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Love your dress! Why I’m a dedicated follower of my friends’ fashion

Recently, I’ve had a hard time getting dressed. I cannot quite summon the energy to care what goes on my body. In the meantime, I’ve been wearing an orange sweatshirt I bought at a Christian thrift store; it reads “HAYSTACK”. There’s the dark outline of a bunny near the collar, where evidently a bunny patch was once sewn.

When I say, “In the meantime, I’ve been wearing an orange sweatshirt”, I mean I have been wearing it every day for almost a month. It is like the opaque brown paper that goes up over a shop window until the renovation inside is complete. I wear it while I figure out why my closet, full of sweaters and dresses and skirts that used to feel like a collection of solid words I’d use each day to write a new sentence, is instead a dictionary void of entries save one: sweatshirt.

I assumed I was just exceedingly spent (I’ve been feeling, in general, out of ideas). Then, the other day, I Skyped with a very fashionable friend. When I say “fashionable”, I mean that this friend always makes new sentences with her clothing. To hang out with her is like reading a book that so churns your brain, it makes you want to stop reading and immediately start writing your own book. She is fuel for the imagination; she is inspiring, I guess, but usually when we say of someone, “She is inspiring”, at least in the clothing department, we mean that she epitomises a unique degree of polish and confidence and sophistication, and that you can, at best, aspire to it. It’s like a high bar: you need to train and spend lots of time and money in order to clear it. But, in this case, I mean that this friend inspires me to return to my closet and create from the raw material inside something that I’ve never created before. She makes me want to make something of and with myself.

At any rate, we Skyped, this friend and I. (I wore the sweatshirt.) Just seeing her through the computer made me re-evaluate my assumption that I was simply tired or out of ideas. I realised I need a friend-muse in my life, otherwise it is just sweatshirt, sweatshirt, sweatshirt.

This has, for decades, been true. I’ve had many friend-muses through the years. Joanna wore dark denim skirts and red Pappagallo flats. Natasha wore a blue anorak tied around her waist. Basha turned her sweaters inside out and tied the arms over one shoulder, and under each other, as if someone was hugging her from behind. Jill wore long beaded earrings.

When I was younger, I flat-out mimicked my muses. I wore my sweaters inside out, I wore long earrings, I wore bright flats. Through these (failed) acts of imitation, I learned how much bodies, and the movement of bodies, and the personality inside those bodies that are perpetually fidgeting and breathing and looking and thinking, come to bear on the sweaters/shoes/earrings. Joanna was fiercely proper, Natasha was boyish and sensual, Basha was like a human architectural drawing, Jill a dancer. I could wear the bright flats, but that did not imbue me with fierce properness. I could wear long beaded earrings, but I could not turn pirouettes in the school hallways and catch the admiring eyes of the young male teachers.

Years of trial and error ensued. I guess I’ve figured out what looks good on me, by which I mean I know what kind of clothing best communicates my internal weather: big wool sweaters, wool socks, anything with a boatneck, vintage housedresses, clogs or functional weatherproof boots, lots and lots and lots of layers, and everything semi-falling off or falling down or slipping under.

I want at any point to be able to go for a hike or go to a party. I want to be able to survive in a cold climate, outside, overnight. If I have a muse-muse, it would be the artist Eva Hesse, standing on her tippy-toes, wearing socks, jeans, a turtleneck sweater and Dr Scholl’s sandals. (Long hair. Smiling. Cheerfully unaware of her premature death.)

I have, nonetheless, continued to crave friend-muses. When I think of the women I’m closest to, the ones I gravitate towards, it’s the women who pull me out of my habits and say, through their clothing, hey, have you really thought this through, this “self” thing? Like, how recently? Is it time to re-interrogate? You’re older now, and how are you accounting, visually, for your own history?

