4 May 2012. 00:19 hours. New York City.
Approximately three days and change past my birthday.
My 43-year-old boyfriend is passed out in bed, recovering from a sunburn and an ear infection he obtained snorkeling last weekend in Puerto Rico.
To my right, on the floor, stands a pair of rubber shoes.
Glossy, round-toed heels with gold chain ankle straps: Vivienne Westwood for Brazilian “plastics” design giant Melissa.
They’re new – a gift from the aforementioned boyfriend – fresh from the company’s new flagship store in SoHo. And, in typical Westwood style, there’s something purposefully subversive about these shoes: something to do with their classic, ladylike lines turned out in the brand’s signature Space Age polymer. You could say they’re legitimately risky to wear: a slightly different silhouette, and they could come off as juvenile – silly, even (they are rubber, after all) – but no. They’re sexy yet classy, and just a little bit over-the-top.
Just like me (or so I like to think).
The shoes are black, of course. Which isn’t anything new for me – most of my shoes are black, as they have been for the better part of twenty years now. For a fleeting moment I wonder if I should have asked my boyfriend to get them in bubblegum pink instead – the color of the season. But who am I kidding.
Color is a highly individual thing. Everyone has a go-to, an optical base code, a favorite tone that’s fundamental to your distinct stamp and character and forms a special, critical component of who the fuck you are.
Some people get along fine in a nice navy, for instance. Or maybe a classic camel. Those impeccably-dressed, effortlessly-chic people who you see lunching in TriBeCa, with flocks of girlfriends and event-driven lifestyles in the South of France. The type who breeze through life with Mom’s Birkin and Daddy’s smile. And if the world came to an end tomorrow, you could pull the charred remains from the wreckage and identify the bodies by the particular pattern of Hermès hardware and Burberry plaid seared into the flesh.
I am not one of those people.
(Though I wouldn’t say no to the Birkin.)
I know my place on the spectrum, and it trends definitively on the dark side: I will always love wearing black, come what may, no matter how many sherbet-colored dresses or crayola-colored trousers appear out on the street these days. The absence of color remains my ol’ faithful, my constant companion, my dearly beloved – and I am assured enough in my style by now to know that I would be disappointed to deviate too far from the point.
Of course, I do recognize that black can be a difficult color to pull off effectively. One misstep in quality, and people mistake you for a goth. Or a waiter. The texture, the silhouette, it all has to be really top-notch, otherwise you’re fucked. But I have always enjoyed that challenge.
I am reminded of something Gary Oldman (my personal hero) said once about acting: “There’s 99 percent crap across pretty much everything. And then there’s that one plateau where I want to be.”
By this token, my new shoes happen to be a very good black; the deep sheen of the plastic reminds me somehow of squid ink.
I take a moment to appreciate the height of the heel – tall enough to be properly high, yet just low enough to remain ladylike. Just right with the rounded toe and the gold hardware (if you’re going to put that much hardware on something, you have to balance it out with something elegant somehow) –
Right now, I feel they’d look pretty good balanced in the air over my boyfriend’s head. I steal a glance in his direction; he sleeps, soundly.
Ah well. With some effort, I refocus my attention on the matter at hand.
I said before that I am assured in my style. I lied.
“All that S&M is so mainstream now. I don’t think you could ever create the same impact that punk-rock fashion had again. These days you have to be subtler. To be really subversive today you probably have to uphold standards of quality and taste.”
– Vivienne Westwood to British VOGUE, July 2008
In phases of great stress and upheaval, people tend to reach back to certain touchstones of security in order to keep it together. Things like mac and cheese, marathons of teevee. Porno. Or, if you’re me, little black dresses and backbreaking high-heeled shoes, taken out on the town and peppered with generous shots of Jameson (I rarely drink beer). Life is full of surprises, but (again) sometimes it doesn’t take much to remind you of who you are.
Or so I like to think.
Call me shallow, call me vain, but I have always felt that there’s something genuinely comforting about well-defined personal style. Lately, however – three days into a new decade, in a city I have called home for less than a week (in point of fact I moved to New York just this week, on the eve of my birthday) – I find I’ve been thrown for something of a sartorial loop.
