A year ago this month, I turned 50 and found myself staring in the mirror, stunned. Not by the wrinkles. Botox and dim lighting can take care of those. What set off a surreal ripple of unknown emotion was the realization that after a half-century of longing, of making do with the almost-perfect-piece on the sale rack or the almost-as-good lookalike, I was now wearing the real deal: Balmain skinny jeans bought on eBay, a vintage Hermès scarf I found in a resale shop in Wayzata, and for my birthday, an unprecedented extravagance from my husband, Peter: a Rick Owens motorcycle jacket.
I loved every single piece. I felt like a model, a movie star; this was my moment. And in that moment, I thought of the 1987 film Broadcast News, when ex-weatherman William Hurt lands a prestigious job anchoring the evening news. “What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?” he asks reporter Al Brooks—to which Brooks responds with a sardonic whisper: “Keep it to yourself.”
Let me just say: I did not post a selfie—and not just because I am, as my teenage kids say, “so old.” What I am is old enough to know that (to paraphrase Voltaire by way of Spider-Man) with great love comes great vulnerability. Anyone who has ever proclaimed “Hello, lover” to a pair of shoes understands that a passion for beautiful things is a complex affair, a Minnesota spring: full of hope and sunshine and also the awareness that around every corner, a windchill lurks. I learned this in grade school when I fell in love with a pair of green plaid bell-bottom pants. I wore them everywhere: to class, to ski at Theodore Wirth Park, to Picture Day. I asked my mom to iron them for the occasion. When I picked up my friend to walk together to school, she opened the door wearing a new skirt and lace-collared blouse and neatly curled hair, and she looked me over and smiled as she said, “Did you forget it’s Picture Day today?”
Mean Girls, meet Minnesota Nice. A lifetime later, I am not surprised when D.NOLO owner Veronica Clark, who curates some of our state’s coolest minimalist clothing in her North Loop shop, observes of Minnesota style: “No one wants to be the loudest girl in the room.” Because, I suspect, we all understand the risk, this collective truth: What we wear is a personal expression of self that only feels truly great when somebody else hits “like.” There is beauty in this sisterhood, in the everyday exchanges at the gym, in the grocery store, on the street. At the bank earlier this year I was wowed by my teller’s manicure—a muted metallic gray with an asymmetrical zing of color on only one finger; she was so pleased by my admiration she shut down her window to grab the salon card from her purse. In the vast chasm of swirling emptiness that is existence, two tiny acts of loving kindness between strangers (the gestures that, as the rabbi at my family’s synagogue teaches, draw us nearer to God) created a new community.
This is self-expression at its best. It says I am not invisible. I am special. I belong.
At its worst, it says the opposite: I am ordinary. I do not matter.
After Picture Day, I hurried home and asked my parents to buy me some new pants.
“Why,” my dad asked. “Do those have holes?”
All he knew about fashion came from Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat,” in which a dull low-level functionary named Akaky Akakievich learns that his old cloak is so threadbare it can no longer be repaired, and so reluctantly orders a new one. Once oblivious to the outer world (including the sartorial taunts of his comrades; the story could be subtitled Mean Boys), he slips on his new cloak and awakens to the power of Beauty. He feels an inexplicable happiness. His comrades swoon. His boss throws him a party. And (this being 19th century Russian literature) within days he is dead.
Lit critics see in “The Overcoat” lessons about class injustice. My father saw a reason to put on one more patch. But I saw something else: an ordinary life made extraordinary by coat with a cat-fur collar.
Would Akaky have lived had he, you know, kept it to himself? Nah. Thugs stole his coat in the bitter St. Petersburg winter, and he got sick and died. Surely there is a lesson there for Minnesotans (layering, perhaps), but it is not about the suppression of joy. Because here’s the thing: Mean girls grow up and turn into really great women. I see them at movie theaters and in restaurants and, as a year-round hockey mom, in lots of rinks. I have one friend who wears the same pants to almost every game. We see each other and laugh. “Those pants, again?” I say, to which she responds: “What crazy thing have you got on now?” Maybe it’s my Rick Owens jacket. Maybe it’s a new spring statement necklace so big and bold I think twice about wearing it. First thought: What if someone thinks it’s stupid? Second thought: Who cares? It’s not what we love, it’s that we love.
No way am I keeping that to myself.