If you haven’t been to the wonderland that is The Sartorialist (http://thesartorialist.blogspot.com), go there first, quickly, before you read this. Spend a few minutes. You might not have any reaction, but maybe you will. If you already know and love The Sartorialist, stay with me, because chances are you might never come back and read this essay if you don’t. You’ll fall down a rabbit hole masquerading as an alleyway in Milan, tumbling after some impossibly cool old man in oxfords and anklets, with the hem of his trousers rolled just so. (These old Italians all dare to eat a peach.) Or you’ll fall into a pretty dungeon of despair/envy/desire when you see some mile-long gazelle of a girl in modern, sky-high heels, leaning against what was an ugly, nothing wall until she was juxtaposed against it. Slightly wrinkled trench coat, topknot, sleek legs, only the barest hint of elegant tension beneath her languid posture . . . oof. It creates this longing that makes me think of theater; what she has going on in that moment is almost completely ephemeral. Some elements may remain for a remount: shoes purchasable here, trench there, hair, well, you have some or you don’t. But the rest you can never have, and you’re just lucky or unlucky to have seen it, depending on how you carry that 10 ounce glass of water with the five ounces of water in it.
Aspirational, that’s the word for that site. I frankly love the tension The Sartorialist sets off in me, my glass blinking from half-full to half-empty by the moment. Possibility! Impossibility. Possibility! Not every last photograph is of some paragon of physical beauty – you’ve got young people, old people, thin people, fat . . . old men -- but every single one shows us someone who has absorbed/created/lucked into a sense of style, and that is mostly, largely, maybe? almost? democratic. You can cultivate one. It’s available to you. You might be tone-deaf, but everyone who cares to do it can probably struggle out a real sense of style.
Or not. And those who can’t are left with fashion. But I don’t want to talk about fashion. Fashion, apart from style, is something tinny and temporary and quickly embarrassing. It requires no thought on the part of the wearer, only a kind of pitiful trust that he or she is being handed the right information. Fashion without innate style is that good-looking (or not) kid who heads to Hollywood and is dying to be a famous actor but doesn’t have any talent, whose only hope is a gargantuan dedication to craft. Dubious. That actor who’s not exactly bad, who’s hitting the marks and all, but you just don’t give a shit. Styleless fashion. Nothing gives a sadder, more desperate feeling, sartorially, than that. Especially with the wrong information. You know what I’m talking about.
(And you’ve got the segment of the population who don’t care about style AND don’t care about fashion. Carry on, wizards. Stay warm and dry in the winter and cool and comfortable in the summer. Bust out some “generally appropriate for the situation,” and your dignity is basically intact.)
Let me digress a little. I have a mild, vague obsession with French culture. (Can you have a mild, vague obsession? I think I figured out how to do it; see me for tips if you’re interested.) Parisian culture, maybe, in particular. I spent one day and one night in Paris almost a decade ago. I’d looked forward to going there all my life, nearly maniacally. I’d have dreams about it, and since I’m always fooled by my dreams, I’d invariably think, “My god! Mon dieu! The day has come! Finally, it’s not a dream! I’m really in Paris this time! All those other times -- dreams! But not this time! Hurray!” and then a giant deck of cards would walk into the room and I’d think, “Paris is not quite what I expected, but it’s great to be here. Great . . . to be here.” And then I’d disappear up into a skylight and continue the dream in Ohio or what have you. My point is that I’d always looked forward to the challenge of Paris. I was intrigued by the idea that it didn’t come easily for visitors, that there was an intricate code to learn, some intuitive and some counterintuitive tricks for comporting yourself in such a way as to make the city fall open for you. (I hadn’t considered the option that it might also be okay if Parisians didn’t like you.) (Me.) And one of the most obvious things you had to do when you got to Paris was dress well, but that wasn’t enough, either. You had to dress with style, because the Parisians THROW DOWN.
So how did it go?
Yes, well. Since I’d been overly excited, I hadn’t slept for one minute the night before, and arrived with a huge headache. So, a good chunk of time was lost sleeping and then taking a bath with my sunglasses on. And then we went out to dinner and then I got to spend a few hours back in the hotel room throwing up some bad tuna. (“Paris! Pinch me! Am I dreaming?!”) Then the people at the front desk denied to my boyfriend’s face the very existence of mint tea in the whole world. (“Ma’am, I’m afraid that you’re wide awake.”) Montmartre was delightful, the next day. I spoke French successfully in a bookshop, to a taxi driver and in a perfume shop. OH! And on the train from London to Paris, I was in the bathroom when they were collecting tickets or checking passports or something. They knocked on the door and I said, “Un moment” and the ticket taker/passport checker said, “Elle est Français.” !!! I practically started singing the Marseillaise. Anyway, they couldn’t see me or they wouldn’t have made that much-treasured mistake. I did my best but I was not, I could tell, able to dress myself to Parisian standards. I really only took two outfits on the town:
1) Dinner (and then vomiting): A navy v-neck t-shirt, gathered in the front with a little patch of red paillettes, atop a navy pinstripe a-line skirt, with modern-looking black flats.
2) Montmartre, the next day (aka “The nice part”): A risk-free ensemble of white button-up shirt, black trousers, the aforementioned black flats and the sunglasses from the bathtub.
Neither here nor there, ultimately, and no heels = not good enough. It just wasn’t good enough. I could feel it. It didn’t risk enough or express enough or . . . who cares, right? Who cares what I wore in this one part of the world over the course of slightly more than 24 hours almost ten years ago? I DO.
I do, I care, because it’s to do with nuance, and I love nuance, and consequently hate missing nuance. It’s so aggravating. I wanted to nail it and I didn’t nail it. So Paris is still hanging there, unconquered, and therefore it remains this vague obsession, and so we’re back to The Sartorialist. The pictures I examine most keenly from his site are the ones, obviously, from Paris, but it doesn’t matter, really. The whole question of style and nuance dangles there in every photograph, which begs the question of my own style, and just what in the hell that is, and what it’s for, and why it matters, because it does matter. It’s not enough that the clothing flatter my figure and my coloring. We all want to be found beautiful, that’s basic. And it’s nice to be accepted, to be thought cool. But the ultimate -- for me, at least -- is to be known, and if you really want to be known, then you leave as many breadcrumbs as possible for the people taking you in, pointing as much as you can to something ineffable. It’s art, and even if you miss the mark you’ve set out for, you will at least have hit something.
Tina Rowley is a writer and performer who lives in Seattle. She's run a little blog operation for a few years called The Gallivanting Monkey. She works with social media for dollars, and makes theater for love. Follow her on Twitter this-a-way.