Style

cardigans, cashmere, and being the “perfect” size 00.

As a child of the 1980s, mail order catalogs were my primary source of ideas and inspiration. JCPenney and Spiegel catalogs served as dogeared reference bibles for All the Things I Coveted, and Current catalogs for stationery and paper related obsessions. I felt a jolt of elation when a new one came in the mail, heading straight for the blue and orange plaid family room couch to curl up and devour its contents. The massive 500 page Christmas catalogs often came in August, just in time for back to school shopping. As the crisp fall air moved in each year, I was swept up in fresh tartan pleated skirts and dresses, corduroy pants, bright sweaters, and patent leather shoes. Colorful, New England preppy casual clothing makes me happy and reminds me of those simpler days. Online shopping just doesn't provide the same thrill.

My emergent fuddyduddy side is coming out typing this because back then, things were high quality, made to last. I only recognize this now because most clothing items I buy barely last a year. I regularly use a massive monogrammed 25+ year old beach towel from Lands’ End, still in amazing condition. An oversized red thermal J. Crew waffle knit shirt from the same era has held up valiantly, despite a few holes at the cuffs, living out its retirement in my pajama rotation.

I got my first cashmere sweater as a birthday gift from my family in December of 2002. It was a twin set, also a first for me. It seemed so luxurious, almost excessive to have not just a button up cardigan, a wardrobe staple, but a short sleeve sweater too that matched. The twin set is a classic retro look, and turning 26 felt like the right time to own my first real grown up investment piece.

I remember reading in the Lands’ End catalog about the specialness of their cashmere, the stories of how they trekked all over the globe to get the best goat wool from the finest regions. I never finished reading any of those pages, but the overall impression was that they seemed to really care and have integrity in their process, although they could have fooled me because I knew absolutely nothing about goats or cashmere. I chose a warm camel color that was unusual for me, more subdued in contrast to my typically bright palette.

The sweater came at a time of extreme and rapid health decline from my disease. I was the thinnest I’d ever been in my adult life. Unable to keep weight on, I dipped down to 85 pounds at my lowest point, weighing the same as I did when I was first diagnosed at age 12. It was the smallest size they offered, an extra small, and at my most dire, it hung off my dying frame. My world was crumbling around me at a dizzying pace, and the soft, cozy sweater set brought me comfort and cover in a perilous and exposed time.

My now ex-boyfriend recently asked, were you always smiling in photos when you were 85 pounds? It was an interesting observation. Yes, I think I was. We discussed how photos, though they can be a helpful reference point and anchor in time, certainly do not always reveal what’s truly going on. Even though I had zero excess on my frame, I was really critical of this body. I had lost weight very quickly. When I stood naked in front of the mirror my eyes would focus on the skin hanging from my frame and my distended, round belly, malnourished and crying out for help.

My Dad put a bubble wrap boat in the bathtub for me because my bones were poking out and painful. All my systems were failing- I hadn’t had sugar in a year following a very specific diet, and yet my teeth were rotting. My body was inflamed; I fought a host of infections. Clothes hid the dramatic and hellish rollercoaster my body was experiencing, allowing me to present a rosier picture to the world while everything else spun completely out of my control.

My disease was completely on the inside, which often caused confusion for others, and anxiety and stress for me. “But you don’t look sick!” is a common refrain. Oftentimes the better I looked, the worse I felt. Skinny, with clear porcelain skin… what’s your secret? They’d say. Trust me, you do not want this secret.

I remember sitting on the couch that birthday evening in my parent’s living room in Austin, Texas where I was staying for a few months in between apartments, talking to my dear friend Angel about clothes among other things. She cautioned me against buying too many things at my current size, double zero (00), because I wouldn’t be there for long. I have to admit there was something exhilarating and thrilling about being this size. I had become so good at ignoring the constant pain, and buying clothes, focusing on something external, pretty, and easy brought me much needed temporary pleasure. Despite my glaring miseries, there were things I liked about my dying body. It was a “perfect” size - for once in my life, I could wear whatever I wanted, and there was a strange freedom in knowing everything I put on would fit.

The high cost of being this size didn’t outweigh the desire to live or find health once again within my grasp. The mind does strange things in crisis though, and collecting size 00 and extra small clothing was an ephemeral straw I clung to as long as I could. When I'm a certain size, I never think I will be anything but that size, and there was something pure and stripped down about this one. It was a relief in a way to have almost nothing left, an absence of a body that brought me so much torment.

