s about who had it first, and then, who wore it better. Yet, style, and how it is defined, is different than the actual industry of fashion—it behaves more like a peculiar taxonomy, where new species emerge from the wild every season, and where we’re constantly hoping to identify another of our kind. Of late, I’ve spotted a particular woman to whom I feel a kinship, a kismet connection. She’s hard to describe without falling on clichés—but here we go: she’s smart, she’s cool, she maintains a healthy distance from being twee, but she’s also unafraid of being both earnest and nostalgic in what she chooses to wear. You can feel the force of her personality and intellect through her style. She’s Leanne Shapton, Sheila Heti, and Heidi Julavits in the trio’s new book “Women in Clothes.” She’s Emily Spivack in “Worn Stories.” She’s got a touch of Jenna Lyons and Tavi Gevinson. She blossoms in movie stars Zoe Kazan and Maggie Gyllenhaal. She’s in the collections of designers like Rachel Comey and Dries Van Noten.
Before explaining her kind any further, I feel compelled to define two other kingdoms that have risen to prominence at this very moment. One is the materialist, the Kim Kardashians of the world. The other is what I’m calling the fashion hardcore kid. The Kim Kardashian mentality is straight-forward enough: it’s about having a new outfit for every event, of desiring a material object for its price and its sheer outrageousness, of craving signifiers that, above all else, signify your material wellbeing is better off than someone else’s. Louboutins aren’t meant to be scuffed and Birkins aren’t supposed to acquire patina. Clothes are exiled for being worn too often. It’s less about an embarrassment of recycling something old, and more about an addiction to something new. Personality is defined by taste, and taste is defined by acquiring more things.
The hardcore kids of fashion have removed themselves from this sentiment entirely. To have taste is to have no taste—to be blank. Both types I’m describing are mentalities more than any one look, of course, but you’ve seen the hardcore kids before—they’re fed up with looking pretty, tired of typical status symbols like bags, shoes, and blown out hair. They mix Margiela with shower sandals, anonymous-looking blue jeans with a sweater from The Row. The concept of normcore has become too overexposed to properly define what I mean, but it’s certainly a subset—this idea of crafting an aesthetic that admonishes the excess and frills of fashion. There’s toughness in showing restraint, in relishing anonymity, even if luxurious touches still exist. Fashion is meant to be translated, but not explicitly worn.
So what about those of us who want our clothes to mean something else—as neither a statement of materialism nor its extreme antithetical?
I found my way into fashion through vintage. Like many an awkward girl in high school, I had a beautiful best friend. My proximity to her legitimized my existence as a teenager. I’m sure she feels differently about those years, but for quite a long time, that was how I saw her. She says she befriended me because we both owned the same knockoff Members Only jacket, but we were also enrolled in an advanced biology class and possessed an obsessive attitude toward cataloguing every detail of our lives. Lily loved to shop at the vintage stores in Berkeley, California, where we’d browse through racks and racks of clothing. She was perpetually on the hunt for the perfectly flared pair of distressed seventies denim. I came up empty-handed most of the time. Nothing fit: I didn’t know to shop for myself; I had size 11 feet; I didn’t know where my waist sat on my lanky frame. It was hardly a fashion evolution—there was no Cher Horowitz to make me over—but seeing Lily dress herself was formative. I observed how it took time and effort. How it had purpose and personality.
Years later—I love fashion. I love the thought that goes into channeling myself through my clothes. I love the way I’ve changed, but how, with almost every outfit I wear, a friend of mine looks me up and down and says, “That’s so you.” I’ve gone from vintage 1940s dresses to obsessing over Japanese denim to ladylike floral prints. And as my life has swung in different directions, I have, like every woman, marveled at how my clothes change with it. Fashion editors say you can never predict what you’ll want to resurrect from you closet, how trends can come back into focus years later, how certain prints can date you in just the right way—but all of that, I think, is in a large part because of how closely we tie our identities, our feelings to our clothes. They can be hard to let go, because they remind us of a former version of ourselves.
Which brings us back to this woman. Sure, there are more superficial manifestations of her in actresses who are less concerned with looking sexy, rich, or overdone. But more interesting, perhaps, is how both “Women in Clothes” and “Worn Stories” aren’t fashion books. They’re books about clothing—a distinctly separate stance. And they’re about how our clothes imbue meaning by the use that they get. In “Worn Stories” Greta Gerwig tells the story of a shirt she still owns that once belonged to a summer boyfriend: “David left that summer before I did. We took him to the bus station, and I cried because I was eighteen and dramatic. I watched him go and I felt bereft. My friends and I returned to the falling-apart cabin in the woods that had been our home that summer. I went to the room where I had a bunk bed. Hanging on my bunk was that button-down shirt, his shirt! Tucked inside the shirt pocket was a note. He told me I was beautiful and a creature of light.” Gerwig kept the shirt, and still wears it when she’s writing, adds: “Maybe wearing this shirt connects me with a part of my younger self that was incredibly emotional and vivid, and those feelings, combined with that sense of having a secret, is how I like to feel when I write.”
Even the encyclopedic “Women in Clothes” treads on what we try but then abandon, like Shapton’s “Map of My Floor,” a catalogue of variations of outfits considered for the evening ahead: “Vintage Roger Vivier flats, found at an estate sale for $5, love but make legs look stumpy. Margaret Howell lace-ups, immediately too collegiate, looks preppy and reminds me of something my friend Kim would wear to work.” Each item possess a narrative, a memory, a moment cued up to play every time it adorns your body.
I cherish this mentality because that’s not really the market we live in today. There’s an episode in “Keeping Up With the Kardashains” where the entire family goes to Bora Bora on the 20th anniversary of Kris and Bruce Jenner. Kim is roughhousing with her then boyfriend and now ex-husband Kris Humphries when he throws her into the ocean. Suddenly she shrieks: “Oh my god, I’m going to cry, my diamond earrings!” Then she starts to cry, and screams even louder, “That’s $75,000!” Humphries is completely bewildered. He and Kim’s little sisters start to look for the earring in the water for them. Kim goes running to her mom. Her older sister Kourtney says, “Kim, there’s people that are dying.” But Kim says she worked hard for them, that anyone would be annoyed. At some point, in the testimonial, Humphries says, “I personally would never own anything that if I lost I would be that emotional about. It’s a material good. Emotionally if you couldn’t handle losing it or can’t afford to lose it, you shouldn’t own it.”
It’s an embarrassing scene to watch. But as much as I love my clothes for the stories they tell, I suspect there’s a little bit of Kim inside of me. She’s probably in all of us. The first time I sipped Dom Pérignon at a wedding, I told myself it tasted better. But what did I know? But contrast the Bora Bora incident to this “New Yorker” profile of Daphne Guinness when she loses a 1930s Cartier bracelet in the sands of Malibu: “After searching for it in vain, she remarked to a friend, insouciantly, that someone with a metal detector would have the find of his life.” Spoken like a true heiress with generations of wealth running through her blood. My own relationship to money is unfortunately too bourgeois to be so breezy.
So how can you consume consciously? I think, too, about something I heard earlier this year, on the occasion of a new book of letters by Muriel Spark posthumously published by New Directions. Her editor, Barbara Epler, shared memories of their friendship with the audience. Spark was a prolific writer, a great wit, and she, too, Epler divulged, loved nice things. In fact, said Epler, every time she finished a book, she bought herself a piece of fine jewelry. That stuck with me. You can have something nice. You can desire it. But the value you assign to it—well, in the end, its true meaning, should you lose it, might have more to do with who you were at that place in time than the number of karats in the stone.