Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Second Skin

“I can’t believe I spent so much money on so little fabric.”

The dress didn’t look much shorter than my skirts and other dresses but once I tried it on I could see that it was cut closer to the body than I was used to. I gave my mother a smile and a thank you. It was easy to see why she had been drawn to it when looking for a present for me. It was a blue and white striped dress with thin lines of a bright yellow edging the blue stripes. In that way it was very me. The amount of blue and white striped clothing that I own borders on the obscene. Tees. Sweaters. Dresses. Blazers. Skirts. Too many items for my mother to not have taken notice of my addiction.

But that close cut kept me from wearing it until over a year later when I packed my bags and moved west.

After I bought my first pair of skinny jeans in my early 20s, I never looked back. I've dabbled here and there with a flare or a straight leg but for the most part my pants live close to my skin. I own more than one pair that requires me to hop around my room when pulling them on. But my skirts and dresses didn’t follow suit. The hemlines got shorter, much shorter, but they rarely sat close. If they did, they stayed buried deep in my closet. Even my pencil skirts, made of cotton and silk crepe, sit away from the surface of my skin. What rests beneath is only hinted at through the occasional, well-placed slit.

I wore that striped dress constantly during my first Los Angeles summer but that fact did not mean that I'd taken to it in the same way that I had to that first pair of skinny jeans years earlier. I loved it but was never exactly comfortable in it. My wardrobe was still in transition that first year, California Samantha still gestating, as my media-influenced ideas about Los Angeles style began to be replaced by the reality on the ground. I was surprised by the general looseness of everyone's clothes, especially the clothes of the people sharing my small corner of this sprawling city. The new pieces that entered my closet often took their lead from my neighbors' example. There were boxy shirt dresses and two jumpsuits with blouson tops. Seven soft and silky Everlane tees now live in my dresser. During my second summer, that striped dress made it out of my closet only twice.

It is possible to do something because you love it while also indulging in it because you fear its opposite.

A little over a month ago, I walked into the Urban Outfitters in Downtown Los Angeles in search of a pair of black ballet flats that I had seen on their website. They were nowhere to be found. I wandered to the sale section in search of nothing in particular and picked up a striped, knit skirt. When I stepped into the dressing room, I noted two things. Firstly, the skirt was longer than any I'd bought in the past couple of years. Secondly, it clung to every bit of me. To my hips and my thighs and my ass. If I were to throw a collarless tunic or a swing sweater on with it, as I often did with my skinny pants, it would look all wrong. There was no hiding in it.

I wasn't sure what I was thinking but I bought it. It was only $10 after all.

It didn't take long for me to wear it but then it never takes long for me to wear anything anymore. When I finally found a pair of denim overalls last Friday, I went home and immediately changed into them. I've learned that anything that I don't want to put on the moment I enter my door with it is something that I should return.

But just because I knew that I wanted to wear it didn't mean that I wasn't wary of it. That striped dress still sat in my closet waiting for the real heat of my third Los Angeles summer to descend or for me to get over myself, whichever came first. I thought of the skirt as a one-off. I was happy living my loose, swingy, and sometimes boxy life without much examination. But less than two weeks later, in a different store in search of a different item that was nowhere to be seen, I again wandered into the sale section where I came across a second skirt.

Firstly, it was longer than the last one. Secondly, it clung to every bit of me. To my hips and my thighs and my ass. There was no hiding in it. I wasn't sure what I was thinking but I bought it. It was only $10 after all.

I wore it almost immediately to a friend's reading on the west side that weekend. As I sat on the bus there trying not to fidget in it, I realized that maybe there was more to these impulse purchases. I sometimes forget that whimsy and happenstance should always be last on the list when I'm searching for a reason why I've done something. The skirts weren't evidence of a sea change per se but of a broadening of what I considered the right types of clothes for me.

Free from the worries and the turmoil of those years at home, an increased level of confidence has been creeping up on me. I shouldn't be surprised that it chose to manifest itself in my shopping habits.

Thursday, May 12, 2016


“No Padding Is Sexy Now!” It was raining softly that morning, which had drawn my gaze up and away from my phone as I headed into the mall on a recent Saturday. That “Now” caught my eye and pulled my focus from everything else. The pink striped border surrounding the store window. The image of a artfully windswept young woman frolicking...somewhere. The candy-colored bra that covered her perfectly perky breasts. It was in almost every way the same Victoria’s Secret image that I had seen repackaged over the years with different girls and different kinds of windswept hair. Usually my eyes would have slid over the image to focus on something else. But there was that “Now” asking me to inspect things in a way that I hadn’t felt the need to in years.

Many a mall retailer has had their moment in the sun, holding the style narrative by the throat and inspiring haters and imitators. Gap in the 1990s with its basics and its clever advertising campaigns for example. When one is in such control, it is easy to forget that it is a moment. There is a boom that will undoubtedly be followed by a bust. This is not pessimism, only realism and pragmatism. When one is not prepared for that bust, the fallout can be ugly. You can throw a stone and hit a story about the quagmire Gap Inc. still finds itself in almost a decade after its bust began. The good times lead to growth, of style lines and stores and expectations, so when the downside and the sharp pivot that often accompanies it come, there can be a derailment.

There was always a Victoria’s Secret catalog around the house during my childhood and adolescence. But then it was the 90s. There were a lot of catalogs in general. I remember this one more than the others because of its glossiness. Not the glossiness of the pages, all of the catalogs had that trait, but a glossiness of a different sort. Back then they sold a wide array of clothing, not just lingerie but a full swim and sportswear line as well. There were sun dresses and evening gowns. Bodysuits were everywhere alongside all sorts of tops with built-in bras. When I first began to take notice of the catalog, I, much to my chagrin, had no breasts to speak of. Inspired by a healthy diet of Judy Blume books and those catalogs, I prayed for the arrival of puberty with almost the same fervor that I prayed for my family to be kept safe and for my grades to remain excellent. Puberty came eventually and I relished the chance to finally wear the pretty little, soft-cupped, transitional bras for girls available at Filene’s.

Victoria's Secret isn't selling chinos, at least not anymore. It's not even really selling bras and underwear. What is it selling then? Corporate Sexiness. The padding is often thick. The lift is often high. Cheeks are firm. Nipples are never to be seen. The Pink line, made to tap into that enviable adolescent goldmine, is sweeter and softer but still covered in that sexy yet sexless sheen. They are selling an idea and a dream that can be tapped into only through the items that they have for sale. 

It wasn't only that idea and that dream and their accessibility that kept Victoria's Secret on top. How many other non-luxury retailers have lingerie as their primary focus? You can weave your way through Macy's or Marshall's or American Eagle to the lingerie section but few stores greet you at the door with a land full of bras and underwear and negligees. And because the main image has barely changed, that girl frolicking in an unknown somewhere with her windswept hair, you always know what you're going to get when you cross the threshold. Victoria's Secret's dream is presented in clear, bold type and you can find it in almost every mall in America and occasionally beamed into your home.

Chanel is also selling an idea and a dream but theirs is far harder to attain and much harder to define, and with that lack of definition comes a freedom of movement that Victoria's Secret lacks.

I spent the latter part of my adolescence giving little thought outside of function to the items that I wore under my clothes. I dabbled in “fun” underwear but I was a straight edge and a prude in a hate/hate relationship with my body. I was uncomfortable with these truths about myself but was yet to face that discomfort head on. And while I am loathe to admit it, many of my ideas about what lingerie was supposed to be and how one was supposed to look in it came from those catalogs and a small part of my prudish nature could be traced back to my discomfort with that Corporate Sexiness. 

What's eating at Victoria's Secret's control? The Fast Fashion giants, who are causing trouble for everyone, and a lack of traction in the much discussed athleisure market aren't helping but I think there is a broader cause for the slippage. 

No Padding Is Sexy Now!

Who says? Not Victoria's Secret at first. They are no longer the leader. They are the follower. Who are they following? There still isn't anyone who does exactly what they do. But the people who decide what is in style and, more importantly, what is not has broadened and deepened as the influence of the internet has grown. They came first for the clothes and the accessories but items are easier to pick away at than an idea, a story. Maybe that's why Victoria's Secret was blindsided?

They wouldn't be the first to underestimate the speed or strength of a sea change.