KNAPP: Spontaneous Wardrobe Failure Syndrome
April 26, 2000
Spontaneous Wardrobe Failure Syndrome (SWFS), a phenomenon in which every article of clothing a woman owns suddenly and inexplicably appears to her to be inappropriate, ill-fitting, unattractive, and "all wrong." Symptoms include anxiety, distress, periods of weeping, obsessive preoccupation with fashion magazines, and frequent utterance of the phrase "I have nothing to wear," delivered in a mournful wail. Causes are unclear. Prognosis: dire.Alas, it's happened again. I stare into the closet: zippo. I open the bureau drawers: nada. I rifle through the shelves, the old suitcases where I keep stuff I can't quite bear to part with, even the laundry hamper: nothing. My wardrobe has spontaneously failed me. I have a major case of SWFS.What is this? I haven't gained or lost any weight, so it's not a matter of how the clothes fit. Nor is it a case of being out of step with current fashions; the stuff I wear is mainstream enough to make it from season to season without going hopelessly out of style. No, this is something deeper, something that seems to sneak up on a woman without warning every few years, usually on the heels of some other, more internal shift in outlook or style. Call it a garden-variety identity crisis. Call it a pain in the butt. Call it SWFS.My friend Mary is going through the same thing, which means that she and I would be in for a long and grotesquely expensive shopping spree if only we could figure out what it was we wanted to look like. We talked about this the other night. I said, "I look into my closet and I think, 'Who wore this stuff?'" She said, "I know. I don't know what looks good on me anymore. I need a whole new -- a whole new something."Precisely. A whole new something. At the moment, my wardrobe feels like a whole old something, in that it seems to represent three or four worn-out versions of a person I used to be. Upstairs, in a closet I rarely open, hangs the '80s me, represented by a rack of power suits I wouldn't wear now if my life depended on it. Little skirts; big, unstructured jackets with shoulder pads the size of roasts. Very severe, very businesslike, and not just out of style now but also out of synch with the way I feel inside. I wore those suits in my late 20s and early 30s, a time when I felt like a 12-year-old masquerading as an adult nearly all the time. They were my disguises then. These days, they give me the creeps -- symbols of an uncomfortable time, an ill-formed sense of self.Same with the racks and racks of black in my closets: black sweaters, black skirts, black blouses, little black dresses, about 75 pairs of black leggings. I never quite bought the line, delivered in ominous tones in the early '90s, that black was history, dated, out of style -- black will always be in style. But all those dark and stormy outfits give me that same creepy feeling, reminding me of what a moron I've been about clothes over the years. I wore all that black because it was easy and non-threatening, because I didn't know beans about color, and because, for a very long time, the idea of putting together an outfit consisting of more than one shade seemed more challenging than completing a triathlon with a broken leg. Black reminds me of standing in clothing stores and staring dumbly at the racks: Uh -- gee, I don't know -- does it come in black?Old personae, old insecurities, hangers draped with former lives. There are a dozen miniskirts: my I-feel-totally-inadequate-but-at-least-I-have-good-legs phase. There are dozens of silk blouses, many of them unworn: my I-can't-dress-my-way-out-of-a-paper-bag-but-at-least-I-have-good-taste-in-fabric phase. There are numerous failed experiments in color (an inordinate number of them pink), assorted nods to recent fads (platform shoes), and God only knows how many catalogue-shopping disasters -- sweaters that didn't fit, fabrics that turned out to be cheesy, colors that didn't bear any resemblance to the hue on the page.And then there is the more current version of me, that one that seemed to stabilize in the mid '90s. Leggings, flat shoes, long shirts, and big sweaters: my uniform for the last five years, and one that seemed to work quite comfortably until this latest bout of SWFS swept through and made everything seem hideous and wrong. What happened?Well, several things happened. I quit my full-time job a year ago, and I'm still making the transition from Office Professional to Freelance Slob. Suddenly, all the stuff that looked fine in the workaday world -- snappy little shoe-boots and long chenille sweaters -- feels oddly inappropriate. Next, I got a dog -- a phenomenon that totally transforms a woman's attitude toward her wardrobe, starting with the feet. Heels? Forget it. Shoes that look great but pinch even a little? No way. When you're out walking a dog two or three times a day, it's all Doc Martens, hiking boots, and sneakers. That shift -- from stylish shoes to comfortable shoes -- echoes throughout the wardrobe, throws the previous look completely out of whack. I stand there in front of the closet with new priorities: what can I wear that will be comfortable working and walking the dog yet still look halfway decent on the streets? Good-bye Ann Taylor; hello L.L. Bean.But the real cause of my current wardrobe angst is deeper. I have a book coming out in the next few weeks, and I'm scheduled to do all the anxiety-provoking book-publicity things a writer sometimes has to do: readings, a tour, possibly some television. It's no coincidence that my clothing has spontaneously failed me at this precise moment, when my very private persona is about to become more public. A Boston Globe reporter came to my house to interview me not long ago, and I agonized over what to wear: what to project? Who to be? What will people see when they look at me? I fell back on something utterly nondescript, from the leggings-and-sweaters days, but I've been aware since then of how closely tied up with identity the contents of a woman's closet can be. Who am I? How do the externals reflect what's going on inside? The fact that this book is a memoir -- a deeply personal piece of writing that covers a lot of addictive, neurotic, self-destructive territory I'm not especially proud of -- gives these questions even greater urgency. I want the look to communicate glowing mental health, to say: Healing; Together; I'm-Doing-Just-Fine-Thanks. It's probably no surprise that I watch TV these days with an eye toward models of self-assurance and poise. I want to look like Diane Sawyer or Jane Pauley; I want casual confidence and flair; I want to look well-put-together and grown up.So I'll go shopping. I'll solve the problem, to the best of my ability, this time around. But I know my wardrobe will fail me again. It's inevitable, part of being female, part of the ongoing search for a sense of internal well-being that's solid and well-grounded enough to be visible externally. A friend, who's about to get divorced, says she spent the last seven years dressing as a married woman, and now she's trying to figure out how to look for this new phase of her life. She feels all uncertain inside, rocky and unsettled, and she's spending a small fortune on new clothes and makeup. It's all about fit, she says, matching the insides to the outsides, trying to get the two in synch. It's a lifelong process. It's why God invented Bloomingdale's.