Helmut Lang: Clothes Unmake The Man

by Thomas Beller


34 king street, NY, NY 10012

Neighborhood: West Village

I once had a girlfriend who bought me clothes. At first this made me extremely happy, but then something changed, and these gifts, which had seemed such a pure expression of love, began to seem like little apologies.

The first thing C. gave me was a blue T-shirt that she had embroidered, while on jury duty, with a little flower–a green twisty stem topped with pink petals. “It’s a sweet pea,” she told me as I stared at it with astonished gratitude. The idea that she had put that much effort into something for me was exhilarating. When I put it on she gave me an appraising look. “It’s a little high and to the left,” she said. “But it’s sweet.”

C.’s appraising looks were not to be taken lightly. There are some people in the world who will marvel at an object for what it is–the Appreciators. Then there are others who will see in that same object all sorts of potential for what it can become–the Improvers. C. fell squarely in the latter camp.

Improvers are usually visual people who care a lot about surfaces and are able, with whatever means are available to them, to create beautiful environments in which to live. The one downside to this, from the point of view of the Appreciators, is that life sometimes requires a certain amount of stillness, of idleness, and the Improvers are notoriously busy. C. was a landscape architect whose work often appeared in magazines. She was a very busy woman who, when she wasn’t busy being busy, was busy shopping for ways to improve her home, herself and, eventually, her boyfriend.

After that first magnificent Sweet-Pea T-shirt came a green windbreaker with racing stripes down the sleeves. She found it in a thrift store for twenty five dollars. It had a peculiar sheen to it. No item of clothing I have ever owned has elicited so many favorable comments. The T-shirt and the windbreaker quickly became prize possessions. They were followed by another T-shirt, and then a button down shirt, and then a pair of dark green cargo pants.

I was no slouch in the gift department–I got her an abundance of flowers and books, a mirrored jewelry box made of cut glass, and, with a degree of trepidation that in hindsight should have alarmed me, an old silk Japanese robe that she politely wore once. My gifts to her were private things, directed inward, for personal use. She, in turn, was remaking my very surface.

Not that I was being turned from a slob to a fashion plate. If anything it was the reverse. My black leather jacket was replaced by a Car-Hart. Some crisp cotton shirts with stripes from Brooks Brothers now hung besides some newly arrived check shirts from J. Crew. I was being gently nudged into the realm of slightly studied scruffiness. I liked this subtle adjustment–it was like going to the style chiropractor and getting re-aligned–but the nudging began to take a toll.

“I’m starting to feel like there’s a complaint being lodged here,” I said one day, when I came home to discover another box within which was some tissue paper within which was a shirt. “Did you really despise all my old clothes?”

“Not at all,” C. said, a little hurt. “I just thought you’d look nice in that shirt.”

“It just seems like there’s a bit of a renovation taking place,” I said.

“But that’s the way it’s supposed to work between men and women,” she said. “A woman sees this promising clump of clay and thinks, ‘I could do something with that.'”

As was so often the case with C.’s remarks, this comment required some scrutiny to determine whether it was a compliment or an insult.

On the down side, I was being called a clump of clay. On the up side, I had potential. I just needed some molding, some administering to, some pruning and grooming and so forth. Even now I’m not sure whether the insult outweighs the compliment, or vice versa. We’d all like to be told we are perfect the way we are, except that we all know we are far from perfect. We long for someone to come along and slap us into shape, right the tilting ship of our existence, and set us on the right course wearing a pair of dark green cargo pants.

But clothes given in the context of romantic love are always a bit more than pure acts of generosity. They are acts of disclosure. What is being disclosed is one person’s fantasy of what the other might become, what the pair of you might become. (Clothes given in the context of familial love are a bit different; they’re like supplies for the great trek into life that the recipient, it is understood, must make on his own.) When you give your lover a gift of clothes it’s a way of saying: This is how I want to see you.

From my end of things, I was so generally in awe of how C. looked and dressed that she seemed in absolutely no need of my input on the matter beyond my fairly steady (and sincere) noises of appreciation. But one of the down-sides to the Appreciators is that love (the ultimate appreciation) has within it a kernel of idiocy, and this idiocy can often be seen registered on the face of the lover. Noises of appreciation are the stuff of life, but they are also curiously passive, sometimes. A single thorn of criticism is usually more memorable than hundred compliments, and the dawning realization that I was on the short end of the Pygmalion stick was a very sharp thorn.

This realization occurred on C.’s birthday when, to go along with the presents I had bought her, she gave one to herself: a haircut. For me! She’d been joking that I needed one, and ought to get one at a different place than my usual barber, and on her birthday she took the initiative and booked me at her own salon. She paid for it. All I had to do was show up.

The salon was on Madison Avenue. Everyone wielding scissors was a dead ringer for Rod Stewart. The man who cut my hair seemed to only occasionally snip at it; mostly he stared at it very intensely, occasionally giving it a contemptuous little shove this way or that, as though he were shaping it by sheer force of will.

When I came out on to the street it was dusk. Madison Avenue was swarming with people bundled against the cold. The sky was a cruel and magnificent blue. I let myself be swept up in the crowd, and as I moved along I realized that I was in the grip of some strange panic. Something had been taken away from me, though I couldn’t understand what. I arrived at 47th Street, the diamond district, where I turned west, and began walking past window after brightly lit window filled with glittering diamond rings. I had already bought C. her presents, but I was suddenly convinced I had to buy her one more.

It was almost six o’clock, and the windows were now filled with hands removing trays of diamond rings. The fading light and the disappearing diamonds dovetailed somehow with the sense that something in me was disappearing, too. It wasn’t my identity that was going away. That would be too easy a formulation. It was my will, the authority that goes along with knowing what you want, that quality of certainty and decisiveness and discernment that makes a man tick.

I ducked into a tiny store, eyes watering from the cold, and pointed impulsively at a bracelet of glittering pale blue stones, something out of a fairy tale.

“Topaz,” said the man behind the counter with solemn gravity. “Excellent quality.” I intuited that this phrase was something of an contradiction, but I didn’t care. After a brief negotiation I walked out with the thing in my pocket. It was an act of love, this bracelet, but it was also an act of retaliation, somehow. We had entered a kind of competition. Unfortunately, she won. I lost. What I lost was her.

Did I lose when I didn’t fire back a dress on the heels of that embroidered T-shirt? Or maybe I lost when in addition to being dressed by her, I began dressing for her. You can only dress for your lover to a certain point. Beyond that it has to be for yourself.

For my birthday, a few months later, C. bought me a suit from Helmut Lang. My birthday suit! C. and I had been in that store before, just after we had met, when I had given her a piggy back ride all over Soho and we ended up drifting in and out of each other’s sight in the store’s cool Hitchcockian architecture. It was quite romantic. This second visit was a more business-like affair, and I couldn’t help but feel that on some perverse level she was dressing me up to go out there and meet some other woman after she was gone. When I shared this thought with her later she laughed and admitted it was slightly true, and that she was furious with herself in some way for having got it for me. In some odd way all her ambivalence got channeled into buying me clothes. Such is life’s algebra that you can get an embroidered T-shirt that sends you over the moon, and a suit from Helmut Lang that makes you melancholy.

October, 1999

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