I was rifling through my carry-on bag when my boyfriend asked me what was wrong.
“I’m just so over this,” I breathed from the floor of our AirBnB. “I don’t want to wear my fucking pajamas to a bar again!”
We were three days into our four-day trip to San Francisco, which had been heavenly except for one small snag: We didn’t know the weather would be literally perfect. Blue sky, no clouds, light breeze perfect. At first, this was a delightful surprise — the moment we walked out of SFO and into a balmy 75, we were euphoric. We couldn’t wipe the grins off our faces! Or, we soon discovered, the sweat.
As our Lyft breezed past the sun-dappled hills of South San Francisco, windows down, it quickly set in that we’d packed completely wrong. Blame the inaccurate weather app or our inability to conceptualize “warm” in February, it didn’t really matter. What mattered was our bags were stuffed with sweaters and the four outfits I’d carefully chosen for myself were now problems to solve.
The solution turned out to be two cotton T-shirts I’d brought for sleeping, and by our second-to-last day, as I sat crumpled by my bag, I was so resentful of those grimy little T-shirts I wanted to cry. My irritation at my poor packing job had rattled me beyond reason, and the only thing keeping me from actually crying was the obvious absurdity of doing so. We were in San Francisco! It was beautiful out! We were having so much fun! Who the hell cares what I’m WEARING?
Hello, I’m me, nice to meet you.
The reason I cared was obvious — I use clothing to communicate something about who I am, and as armor to guard who I think I am. That weekend, I felt unprotected. Reuniting with all my old friends in uncomfortable, patched-together outfits made me feel vulnerable and unlike myself. But as I verbalized that to Avi, it was hard to skirt around the vapid implication of it all. I knew my desire to self-express with style wasn’t inherently wrong, but letting it ruin a trip felt sacrilegious. Worse: utterly shallow. After all, he’d packed wrong too, and he was doing just fine.
And it’s not that I wasn’t. I remember that trip for the near-utopian escape that it was, but I also remember the back-burner irritation I felt all weekend at not getting to dress how I wanted to. Even then, I knew it was silly. I knew that it revealed more about my self-esteem than it did my packing abilities, but I wasn’t eager to tack on more self-criticism, so I channeled my energy into wishing I could turn back time. Very helpful.
A month later, I read about an economic theorist named E.F. Schumacher. I was looking into his perspective on modern consumption, but something he said about materialism zapped me right back to San Francisco: “Buddhism is ‘The Middle Way’ and therefore in no way antagonistic to physical well-being. It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them.”
I immediately saw myself in his words, and the way my self-image wilted without its counterpart. That was attachment.
If you subscribe to the idea that fashion is a means of expression, it’s easy to see it as an inherent good, as something that’s always capable of lifting us up and making us feel good and whole. But that’s a tenuous paradigm, isn’t it? Because sometimes clothes don’t fit, or we don’t have the resources to buy them or the time to choose them, and what then? When we’ve made, to use Shumacher’s words, the enjoyment of a pleasurable thing a requirement to feel like ourselves, what happens when it’s taken away?
My San Francisco meltdown is one answer, and it’s all the proof I need that my relationship with personal style needs to graduate to something else. I think that may have a lot less to do with clothes than it does with me. I will probably never stop appreciating the power of style, but if I don’t appreciate its limitations, too, I could rob myself of an important truth: I may love my clothes, I may hate my clothes, but I am not my clothes. I can’t imagine an outfit as liberating as that.
Photo provided by Haley Nahman.