There is no greater faux pas when it comes to fashion than two women wearing identical outfits. But what do you do when you can’t get a certain Isabel Marant number you saw on an acquaintance out of your head? If you’re author and artist Leanne Shapton, co-editor with Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits of the new anthology Women in Clothes, you give in to temptation, track it down on eBay and start wearing it around town – with all of the attendant guilt, fear, pleasure and pain.
I saw a dress on a woman at a party and wanted it for myself. It was a long, printed dress. It looked comfortable and light and cool and inscrutably chic. When I asked the woman about the dress, she said it was Isabel Marant. She said it sort of apologetically, acknowledging with a faint, resigned smirk that while it looked vintage – could have been seventies Yves Saint Laurent or handmade – by being off-the-rack designer it was less interesting, cheating somehow. The fact that this was communicated so quickly and silently was interesting. It must have been then that I realized that I, too, might one day own the dress.
Later that day I was with a friend, C, and saw the woman again and spoke to her. C knew her a bit. She lived in the country but worked as a stylist in the city. I admired her hair: worn loose, flecked with grey. And her manner: warm, thoughtful, sincere. She wore no makeup, and the dress, which was sack-like, lent her a modesty I liked. We spoke about our children. Then, in a lull in the conversation, I came back to the dress, complimenting it again. She nodded, knowing. Then I did something that surprised me: I leaned down and picked up the edge of her skirt and touched it, marvelling aloud at the light, smooth fabric.
I have never touched another woman’s dress like that before. A fur sleeve once, but I’ve never had that grasping, clutching impulse. I wondered if it had something to do with my post-pregnancy confusion about my body, its new aches and shapes. My breasts are mysterious, they have moods and urgency and look like sea creatures. My body gives off new smells and I picture an orangutan when I think of my nursing posture. Though my pre-baby weight is within spitting distance, my relationship to clothes has shifted. I don’t know quite who I am any more, and yet I am more defined than ever. In the past, when I looked at clothes, I’d imagine a version of myself in them. Some part of me has always thought I could wear almost anything and look good, but photographs of me always disappoint. The dawning knowledge of my asymmetries and lumps, my perceived flaws, has been somehow kept at bay until now. Now I see them and accept them; I’m just not sure how to dress them.
I touched this woman’s dress and marvelled, then the moment passed, the sun went down, I changed my daughter’s diaper and headed home. A week and a half later, after thinking about the dress in an abstract way on a regular basis, I typed “Isabel Marant dress” into eBay. After a few pages of scrolling, I found it. It was $360, marked down from $1,200. I checked the return policy – 14 days – and bought it.
I felt weird after clicking Buy It Now. The whole process went so fast. Seeing the dress on another woman, ascertaining its provenance, touching it, then going after it. I’d never bought something like that before, never had that “It could be mine” feeling about the clothes of a woman I’d met. I had that feeling after seeing things in print or on people I did not know, but I’d always felt it was only fair to let a woman, from vaguely one’s own social circle, own the dress if she found it first. Maybe it’s my competitive-swimming background, but I go around thinking in terms of firsts. It’s only fair.
Was it to do with childbirth, this slackening of my own rules? After depending so heavily on other women, more than I’d ever had to before, was I coming to realize how shared an experience mothering was, and so didn’t feel so bad copying another one? I’ve always been interested in how women mimic and copy one another. I’d copied things I’d admired before: cumulative lessons in being myself. I copied the way a friend placed tulips in a beer stein in 1993, the way another woman sitting in front of me on an airplane wore men’s trousers in 2001 (it turned out to be Phoebe Philo). The way yet another said “Please” when ordering in a restaurant in 2007.
I wondered if my feelings also had something to do with admitting I want something. I’ve struggled with admitting what I want most of my life, not admitting until the last possible moment that I wanted a child. Admitting I flat-out wanted this dress was new to me. I was nervous.
When the dress arrived, I laid the small package on the bed and looked at it. I still felt it was someone else’s discovery. I wonder if the lovely woman had any sense of how much covetousness her dress inspired, that in fact I would hunt down and capture her dress. Would I have still wanted it if she’d been unfriendly? I wondered if men did this to other men’s women. Or if women did this to other women’s men.
I opened the package. All folded up, the dress looked deflated. On the woman’s body it had been large, airy and flowing. The fabric was very fine and thin, so the entire thing squashed down to a little pancake. I fluffed it out. It was still great. I put it on. I loved it anew.
I kept the tags on in case I changed my mind. But the next morning, in a rush to get to the passport office, I threw it on. It felt soft and cool against my skin. The cut felt above par for so uncomplicated-looking a garment; there wasn’t too much material across the shoulders, chest and arms, but plenty from the armpits down.
I was worried about the size, but it fit perfectly. I slung my baby into her carrier and set off. By the time I reached the passport office I was sweating and my daughter had drooled down my chest. The dress was giving off a “new dress” scent: something gluey, sizing and thread and tarpaulin. I worried about my daughter sucking on it and moved it away from her face, then worried about her breathing in factory fumes and regretted I hadn’t washed it before wearing it, something I usually do with my new clothes.
