Fifteen years ago, a friend told me that Neil Gaiman wears the same all-black outfit every day. I pictured a macabre closet, suitable for an author whose children’s story featured a button-eyed mother. But for me, a college student who used fashion to express myself, I couldn’t fathom trading my paisley dresses and op-art blouses for a single, solid color.
In 2017, I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The artist’s wardrobe was on display next to paintings and photographs — an attempt to contextualize O’Keeffe’s minimalist style. Living in the New Mexico desert, O’Keeffe asked her seamstress to reproduce a Neiman Marcus frock in Southwestern shades: brown, turquoise, pink. When I saw the collection of nearly-identical wrap dresses, I thought, I totally get this.
What happened to my fashion sense between college and my mid-30s? I live in New York City, where Neil Gaiman would blend in — we’re known for wearing black here. But we’re also a fashion mecca; the city resembles Halloween year-round. Residents don materials from fox fur to recycled plastic. I moved here in 2008 with a partially-shaved head, funky vintage dresses, and lace-up witch boots. I looked like a New Yorker, day one.
A finance job ironed out my self-expression. In a cubicle’s glow, I noticed holes in my skirts, raw hemlines fraying. For years, I shopped exclusively at thrift stores. I loved finding deadstock items that gave me a distinct style. No one else looked like me. On several occasions, I got stopped on the street; “Excuse me, can I take your picture?” and when they followed up with, “What are you wearing?” I saw the disappointment on their faces. To caption a photo with “vintage” or “Salvation Army” doesn’t tell the reader where to buy the look.
The further I delved into a professional lifestyle, the more I wanted to blend in, not stand out. So I started to build a classic wardrobe. Button-down shirts. Pencil skirts. Neutral colors replaced loud ones. But shopping at thrift stores still gave me a slightly-off appearance. I didn’t look sharp. As I got busier with work, I had less time to shop. Eventually, I gave in to fast fashion. First, I convinced myself that I needed a black skirt. When I stepped into an H&M, I thought, Wow, everything is organized, and there’s more than one size. For a time, the brand filled in my essentials; then, I moved on to Uniqlo, then Everlane. Although these stores provided a safe, generic appearance, I did not love the clothes the way I loved my vintage duds.