Getting and Spending: Why look at fabulous clothes?
One of my earliest female-bonding memories is accompanying my mother on shopping sprees when we visited Chicago, her home city. She'd dive into Marshall Field's or Carson, Pirie Scott, eager to buy the hat or coat she could not find in our small town in Northern Michigan.
Her favourite section was The Dress Room, where she bought what were called "afternoon dresses", sheaths or sweeping-skirted styles. Afternoon dresses occupied a spot a notch above today's "smart causal"; fabrics were dressy, cuts elegant but not as revealing as evening wear, and there was not a pair of trousers to be found. Both hostesses and guests dressed for dinner in those days; that's what you wore unless it was a bar-be-que.
There was what seemed a too-brief foray into Sweaters, Skirts and Sportswear for something for me, but it was understood this was Mom's day, and stand back.
I recall asking, as I waited for my treat of Field's petit fours, why she spent so much time on the smallest part of her wardrobe. She said, "You can't choose anything else if you can't choose a good dress." She was building discernment, and carrying the wonder of these clothes—even those merely considered— back to her small-town life.
When I see a fabulous piece (these days, online) I feel an inexplicable but particular emotion, a mix of awe, reckoning, curiosity, and a smidge of shame that I would dream of a coat the price of six months' rent. There is probably a German word for this fashion version of Weltschmerz: "Ah yes, such beauty exists. Who wears this? I don't. I once did, occasionally. (Sigh.) Isn't it amazing? I see I could dress better."
Here are a few such pieces, to illustrate:
Left to right:
Erdem velvet-trimmed embellished cutout crepe dress, Netaporter.
Gabriela Hearst leather-panelled silk and wool-blend shirtdress, Netaporter.
Hermès leather trench coat; Spring '21; photo, Vogue.com.
In theory, those clothes might work for me—they are the kind of strict style I like. But for maximum astonishment, I ignore whether the creation might be suited to my life or body, and bow before Alexander McQueen, Spring '21:
I think, Who is she, the woman who wear this? Is her entire wardrobe composed of otherworldly confections? On the street, even in posh neighbourhoods, I rarely see someone striding past dressed in fabulous high fashion. Is there a hidden refuge like the fairies' tearoom in my childhood book, where winged sprites in ethereal chiffons recline on tufted silk chaises, sipping chrysanthemum tea?
Am I wasting my time occasionally ogling these designs? My brain says yes, but my heart rate rises; beauty—any beauty—releases endorphins.
I don't, though, feel compelled to experience that frisson in order to choose my everyday attire, as my mother averred. Her longing was driven by pent-up desire to commune with the pleasures she'd moved far from; I could order such clothes for next-day delivery.
They are art, and like other visual arts, can transport, challenge, and illuminate other ways of seeing. If I think, That's not for the real world (and what cleaner would you trust with that McQueen coat?) it's worth remembering that women somewhere wear these pieces as calmly as I do my jeans and tees.