Ever since I was Matilda-sized, I've taken my fashion cues from books. I wanted to be Laura Ingalls from the Little House on the Prairie series, standing in an open field with her hair in two braids and calloused, bare feet—pretty and tough. I wanted to be Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, arriving to London on a wide, white ship, hands tucked into a fur muff and fearless in the face of a new life. Long before I ever scoured the pages of Vogue, these characters were my style icons. I wanted their lace gloves, their button-up boots, and their confidence in the face of unknown worlds.
As a teenager, I traded Lemony Snicket for Steinbeck and Salinger—"serious" writers that I was sure would turn me into the serious person I wanted to be. There would be no more prancing around '90s suburbia in a straw hat and puffed sleeves, as though clothes could transport me to Anne of Green Gables's Prince Edward Island.
This was the kind of look that helped me disappear into myself, which was what I thought I needed to do.
I was embarrassed that what I had loved most about those childhood books were the parts that were perceived as shallow: lush descriptions of velvet dresses, silk stockings, and barrel curls. So I started dressing in the proto-hipster styles that ensured everyone knew I was no longer trying so hard: ratty jeans, Converse sneakers, T-shirts layered over long-sleeved henleys, hair tucked away. This was the kind of look that helped me disappear into myself, which was what I thought I needed to do to be a serious woman.
From then on, I was careful to keep fashion separate from reading, as if one might contaminate the other. I felt a similar kind of shame about how much I loved reading about food (big dinner scenes or descriptions of snacks eaten in bed or of clean cocktails served at a long wooden bar), like I was valuing what was pleasurable over what was important.
I spent hours reading about writing, travel, race, friendship, and love—and fashion.
But then I found Fashion for Writers, a blog run by writers Esmé Weijun Wang and Jenny Zhang. I spent hours reading their posts about writing, travel, race, friendship, and love—and fashion. All the things Jenny and Esmé cared about coexisted in this online space, all mixed up together in the same way they are in your head. One thing gets you thinking about another until what started as a Google search for an obscure writer ends in a YouTube video about how to sculpt your hair into a '60s beehive.
Fashion for Writers helped me realize that style was not disconnected from those other literary and life concerns. For writer Anaïs Nin, clothes were a way of shaping her identity in a world where men wanted to shape her. For Sylvia Plath, a red lip, a tan, and a low-grade fever made her feel giddy and alive. In Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha, fashion was a way to talk about class and race, about the magazine pictures of women "wearing carelessly, as if they were rags, dresses that were plain but whose prices were not" and about the one lipstick shade the white saleswoman peddles at her salon, pointedly called "Black Beauty."
It made me realize that in the right outfit, I can play out different parts of myself, too.
Now I can see how even in my early reading, fashion meant something more than just pretty clothes. When Violet Baudelaire tied her hair up in a bow in A Series of Unfortunate Events, it wasn't just an aesthetic gesture. It was a functional choice, a way of clearing her head so that she could think through one of the myriad disasters that befell her and her orphaned siblings.
It made me realize that in the right outfit, I can play out different parts of myself, too. When I want to feel hard, I wear crimson nails and tennis sweaters inspired by the preppy teenage murderers in Donna Tartt's The Secret History. To feel soft and feminine, I come back to Anne of Green Gables and its puffed sleeves and pinafore dresses. I let myself be as weirdly fashionable and as seriously well-read as I want, knowing these parts of myself no longer need to stand alone.