It isn’t that New York on the whole is so mysterious to me, though plenty of would-be fashionistas might be intimidated simply by the town itself. I grew up on the East Coast, and have spent plenty of time there. Or rather, here. New York is – in style, in energy, in childhood memory and general wavelength and mode of being – home, if ever in my life I am allowed to apply that term to a particular place.
I have always promised myself I would live here.
And so I have sailed the seas of Time and Space and come to the Holy City, the Great Metropolis – that New Byzantium that stands at the mouth of the Great River – in an attempt to make good on my life.
Simple enough, no? After all, there is sincerity and triumph in doing what you’ve always said you would do.
S/S 2012 is shaping up to be a funny, transitional season, both for myself and for fashion. Fashion is experiencing a backlash against that hard kind of urban-warrior-chic that’s dominated over the last few seasons, choosing instead to make a hard-180 into the realm of extreme colors and almost comical girlieness.
And so, I have emerged from my journey and set foot on those hallowed sands, only to find that all the Lords and Ladies of Byzantium are wearing “The New Pretty.”
Out on the street, this seems to translate to a lot of flippy skirts and Broiderie Anglaise. Liberty prints and white denim, pastels, oh my!
It all feels like a sham. Even as a kid I never felt like myself in that kind of frothy dressing – so why bother with it now? Quarter-life crisis be damned. Ever since I was small I’ve awaited the day when I would wake up and (all grown up at last) get dressed for New York with quiet sophistication; now, faced with the task daily, I find myself clueless and uncertain – a veritable deer-in-the-headlights, stunned by the blinding, youthful optimism inherent to the current state of fashion. I would give my eyeteeth for something sexy, sardonic, and familiar, even though I know in my heart of hearts that the softer side is more courant.
(In a fit of overcompensation, I even bought a blazer with studs on it the other day. With the notable exception of the metal feet on my Alex Wang Emile bag, I tend to avoid clothing decorated with spikes and studs; I mean, Christ, my personality tends to be severe enough, especially combined with all that black I wear. On me, a lot of studding tends to look too straightforwardly punk, and “these days you have to be subtler,” as Ms. Westwood reminds us.)
A noontime jaunt into SoHo reveals a gaggle of those aforementioned girls out at the cafe, light as air in their white jeans and camel-colored coats, and I realize there is a part of me that somehow feels I could never possibly be one of them. Much as I would secretly like to be, and much as I would like to try.
To wear pretty dresses, and go to lunch with my girlfriends.
To lighten up, to be in love.
Driven by my desire and my doubt, I have in fact taken it upon myself to purchase a fair amount of white this season (studded blazer aside). I consider it an aggressive stance, and it all feels like an attempt to transcend: dresses and pants and blouses, all turned out in eggshell, ivory, and cream, lovingly curated in my closet as if – somehow – I will eventually reach critical mass and transform into my higher self in the wearing. Enlightened and transmuted, dyed and reborn like Gandalf the White.
It’s all very pretty, of course, and all that ivory has a rather luminous effect on my skin and my hair; all the same, I’m not sure it really works. The dry cleaning bills are immense.
These times of transition do not come free of charge.
The idea extends to every corner of my fledgeling existence; even Sleeping Beauty over there does not come devoid of catches and bargains. My boyfriend. Truthfully, I am not even certain I should call him my “boyfriend,” though at this particular moment I don’t know what else to call him.
(I hear his voice in my head, flirty and salacious, a memory from a phone conversation we had months ago: “You can call me anything you like, baby,” he says. “So long as you call me.”)
Heh. I snort out loud. Maybe that’s it – maybe he’s more of a “gentleman caller,” though that makes it sound as if he’s just some guy I picked up on the street somewhere, and I know him far too well for that. I’ve known him for a very long while now – since I was 17, nearly half my life – and yet our recent evolution from friends to flings has brought with it an epic renegotiation of boundaries, of accountability, of time.
Tom Waits says Misery’s the River of the World. I disagree: Time is.
