One woman's dating history is mapped in her closet.
This is a story about a dysfunctional relationship. It was between me and my bedroom closet, and I know you know what I'm talking about.
The closet was full and I was empty. Every time I opened the door, I encountered someone I no longer cared about, an outgrown, repetitive personality. Like most of us, I had the requisite work stuff in there, which fell into the category of more (summer wool suit) or less (brocade sheath) mandatory and was therefore defensible in some way. But the play clothes, the rows and piles of stuff that I relied on to reflect my true self-image, were just dead wrong. Minimalist, hard-edged, and appropriate mingled awkwardly with colors and patterns from sprees of unquiet desperation. And for every piece that was wrong, I seemed to have three more just like it (think gray cardigans) embalmed in dry-cleaner plastic.
I couldn't have told you any of this, of course. Like most dysfunctional relationships, this one had a lot of staying power, and I could bring to it an endless stream of rationalizations: You can't have enough gray. Or black. There is nothing criminal about linen, and no reason to knock the ankle-length silk floral dress that's been trotted out for the last three weddings. Clothes are not that important. I might wear that again. I'm no longer 20, for God's sake. That weird Dutch thing seemed cool at the time. Is that leather? 5 Fashion Choices That Turn Him Off
When my wardrobe really got to me, I would linger over the closet-organizer ads—the hanger equivalent of romantic getaway fantasies—thinking all I really needed was an intervention, something to get us back on track, to renew the spark that must still be there. In a word, I felt guilty: I could honestly say that good taste was reflected in that 20-square-foot space, and there was no doubt about how much time and money. I swooned over pictures of little suede shoeboxes with individual nameplates and Plexiglas cashmere containers and slim drawers upon slim drawers built to hold one choice item apiece.
When you're in that stoic, confused, overwhelmed, and oddly peaceful frame of mind that so often accompanies accepting the no longer acceptable, you pretty much go with the status quo until something within you—instinct? your eternal love of pink?—suddenly hurls you in a new direction.
OK, so my closet was not in itself the unacceptable fact of my life, it was merely a symptom. I was newly divorced, struggling to balance motherhood with professional ambitions, and dressing in the past tense. In the course of the previous few years, I'd gradually forgotten what it was like to feel sexy, and then I'd forgotten that I'd forgotten. Dressing For Post-Divorce Dating Life
A friend had promised that she would notify the proper authorities if I ever showed up wearing Birkenstocks with mismatched socks, but that wasn't the problem. It was more that I'd become resigned to that thing called good taste; now and then, Vogue legend Diana Vreeland's great line would run like a song fragment through my head: "Good taste? So what."
How did the moment of liberation announce itself? When did I start entertaining a fashion future—more playful, more confident, much sexier? It may be a truism to say that you're only as sexy as you feel, but where does that feeling come from—and how do you get past all the fear and self-criticism that prevent so many of us from expressing our desire and desirability? Another friend, an artist who doesn't own a piece of clothing without paint on it, said to me out of the blue one day that it was "always so important to pay attention to the green wood of yourself." I still can't claim to know exactly what she meant, but I sensed that she and Vreeland were soul sisters; the words captured perfectly the way I longed to feel. The unhappy state of affairs in which I found myself has a time-honored, all-purpose remedy: Get thee to the gym. Get in touch with your body. The hitch is, working out (at least in the beginning) brings to the fore all the things you don't like about your appearance. Plus, you may develop a tendency to hang out in lumpy sweats. So while I'm all for physical exercise, it would not be the magic bullet. I needed my body to get in touch with me. Loving A Post-Baby Body
And it did. The first messages arrived in the shape of an 'S,' for small. This lovely letter revealed to me things that 'M' had left hidden and 'L,' in affording a warm cocoon, had made all but invisible. My waist, for one thing. And then my legs and my arms, which boldly began asking for less coverage, more swing. Warmer weather spurred me on, as did my friends. One in particular, for whom clothes shopping has always been a high art, sensed a transformative opportunity. She installed me in a Neiman Marcus dressing room and put a battalion of sales clerks to work finding me a pair of perfectly fitting jeans. I don't know which of us was more pleased by the victory.
Though it helped that I had finally washed that guy right out of my hair, there was no new man in the picture when the first flight of gorgeous, buttery-hued Cosabella lingerie caught my eye. (Now there is. As I noted oh-so-sagely to a friend who recently commented that it was a waste of time to lay in good lingerie when she had no love interest, "Don't wait—get it now!") The stirring of my fashion desire had nothing to do with anyone else, and everything to do with me. Before long, that brightly patterned lingerie had become a habit, not to say an addiction. I bought soft cotton sleeveless shirts tied with ribbon at the bodice, and a black-and-white striped dress with spaghetti straps, and Lilly Pulitzer gold sandals, and, further emboldened by the jeans conquest, these fabulous hip-hugger pants from AG (Adriano Goldschmied). I now have five different-colored pairs of these pants—aptly named "the Angel"—and plan to leave them in my will to the deserving. I found a Versace belt studded with rhinestones to wear with them, and while I was at it, a hot-pink wool miniskirt and my first pair of fishnets since high school. Oh, and there's this little black Chanel dress with a matching one-clasp jacket. And three rose pashminas, each pure pink in its own way.
I read somewhere that "experience is a series of non-fatal errors," which I take to mean that we really can learn something about ourselves along the way. When I was younger, I was often uncomfortable with my sexuality and defaulted into modesty. Then, for a good while, I simply lost track of my sexuality, misplaced it somewhere. Now, I take pleasure in it and—surprise—I feel more attractive than I ever did when I was supposedly in my prime.
Which is how I was able to walk into my salon and say to my wicked and wonderful hairdresser, John, "I want to look like I just got out of bed after the best sex ever." ("No problem," he responded.) It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A few weeks after that appointment with destiny, I was walking through the airport in L.A., on my way back home from a party, with a black satchel (pink lining!) slung lightly over my shoulder. An attractive younger man stopped me—he looked a little hesitant and I thought maybe he was lost. But no; he wanted to know if he could carry my thimble-weight bag for me. Now for the best part: that damn closet. Looking back, the solution that presented itself was so obvious I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner. The gray sweaters are still in there, waiting for another home. But the new me lives in a much smaller, freestanding wardrobe that I originally chose for my kids. This is a door I open with pleasure. No regrets—or, as Madame Vreeland might have said, Je ne regrette rien! I couldn't save that old relationship, and I didn't want to fight anymore. So I just moved out.
Katrina Heron, a contributing editor for GQ, is a director of the Chez Panisse foundation in Berkeley, California.