We wear clothing to signify who we are and who we want to be, our professions and our aspirations. We wear clothing to keep us warm, to enter public buildings, and because we have no choice. A clothing is a lifetime, a moment, a choice. Each item in our closet has a story; here are a few.
Starting with 300 words, each part of the telescope is half the length of the preceding section.
Do you like green eggs and ham? A scratchy fabric, a brush of fingers over a chest rising and falling. Cloth I can recognize by touch. Hot breath fills the room. Only the lamp is on. Perfume smells like wrists and neck. Wish I could smell this smell all the time. Breathe in long and slow.
Do you like them? Breathe out quick and breathe in again really fast. Sam, I am. A pause. We exhale at the same time, my mom and me. It isn’t planned, but it sounds like it’s scripted. Like a sitcom. Like Sister, Sister, which I just watched with my older and younger sisters. For the rest of our reading time, I try to make sure we breathe in perfect synchrony. Sometimes it hurts my chest to delay inhales for as long as she does. I can’t imagine how she doesn’t lose her breath telling the story.
Would you like them—I wonder if the sweater my mother is wearing is soft on the inside—here or there? I know the next line. I clench a handful of sweater in my hand and scream, “I would not like them here or there! I would not like them anywhere!” My mother pauses. I feel the cashmere in the palm of my hand, warm from the warmth in my mother’s chest. Soft like the hum of her voice when she reads me lines of Dr. Seuss.
When she gets up to go to sleep, soft fibers of her sweater lay clinging to the sheets in my bed. But, the morning after, they’re gone. I don’t normally notice this unless I wake up to rain outside. Maybe there’s a silent loneliness in an overcast sky.
Let me trace abstract figures into your chest. This is where I get my bearings in an infinite sea stretching outwards in all directions. Swaying gently. Figures are my sundial; your cashmere sweater is a compass.
Let me rest my head in your arm. You mention that it’s raining down. I respond by inching closer, wrapping my arms tighter around you, trying to leap across the impossible boundary between our bodies, hedged up against each other. The figures I trace remain in your chest for a few moments before they float away.
A warmth instructs the logic of our space, uniting topological knots where our fingers intersect. I hold them gently, wary that any moment they might unwind, fray like the cables in that sweater you always wear.
In the morning when I wake up, I watch you get dressed. Threads are strewn across the bedspread, tangled in the Moroccan carpet on the floor. They glint in the morning sunlight.
While I wait for you to wrap up at work, I sit in a coffee shop in Midtown, taking note of the people I see. If I walk down 5th avenue long enough, I can count more than a hundred of the same black suits, swimming endlessly in a sea of quaffed hair and watches dangling past silver-buckled, leather belts.
Over dinner, I say, it’s crazy how lonely someone’s clothes can make you feel. You say, no; clothes are a way to get to know someone better.
“Loneliness is like an art,” my dad says, as we walk along the Embarcadero at dusk. “Some people are just born knowing it.” A cold wind slaps the ridge of the water, sliding through the holes in my sweater. Chill to the bone.
Firestone’s online Vogue Archive has every American issue on file since 1892, from full color covers and foldouts to laughable advice columns. A gem I read in the spring, circa 1941: “There is complete freedom regarding such things as lingerie, hairdressing, and makeup. You can drip with lace, and wear red, white and blue panties… so long as you keep them to yourself.”
And I do keep them to myself, usually. Waiting for lecture to begin I sit with the quiet knowledge that, for no real reason, I’m wearing a full set of pink lingerie.
Meanwhile my professor begins to explain Castiglione’s The Courtier, a 15th century how-to guide for perfecting the charade of Italian courtly life. While listening to her I feel I’m acting too, protecting a secret I couldn’t tell even if I had the desire. (If I had desire: I’d tell this secret about the double skin, an invisible place between flesh and fabric where one negotiates self-consciousness with concealment.)
“The hallmark of the courtier is sprezzatura,” my professor says, lingering on the Italian. “It means studied nonchalance, a careful effortlessness. A desperate endeavor to please which is kept artfully secret…”
A secret I inherited, forcibly, alongside so many others. A secret we won’t admit to keeping.
“But, like brushworks in a painting, the facade can never last.”
The underwire of my bra caresses my ribs and self-consciousness, screaming color, making the mere fact of having a body feel a lot like a hyper-awareness of blinking or breathing. I wonder how much discomfort disqualifies you from feminism, or at least from an archaic conception of it.
“Sprezzatura was simply untenable, then. Especially if you look at the Courtier’s physique, you’ll see it wasn’t suited for everything demanded of him… The constraints of the body were a problem…”
But the body has always been the problem.
