Written by Mattie Kahn, illustration by Charlotte Fassler
When I was thirteen and insufferable and newly infatuated with Alicia Silverstone, I vowed never to wear the same outfit twice. The endeavor befuddled my parents and garnered minimal attention from my peers, but I didn’t care. Somehow the venture—like so many misplaced attempts at self-definition—struck me as an exceedingly worthy practice. And so in a blue suede notebook to which I returned daily, I recorded my ensembles.
For three months, I recombined and repurposed and altered. I added belts and hair bows and rattling cuffs to once-worn dresses in the name of differentiation. I layered a lot. Suddenly, the purchase of a shirt or sweater or a pair of shoes took on disproportionate significance. “Do you have any idea how many new outfits this is going to make?” I said gleefully.
That this period coincided with the perpetuation of the Olsen twins’ homeless-inflected aesthetic was a glorious coincidence. But ingenuity could take me only so far. And while I can’t remember what at last catalyzed my defeat, the prospect of resorting to mismatched shoes probably had something to do with it. We can’t all be Helena Bonham Carter.
Still, even in the aftermath of the experiment, I resolutely avoided repetition. I liked the drama of getting dressed. I liked the uncertainty. The insides, the guts of my drawers were a deck of cards, and I shuffled them eagerly. Some hands, admittedly, were better than others. That is until Tim Gunn, of Project Runway fame, brought his eponymous Guide to Style and mellifluous intonations to Bravo TV. The show debuted in 2007. Mostly, it provided the inimitable Gunn with a fitting platform on which to share his skewering social commentary. It also afforded him the opportunity to codify his list of the ten essential items every woman needs.
According to Gunn, a perfect wardrobe was predicated on ten garments. Anything beyond them was icing. I remember staring at the television agog. I had ten pairs of novelty socks! I had ten pastel sweatshirts! Unsurprisingly, Gunn did not seem to feel that owning a stack of t-shirts emblazoned with such aphorisms as “I <3 Camp” and “Shop ‘Til You Drop” was necessary, but I had at least ten of those too.
The yawning gaps in my overflowing dresser drawers were suddenly so clear. I did not own dress pants or a trench coat or a classic white shirt. For the record: I still do not own dress pants. (Do harem pants count?) And while I remain unconvinced that a mere ten articles of clothing do a wardrobe make, Gunn’s sotto voce advocating for intelligent consumerism, for the cultivation of a deliberate sense of style, for some consciousness in fashion did resonate.
What he was prescribing was a uniform, and though I’m told that I vehemently protested my elementary school’s mandating one, I found myself persuaded. Slowly, like some utopian fantasy, the individual components of my wardrobe homogenized into a blur of leather accents and hunter green and things meant to look as though they were procured at Sandro. I was an evangelical in my reformed shopping habits. I bought sparingly and infrequently. If a store’s offerings failed to satisfy my standards, I returned home empty-handed. True story: I’ve been searching for perfect black flats for three years. When I eventually find them, I intend to buy four pairs.
The contents of my closet are now largely identical. I’ve worn the same pair of diamond studs since my sophomore year of high school. True, distinctions between the unique washes of my six pairs of jeans are slight at best. (“But, see, those are my ‘going out’ jeans!” I like to explain.) I own five striped shirts and possess chambray in inappropriate quantities. Somehow, I have accumulated 11 oversized knit sweaters. One of them is a buoyant pink. Occasional exposed zipper notwithstanding, the rest are fit for a funeral. Or a devout Wiccan. I am in a committed relationship with my hardware-free, knee-grazing leather boots. Between November and March, I seldom remove them. It’s why I sometimes forget what my ankles look like.
Moreover, I have recently decided to embrace my growing scarf dependency, which manifests itself in an unwillingness to leave the house without either a filmy, spun-gold-looking shawl of unknown origin or the chunky, cashmere infinity number that I scored three years ago, for $25, at an Alexander Wang sample sale.
This unflinching dedication to consistency has not gone undetected. Once upon a time, my freshman-year roommate noted, “It’s amazing,” she said. “You have so much clothing, but you always kind of look the same.”
“That is so nice,” I replied, meaning it.
I want to formally apologize to my pre-teen self. I am sure I’ve disappointed her terribly. Last week, I wore the same outfit for three days straight. I didn’t feel bad about it. I hadn’t slept in a dumpster or a subway or a stranger’s bed. I hadn’t run away or locked myself out of my apartment. I hadn’t lost my luggage. I just really, really, really liked my sweater.