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Give me the boot.
The Weaver of Verona (1956) by Remedios Varo
Yesterday I taught my older daughter how to make a three-point turn in our driveway. I’ve always said I’d hire someone else to teach our kids how to drive because my nerves couldn’t handle it. But I felt pretty calm. I was wearing some white Sorel boots with huge, coral-colored rubber heels that had just arrived in the mail. It felt obvious that the woman who’d chosen those boots wouldn’t freak out about her 15-year-old daughter’s first attempt at driving.
I never thought about fashion as something that could give you confidence. I was always too broke or in debt to pay attention to clothes, plus I hated shopping. I didn’t know where to shop or what to look for or how to look past all of the clothes I hated with a white-hot passion: the flocked patterns and the unnecessary ruffles, the garish colors and the tiny, shiny tops that made my torso look like an overstuffed couch. I couldn’t appreciate good fashion design because I didn’t notice small details and I was suspicious of trends. There was one brief period when I wanted to know the trends just so I didn’t feel dumb leaving the house. But mostly I encountered fashion as an oppressive and incomprehensible labyrinth of rules created by a bunch of filthy rich ghouls who were too stupid to respect anyway, like the aristocrats in The Hunger Games.
Plus, I thought everyone who made an effort looked about the same, like they were trying too hard. I wanted to look like a cowboy. A few years ago I went to a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit and I thought: This is how I want to dress. Like a desert recluse.
My older daughter has slowly changed my perspective on fashion. She’s always loved clothes. At first, I figured she was just another toddler with a Disney princess obsession — the more shiny pink frills, the better. Then I thought she was reacting against her cowboy mother’s taste. Eventually, though, she started to point out details I didn’t see. I like how her sleeves come to a point she’d say, or I like that stitching right there, near the collar. I would stop and look more closely. She was always right. This ruffle actually makes sense, I’d think. That color combination is unusual and therefore interesting.
She quickly laid waste to my previous understanding of trends. She dresses within the loose boundaries of current trends and what seems appropriate for kids her age, but she follows her own instincts about what looks good on her and what makes sense within her overall vision or palette. She trusts her own taste, in other words, and somehow everything she wears works because of this.
Obviously you can imagine ways that this could go wrong. But thanks to my daughter, I realized that my style was really just me imitating someone else who trusted their own taste. And as long as I was mimicking someone else, fashion was no fun at all. I had to learn to trust my own taste instead. Once you trust yourself, fashion is a manifestation of how you feel inside (or how you want to feel), a way of wearing your (black?) heart on your sleeve.
Thrift store shopping makes sense to me now. Before I never felt patient enough to sift through racks of ugly old clothes. But once I started to crack the code of what I liked, and what my daughters might like, it became a far more engaging sport. I’m not great at it, but every now and then I win big enough that it pays off. A few months ago I found my older daughter some olive green soft pants hemmed to mid-calf for $4. It was just a triumphant experience all around: Discovering those perfect, faded, sweatshirty pants in a sea of bad denim, watching her expression change from skeptical to okay, now we’re onto something, and then rejoicing together at how perfect they were in the dark little closet of a dressing room. Slay! she said to herself in the mirror, in that persuasive tone of hers, like so *obviously* slay, so *beyond* slay.
I had no idea thrift stores could be so relaxing. As with gardening, you have to slow down and basically move into the store for the day, if not for the entire week or the rest of the month or the next five years. You pretty much need to believe that you’ll spend eternity in that store, just so you don’t start getting impatient. You need to drift around and really meditate on each individual item until you understand it a little better. The truth takes shape before your eyes: Nope. Maybe. No way. Possibly? Yessss.
My younger daughter is pickier and more self-conscious about looking like she made an effort, so finding stuff she loves is nearly impossible. I don’t think I’ve cracked that code yet. Also she’s in eighth grade now. The codes of eighth grade are pretty much uncrackable: friendship groups, social behaviors, fashion, all impenetrable and mysterious. The other day she told me that everyone acts enthusiastic about everything so it’s impossible to tell who likes you. That’s how I used to feel about ruffled blouses and tiny, shiny tops at the mall. Each ugly top would try to convince me that we were meant for each other, and then there I was in the dressing room, feeling ugly and stupid while it snickered at me for being such a sucker.
Slowly I’ve started to adapt my older daughter’s attitude to my own clothes: What’s interesting but still fits within the boundaries of what I already like? What bends those boundaries a little? Moving from LA to a smaller town throws another layer into the picture. Now I don’t just ask Does this work? I also ask What might make people say to themselves, ‘What the fuck is her problem?’