Later: in the dining hall a friend asks why I am “dressed so fancy today,” though so much of how I dressed myself isn’t visible to the eye. “Aren’t you uncomfortable?”
Sometimes I forget I still haven’t perfected an answer for this. I shrug and try to, I don’t know, normalize femininity (“Thanks, I dressed up for life,” is the line this time.)
But what I’m really thinking about is that the uncomfortable thing here is not the dress I have on, not the fake pearls or heels — never was, never will be. It’s the lingerie — no, any second skin, the invisible architecture behind it all. Tight straps, clasps and slips, a full-body bind, forcing me to live each day on the borders of myself.
I recopy lecture notes over dinner. “Always, the Courtier’s facade is on the verge of collapse…”
Around midnight, though, there isn’t anyone left to pretend for. Avoiding the mirror I ditch the lingerie, wishing that undressing alone could mean a blank slate.
But it never does. I’m never not wearing a bra, at least not while it still wears me. Not with these phantom straps across my back, chest and collarbones, nor when my skin’s inscribed with ghosts.
Not when the body is still the problem, and the answer is another.
In the morning I find every imprint stayed the night, waiting like placeholders to be filled again. I start wondering aloud: “How would I look, never marked in the first pla-”
But this too I keep to myself.
When my sisters and I were very young, our parents dressed us alike. My mother says this was partly for practical reasons: in case we got separated, it would be easier to look for one outfit in a sea of kids than three. It was also partly because it she thought it was cute. In most photos of us, we look almost cartoonish, a caricature of what triplets should be. Three pink dresses with puffed sleeves and white collars; three red velvet skirts with pink flowers; three multicolored gingham overcoats with three pairs of red corduroy pants and three matching berets (where did those even come from?). The colors start to blur together, and you can’t quite tell where one of us ends and the other begins.
We eventually became too old to wear matching outfits. We weren’t identical, and didn’t want to appear that way. But our clothes still gave us a certain shared identity, and we were reluctant to part with that completely. So we compromised: we wore the same basic clothing, but each in our favorite color. I always wore yellow, Haley wore blue, Molly wore pink. Yellow and blue and pink dresses; yellow and blue and pink turtleneck sweaters; yellow and blue and pink cotton t-shirts. Every memory of those years has some yellow, some blue and some pink.
At some point, though, we didn’t want to be grouped together at all. The colors started to mix. I remember a favorite elementary school outfit—purple leggings, a purple striped turtleneck, and my blue Skechers. I remember a green felt coat, and green shamrock socks. I remember wearing the same satiny red and black skirt Christmas after Christmas. I remember spilling a glass of milk all over my Communion dress, and thanking God that both were white.
In the height of my Yellow Period, I owned a thick knit sweater with a dog stitched on it. The sweater was pink—Molly’s color—but I had her permission to wear it. I was completely in love, with both the sweater and the little dog. Despite endless pleading, I was never allowed to have a puppy growing up. Instead I dreamed about having that cute terrier as my own: playing fetch, going on walks, and having him snuggle at my feet at night.
I don’t know what happened to my sweater, only that at some point I didn’t have it anymore. Later, I grew fascinated with owls, perhaps inspired by Harry Potter, and I received two owl sweaters. Next I got socks with cats on them, and a pair with foxes. My grandmother gave me a necklace with a tiny gold frog. But nothing could ever replace my dog.
Many years ago my mother gave us each a pair of Halloween socks, covered in pumpkins and monsters. There’s a button on one sock that, when pressed, plays spooky music. The three of us would all wear our socks and set off an endless cacophony of ghostly sounds. I miss that. Somehow both socks in my pair now have the sound buttons, and when I’m alone, I always try to make both feet play simultaneously.
My current favorite shirt is yellow, populated by three-branched cacti. It’s my sister’s. I don’t mind sharing now; our clothing taste is one thing we all still have in common. We were never that easily mixed up anyway.
I told my mom that I didn’t want to make a big deal about packing for my first year away from home, my first year at college. It was all about pretending –for my parents’ sake- that I was going on an extended vacation. I waited until four days before leaving to start throwing clothes onto the ground. Pants. Shirts. Shorts. Underwear. Not enough socks (never enough socks). They all littered the floor, falling from my closet.
Determine the time it takes from my shirt to leave my hand to fall and hit the floor given that gravity is held at a constant 9.8 m/s^2 and ignoring drag resistance.
Calculate the time it takes from my last shirt to hit the ground to the time Mom’s first tears begin, given that her emotional instability rating is held at a constant 8.7 and ignoring drag resistance.
