Novelist Donald Antrim on the Transformative Power of Beautiful Clothes -

Novelist Donald Antrim on the Transformative Power of Beautiful Clothes

 Novelist Donald Antrim on the Transformative Power of Beautiful Clothes

As my mother got older, she seemed to deteriorate, in body and in mind, but she continued to work. She made New Age blouses with objets attached—cloth birds and crystals tied with string—and puffy jackets that featured gigantic buttons. Her clothes were beautifully made, but I suspect they led people to avoid her. I live in New York but was with her down south when she died. She was alone by then, long divorced, sober but mentally unwell, living in a little house at the bottom of a hill in the western North Carolina mountains, not too far from where she was born. Belgian silk was stored in bolts on shelves. Her sewing machines sat on a worktable that dominated her living room. Art Nouveau and Deco fashion illustrations—Icart, Erté, and Beardsley—hung framed on the walls. A year after she died, I began a book about her, a book about my life with her. It took years to write, and I was in anxiety all the time. After finishing, I fell into major depression. I carried pills and a knife around the apartment and one day ran up the stairs of my building and out onto the roof, where I almost dropped from the fire escape. I spent a summer in the hospital, at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where I lived in terror, certain of coming death. I stumbled through the halls of the ward, sleepless, drugged; I imagined a life of confinement to wards. I took walks with the nurses and begged them for reassurance. I had lots of electroconvulsive therapy. I gained 30 pounds from medications meant to stabilize me. When I got home, my vision was blurred, my mouth dry. My pants no longer fit. My shirts were tight and constricting. Getting up from a chair was an effort. What had happened to my body? What had happened in my life? I hated myself for having written about my mother and her drinking, her shouting, her ridiculous clothing designs. But I missed her. I felt lost without her.

It was 2006. She’d been gone for five years. I’d almost died over her. What had she cared about? How had she shown me who she was, what she valued in life? I turned to clothes. Maybe I needed a cashmere jacket with working sleeve buttons and a closely stitched lapel. Maybe I would feel all right in red corduroys, the sort that a good-looking man might wear on a Sunday walk through Florence or Rome. Pleated? Flat-front? Should I wear a seven-fold tie? Might my choice of a tie, in such disorienting times, help me find a new life?

Periodically I rode the subway to Midtown, got off near Fifth Avenue, and then walked across to Saks, or up to Bergdorf, or up and over to Barneys. I remember the salesmen, who always looked good in the clothes that they drew from the store’s recent arrivals. We didn’t talk much—a hello, maybe—probably because I wasn’t buying much. I pulled things from racks, checked their prices, and then put them back. It’s hard to form a relationship with a salesman without first making an investment. Sometimes one handed me his card. “I like this jacket,” I might say, and then, “I’ll call you.” After a while, I would say, “Take care, thank you,” and ride the elevator to the ground floor, feeling poor and sad. A week or two later, I would slink back again. I remember one salesman in particular. He worked on the first floor at Bergdorf; he was tall, with an elegant beard. I remember him in a herringbone suit, navy blue. He wore bow ties, and his socks matched his pants, not his shoes.

Wearing stylish, well-made garments put me into a kind of embrace. Maybe I wasn’t alone after all. Maybe my clothes were the best company I had.

One day, at Barneys, I found a certain handmade jacket. Was this the year that I left the hospital? Was it the following year? The jacket was on sale, marked way down. For me, it was still expensive. Could I afford it? Could I not afford it? The jacket was Neapolitan, cut from chocolate-brown cashmere that showed a faint windowpane in blue and orange. The coat had soft, unstructured shoulders, a double vent in back, and a three-button front. I pulled it on and looked in the mirror. I stood at this angle and then at that. I asked the salesman what he thought, and he told me that it was perfect, that it was beautiful, that I didn’t want to pass it up. The coat seemed to need no alteration, as if it had been tailored specially for me and then left on the rack for me to find, that very day, when I needed it. What might the jacket do for me? Where would I wear it? Would I be invited to parties or one day own a home? I bought the jacket. It fit like a favorite old shirt, and its shape hid mine. Had my posture changed? Was my back suddenly straight, not slumped? A few months later, I brought home a suit and then several handmade shirts. The suit was medium gray, with a two-button front and a deep gorge. The shirts were Italian, like almost everything I bought. I remember one in a light green shade, with a narrow brown stripe. I bought ties that I still haven’t worn—repp ties and polka-dot ties and foulard ties and bow ties with flower prints. It was as if I might need one tie for today, another for tomorrow. I don’t know how much money I spent on clothes during those years. It added up. But I had nowhere to wear them, nowhere in particular. I don’t work in an office. I don’t greet clients. I took my purchases home and stored them in the closet. Before long, there was a row of hangers holding unworn garments, suits in their suit bags, dozens of ties draped from hooks. They seemed too precious to wear. Sometimes I put on a new shirt and tie, just to go out for coffee. Later I would hand-wash the shirt and then carefully rehang it.

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