The boots with the coral rubber soles fall firmly into this category. They don’t look quite right with anything else – they don’t match, they don’t fit in, they make zero sense. These are qualities I embrace now. Wearing one thing that’s jarring and wrong relaxes me. It’s not that people stare at me or my clothes – I mean who the fuck cares, really? It’s that odd fashion choices remind me of how little I care about what other people think. Or maybe I’m a tiny bit invested in disapproval. I look down at my boots and think, “These are so absurd. They look weird with this outfit and they don’t belong on this errand.”
And then I feel happy.
Over the summer, I wore a series of extremely tight tank dresses that had the same effect. I was constantly overheated so I needed dresses that felt like wearing no clothes at all. I liked the way I looked in them, sure, but I also felt completely overdressed everywhere I went. That was nice. People in college towns tend to dress like they’re about to hop into a canoe and sail straight to the ocean at any minute. So it’s enjoyable to walk around looking like you’re in the wrong place, completely unprepared and a little deluded. It’s comforting to picture everyone hopping into a canoe together, knowing that you’d slow everyone down by taking way too long to get into the boat in your enormous wedge sandals, or you’d hike up your dress and flash your ass and everyone would think Jesus. This woman. What is wrong with her?
These days I love the concept of inconveniencing others with my bad choices. Now, to be clear, actually inconveniencing people in real life incites an immediate shame spiral. I don’t like to impede traffic or break rules or even hog too much conversational territory, and when I mess up I can spend a full afternoon of anxious regrets trying to forgive myself for being so clueless. That’s probably why dressing like a complete nightmare who doesn’t care at all feels so nourishing.
I also prefer to write that way, like I’m a genuine gargoyle with no morals or personal boundaries. I love to imagine swerving out of control into some completely different life, becoming an incorrigible, isolated artist in a cabin in the woods or a boozy home wrecker or the very creepy middle-aged version of a club kid. Maybe this is the natural result of having a part of your body cut off and then replaced. You’ve experienced a radical redesign but you feel better than ever, so you have an urge to keep knocking stuff down and starting over from scratch.
Or maybe it’s just existential panic. I’m not sure. Either way, what I find the most gratifying about this phase of my life is that no matter how normal and regular and reassuring I remain to the people I love the most, some part of me refuses to promise them that I won’t fuck something up somewhere along the way. I love my life as it is right now, but I’m not going to promise not to change from this point forward. My preferences are a liquid thing. I’m granting myself the permanent right to fuck up, in big and small ways. And I’m granting everyone around me the same right.
Maybe the fucked up boots feel like a symbol of that. They eliminate the possibility that life will feel perfect, or that I’ll make a good impression. They scare off the people who should be scared off. They don’t really attract anyone, either, if I’m being honest. I will only slow you down, they say. I will become a menace eventually.
But if you can’t slow down enough to walk with someone in impractically tall boots, I don’t have much use for you anyway. If you can’t meditate on very tiny details with me, if you can’t stop and ask, “Who will I be tomorrow? Who were you yesterday? How do we feel right now?” then you should honestly just stay away. Because I need to know what details you can see now that you couldn’t see before. You need to basically move into my house for the day, if not for the entire week or the rest of the month or the next five years. You pretty much need to believe that you’ll spend eternity with me, just so you don’t start getting impatient. We need lots of time to knock stuff down and start over from scratch, asking each other, What’s interesting but still fits within the boundaries of what you already like? What bends those boundaries a little?
And if you do start to feel impatient, just push me out of your canoe and move the fuck on. I could probably row all the way to the ocean, but why would I? What’s the rush? Just leave me in the red clay mud by the shore. I’ll sit there on the edge of the river for hours, marveling at how the coral mud exactly matches the rubber soles of my boots. Slay, I’ll say out loud to myself. So *obviously* slay, so *beyond* slay.
That’s what I said as my daughter nailed her fourth three-point turn.
She sometimes panics under pressure, just like the rest of the animals in her home. But she stayed calm. Just take it very slow, I kept telling her. There’s no rush. Observe cause and effect. Notice how the wheel straightens itself out. You think you have to do it, but you don’t. You just have to let go.
It’s overwhelming at first, but soon it’ll become automatic. You won’t even have to think about it. You’ll trust yourself.
Thanks for reading Ask Molly!