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Illustration by Dieter Braun
A bikini changed my life.
One summer in the early 1990s, I was finishing up a graduate degree, living a near-monastic life in Washington, D.C. No social life, no shopping— and definitely no sex. On a whim, I volunteered as assistant stage manager for a friend’s new play, a parody of those silly Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach blanket movies from the ’60s.
Two weeks before the show finished, the actress playing the requisite dumb blonde got offered a bigger role in a different show. I had watched her throughout the run— who didn’t? She got to wear a bright-orange, fringed bikini that shimmied wickedly with her smallest gesture. Even crossing the stage, her outfit was such eye candy that your teeth hurt just looking at her.
I was massively shy and hopelessly pale— not to mention a terrible actress— but I knew one thing: I had to wear that bikini. So I begged for her part. The first time I slipped that orange bikini on, I felt like I was levitating. It was like wearing something alive, something ready for anything. That garment was the least apologetic piece of clothing I had ever seen. I slouched, I spun, I danced during cast warm-ups. I was under a spell. This was my personal flying carpet. Nothing would ever be the same.
And it wasn’t: the director hired me for another show (happily, not as an actress) and basically jump-started my theater career. I fell in love with one of the other stage managers, and we moved to Baltimore so I could work at Center Stage. For the next seven years— until I moved to New York City and then to L.A.— I lived according to the theory the bikini had proven true: clothes are magic. Clothes can change you. If you wear it, they— your dreams, that is— will come.
Between my new salary and the inspiration of the theater’s amazing costume shop, I began amassing a lot of clothes. Forget bikinis— I went after bigger yardage. There were Donna Karan gowns and suits by Armani. Vintage kimono jackets and silk velvet capes. Bias-cut coats with fur collars. Clothes on their way to, and just back from, the Tiny Tailor on Park Avenue. I trolled Neiman Marcus’ Last Call, the consignment shops in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, vintage stores from Massachusetts to Atlanta. After my two sizable closets got full, I bought standing racks and crammed them with outfits carefully covered in plastic. I have no idea how much money I spent.
One of the great pleasures of clothes is that we can change in and out of them. The self, on the other hand, is less sheddable. The cliché of retail therapy is a given, but I know when I shop, much of me is looking for a change of identity: an outfit to escape a constricting notion of myself, or solidify a shaky one. Because beyond modesty, climate control, occupation and status signals, clothes are promises. Sartorial wishes, bias-cut portals, ruby slippers for an occasion, an identity, a world, that may be just (or wildly) out of reach.
In my case, the operative word was wildly. Of all those “promises” hanging in my closet, I probably wore less than a quarter of them. The rest just waited, carefully covered in rows of garment bags, ever prepared for the right occasion to reveal their splendor.
I refer to these unworn items as The E.P. Collection (Emma Peel or Evita Peron, depending on my mood): dramatic pieces, usually jackets or dresses, to be worn by a dominatrix running a small but volatile country. There’s a vintage floor-length gray wool evening dress with ostrich feathers around the neck and wrists, primed for Capote’s next Black and White Ball. A geometric Japanese dress with one swooping bat-wing sleeve, made for an expansive gesture from a balcony. A cosmopolitan super spy’s black catsuit with plunging V-neck. The excruciatingly tailored Karl Lagerfeld pale lime linen skirt suit, ready for an impassioned address to the United Nations.
We all have the sure-fire jacket, our lucky underwear, that flattering top for the first date. My bulletproof Center Stage outfit was a maroon Richard Tyler pantsuit that carried me into any room with serious panache. It was classically tailored, but the jacket was long, like a frock coat. It said I was a woman who knew the rules but ultimately followed my own. At least, it said that to me. I don’t know what other people thought of that suit, but it endowed me with a critical layer of confidence. At least while I was wearing it.