Time’s the River of the World.
But you still gotta row.
One dreary, rainy day around a week and a half later I find myself crouching in a piss-scented hallway in Queens, taking pictures of the shoes and wondering what I’m doing with my life. I’m a liar if I say I’m completely discontented by it all, however: much like the charms of a well-trodden dive bar, for some people there’s something vaguely reassuring about a situation in which you expect to feel like an underdog.
Of course, I also know that this mentality is, in part, bullshit. Oppositional-defiance might well be my comfort zone, but it’s important not to get too complacent. Eventually, you just have to abandon your personal mental phantoms and wear the damned flowery dress.
“I think the word ‘dark’ is very dangerous. It’s very easy to be good at dark; it’s very hard to be good at light.”
– Steven Moffat, in an interview with Doctor Who Confidential
I swear great deal.
Generally I feel I can get away with it, so long as I make sure to execute it carefully (much like my new Westwood shoes), all wrapped up in nice, classic lines and perfect motherfucking English. Perfect, but twisted and punctuated in just the right places, so you know that I’ve fucked with it purposefully.
Like Ma Bell.*
But again, there’s a limit to everything. Again, it’s important not to get too complacent; you have to press yourself to branch out.
Sometimes, I actually succeed.
I remember a sweater I had in high school – it was a “wheat” or “straw” color, cable knit, purchased from the J. Crew men’s catalog. Some kind of cotton or linen-type yarn, so it wasn’t too scratchy and suitable for all weathers. I wore it all the time, proud of myself that I’d chosen a color other than black. A decade and a half later, I realize I have purchased a similar one. Even in our attempts to transform, I suppose some things never change.
The phone jingles. It’s a text from, Alex, my best friend of ten years – always a light in dark places. My heart grows three times its size.
He talks about girls, and Skyrim. I give an account of my evening.
“It would all be much more awesome if the Yuengling wasn’t ‘Light,’ ” I say. “I already drank the last Stella.”
We share a virtual chuckle and raise a virtual toast, all via text but in our typical overblown, ultra-sentimental style: “L’chaim! We cheers with the Water of Life!”
I return my thoughts to the Hudson – a penny in the current of the River of the World – with great longing for my friend and the hope for a better life in the next decade.
The Hudson gazes back, silent, calm, and unflinching.
I’d pour in an offering of Yuengling if I wasn’t 23 floors up. You can never be too careful or too generous when it comes to the Powers-That-Be: once again, these times of transition do not come free of charge.
Change, by its very nature, is currency.
Faint black waves play along the distant shore, reflecting orange sodium vapors from Jersey in a way that suggests hidden depth. I imagine Cthulhu or Jimmy Hoffa lurking beneath the surface, just out of sight, reaching up to drag me down into a roiling undertow of energy and intention.
Maybe a splash of Yuengling wouldn’t be enough. I think about throwing my shoes into the River, sacrificing my prized new possession in exchange for my dearest wish, just like Gerda in my favorite fairy tale. I laugh; it wouldn’t work. The shoes are plastic. They’d probably float.
I realize that the River has administered a reply: “Don’t get too comfortable.”
I slip the shoes back in their box. They have a delicious chemical smell that I’d like to preserve, that sweet kind of vinyl or plastic, like you get when you’re a kid and you inflate a new pool raft or stick your hand in a vat of rubber bouncy balls. The gold chains tinkle like tiny bells.
My Gentleman Caller stirs.
“You’re still awake?”
“You wearing those shoes?”
I steal another glance at the River. I have enjoyed being awake, working at this unconventional hour. The whole process used to be typical for me: lucubration. One of my favorite words and pastimes.
“Come to bed, baby,” he says.
Fuck it. I turn off the machine.
He kisses me on the forehead, and I slip into the current.
The time is now, and now’s the time for change.
* Later that same morning (the morning of May 4 ), we all were to find out that Adam Yauch (MCA of the Beastie Boys) had passed away sometime in the wee hours. It was, to say the least, a very special day to be in New York. RIP, MCA, and a myriad sparkling thanks for all the ill communications.