From time to time, people querulously ask me why I wear other people's clothes (or, as they sometimes call them, "dead people's clothes"). I began wearing old clothes, vintage clothes, as a girl, for reasons of economy. I couldn't afford the things I most admired, and it was a pleasing compromise to sift through dense dusty racks of old dresses or to pull apart the crumpled items stuffed into bags at the less successful auction houses. Sometimes it produced a great treasure: a bottle-green velvet Fortuny coat with panels of gold, a heavy silver necklace with knobs of amethyst made in Taxco in the '50s. Twenty-five years ago, when I began, these things really were inexpensive—$100 would have been an extravagant purchase, an amount I paid only for something of the rarest quality.
In time, I grew to prefer old clothes to anything that I could buy new. I had learned to love—even require—the fineness of the workmanship, the heaviness or delicacy of the materials, the wit of the design. It does not trouble me that the clothes and jewelry and shoes and hats have been worn by other men and women, most of whom certainly are dead. There is, it is true, an aroma to some of the clothes—the scent of old face powder and Eau de Hungary and cedarwood. I like the smell. I do wonder how some of my things have come to me—the delicate jacket made of tiny tubes of bamboo from a mountainous and remote Chinese village; the lime-green felt Berber coat sewn with clinking silver coins and talismans against the evil eye. I don't like to think that hardship caused these precious things to fall into my hands, though it seems unlikely that it was prosperity.
Clearly it is not thrift that has led me to assume the clothes of other people. I suspect that I was bred to it. My mother was trained in ways of dress and comportment by her own mother, who had emigrated from Ireland before the Great Wars to become lady's maid to a rich woman in Philadelphia. My grandmother was allowed to take home the negligees and shoes and frocks that her mistress no longer wanted. These castoffs went to my mother, on whom my grandmother had fastened her ambition. My mother, in her extraordinary and misleading clothes, attracted the attention of a young doctor from the Main Line. Because of her manner and extreme refinement of dress, he thought she was someone other than who she was. He was exactly who she thought him to be. And, of course, he became my father.
A willingness—if not an outright desire—to be noticed is helpful in the wearing of old clothes. It takes boldness, but not very much. Success is dependent on one's capacity for disguise and a willingness to be rather specific in one's impersonation. To wear a pale aqua crepe de chine evening gown cut on the bias (the label: Mme Berthe, rue St. Honoré) is to float within a sliding of insinuating silk, pale color streaming around me—to become both a sophisticated woman (very important to me once) and a young Nereid. To wear a heavy navy-blue gabardine suit from Paris, 1947, is to take refuge in an assumed foreignness—entering the province of illusion, momentarily relieved of the responsibility of personality. The cold satin of a 19th-century Chinese tunic, embroidered with flashes of scarlet hummingbirds and lined in sky-blue tissue-paper silk the beauty of which gives cause for further hope, induces me to move in a way that is more than a little imperious.
Style insists on the specific, and the specific heightens meaning. Despite its suggestion of duplicity, impersonation is nevertheless a statement of truth, if we can accept that truth is something more careful than not telling a lie. But there are endless truths—and style, happily enough, is always concerned with discovering them.
From Civilization (Aug./Sept. 1998). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues, includes Library of Congress Associates membership) from Box 420235, Palm Coast, FL 32142.