Your Slipcase is Showing: Joan Didion’s Closet

Veronica Martin

“For different reasons, the two of us believed that style was indispensable for living with a little hope, and either you lived with hope or in despair. There was no middle way.” – John Berger, Here Is Where We Meet

Is it true, do we style ourselves for a chance at something, in anticipation, with courage, or not at all?

Joan Didion—who most definitely had her uniform on lockdown with her simple bob and those frames elegantly yawning over half her face—understood the significance we put into our wardrobes at times when we seek renewal of the self. Times when, say, you are moving to a new city, a big city, a glamorous city, and your body is still an undressed mannequin in a sea of Looks all spelling out a different girl, a different profession, a different future, perhaps even a different past. When you put the cart before the horse, belt a new dress and step off the train to find your dress’s shade of green is just of few shades shy of success, its fabric a few counts away from catching the eye of those you want to impress. And it’s those times that serve you well, forcing your personality to come up through the cracks in the fabric to compensate as you learn—fast—what suits you and what you suit.

To take us through the annals of a closet’s hopeful transformation—and our varied shades of optimism along with it—is Claire Cottrell.

Claire lends her light-saturated touch to all genres of things—lives, homes, clothes, words, dance—both as an editor for Berlin-based Freunde von Freunden, an international interview magazine and publishing house, and as a photographer, filmmaker and creator of Book Stand, and is herself a frequent subject of interviews about personal style.

In a season of reflections and resolutions, Claire invites us into closets where a long-forgotten sheepskin coat marks time and a pair of winter boots is replaced by the appropriate sandal, where clothing serves as a memory marker, a means of becoming and a layer of protection.

“When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew …” – Joan Didion, “Goodbye To All That” from Slouching towards Bethlehem

A lesser known line from one of Didion’s most notable essays comments on a dress she bought in Sacramento for her first trip to New York City. She doesn’t tell us the color or the style. Or, who the designer was. And it doesn’t matter. In this rambling sentence she tells us that she bought a dress to go to a new place. We know that she felt good about the dress at home, and not so good about the dress in the new place. We infer that she felt less sure of herself. Less confident. Uncomfortable. Out of place. Disconnected. Maybe even lost.

Our clothes are our armor and, here, Joan Didion explained why.

In The White Album, she wrote that “we tell ourselves stories to live.” And the story she told herself of the new dress for New York is the one we all tell ourselves: I will be okay in this new dress. I will have fun. I will fit in. I will be accepted. I will be lovable. I will be beautiful. I will be fine.

A New York City dress bought by a California girl who has no idea what a New York City dress is until she gets to New York City and quickly realizes it’s not what she thought it was. And then, not long after, she probably bought a real New York City dress. And was forever changed. That’s what clothes are. That’s what they do. The metaphor is real. They mirror our lives.

I believe that. I really do.

I’m a California girl. The daughter of two parents who came West in their version of Didion’s dress. They came from long, cold, hard winters and dismal, misty moors. They came in sheepskin coats, swinging leather jackets and knee-high boots. Once necessary for survival, they were soon packed away in the cedar closet in the hallway. Replaced by linen suits, handmade purple print dresses, polka-dot bikinis and Bernardo sandals from Saks in La Jolla.

In thinking about Didion’s descriptions of clothes and their influence, she affirms the significance of details. And of their place in our memory. In Blue Nights she remembers her daughter’s wedding: “the same way I still see the stephanotis in her braid, the plumeria tattoo through her veil. Something else I still see from that wedding day at St. John the Divine; the bright red soles on her shoes. She was wearing Christian Louboutin shoes, pale satin with bright red soles. You saw the red soles when she kneeled at the altar.” There is much to infer from these few lines, and again it’s Didion doing what she does best. It’s the details. The lasting impression of a memory. The sadness of loss. The stories we tell.

For Didion, clothing marks time.  Like photographs, our closets give us a glimpse of who we have been and who we wish to become.

*Note: I bought a leotard because she includes two on her packing list in The White Album. I wanted the deliberate anonymity of a costume too. I wear it all the time.

Claire Cottrell / is publishing a series of art books inspired by Gallimard’s Blanche collection / starting a short documentary about printed matter / finishing a video for a deceased songstress / planning a series of occasional get-togethers in beautiful outdoor spaces around Los Angeles / and photographing cliffhangers.

Veronica Martin is a poet and freelance writer living and working in Portland, Oregon.