Regardless, there is always – and this is what complicates a relationship with a friend-muse – the desire to just become that friend-muse. (I have three friend-muses who tempt my identity in radically reworked directions: Ceridwen, Rivka, Leanne.) Sometimes, a friend-muse is so visually and otherwise compelling, it seems worth chucking my whole self and just following her lead. But I feel I would not be a good friend in return if I did this. I would be creepy.

Ceridwen, Rivka and Heidi dress up… But whose outfits are whose? Answers below. Photographs: Christopher Lane

I am not, however, above being creepy. I once wanted to become friends with a woman (Rivka) who wore, when I first set eyes on her, a bright yellow wool scarf. This scarf was such a perfect shade of almost painful yellow, it was almost ugly. I decided I had to own a scarf like this. I taught myself to knit. I made one. I wore it. I hoped I might run into her so I could say, “I loved your scarf so much, I made one for myself!” Then she could decide if my variety of creep suited her. Somehow, we did become friends (I don’t think it was because of the scarf). She, in turn, loved a wrap skirt of mine, made of blue wool. We bought fabric and took it to a tailor, and the tailor made more skirts, based on mine, for her and for me. We both wear these skirts now.

Ceridwen and I, meanwhile, are frequently mistaken for each other. I think because we look so much alike, and because our styles are so similar (we often unwittingly buy the same shoes), we can wholesale copy one another and it’s just… inevitable. We promote and enjoy mutual mimicry. We are each other’s muses. If I buy German wool socks that I love, I must also buy them for her, because I know she will love them equally.

We are busy; we live near each other, but have so little free time to spend together. I pass her in the hallways of the school our children attend, and I see her wearing my socks, or she sees me wearing her skirt, the one she bought that did not perfectly fit her and that she gave to me, and it feels as if we have gossiped over coffee, or gone for a long walk in the park, or stayed up drinking. We haven’t. But these socks and skirts we’ve shared reassure me that, some day, when we have more time, we will. It’s a version of a friendship trousseau, linens in a trunk that speak to a promising future. With these socks, we have invested.

Leanne is the friend-muse I most want to impress. (She is also the inspiring friend with whom I Skyped.) Whenever I see her, I try to wear something I think she will like. Like Ceridwen, Leanne and I own many of the same clothes. But I try not to wear these around her. I worry I’ll look derivative; I fear that she will not want to be friends with a person who lacks her own ideas. For example, she has a blue transparent vintage 20s dress that is identical to a dress I own. She wore hers around me before I wore mine around her. She does not know I own this dress. (Maybe she does now.)

It’s strange that I am anxious about Leanne, because she is the least proprietary person I know with her clothing, and with her ideas. She would probably be happy to know that we own the same dress. She has given me so many items of clothing that I think of as “hers”. Just the other day, she sent me some blue plimsolls that I identify as her style, not mine. She is willing, maybe as I was willing with my wrap skirt, to give a piece of herself to another woman, so that she can see it on her in passing, when this is all we have time for, and feel that she is deeply seen, appreciated, admired, loved.

This summer – the summer of the HAYSTACK sweatshirt, as it will henceforth be known – I’ve been making a new friend via clothing. (Because clearly I need a summer muse.) Since we live in the same small Maine town, we are – it is unavoidable – in competition for the same few things at yard sales and Christian thrift stores. Our friendship has formed in these slightly heated gaps. Who will win? More to the point, what is winning? Winning, maybe, is this. At a yard sale, I found some Dr Scholl’s sandals. I already own two pairs; I have worn the rubber off the soles, so that they are now basically wooden shingles on my feet. I had a moment’s hesitation before I showed them to my new friend; I feel, completely erroneously, that these are “my” shoes. They are not. I urged her to buy them. It has made me immeasurably happy to see: since then, she has worn them almost every day.

Did you get it right? Rivka’s outfits are the denim dress with mesh T-shirt (top) and the Local Champion T-shirt with skirt; Heidi’s is the Maine top and orange skirt; Ceridwen’s is the long dress with navy flowers.

Heidi Julavits is the co-author of Women In Clothes, published by Particular Books.

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