When I was growing up in Auckland in the 1980s, my relationship with clothing was all about utility. Clothes needed to be comfortable and keep me at the right temperature. They should work for climbing trees, or riding horses. I had a very clear picture in my head of how I wanted to look. Insouciant, lanky – a tomboy. Someone who didn’t care about clothes. Someone who had interesting stuff in their pockets.
I particularly hated getting dressed up. If it was unavoidable, I would dodge mirrors. When I did look, dressed for an occasion in clothes picked out by my mother, I saw a girlish girl with fluffy hair. A girl in a hideous pale yellow mohair sweater and a skirt with no pockets at all.
I came to hate the act of shopping, an activity where mirrors were largely unavoidable. It’s embarrassing to remember how awful I was about it. My poor mother. I never knowingly neglected to sigh or drag my feet in changing rooms. Shopping, I argued, was foolish. It was the domain of empty minds. Like an awful teen version of Cecil Vyse from A Room With a View, I was just no good for anything but books.
The awkward relationship with clothes continued well into my 20s. Until I arrived in Tokyo aged 25. It was a stopover point between New Zealand and London, where I would begin my PhD. Before I left Auckland, my mother helped me choose some inaugural office wear – a black suit jacket. I was more gracious about such acts of kindness by then. But when I looked in the dressing room mirror there was an echo of that old mohair-sweater-dissonance. Something was wrong about the way I looked; I just didn’t know how to solve it.
My first day out in Tokyo was unexpectedly cold. It was spring, but there was an icy wind. Jetlagged and overwhelmed, holding a thin envelope of unfamiliar money in my hand, I walked into a department store.
It was one of the city’s smaller department stores – staid and old-fashioned by Tokyo standards. The first floor was hosiery, gloves, scarves, handkerchiefs. Everything was laid out in white-painted wooden cabinetry. It was bustling but not hectic. Groups moved through, chatting and idling as if there were all the time in the world. There were people gathering things, holding them up to the light. And all the goods laid out so carefully, in dazzling arrays of choice – all the colours of the rainbow, all the weights and textures – all for their consideration.
That’s when it hit me, I think: it was the deciding that was important. The weighing up of options, the imaginative projection of the person you might be in this scarf, versus this one. This pair of shocking pink gloves, or that navy blue pair. This was the important bit, far more than the ultimate act of choice. And it was not boring at all.
I was cold that day. I should have bought a jacket or a jumper. Instead, I bought a pair of socks. They were to me, in that moment, purely beautiful – knee high, pale grey, with a slightly purple sheen. The colour of pigeons.
Over the remaining two years in Tokyo I began thinking about what I liked, what interested me – whether a style, a fabric, a colour. I began to see that shopping didn’t even need to involve a purchase. The world opened up. I stopped avoiding my own reflection.
I still wear items of clothing that I bought during my stay in Tokyo, 20 years ago now. A cotton skirt with haphazard knife pleats as blue as early summer. A brown double-breasted leather jacket with ballooned sleeves that makes me feel like a doomed aviator. More than this, though, I observe people differently. I try to look with care and patience at how they present themselves to the world, and the stories and messages these choices send.
Back in New Zealand, with two kids, I don’t buy things for myself as often. But my heart still quickens when I narrow the Etsy or eBay search terms for a vintage item. It’s a dance and I know the steps – that useless, necessary quest for the illusive, perfect thing.
Anna Smaill is the author of Bird Life, published by Scribe (£16.99). To support the Guardian, buy a copy for £14.95. Delivery charges may apply
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