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Fall Fashion Issue

Soul Shopping

What I'm Looking For Is My Own True Self

August 15, 2004|Hillary Johnson | Hillary Johnson last wrote for the magazine about herbal skin-care products.

One of my favorite books is illustrator Ilene Beckerman's "Love, Loss, and What I Wore." It's a tiny gift-sized book containing pictures of the outfits she remembers wearing at significant moments in her life. The concept seems trifling, but 20 pages and 20 outfits into it, I always find myself crying. That's because Beckerman's clothes may have covered her body, but in her book they reveal her soul. Shopping, for me, is a form of soul-searching. What I'm looking for in the dressing room mirror is a reflection of who I am--who I want to be, yes, but it's not so simple as that, because I pretty much am who I want to be. I'm never really looking for a "new" self when I stand in the dressing room at the Gap, trying on men's cargo pants. What I'm looking for is my "true" self--by measuring the extent of the possibilities, outfit by outfit, in one dressing room after another.

The clothes I wear all the time aren't necessarily the ones I most admired or eagerly aspired to own. I bought my favorite skirt on sale at Old Navy for $3.99, and I wouldn't have sprung for it had it been $9.99. But it's comfortable, flattering, complements my favorite tops and doesn't wrinkle in a suitcase. My favorite suit is a dour, mannish, gray Brooks Bros. number that is as fabulous as it is unexciting. These are comfort clothes.

Which isn't to say that my shopping habits are practical; they're not. I own 10 pairs of bright-colored patent-leather shoes, a glitter-flecked suit from the '70s, several neon polyester dresses, a silk sari and two mid-century furs that would make Joan Crawford proud. Some of these items I wear from time to time, and others I don't.

Not all clothing is meant to be worn. I have several favorite outfits that I've never worn out of the house. For instance, I own what may be the most amazing pair of jeans ever made. I bought them online from a Toronto fashion house specializing in cyber-rave clothing that has, I believe, gone out of business--at least its website is no more. These jeans are extremely wide-legged--a family of Munchkins could live under each one and no one would notice--and consist of dozens of cascading, skyscraper-style Art Deco panels held together with dozens of brass rivets. Wearing them is a bit like wearing Rockefeller Center, so I don't. But I try them on frequently and marvel at them as an artifact.

I also have some favorite outfits that I've never bought. One of them is a canary yellow skirt suit with a canary yellow fur collar that I tried on no less than three times at Ross. Ross usually is my destination when I haven't done laundry in so long that I need emergency underwear and workout clothes, but as long as I'm there, I peruse everything. This yellow suit looked like something Pedro Almodovar's heroine would have worn in "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." If I had been a Spanish movie star, I might have bought it. But I didn't. Instead I kept visiting it, and even when it was marked down to $24.99, I never worked up the nerve to take it home. I think I was afraid that I might actually wear it and my life would scarily, ineluctably change. Would I have ended up drifting into a life of melodrama, flamboyance and outrage?

I have bought things that didn't make sense. I once bought a pair of brown suede Gucci pumps on sale at Saks--I was woozy at the time, having almost fainted during someone else's nose job. I was writing an article on nose jobs for Cosmo, and for reasons I'll never understand I decided that observing a surgery was a good idea. So I staggered out of the surgery and into the hot Rodeo Drive sun. I didn't feel up to driving, so I floated into Saks on a wave of nausea, and there were these beautiful, perfect, chocolate brown pumps, ready to carry me away. So I bought them. Never mind that I didn't own anything brown, and suede grown-up-lady pumps were entirely inappropriate for someone in her early 30s. Seven years later, I wore them for the first time, and now they're part of my repertoire.

I wish I still had the floaty cotton drop-waist dress from the 1920s I bought at a thrift store in 1979. I got rid of it sometime in the '80s, because I'd worn it so much that I thought I never needed to see it again. But clothes aren't like ex-boyfriends; they're more like old friends. Unless your closet is the size of a breadbox, there's no reason to discard them, even though you lose touch from time to time.

When I go shopping now, it's seldom because I need something new to wear. Shopping is my exercise in identity-fixing. Fixing as in repairing, but also as in locating. Sometimes when I feel particularly wan and watery I wander into Ross or Marshalls to try on strange knockoffs of first lady suits, then stand there in the fluorescent-lighted women's barracks looking in the three-way mirror, just to feel a reassuring "no" resonate from deep within my sartorial soul. At other times I go to Rodeo Drive and try on unattainable outfits that feel like butter and hummingbird feathers against my skin. Bathed in the white chocolate light of dressing rooms bigger than my living quarters, I smile between closed lips and think, "yes."

That's what shopping comes down to--the long look in the mirror that results in an internal "yes" or "no." Which really has very little to do with clothes.

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