After the passport office, I walked to my designer friend R’s studio to pick up a tape recorder. We stood chatting and passing around the baby. While I was talking to another woman, I felt R touch the dress. When I got home, I washed the dress, then put it straight back on.
I wore it the next day to get an ice cream cone with a friend. And the day after that, to a show in Brooklyn and a late dinner.
On both of these occasions I felt good. The good of knowing I had on something that was attractive to me. It didn’t matter if I thought I looked attractive in it. In fact, I think I looked merely okay in the dress. I wonder what wearing a designer piece bestows on the wearer, because what I was feeling I can describe only as designer security. I was leaning on the fact that I’d paid a lot for this security. The “thingness” or value of the dress made me feel protected and attractive in a lazy way – the mass security of doing what other people do, or buying into the “Expensive is good” mindset. I suppose I expected the dress to do some of the heavy lifting.
The specifics of the dress: It is a long-sleeved, printed dress, made of a silk and cotton blend. The colours are olive greens and navy blues and the print is imperfect and messy, an Indian/Liberty pattern that includes tiny pomegranates and vines. There are a number of pin-tucks across the shoulders in the back and along the collarbone, making the top part tidily but comfortably tailored. The dress unbuttons to the belly and has a tiny frilled collar. The sleeves have short, buttoning cuffs. It has two hip pockets and a drawstring. It delivers a demure, feminine, slightly hippie feeling and falls to just above the ankles. It’s sensuous, with its almost transparent fabric. It has a quality I love in clothes – of being a platonic ideal of an image of something, an illustration. It evokes David Hamilton photographs, Wales in the sixties, Woodstock, early Laura Ashley, libraries and flea markets. There is something gauzy and French seventies about it, like it should smell a little, and warmly, wonderfully, of B.O.
There is reliable drama to the idea of two women wearing the same dress. It’s considered a faux pas, documented in movies and stories as a mortifying event, and more recently and efficiently in the cruel “Who Wore It Best?” features in celebrity weeklies. A woman need only own the same expensive dress as another, and wear it weeks and miles apart, to be shamed in a photographic comparison.
What I felt in the dress was a deep dread of running into the woman I had coveted the dress on, and also C, who was with me when I first saw it. It’s hard to explain this dread other than that of being caught red-handed, of appearing to not have my own mind when it comes to dressing. As these things go, on the fourth day of possessing the dress I ran into C at a coffee shop where I was meeting another friend, A.
When I saw C across the room, I felt a jolt of panic before relief that, finally, I could make my confession. I pointed at the dress as she approached and said “I found it!”
She said in reply: “You found it.” Then she told me she had looked for it online for my birthday. She touched it and asked if she could borrow it some day. We told A about the dress at the party. She admired it and declared that it looked perfect and she wanted it and was going to look for it, too.
That night, I wore it to a farewell party for a friend, P. She and I had had a strained relationship for the past year, and in deciding what to wear that night I chose the dress as a sort of protection. I went to the party carrying my daughter in a sling, which provided a little more armour, too. The heat of her little body was comforting, and the thin material of the dress kept the inevitable sweatiness manageable. On arriving, P told me that a man I’d been involved with 10 years before would not come to her party if I was there, that he was waiting until I left. On top of the existing tension between P and me, this cast an uneasy feeling over the evening. My daughter fell asleep against my tense chest. I stayed for an hour longer, growing defiantly aware of some tension my presence was creating. When I saw P and another woman look at me and whisper into each other’s ears, I left, feeling downcast. Walking home, I texted two of my friends, who were in Korea, and told them I missed them. When I got home I bathed my daughter and put her in her crib, took off the dress and pumped breast milk.
The next day involved a long drive, stopping to breast-feed at a gas station. I put on the dress once more. My husband and I met a painter friend, J, for lunch, and we talked about discernment and nostalgia. I told him about the dress, that I was disappointed I didn’t uncover it in a vintage store but bought it for its approximate qualities to a perfect version of a dress you’d find in a vintage store. He immediately said the colours of the dress were ideal for me. As we were leaving, he touched the dress and said it really was a very good dress.
We arrived at a friend’s house in the early evening, in the rain. By this time the dress felt like a part of me. I’d forgotten about it, which I took to be a sign of its true integration into my wardrobe, the way that, in Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald has a character say something like: If you are conscious of what you are wearing at a party, you made the wrong choice. The material soothed me, and the cool, wet breeze blew the skirt out in gentle billows. I knew it smelled of milk and baby vomit and me and car, but I wore it for a few hours more, dropping some pulled pork and slaw onto it, finally taking it off for a bath before bed.
Leanne Shapton’s Covet Diary: Regarding the Dress of Another is reprinted from Women in Clothes by arrangement with Blue Rider, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, © 2014 by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton.