The Myth of the Working-Girl Wardrobe
Do the clothes really make the woman?
I have this skirt that I keep trying to outgrow.
It was short and black, cotton and elastic. I was fifteen, but even as I marched to the cash register after discovering it in the depths of a sale rack, I knew it was a provisional pleasure. The tight circle of fabric was just the kind of piece a girl needed in adolescence and never beyond it.
I had already decided that womanhood was made of finer fabrics — wool, cashmere, linen. Eventually, I would graduate from the impulse purchases of my childhood and live out an existence of intentional dressing. I would own so much Céline it would be almost offensive — yet tasteful!
The catalyst of this would-be transformation eluded me, but I assumed that it would happen when I started to work. All the polyester would disappear from my closet. I’d find a pantsuit that didn’t make me look like an extra in Dumb and Dumber. I would have no physical or emotional space for mass-produced miniskirts. A good sheath dress could turn me into the person I planned to become.
I believed in the myth of the working-girl wardrobe. I was in love with the idea that fabric and thread could wrap me in substance. I anticipated some instant in which I’d replace all of my sweaters and skirts and dresses, abandoning the jeans that had been both so discounted and so hideous and the shoes that I still can’t decide whether I should try to restore or throw away for good. I would go out and buy a few dozen classics and create an older and wiser version of me in them. I expected (the way those of us who love clothes sometimes do) that dresses and “trousers” could invent me.
The delusions of youth — I was so wrong.
When I graduated in May and moved into a new apartment in October, I unpacked the skirt into my “grown-up” home. It has a tiny hole in the waistband now and it is no longer black. In its present state, it would be better characterized as “soot.” Somehow, though, I still wear it all the time. It’s so anonymous and unremarkable that it matches most of what I already own and pretty much all the Everlane sweaters that I’ve recently purchased and the Zady coat that has so entranced me. I keep meaning to give it away. Except, I can’t seem to find a substitution for it. Even in its shoddiness, it still has sartorial worth. Maybe it’s a total stretch, but I like to pretend it proves I made a few good decisions in high school.
Because I am a writer, I will probably never go out and buy the kind of Theory separates that I had always hoped would make me into an ambitious and impressive woman. I don’t need them. I work at a website and sometimes in my pajamas. It is such a treat. But it means that there is no office dress code to usher me into adulthood. In its absence, I want to know: Is the dream of an “adult” wardrobe old-fashioned? Should I embrace the relics of an Urban-Outfitted past? Do the clothes really make the woman? And if so, how am I supposed to grow up?
Elizabeth wearing: Topshop turtleneck and J.Crew turtleneck layered, Zara pants (similar here), Robert Clergerie shoes, Taylor Morris sunglasses; photographed by Krista Anna Lewis. Background Photographed by David Hurn from Magnum Photos via The New York Times. Carousel Background via Quite Continental from The Library of Congress.