I hung on to those cashmere sweaters for a long time. They made it miles down the road into my North Carolina years, expanding gracefully as I expanded, and were well loved by both the moths and I before we finally parted ways. My orange velour retro designer leisure sweatpants were the last of the tiny things to go from that period. They reminded me of Bert and Ernie’s shirts from Sesame Street. I smiled as I packed them up along with other extra small items to sell at an upcycle clothing shop. Angel was right- that moment in time was temporary. I didn't know then just what a good thing that would be.


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Blowing out the candles on my special homemade birthday cake
wearing my new sweater set, Dec. 3rd, 2002.

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Birthday celebrations with my friend Angel.

what were you wearing?

“She leaves a little bit of sparkle wherever she goes.” -  Kate Spade

I bought this silver jacket recently for the chilly days in the Bay Area where I’ve recently relocated, and it sheds little bits of metallic silver fabric wherever I go- on my face and hair, on my boyfriend, on the couch. I call it my Bowie jacket. It reminds me of those silver ankle boots I had in 4th grade, a trendsetter early on. Classic in their 80’s extremism, obnoxious, garish, and so perfect for me. I coveted the boots, and yet I had trouble wearing them... the sad pull to conform was strong even then. Like the boots, I’ve always felt over the top (more on that later).

During a recent dinner conversation in the city with my boyfriend Casey and dear college friend Alex I realize that one of the key things I remember about encounters is what we are wearing. It becomes a joke that Casey riffs off of throughout the night as I tell various stories- “but what were you wearing?”

I remember what he was wearing when we first met on a crisp Sunday morning last December. A red and yellow (cardinal and gold, I am later corrected) Iowa State pullover that reminds me of McDonald’s color palette, and an orange backwards fitted hat. Pretty casual first date attire, I observed as I spotted him leaning against the far wall at Peet’s coffee in Oakland. I definitely fussed more over my outfit. We were going hiking so I needed to be functional but also sharp and at my best because, hello, this was a first date! And getting up, ready and out the door to meet someone at 10:00am was already a bit of a stretch.

So per my usual M.O. I tried on various options the day before and settled on knit black yoga pants, a fitted moss green North Face fleece, and bright blue Saucony sneakers. I would have to charm him with my dazzling personality since there wasn’t much more I could do in this department! We had a lovely day walking around a farmer’s market with our coffees, trying persimmon for the first time and attempting to explain what we did for a living. We got a little lost in the woods on a long hike and had sushi for lunch afterwards, a first for me, though I ordered the only baked and cheese-covered item on the menu.

On our second date to the California Academy of Sciences I wore jeans and a blouse with hearts, a subliminal message perhaps. We saw reindeer and butterflies, and he put his arms around me on the windy sidewalk, laughing while waiting for our millionth Uber. We ate tapas and took in a stand up comedy show, where we were skewered most of the night (mostly him) for sitting front and center. He took it in stride and earned my respect. We rode the train together for a while, not wanting the night to end, least of all not in public in front of strangers on a train. His stop arrived too quickly and he abruptly jumped off, giving me a very sudden peck on the lips. He followed up later to say that the kiss was “weak sauce” and he would make up for it next time.

By the third date Casey had stepped up his game and was wearing a purple button down and a tie. It was supposed to take place on New Year’s Eve but he came down with a stomach bug and we rainchecked for later in January. I had carefully selected a funky new currant colored top and a gold and rhinestone circle-shaped geometric statement necklace, which I was determined still to wear, damnit. We had a lovely dinner at Skates On the Bay, and in the downpour outside under my green plastic umbrella we rectified the previous weak sauce kiss.

Thinking back on what we wore helps me relive the feel of those ephemeral moments, the increasing swell and stakes. Little markers to help me tap into the back and forth, the magnetic energy exchange. Out for a movie on date four, Casey broke out polished black loafers with dark jeans and a sweater and I was suitably impressed. It somehow conveyed to me that he Got it, understood how to show up and navigate our tender new waters with aplomb. We had the first of the “what are you looking for” conversations that night and began real talk about where life had respectively carried us, to arrive here and now at this present moment.

For date five I was ecstatic when he arrived with a colorful, Marimekko-inspired bunch of flowers, that we unfortunately had to give away to our dinner party hosts. I wore a short black A-line dress with a v-neck and flecks of color throughout the design, and he had on a striped wool sweater in the vein of Mark Cohen’s character from Rent and light khakis. After dinner we retired to the living room around a piano and sang for hours with friends, the air vibrating with magic.

That is the last I remember of what we wore. By now we were both all in, and it was time to make room for the new adventures that lay ahead. What we wore became less important to how we were, together.