But my E.P. outfits weren’t clothes to heighten my status in the world I was in; they were rebukes to that life, expressions of longing for a world, and a self, I imagined to be more: more glamorous, more exciting, more incisive, above all, more powerful. Their virtual unwearability in my life suggested that something— either my fantasies or my current existence— was deeply not right. I was looking for alternatives. But instead of creating options, I merely wore them. I dressed for my dreams like they were going to show up in a limo and drive me off into my new life.
There were other delicious, hidden selves in my closet: the English Rose (six or seven vintage chiffon tea dresses); the Rock Star (a battered German motorcycle jacket, an Edwardian-style fringed coat); Morticia (half a dozen versions of close-fitting, floor-length black clothing); the Avant-Garde Japanese Textile Designer (asymmetrical or one-shouldered items with strange fabric contents, like silk and fake fur); and, of course, the Sex Bomb.
I had a gorgeous corset made by the draper at Center Stage. Fashioned from gunmetal gray leather, it was oddly chaste, more of a medieval breastplate than a centerfold accessory. I wore it once, on a birthday. I think it scared my boyfriend. He tried to be nice about it, but when I twirled around to give him the full effect, I accidentally punched him in the nose with my elbow. So much for my dream of total seduction.
I searched for other lives in all sorts of places— even among the dead. After all, vintage clothes are a form of séance, a modest cannibalism. One inherits the energy of previous wearers.
During a trip to Vienna, I found the most graceful black crepe day dress adorned with beaded daisies. The dress spoke of coffee in perfect demitasse china cups, pale, angular women painted by Schiele, the eerie seriousness of a country equally invested in elegance and authoritarianism. Call me overly dramatic, but that dress was haunted, and around that time my boss asked if I wanted to play the mute ghost in Center Stage’s production of “The Woman in Black.” I declined, but silently gave casting credit to the dress. It was beautiful, yet there was something morbid about it. Maybe clothes could entomb, as well as liberate.
Ironically, it was my move to Manhattan— a place where I could actually wear my more theatrical clothes— that motivated me not only to stop shopping, but to liquidate most of my collection. A Chelsea closet, after all, is as brief as a New York minute.
Before I left Baltimore, I invited the members of my book club to my apartment for a runway slumber party, with evening gowns instead of sleeping bags. Anything they liked, they could take home for free. (It wouldn’t have been any fun to make a few bucks off my friends— the clothing gods would disapprove.)
Several of the women were artists— an actress, a former dancer, a writer and a poet. Nevertheless, style-wise, they were a surprisingly timid bunch who rarely seemed to wear anything but khakis and cotton shirts. At first there was an awkward, You’re really giving these away? vibe. And then a bottle of wine was opened, someone grabbed a few dresses off the rack and everyone relaxed. The apartment became a flurry of underwear and T-shirts and bare legs as my friends swished down the narrow upstairs hall in bustiers and business jackets. The end destination was a set of mirrored closet doors, full length, where each person would stop and get very quiet for a moment.
How suddenly suspect we are of ourselves in front of a thin film of aluminum under glass. Presented with what is supposedly an accurate reflection, a woman sees anything but. Her gaze into the glass is a negotiation between her image and another, invisible self: a sister of all those women I thought my closet could make me. That younger, thinner, taller, sexier, richer, tanner, woman who is there, somewhere. As I watched my friends wearing my clothes— the ruby cashmere column dress, the chocolate suede stiletto ankle boots— the spell was broken. All those outfits were freed from my need to have them transform me. They became just clothes again. And none of those carefully stitched seams, decisive cuts and rich fabrics seemed as promising as the idea of changing my real life.
My friends took some clothes, but not as many as I’d hoped. Most of the outfits didn’t match the practical lives of working mothers and busy single women (though I did convince a gorgeous mother of two with the butt of a teenager to take my pair of ’60s pumpkin suede hip huggers). A few days later, I took a car full of unwieldy, clothing-crammed trash bags to a Goodwill store off the beltway and dropped them in the alley behind the store. Alongside old boxes of puzzles and broken TV stands, I left all those lovingly tailored clothes in plastic-covered heaps and drove away.
I hope someone is wearing them.
Charlotte Stoudt is a writer living in Los Angeles.