Mom hates that I let my clothes wrinkle, but honestly I don’t give a fuck. I guarantee her that my clothes will not be any more wrinkled than any body else’s. She helps me fold them anyway and we nicely put them in the suitcase that we brought up from the basement.
The motion of packing is almost robotic. Our empty minds swirling around empty thoughts.
We sit in silence, our favorite episode of The Office playing in the background as we refuse to acknowledge the upcoming event. We can only refer to it as “the event” because we both know if we refer to it as “Matthew’s going to college and is not living at home anymore”, neither of us would last.
Bears. Beets. Battlestar Gallactica.
The episode ended a while ago but I put Led Zeppelin 4 on the record player and we just sit and listen to Going to California once more.
My favorite sweater for years has been a yellow University of Colorado, Boulder hoodie. I got it when I was fourteen, when I dreamed of following in my parents’ footsteps and going to their alma mater. I would dream I was running through pastures with Ralphie and walking down Pearl Street and skiing in the winter (even though I haven’t skied since I was 8). The sweater is now tattered. Threadbare. There are holes in both armpits and a hole in the lower back. Mom hates it when I wear “that old thing” around. I’m a “Princeton Man” now, and I should start to “rep my new home”. But I still wear it. Maybe it’s because it smells familiar: tide detergent, lavender candles, and always faintly of our three dogs that like to make their beds on my freshly folded laundry. Maybe it’s because it’s so tattered. Maybe it’s because…
Standing on a hill in the mountain of dreams telling myself it’s not as hard as it seems.
Now here I am. My freshman year of college. Never enough socks. Doing my laundry has become a ritual; a routine that I value for the sheer nothingness and the order. Never enough socks. Laundry goes in dirty, comes out clean, and all I need to do is set aside an hour and a half. Never enough socks.
I didn’t bring my faded-yellow hoodie and I know that is good because I don’t go to CU I go to Princeton but fuck I hope that my mom will surprise me and bring it on parents’ weekend.
The color black is masking, slimming, encompassing. I wear it when I waver between uncertainty, sureness, and apprehension. I wear it when I need something more solid than me, tough enough to feel impermeable. There was a period in high school where I wore varying shades of charcoal; a light grey if I was feeling optimistic, a soft onyx for neutral days, deepest black for application season. College opened a new door, complete with a new dresser and unworn clothes to fill it. Even here, though, my wardrobe is somber. Without contact lenses, I can’t pick out one shirt from another. Black is the absence of light, a symbol of negativity, my Italian employer told me this past summer, eyeing my dark leggings disapprovingly. You need to wear colors that reflect your personality. I smiled, nodding as if this was enlightening, as if her words had shown me the rainbow I had neglected to taste my whole life.
Black is not a color; black material absorbs all the colors of the visible spectrum and reflects none of them to the eyes.
If black is the absence of light, then black is the presence of every color in the universe. The tint of my shirt, my shoes, my jeans, holds more depth than the most vivid scarlet, than the sharpness of early sunshine. Black is grace, sophistication, a statement within the lack of loud declaration. The composure it spells out is what gives the wearer strength for the longest days, days of psets and discussions with your professor and skipped lunches. To wear this color is to wear a canvas able to speak what I will never have a chance to vocalize, to paint our methodized college life with my personal shade of darkness.
A stack of Seventeen magazines sits on the living room table. My last payment was three years ago, after my seventeenth birthday, but they still come monthly. They need to be more vigilant, I think, flipping through one anyway. “Body Positivity!” a headline reads. It encourages readers to dress in what appeals to them, even if it’s unconventional. The three-page spread showcases girls wearing oversized plaid, leather pants, and ombré scarves. A page flip later, I find ‘Ten Outfits To Make Him Fall in Love.’ My fingers trace skintight jeans, stacked heels, shades of red lipstick. The key, I learn, is to wear ‘something that shows just a touch more skin than usual.’
The shirt I wear most is a green flannel, picked from the third rack of the men’s section. Past the first rack, I start forgetting the lace socks and crop tops with their calculatedly flirtatious logos on the other side of the Nordstrom outlet. After the second rack, the image of ‘boyish’ button downs with cinched waists and a cut that reveals an inch of stomach fades. At the third rack, I become enmeshed in plaids and collared flannels. Finally, I take a breath.
After heartbreak, I dig. I scavenge for her fraying sweatshirt for when “Princeton gets too Princeton,” for that hug so tight I saw darkness. The moment I pull that sweatshirt over my eyes, I am back in her embrace.