In her second memoir M Train, released in paperback this month, Patti Smith writes about a black coat given to her on her fifty-seventh birthday; an "ill-fitting, unlined" Comme des Garçons overcoat that she had "secretly coveted" despite -- or perhaps because of -- its frayed sleeves, moth gnawings, unstitched pocket seams, and tattered hem.
Every morning, I got up, put on my coat and watch cap, grabbed my pen and notebook, and headed across Sixth Avenue to my cafe. I loved my coat and the cafe and my morning routine. It was the clearest and simplest expression of my solitary identity.
"Every time I put it on I felt like myself," writes Smith.
Alas, after being replaced by a warmer winter coat, the Comme des Garçons overcoat disappears. Smith is left to mourn its lost existence, and the piece of her identity that's vanished along with it. Underneath this, of course, lies a greater void, left by the death in 1994 of her husband Fred Smith, and her brother who died suddenly one month later.
Before reading about Patti Smith's coat, I'd never thought of an item of clothing in this particular way, as an item that provides both a barrier between skin and the outside world, and a sacred object that would allow me to construct myself in my own image. For me, clothes have long been a source of confusion, just another patriarchal complication in an overly complicated world. I've moved between wearing the same butchered jean shorts for an entire summer to guzzling fast fashion in a desperate attempt to look hot (ugh, early thirties), to where I stand now, somewhere between tired, under-coiffed yoga mom and clothing-swap chic.
What identity do my clothes give me? I began to wonder. Do I have my own version of the Comme des Garçons coat? The closest, I figure, is a Levi's jean jacket, bought for $10 at a thrift store and fitted with a purple The Future is Female pin, a combination that makes me feel happy, sharp, and middle-aged yet still connected to my edgier past. I found the pin at a small boutique in Sebastopol and bought it on the spot despite a $12 price tag; the one-sentence feminist manifesto completed the jacket, added that edge I needed to feel like myself in the world.
Still, I've never been a friend to fashion. Sure, I like a nice pair of dangling earrings and a well-fitting soft cotton dress as much as the next woman, but it's not something I've ever wanted to confess out loud for fear of being superficial. There are way more important issues in the world to consider than whether my boots match my purse. Would that I just cultivated a uniform, a few choice items that fit well, work together, and let me get on with my day.
Lately, though, I've come to understand that there's more to this style thing than I'd known. Patti Smith, for one, might not abide by the latest fashion, but she has cultivated a specific, iconic style parallel with a considerable intellect. She can love a coat, and how it makes her feel, and also be a potent modern philosopher. The two can coexist outside of a binary. Style has more than one value.
And thus, Patti Smith's coat started me started me on the path to thinking about style and clothing and how it manifests in my life. As I always do, I studied books to help me sort out my questions. I started with The Curated Closet (Ten Speed Press; 2016), a new book by Anuschka Rees, a style blogger from Berlin. I first discovered Rees' blog INTO MIND two years ago when, in an attempt to develop the perfect uniform and cut down on decisions, I began to obsessively Google "capsule wardrobes." In her book, Rees argues that personal style trumps fashion; it's up to you to discover that personal style through study, observation, and instinct.
Most women think you have to be fashionable to be well-dressed. And that's what I thought too until only a few years ago. But here's what I've learned since: Some of the biggest style icons of the last century were people who explicitly did not follow every new trend out there and instead had their own very distinctive looks from which they rarely strayed. Think Marlene Dietrich, Grace Jones, or Marilyn Monroe and also modern style icons like Jenna Lyons, Tilda Swinton or Angelina Jolie. In fact, some of the most consistent style icons of today come from the fashion industry itself, like Karl Lagerfield, Anna Wintour, and Emmanualle Alt. All these people are stylish, not despite the fact that they don't follow trends, but because of it. They know exactly what they like and what they don't like. Their style is iconic because it is completely authentic.
Rees goes on to challenge the idea of being effortlessly stylish. Like anything, developing personal style takes legwork, experimentation, time, and work. It's a "skill like any other" and takes practice.
Many people have the misconception that a great sense of style is one of those things you either have or don't have. They imagine that people who are well-dressed simply get up in the morning and, through some act of divine inspiration, come up with a perfectly original and brilliant new outfit idea.
Rees then jumps into the actual work of deciphering style. Step 1: document your outfits for two weeks and keep a log of the when and why the outfit was worn. I love a good assignment, and leaped at the task, although it felt vain, at first, to be shooting full-body selfies of myself in a mirror. But, I did it. So far, the main thing I've discovered is that I like to wear the same shoes every single day. And that I feel most comfortable in black.
As I continued to think about all of this, I turned to the public library, checking out Women in Clothes (Blue Rider Press; 2014) by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Sharpton.
Sheila Heti said in an NPR interview that the idea for the book -- which collects interviews, photos, compliments, dressing tips, and style manifestos from a disparate array of women, famous and not -- came from a desire to free clothing from the superficial, patronizing language of fashion magazines. Heti, who admits to not thinking much about clothes for most of her life, said that she "woke up one day and I just thought, 'Today's the day that I want to figure out how to dress.' You know, I wanted to know what other women thought about as they got dressed: how they knew what to buy in the store, how they knew what they wanted to wear. I wanted to sort of figure out what my taste was."
The book's core derives from a survey, an "ever-evolving" list of questions sent out to women worldwide. In total, there are over 100 questions, such as:
- Do you think you have taste or style?
- Can you say a bit about how your mother's body and style have been passed down to you or not?
- What are some things you admire about how other women present themselves?
- Do you notice women on the street?
- What is really beautiful, for you, in general?
- What do you consider very ugly?
- What's your process of getting dressed in the morning?
- What would you say is "you," and what would you say is "not you"?
- Is it comforting or constraining to have a uniform?
But more than simply asking questions, the book legitimizes the study of what women wear and why they choose to wear it. One way it accomplishes this is by including a diverse, dynamic chorus of women's voices, stories, confessions, and demands about style (or refusal of same).
Women in Clothes serves as an invaluable companion as I indulge, with somewhat furtive embarrassment, in figuring out my own personal style. The book operates like a group of hundreds of smart friends who say, "It's okay to think about these things. It doesn't make you less feminist. It doesn't make you superficial. It doesn't mean you've gone to the dark Kardashian side of the universe. It's okay to interrogate how you present to the world and why. We're all thinking about it too."
Patti Smith's City Arts and Lectures appearance on Oct. 4 is sold out. To get a Smith fix, check out Root Connection: 20 Years of Patti Smith, a collection of photos, wriitngs and ephemera running through Dec. 11 at Mills College.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED